Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Review: Yang Mingming’s Female Directors

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

By Josh Feola 

Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

This review contains spoilers.

Yang Mingming’s 2012 debut Female Directors, a documentary-style narrative centered on the fractious but durable relationship between two young, underemployed film school graduates in Beijing, lends itself to the kind of one-dimensional feminist reading that reviewers have used to unlock the ostensible themes of Yang’s often tongue-in-cheek mockumentary. A number of reviewers have noted Yang’s use of a handheld digital camera — functionally the film’s third character, as it frequently changes hands between the film’s two protagonists — as a deliberate reversal of the male gaze. This consideration and the fact that there are no male characters in the film, aids the films’ explicit address questions of gender in contemporary Chinese society, both criticizing and reinforcing gender norms.

Rather than assess Female Directors based on the gender identities of its director and lead actresses — Yang performs as “Ah Ming” alongside her collaborator Guo Yue, who acts as “Yueyue” — a broader approach seeks to find the film’s meaning in its technical execution, a spare and brilliant adaptation of cinéma vérité style, exposing truth concealed by artifice, and offering an incisive look into the ritually self-obsessed nature of young Chinese creatives.


Infidelity and duplicity are recurring themes in Female Directors. The plot, insofar as there is one, hinges around the early revelation that Ah Ming and Yueyue, aspiring directors and best friends who’ve seemingly made a pact to film their every moment together with the ultimate goal of creating a documentary, discover that they’ve both been having an affair with the same married man. This wealthy adulterer, an invisible narrative prop from Guangdong, is never seen nor heard, and only ever referred to by the nickname “Short Stuff”. As the story progresses, Ah Ming and Yueyue reveal details about their relationship with Short Stuff, sometimes as barbed lies, others as revelations that evoke sympathy. Yueyue, we discover, has been sleeping with Short Stuff in exchange for the promise of receiving a Beijing hukou — a residence permit that would grant her considerable municipal benefits. Ah Ming, who coldly insinuates that Yueyue is no better than a prostitute, herself accepts a 16,000 RMB (roughly $2,500) “loan” from Short Stuff to make a film.


Review of Pema Tseden’s Tharlo

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016
Courtesy of Icarus Films

Courtesy of Icarus Films

by Maya Rudolph 
This review contains spoilers.

Tharlo, Pema Tsenden’s noir-inflected romance, is a story of identity, a journey of the self in black and white. A Tibetan shepherd known by his eponymous “Ponytail” travels from his rural home to a small city in Qinghai Province in reluctant pursuit of an ID card—the documentation all Chinese rely on to designate their residency. His never-used given name is Tharlo and, though he’s easygoing, Ponytail isn’t convinced that he needs an ID. “I know who I am,” he says plainly. “Isn’t that enough?” But it’s not enough—at least not for Tseden to set the stakes for Tharlo’s journey into the miasma of the city. A conversation of the heaviness of life and death plays out in the bureau office of Chief Dorjie, a friendly Tibetan cop who compliments Tharlo’s formidable recitation of Mao’s “Serve the People.” As the men reflect on the line “To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai,” Tharlo tells Dorjie he’s confident that his own way of serving the people, tending his flock of sheep, will bring Mount Tai-volume gravity to his death when the time comes.

In the city, Ponytail tries on his urban identity as Tharlo. Accompanied by an orphaned lamb he carries in a satchel, Tharlo waits his turn in a photography studio and watches a couple pose, first against a painted backdrop of Tian’anmen Square and then a boxy, distorted representation of the New York City skyline. Tseden presents the discrete, static spaces of an urban town through reflections and cropped frames that betray Tharlo’s discomfort with the unfamiliar customs of city life. Played with a plainspoken good humor by Tibetan comedian Shide Nyima, Tharlo is a good sport of ineffable age who seems at home in himself, if not in his surroundings.

But when it’s Tharlo’s turn to have his likeness captured, the photographer finds his hygiene wanting, and so he gamely heads across the street to have his hair washed and tidied. It’s in a dingy barbershop that Tharlo meets a very pretty hairdresser whose direct, modern style makes a deep impression. She flirts with him, massages his head with shampoo, and compliments his “cute ponytail.” If naive, mild-mannered Tharlo is a classic noir archetype of the hapless stranger, the hairdresser’s sideways smile marks her as Tibetan cinema’s foremost femme fatale. She invites Tharlo to join her for a night of karaoke, where Tharlo stumbles through the ultimate urban paradox of good and evil: a first date. The private karaoke room, all laser disco lights and tinny pop songs, is claustrophobic and disorienting for Tharlo. They spend the night in the barbershop and it’s only the next morning when we see her body lean in for a goodbye kiss, or to whisper something, that we learn her name: Yangtso.

Tharlo returns home to his isolated mountain home and Tseden’s camera opens up to the grand sweep of a lonely figure beneath staggering peaks and endless sky. Tharlo tells Dorjie that he thinks he’s met a bad person in the city, but it’s clear that Yangtso weighs on his thoughts even while the familiar evils of the steppe make trouble for Tharlo and his sheep. At home, he drinks and smokes himself to uncontrollable coughing fits, sets off fireworks to break the stillness of the night, and teaches himself to sing folk love songs. Eventually, he capitulates to temptation, or curiosity, and returns to the city with a stack of cash. Tharlo and Yangtso decide to run away together—to really see Beijing, or even New York City—but not before Yangtso divests Ponytail of his namesake in favor of a more anonymous look.

While assured black and white photography and the contrasting scale of urban and rural geography create a compelling visual language, the truth of Pema Tseden’s narrative is heard rather than seen. The sleepy world of the steppe, punctuated by bleating sheep, is delineated from the city’s static of cheesy music and diesel engines by the puttering of Tharlo’s motorbike, the sounds fully realized even at long distance. In the city, where every image is reframed and refracted in windows and the literal smoke and mirrors of the barbershop, only sound emerges trustworthy. Tharlo’s identity is made and unmade in exterior sounds: the cry of his little orphan sheep; his hacking cough; the ugly sonic bleed of the karaoke bar; the loud hum of electric razor Yangtso uses to shave Tharlo’s head. When Tharlo wakes up the morning after his haircut to find Yangtso and his fortune gone, he barely appears in our mirrored view of the empty barbershop. It is the sound of him opening and closing drawers, a shuffling of objects grown increasingly frantic that confirms the betrayal.

Returning to Chief Dorjie’s bureau, a traumatized Tharlo learns that his ID card has finally arrived. His head shaved by the woman who destroyed him, our hero finds that his identity is null—he no longer resembles the man on the ID card. He’ll have to go back to the photographer and start all over again. “I’m afraid now my death will be lighter than a feather,” Tharlo despairs, now a stranger to himself.


Tharlo is a story of crushing themes and bald questions of identity, a cautionary tale with an iron spine of rightness gone wrong, but Tseden manages to guide this adaptation of his own novella with an even hand. Heaviness and lightness are juggled in the measured pacing, the story of a man’s undoing told simply, but not without irony or an appreciation for the exquisite awkwardness of courtship. In his initial appraisal of Tharlo as a good man, Chief Dorjie claims to possess a policeman’s intuition for assessing a person as good or bad on sight, a ludicrous claim that nonetheless tortures Tharlo as his own image changes, molded by the perceptions of others and reduced to ambiguity.

Certainly, questions of Tibetan identity in a Chinese infrastructure cement the story’s context, but the influence of politics and modernity is inexorable from Tharlo and Yangtso’s graceless love story. Brazen Yangtso is an impalpable figure and Tharlo’s attraction to and repulsion by her are the least of her contradictions. She is a Tibetan woman liberated from (or deprived of) her traditional long braids, a Tibetan women who smokes and sings pop songs and flirts easily, a modern Tibetan woman in a Western Chinese city. While the ID card is an obvious metaphor for Tharlo’s fractured identity, the truth of his crisis is manifest in Yangtso. As a Tibetan woman, her physical being is familiar, but Tharlo comes undone when her behavior takes a wrecking ball to his binary convictions, his sense of the world and ability to know himself.

In the moments after Yangtso shaves Tharlo’s head, she sits beside him in a barber chair, each captured in separate, adjacent mirrors. Her posture is casual, sizing up this man. Tharlo’s troubles may originate in the dangerous act of classification—making physical ones identity in the form of a state-issued card—but romance is another kind of identity crisis. Infatuation is a black hole. And love can dismantle a person, no matter who they think they are.

Punto de Vista Film Festival Celebrates Films of Pema Tseden

Monday, February 17th, 2014
Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan)

Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan)

The 2014 edition of the Punto de Vista Film Festival of Navarra, Spain, is an international seminar focusing on works of documentary from around the world. This year’s seminar spotlights the career of Tibet-based filmmaker Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan) and his three feature films, The Silent Holy Stones, The Search, and Old Dog. (The latter two films are part of the dGenerate Films collection.)

As part of the program, the Festival commissioned a booklet featuring an interview with Pema Tseden by film scholar and critic Zhang Ling and an original essay appreciation of his films by filmmaker and critic Dan Sallitt. The following excerpt of Sallitt’s essay is reprinted here with permission of the Festival and the author:

Pema Tseden’s misfortune is that he will likely be pigeonholed for the foreseeable future as the most important Tibetan filmmaker; whereas he required only a few films to establish himself as one of the best and most confident filmmakers anywhere in the world.

His first feature, The Silent Holy Stones (2005), presents all the elements of Tseden’s style in mature form: a weighty compositional sense that combines spectacular depiction of landscape and a precise deployment of his human subjects; the use of strongly conceptual material in which the central concept is overstated and reiterated, both for comedy and as a distancing effect; a humorous use of repeated actions and fixity of behavior; a figural approach to performance that renders the difference between actors and non-actors immaterial; and a pessimistic vision of the frailty of spiritual values in the face of worldly desire.

2009’s The Search follows The Silent Holy Stones in its focus on the role of fiction and storytelling in our lives, but the later film veers away from conventional narrative and adopts an abstract, cyclical structure that seems at once primitive and experimental.

After this feint toward the boundaries of narrative, Tseden’s most recent film, Old Dog (2011), unexpectedly applies his approach and concerns to an elemental drama that, through the dogged, minimalist cadences of Tseden’s story construction and the grandeur of his compositions, acquires the force of mythology.

The Punto de Vista Film Seminar will be held from February 19-22 in Pamplona. Details here.

“Striking and Powerful:” Beijing Besieged by Waste Reviewed

Thursday, February 6th, 2014
Beijing Besieged by Waste (dir. WANG Jiuliang)

Beijing Besieged by Waste (dir. WANG Jiuliang)

In the new issue of the journal Environment, Space, Place, Lorna Lueker Zukas of National University reviews Wang Jiuliang’s Beijing Besieged by Waste, a “striking and powerful film reveals that garbage caused by unfettered production for local and global marketplaces is creating enormous problems for China:”

Wang’s documentary uses familiar subjects, trash, reclamation, and recycling, to illustrate the problem of too much; too much garbage, too much growth, and too much consumption. Beijing is showcased as the “poster-city” for the global problem of waste, a problem recognized by the World Bank as potentially undermining future growth and development. Globally, waste volumes are rapidly increasing, outstripping the rate of urbanization; this growth is occurring fastest not only in China, but also in other parts of East Asia, parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Wang’s images force viewers’ attention to the physical environment, the realities of endless material production, and the reduction of people to disposable status. He asks viewers to think about the connection between production and destruction. Waste in China and elsewhere is primarily a by-product of consumer-based lifestyles that drive much of the world’s capitalist economies; it is the most obvious and noxious by-product of a capital-intensive, resource-extracting, labor-abusing, consumer-based economic lifestyle. Wang’s images remind us that trash is not just trash; it morphs into greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and air pollution that make people ill. Unenforced regulations in the trash industry also provide spaces and places for the exploitation and degradation of workers. Beijing Besieged by Waste helps viewers to appreciate, however momentarily, the global context of waste and its connections to economies and local and global pollution.

Beijing Besieged by Waste is part of the dGenerate Films collection.

“Overwhelming Impact”: Review of Beijing Besieged by Waste

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

bsieg2In the new issue of the journal Environmental Philosophy, Ilan Saft of Pace University reviews Beijing Besieged by Waste. Excerpts:

The verbal information provided in Wang Jiuliang’s documentary, Beijing Besieged by Waste, is staggering: Beijing, with a population of twenty million, is surrounded by hundreds of 50-meter high garbage mountains and landfills… While these are the main informative details provided in the film, it is the force of the film’s images that produces its overwhelming impact. A new environment – the images show – has ben formed around the modernized city of Beijing. In this environment there is no ground; it is a new kind of multilayered landscape, a garbagescape, the product of daily life in a megalopolis and the working-and-living environment for tens of thousands of people…


Pema Tseden and the Emergence of Tibetan Cinema

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013
The Search (dir. Pema Tseden)

The Search (dir. Pema Tseden)

In the Tibetan news and culture website Phayul, filmmaker and writer Tenzig Sonam published a lengthy assessment of the films by Pema Tseden (Wanma Caidan), possibly the most in-depth overview of the Tibetan filmmaker’s work to date.

Tenzig Sonam writes on The Search:

A road movie, the film follows a director and his team as they drive around the Amdo highlands looking for actors to play the lead roles in a cinematic adaptation of the much-loved Tibetan opera, Drime Kunden. This Buddhist story of the compassionate king, Drime Kunden, who sacrifices everything, including his wife and children, and finally even his eyes, for the benefit of others, had already made its appearance in The Silent Holy Stones…  (more…)

The New Yorker Praises Ying Liang’s When Night Falls

Monday, October 29th, 2012

When Night Falls (dir. Ying Liang)

In the New Yorker, Richard Brody reviews Ying Liang’s award-winning new feature When Night Falls, which has yet to be screened in the US:

“It’s a fictionalized account of a true story, concerning a young man, Yang Jia, who was convicted, in 2008, of stabbing and slashing six police officers to death. Later in the year, he was executed… (more…)

“An Observational Powerhouse:” Review of Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Twin Cities area film programmer Kathie Smith reviews Zhao Liang’s documentary Crime and Punishment, which screened earlier this year at the Trylon Microcinema, as part of a series of Chinese independent films programmed by Smith:

Crime and Punishment, Zhao Liang first feature length documentary, is an observational powerhouse. Bringing direct cinema back from the ashes, Zhao adds another dimension to China’s dichotomies by focusing on a small forgotten corner of this rising superpower. Situated on his home turf, Zhao is given unprecedented access to a local police station along the North Korean border. Mean streets these are not. Instead we have life on the margins where ambitions of any kind have left this town behind. The police are candid, the situations are often defy logic, and the arrests add up to little more than harassment masquerading as control. Even moments of idleness seem to be cloaked in an aura of base tedium: cleaning a gun, fiddling with a pair of handcuffs or a bout of wrestling in the snow.


Old Dog a Hit at Brooklyn Film Festival; Screens Next Week at Northside Festival

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Indiewire lends a double dose of coverage to Pema Tseden’s Old Dog on its New York festival premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival. The film screens in New York City again next Monday June 18 at the Northside Festival in Brooklyn.

In his review of the film, Indiewire critic Christopher Bell gives the film an “A” rating, declaring it “a true gem and the mark of an especially skilled director.”


“Remarkable” Transition Period reviewed in The Economist

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Singing karaoke with Taiwanese investors, smearing birthday cake on the cheeks of an American factory owner, knocking back baijiu, a Chinese spirit, with property developers: Guo Yongchang would do anything to attract investment to Gushi, a county of 1.6m people in Henan province, where he served as party secretary. His antics are recorded in “The Transition Period”, a remarkable fly-on-the-wall documentary about his last months in office, filmed by Zhou Hao.

The Economist reviews Zhou Hao’s The Transition Period and places the film in the context of how local-level government operates, and the effect of its policies on shaping China’s economy and society:

When the government urged the banks to support its 2008 stimulus effort, local governments scrambled to claim an outsized share of the lending. The result is a local-government debt burden worth over a fifth of China’s 2011 GDP.

The worst abuses, however, involve land. Local officials can convert collectively owned rural plots into land for private development. Since farmers cannot sell their land directly to developers, they have to accept what the government is willing to pay. Often that is not very much.

The Transition Period is available as part of the dGenerate catalog.