Category Archives: Chinese Cinema

American Dreams in China (China-HK 2013)

(from left) Meng (Deng Chao), Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) and Wang (Tong Dawei)

For the past few years at Chinese New Year, the Chinese Film Forum UK (CFFUK) has put on a screening of a new Chinese film. Often this has been a romantic comedy in the tradition of the Chinese film industries celebrating the New Year. This year’s offering at Cornerhouse turned out to be something rather different but still very entertaining and certainly stimulating in terms of thinking about contemporary Chinese culture. Cinema 3 was full for the screening.

American Dreams in China (which turns out to be a better title than the more accurate but bland translation as ‘Partners’) is a difficult film to classify. It might be a bromance or a melodrama with elements of disguised biopic. Certainly it is a comedy drama. The relative unimportance of the female characters in terms of romance narrative strands prevents it being a romantic comedy as the relationships between the three central male characters dominate the overall narrative. There are male-female relationships but these seem often to be more about how each of the three central male characters respond to their partners and what this tells us about how different they are to the other two male characters.

The story is based on an actual business success narrative in which a start-up Chinese private school (New Oriental) teaching English in Beijing grew to become a major player in the international market catering for students wanting to get a visa for studying in the United States. In the film the three young men who start their school have each had a different experience at university in Beijing (where they met in the 1980s) – and varying levels of success in applying for that elusive visa. The narrative works in flashback from the final sequence in the story so that we learn how the school (called ‘New Dreams’) was developed and how its founders came to be facing the leaders of their American competition across a negotiating table in New York.

The film is to some extent ‘personal’ as it is the first contemporary-set Mainland film from the very successful Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan. Chan himself studied at UCLA but returned to Hong Kong and worked his way up in the local industry. He has said that the story reminded him of setting up his own film company with other directors in 1990s Hong Kong. In some ways the new film links to the marvellous Comrades – Almost a Love Story (HK 1996) but the tone is rather different. (There is a scene in the new film which echoes one of the key scenes in Comrades when a couple meet again on an escalator).

Chan points out that there is a significant Hong Kong input to the production including cinematographer Chris Doyle and costume designer Dora Ng as well as other crew members. Hong Kong writer Aubrey Lam is listed as having worked on the original script but the shooting script seems to have been the work of two Beijing writers. This has helped fuel a controversy about how propagandistic the film now is. Certainly the film proved popular in China when it opened in May 2013 and it became one of the Top 10 films of the year with US$88 million at the Chinese box office.

Before the screening there was a separate introductory lecture by Dr William Schroeder, Lecturer in Chinese Studies at The University of Manchester. The lecture didn’t attempt to introduce the film itself but instead offered us useful background on both the current migrations of Chinese students to universities in the UK and the US and on the concept of ‘Dreams’ associated with Chinese nationalism. The Chinese president Xi Jinping started the great ‘conversation’ about the “Chinese Dream” in November 2012. As William Schroeder suggested the speech has been interpreted in terms of ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘renewal’, the re-establishment of China’s place in the world and the replacement of the US by China in terms of global leadership. This is to be something that benefits everyone, creating prosperity through co-operation and partnership and overcoming the shame felt in China about the losses to the West during the 19th century.

Clearly this is about ideological struggle but in quite complex ways and the entire discourse is riven by contradictions associated with the similarities and differences between the ‘American Dream’ and the ‘Chinese Dream’ that the film presents in interesting ways. (We also have something similar in the UK where all the politicians have adopted the term ‘hard-working people’ in identifying the rightful beneficiaries of government policies. Many of us are a bit fed up of this as it ignores the large minority who are unable to work for a variety of reasons. But the notion of being able to succeed if you work hard is at the centre of both the American and Chinese Dreams. The first is expressed in individualistic terms and the second should be more collectivist. Or is it?

I was struck by the fact that the one concrete thing that I learned about was the acronym IPO (Initial Public Offering) to describe the process of ‘going public’ as a private company. I find it ironic that I should learn this American business term from a Chinese film about a private education business. As if to pre-empt some of our possible readings of the film, Dr Schroeder (who is currently researching LGBT cultures in China as an anthropologist) introduced us to several of the ways in which the dissident artist Ai Weiwei is critiquing current Chinese government pronouncements. He argues that China should simply ‘stop dreaming’.

I’m not sure what exactly I take away from seeing the film and discovering something about the Chinese Dream but I definitely feel more able to engage in further investigations of contemporary Chinese culture and that must be a good thing. Here’s to the continued success of the CFFUK.

Inseparable (Xing ying bu li, China 2011)

'Chuck' (Kevin Spacey) and Li (Daniel Wu) meet on the top of Li's apartment block.

‘Chuck’ (Kevin Spacey) and Li (Daniel Wu) meet on the top of Li’s apartment block.

This is an important film in terms of the current developments in Chinese cinemas and I enjoyed watching it. Whether it captures the imagination of audiences in China or overseas is another question but it is about to be released on DVD in the UK and deserves serious consideration. I first came across the title at the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester earlier this year and I’ve been intrigued ever since.

Writer-director Dayyan Eng was born in Taiwan in 1975 and trained at both the Beijing Film Academy and the University of Washington. In China Eng is known as Wu Shixian. Inseparable or ‘Follow like a shadow‘ in its Chinese translation is one the first Chinese features to cast a leading Hollywood player, Kevin Spacey, in a leading role. Spacey speaks English in the film and plays a character who gets very close to Li, a young man played by the Hong Kong star Daniel Wu. Wu was born in the US and he speaks in English when with Spacey. The rest of the dialogue in the film is delivered in Mandarin and subtitled in English. The third lead is Gong Beibi who plays Li’s wife Pang.

Dayaan Eng came to the fore with festival prizes for his shorts East 22nd Street (1997), Bus 44 (2001) and his feature Waiting Alone (2004), but Inseparable aims for the popular market and its mix of popular genres might turn out to be a problem because I suspect that it will confuse some of both the popular and specialised film fans who would otherwise enjoy the film. But, if approached with an open mind, the film is enjoyable and mildly provocative in terms of social commentary. Inseparable is a difficult film to discuss because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot and spoil its narrative pleasures. I’ll try to give something of its flavour.

The pair dressed as superheroes – HLF refers to the Maoist era 'hero' figure Lei Feng.

The pair dressed as superheroes – HLF refers to the Maoist era ‘hero’ figure Lei Feng.

Lei Feng poster (from Wikipedia)

Lei Feng poster (from Wikipedia)

Li works as an engineer developing prosthetic limbs for a large corporation – enabling Eng to explore aspects of the office culture in modern China, including the pressure on workers at all levels. (The film looks great throughout courtesy of Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography, reminiscent of his work with Luc Besson.) Li has a good income and a nice apartment but is clearly unhappy and depressed. His wife is often away working as a reporter for a TV company. When Spacey mysteriously appears in Li’s apartment block neither Li or the audience is sure what to make of him, but he is persuasive and full of advice. He convinces Li that he needs to ‘discover himself’ and in effect become a ‘Superhero’, seeking out injustices and vanquishing the bad guys. This leads to the possibility that the film will become a comedy-action-drama with a focus on some of the social problems of China’s growing urban areas including the boorish behaviour of the newly wealthy, the adulteration of foodstuffs and scandals involving the health system. Li’s concept of a superhero refers back to a Mao era ‘hero’, Lei Feng – a figure used in official part propaganda as a role model. But enjoyable though this side of the film may be, the question remains, who is ‘Chuck’ the character played by Spacey? Does he exist at all? Is he like the imaginary friends of childhood? In turn, do we really understand what is going on inside Li’s head? In some ways Inseparable resembles those Charlie Kaufman-scripted films such as Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. There is also a suggestion that Li might be one of Phil K. Dick’s ‘ordinary Joes’ caught up in a world of uncertainty.

The UK trailer is here:


InseparableDVDMy fear is that the action fans and the science fiction/fantasy fans will not get enough of their genre pleasures from the film. Kevin Spacey’s presence may draw his fans in. I’m not a Spacey fan and for me his presence was the weak point of the film. However, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment too much and I’d recommend the film as an interesting example of what global film is now starting to become. The technical credits are excellent, the performances are good and there are many pleasures – the battle against rogue tofu suppliers was my favourite.

Inseparable is released on Region 2 DVD on August 19th. Here’s the link to Amazon’s offer on DVD pre-orders. The film is also available on Blu-ray. Thanks to Matchbox Films for sending me a review copy.

You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu hai, Taiwan 2011)

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Michelle Chen as Shen Chia-Yi and Ke Zhendong as Ko Ching-Teng, the central two characters.

Why don’t we see more Taiwanese popular cinema? Most cinephiles in the West at least know about Taiwanese New Cinema and its highest profile auteurs from the 1980s Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. The more adventurous know Tsai Ming-liang but after that we are stumped. Cornerhouse in Manchester has come to our rescue. They have previously shown one of the more recent Taiwanese blockbusters Cape No. 7 and last week, as part of the Chinese Film Forum programme, they showed You Are the Apple of My Eye. Felicia Chan, one of the organisers of the forum, gave a ‘1 hour intro’ before the screening which provided some useful preparation for the screening.

Taiwanese cinema has seen an upsurge since the mid-2000s for a number of reasons. I suspect that part of the reason must be the relative decline in Hong Kong popular cinema and the emergence of mainland Chinese popular cinema – which now seems more open to other films from ‘Greater China’ – but with certain provisos. There is certainly a greater ‘exchange’ of films between all the East Asian film industries and You Are the Apple of My Eye has broken box office records across the region, with significant audiences in Hong Kong, the PRC and Singapore as well as at home. I’m not surprised by this, but my own inclination is to place the film in the context of the success of South Korean films in the region. The film I was most reminded of was My Sassy Girl, the smash hit romcom from 2001 that found eager audiences throughout East and South-East Asia, prompting at least five remakes, sequels or alternative versions in China, Japan, India and the US. I’m not sure the Taiwanese film is as wildly original but it is similarly appealing and with careful handling might succeed outside East Asia. The biggest problem might be that because the film approaches genre repertoires such as the high school film, teen romance etc. in rather different ways than standard Hollywood fare it will be misunderstood. I think it helps if you have a good grounding in East Asian teen horror/romance films or anime/manga.

The first resemblance to My Sassy Girl comes in the source material – an autobiographical novel. Giddens Ko, the director, has adapted his own novel and set the film in the high school he attended. He’s now in his thirties, I think and the film’s action spans 1995-2005. This already signifies an approach to the material very different to Western youth pictures which invariably focus on the final year, or even term/semester of a student career. The story is told in flashback beginning with preparations for a wedding and going back to high school at 16. We then meet five teenage boys, each delineated by a personal trait and two girls, the class ‘honours student’ and her best friend. Although only one boy, the author’s character, has any family seen onscreen, this is still a collective narrative – all the characters are still there ten years later. The other interesting feature is the inclusion of a real-life event, the earthquake of September 1999 (in which over 2,000 Taiwanese died). This reminded me of Aftershock (China 2010). Most of the East Asian films of this kind that I’ve seen focus on the young women, so it is interesting to see the five young men at the centre. There are a lot of masturbation jokes (or what in the Uk would be ‘knob jokes’) which all seem rather sweet instead of being offensive – partly because they aren’t used to denigrate women as sometimes happens in Hollywood’s ‘gross-out’ comedies. (These scenes reminded me of Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001).)

But I guess the central interest of the film and the main reason for its popularity is the long up and down romance between the central character and the ‘honours student’, well-played by Michelle Chen. I won’t spoil the narrative – suffice to say it’s affecting and the film’s resolution is not predictable. This romance was much less weird than the South Korean model in My Sassy Girl, but it pursued the same kind of romanticism. It was believable and I can understand why whole families in Taiwan have enjoyed the film, as Felicia pointed out in her intro.

You Are the Apple of My Eye was screened on an immaculate CinemaScope print with decent subs and it looked very good. I enjoyed it and would happily watch more. I hope Cornerhouse have less difficulty next time prising a print out of 20th Century Fox – and can somebody bring these films to the UK on a full distribution deal please?

Fox trailer with English subs:

Chinese Film Forum, Manchester January 2013

Corrado Neri of Jean Moulin University, Lyon presents a paper on 'Inseparable': The Rise or Fall of a Chinese Superhero

Corrado Neri of Jean Moulin University, Lyon presents a paper on ‘Inseparable’: The Rise or Fall of a Chinese Superhero

The Chinese Film Forum was established in Manchester in 2009 as a research network involving the universities of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan and Salford, the Chinese Art Centre , the Confucius Institute and Cornerhouse Cinema. The network is supported by a grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The second symposium entitled: ‘The Creation and Circulation of Chinese Identities in and through Cinema’ was held at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester on January 29-30 with an associated screening of Memories Look at Me (China 2012) by Song Fang at Cornerhouse. (Just as good on a second viewing.)

The first symposium in March 2012 had covered the distribution and exhibition of Chinese and Asian films in the UK. I thought it was a very successful event generating plenty of discussion and I signed up for the second event without any hesitation. The programme this time included a total of 24 papers arranged in 9 panels. In the event, one presenter had to withdraw but the panels seemed to form themselves into quite logical groupings of papers in the main. The keynote paper at the end of the first day was delivered by Chris Berry (Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London). He stayed on to introduce the film screening and to contribute to discussions the following day.

With so many papers, I’m not going to attempt to report on them all, but an overall comment would be that compared to last year’s symposium this one was more wide-ranging, raising several different issues. However, because of the structure of the panels and the good organisation of the event, each panel produced a focused discussion and there was a clear sense of extending the reach of Chinese film studies rather than simply hopping from one issue to another. As one of the Forum’s leaders, Felicia Chan of the University of Manchester remarked, it was good to see that the participants had selected areas of research that stretched far beyond previously safe areas such as the work of auteurs well-known in the international film market. So, I found myself jotting down film titles and actors/directors to investigate further that ranged from stars of popular mainland cinema to Tibetan and Korean directors working in China, Chinese-American and Italian films (with Chinese characters) and popular Taiwanese films.

Chris Berry’s keynote explored ideas about female characters who are trapped between tradition and modernity – the ‘double bind of modernity’. His starting point was a Paul Willemen paper ‘Detouring through Korean cinema’ (included in The Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader edited by Chen Kuan-Hsing and Beng Huat Chua, Routledge 2007). In the paper Willemen reflects on his time in South Korea in 1997 and his attempts to understand what he calls ‘blockage’ in Korean culture (i.e. the struggle over ideas about ‘modernity’ and whether resolving this problem could help South Korean Cinema to become more successful in a global context). He then tried to relate this to the propensity for many South Korean films of the 1970s and 1980s to end in freeze frames – literally preventing characters from ‘moving forward’. Berry stressed the importance of comparative film studies and suggested that it would be useful to ask why Chinese films don’t end in freeze frames. He observed that a woman in a ‘public space’ is an image of ‘modernising China’. He then traced back representations of female figures representing the possibility of modernity to Cai Chusheng’s New Women (1935) with Ruan Lingyu in the lead role. He introduced a range of contemporary films, none of which I have seen unfortunately but some I will certainly look up. I confess that I missed aspects of this analysis, partly because I was reflecting on some of the other points that Chris Berry made. For example, à propos of narratives about single women in urban China, Berry suggested that a third of the huge Chinese work force could now be considered ‘mobile’. In her closing remarks Felicia Chan said that Chris Berry had been the perfect guest speaker and indeed it was impressive how during each panel discussion he asked questions, made observations and afterwards was generally accessible to delegates. I’m sure that this was useful for many of the younger film scholars presenting their papers.

I found all the panels useful, but I’ll just comment on two or three that really piqued my interest. I picked up several ideas about contemporary mainland filmmaking and questions of control and censorship. Chris Berry pointed out that 50% of Chinese films are now privately-funded but enter the mainstream film industry via the state censors whereas the other 50% avoid/evade (?) the censor and presumably find other means of distribution. He also suggested that a commercial film like Feng Xiaogang’s World Without Thieves could virtually cover its production costs through product placement. I had noticed the prevalence of Western brands in recent Chinese films but I wasn’t aware of how widespread, or how lucrative, product placement was. I’m also grateful to Anthony McKenna for an insight into the importance of Han Sanping, the Chair of the state-controlled China Film Group, who wields considerable power as the ‘middle-man’ of Chinese film. Han is able to make links between government and commercial filmmakers in terms of the blockbusters that constitute the contemporary version of a ‘main melody film’. McKenna’s paper focused on the films made since the 2008 Beijing Olympics – a period in which censorship has tightened with pressure on possible dissenters and when ‘historical event blockbusters’ have attempted to create consensus in the domestic market. Han has had a crucial role in the production of films such as The Founding of the Republic (2009) and also in attempting to ensure that these films engage international audiences and project ‘acceptable’ forms of ‘Chineseness’ overseas.

One issue that popped up in discussion during more than one panel was the ‘categorisation’ of ‘Chinese’ films. I was a little surprised by what seemed to be a passionate debate about whether particular films could be called ‘Chinese’. This occurred during Corrado Neri’s fascinating discussion of Inseparable (China 2011) – a film written and directed by Dayann Eng, a Chinese-American who trained in the US but then went to Beijing and has so far made three films in China. Inseparable is a ‘comedy drama’ about a young man (played by Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu) who fantasises about helping people with his ‘superpowers’. He finds a mentor in the form of a mysterious American played by Kevin Spacey. Wholly financed and produced in China, the film has both English and Mandarin dialogue. I would say that this was a Chinese film and I’m intrigued that anyone would want to categorise it differently – but then it is precisely the kind of filmmaking that this blog is interested in.

Hui M. Chan presented a paper entitled ‘Limehouse and its Haunted Nostalgia’ which considered representations of Chinese characters and Chinese communities in early and silent cinema. This included work on the Chinese-American star Anna May Wong who arrived in the UK in the late 1920s and featured in Piccadilly (UK 1929). The presentation asked us to think about films that were “about us, but not for us”. I was intrigued by the references to British cultural life in the 1910s and 1920s and in particular the promise of what work on Chinese representations in the UK might uncover. I was also reminded of the important discussions in the previous symposium about the difficulties faced by Chinese-British filmmakers.

Other panels discussed films and aspects of production that I have not previously had access to. One such panel discussed popular film in Taiwan so I’m pleased to be able to flag up that the next offering from the Chinese Film Forum will be a special screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester of You Are the Apple of My Eye (Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu ha, Taiwan 2011) showing to celebrate Chinese New Year. The film (a teen ‘coming-of-age romance’) will be preceded by a ‘One hour intro’ to Popular Taiwanese Cinema by Felicia Chan.

The Chinese Film Forum will be holding a conference in the Autumn – so look out for announcements, or better still subscribe to the forum here.

Many thanks to all the organisers of the Forum, including Felicia Chan, Andy Willis (University of Salford) and Robert  Hamilton (Manchester Metropolitan University), to all the panellists and chairs and to our hosts the Chinese Arts Centre.

Life of Pi (Taiwan/India/Canada/US 2012)

Pi (Suraj Sharma) attempts to tame the tiger.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) attempts to train the tiger.

The Life of Pi is an interesting phenomenon in contemporary cinema. I watched it in 3D from the front row of a small cinema – not necessarily the seat I would have chosen (I usually go for the third or fourth row) and the sensation of animals jumping into my lap was definitely odd. I can’t decide if the overall film was just an enjoyable traveller’s tale or whether there is a more profound narrative that I wasn’t reading properly. What is clear is that the film has captivated audiences around the world and set the electronic bulletin boards aglow with questions, theories and seemingly whole packs of ‘trolls’. Like Scorsese’s Hugo, this 3D presentation by a filmmaker with great skill in visualising a story and carefully handling his characters has gone some way to justifying this still cumbersome technology.

When Yann Martel’s original novel won the Booker Prize, I remember being put off reading it by the usual nonsense that surrounds awards ceremonies. I’m usually interested in Canadian literature but I didn’t explore this title further. If you don’t know the story, it begins in Montreal where a novelist visits Pi (Irrfan Khan) looking for inspiration for his next project. Pi tells him the fabulous tale of how many years earlier he survived months drifting across the Pacific in an open boat accompanied by a fully-grown Bengal tiger. The narrative mainly comprises a long flashback to when Pi was first a small child in Pondicherry, the French enclave in Tamil Nadu which finally joined the Union of India in 1954, and up to the disaster when Pi was trapped with the tiger as a 16 year-old. Pi’s father owned a zoo in Pondicherry but changes in his financial circumstances forced him to sell-up and take his family to Canada – along with some of the animals which he hoped to sell in North America. At the end of the fabulous tale, the novelist learns that there is another, alternative story about what happened to Pi in the boat and he is invited to choose which one he believes.

For those of us who don’t profess any religious beliefs, the film might seem a little off-putting since the novelist is told that the story will make him think again about the existence of God. Yann Martel is certainly interested in ideas about religions and he travelled to India partly to see temples, mosques and churches. As a 14 year-old, Pi tries out Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in his attempt to understand the world. Especially in North America, audiences (and critics) seem to want to focus on the religious dimension. For those of us in the increasingly secular UK (shown in the 2011 census) I suppose it’s good to be reminded that millions of people around the world do have religious beliefs. However, I don’t think that Life of Pi has to be understood through religious metaphors and allegories. It’s a mixture of fantasy and realism that exposes the central character’s humanity.

What’s most interesting about the film for me is that a Hollywood studio (Fox) thought that it had acquired a ‘property’ to develop into an American blockbuster movie only to discover eventually that while the film remains ‘American’ in terms of its script by David Magee and the excellent CGI effects work by Rhythm and Hues, everything else about the film is truly ‘international’. The proof is in the box office. Released first in North America, the film made $88 million in what Hollywood calls the ‘domestic’ market – making it a ‘flop’ given its budget of over $100 million. But in the ‘international’ market (i.e. the rest of the world) it has already made over $220 million with the Chinese and Indian markets together making over $100 million. That has to mean something.

Adil Hussain and Tabu as Pi's parents

Adil Hussain and Tabu as Pi’s parents

The film is visually spectacular without the need for much dialogue in many scenes and its story is ‘universal’, but much of the credit must go to director Ang Lee and his refusal to use Hollywood/Bollywood superstars – Tobey Maguire and Shah Rukh Khan are reported to have been considered at some point. Irrfan Khan and Tabu represent the cream of Indian acting talent (note to self – must find more Tabu films) and Gérard Depardieu makes a suitable villain – hiss! – in the present climate (he’s a tax dodger). I thought Suraj Sharma, the 17 year-old student who played the lead, was terrific. Lee made the film in Taiwan, India and Canada and it doesn’t at any point feel like an American film. It was worth staying to the end of the credits to hear the golden voice of Lata Mangeshkar on a song which I think comes from a 1970s Hindi film.

I’d like to watch the film again – on a bigger screen – and really get to grips with what Lee and his crew have been able to put together. There is a sequence in which the aspect ratio changes. The action at that moment was itself spectacular so I barely registered the change in ratio. Later I read that there are four different ratios used in the film at various times. In the opening credits sequence, the credits themselves are animated and the 3D effect is pronounced as animals move through the depth of the image. I found this very beautiful and quite arresting – although at other times I didn’t notice the use of 3D at all (apart from the darkened image and the heaviness of the glasses over my own specs). The other success is of course the digital effects that create the tiger on the boat. I can’t imagine that there are many cat lovers (or even dog lovers) that didn’t experience an emotional jolt when Pi lifts the massive head of the tiger weakened by hunger onto his lap. I felt the weight of a ‘real’ tiger and wanted to stretch out and scratch its ears.

To return to the India/China axis, Life of Pi seems like a breakthrough of sorts. I don’t think that it was just the presence of Irrfan Khan and Tabu that made me think of The Namesake, a film by Mira Nair, an Indian based in the US adapting another tale of a journey from India to North America. Ang Lee has already demonstrated his ability to make films about different modes of American culture as well as a British literary adaptation and explorations of his own Taiwanese film culture. He’s moved between very different genres and very different cultural contexts with ease. Perhaps with Life of Pi he’s begun to point towards the greater exchange of ideas about cinema between India, China and North America. I think that is where the future lies for cinema in global terms and Lee seems much more adept than the more conventional Hollywood forays into separate productions in India and China.

LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.

The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Tianyun Han Chuanqui, China 1981)

Song Wei (Wang Fuli) and Feng Qinglan (Shi Jianlan) (right)

This melodrama by the great Chinese director Xie Jin was a big popular success in its home market in 1981 – but also a film criticised by younger critics and filmmakers as being old-fashioned. Xie was one of the major artists to attract the wrath of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution but this film goes further back in Chinese political history and tells the story of the wrong done to a ‘good man’ in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. (Xie himself in this interview says that he got a lot of positive feedback from audiences and the film didn’t cause any problems.)

The central character in the story is Song Wei, who as a young woman is part of a team sent to the remote Tianyun Mountain region in the mid-1950s to explore the development possibilities of the region. She works hard and gradually falls in love with a geologist, Luo Qun. Wei is then sent to a school for political officers in the Chinese Communist Party. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958 Luo is falsely accused along with another member of the team – both had tried to prevent mistakes being made in local projects. The local political chief Wu forces Wei to give up contact with Luo and she ends up marrying Wu and leaving the district. Twenty years later, Song is Wu’s deputy in the administration of the region, having recovered from persecution herself during the Cultural Revolution. A young woman approaches her with a story about Luo who eventually married Song’s close friend Feng Qinglan from the original team – one of the few people who stood up for him. Wei has lost touch with them but she reads a long letter from Qinglan and determines that the administration should finally bring Luo back from exile (in which he works as a cart driver). Her actions inevitably cause conflict with her husband but when she learns that Qinglan is ill she is determined to find her.

Qinglan takes a sick Luo Qun home to care for him.

In some ways it is difficult to believe that this is a film made in 1980. It feels more like a 1930s or 1940s melodrama. Modern audiences might find it difficult to take but I love 1940s melodrama and I revelled in the expressionist moments in the film. Xie uses all kinds of devices associated with classic melodramas from a rich musical score to violent weather, mirrors and smashed objects, ‘excessive’ editing transitions and so on. The narrative proceeds in long flashbacks as Wei learns about what has happened to Qinglan and Luo Qun. At one point they seem to speak to each other as Qinglan asks a question in the letter that Wei is reading and Wei answers out loud.

Although the story is ‘political’ in its attempt to show how important it is to re-instate those who have been falsely accused, Xie’s presentation of the story manages to weave the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ together, so Wu’s reluctance to reinstate Luo is to a significant extent fuelled by his fear about losing Song Wei to her former lover.

Everything I’ve seen by Xie suggests a director happiest telling women’s stories in a style he has made his own which marries classical Hollywood, socialist realism and Chinese melodrama traditions. You can view the whole film (the resolution isn’t great but it’s watchable) on this Chinese cultural agency website: