Tag Archives: Chinese Film Forum

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.

 

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: