Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Winter Vacation labeled “Crucial Viewing” at Chicago Doc Films

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Winter Vacation (dir. Li Hongqi)

Li Hongqi’s award-winning black comedy Winter Vacation is labeled “Crucial Viewing” by the Chicago Cine-file blog. Winter Vacation screens Monday at University of Chicago’s Doc Films at 7pm. Screening details here.

Patrick Friel writes in Cine-file:

Set in a small industrial town and primarily concerned with a group of disaffected teen boys and their families, WINTER VACATION draws inevitable comparisons to the work of Jia Zhang-ke (PLATFORM, THE WORLD, STILL LIFE, 24 CITY) in its insistent and idiosyncratic look at modern China. But Jia’s films are downright baroque compared to the minimalist style of Li. The film is slow and features little action – more often than not the characters are sitting quite still or standing stationary – and Li’s compositions and long shots favor empty space and the generic, sterile surroundings (both inside and out), but once one is used to the pacing and visual bareness, one begins to see a rich vein of emotion laying just below the surface of the characters’ lives. Li’s formal elements provide considerable insight into the desperation and stasis they feel (and are actually quite stunning). While his film is part of a larger wave of recent Chinese cinema that is offering a serious critique of contemporary society there, it is also doing so through a delightfully acerbic use of humor. It is a dryly-comic film; the humor creeps up unexpectedly, maintaining a disciplined restraint to match the minimalism of every other aspect of the film. But, a few times, it bursts forth and bites you in the ass, providing (for me at least) several uncontrollable genuine belly laughs. Who says severe minimalism can’t be fun?

Ghost Town labeled “Crucial Viewing” at Chicago Doc Films

Monday, November 7th, 2011

"Ghost Town" (dir. Zhao Dayong)

Zhao Dayong’s epic documentary Ghost Town is labeled “Crucial Viewing” by the Chicago Cine-file blog. Ghost Town screens tonight at University of Chicago’s Doc Films at 7pm. Screening details here.

Patrick Friel writes in Cine-file:

GHOST TOWN is a cinema of accretion: details build up, people’s lives pull into focus, the arc of a place is allowed to emerge. What would have been picturesque at 70 minutes begins to verge on profound at 170 minutes. Zhao’s film is observational in mode, like Frederick Wiseman’s work. But Wiseman gains depth through the actions of the people who inhabit and interact with the social structures and institutions he focuses on. Zhao’s subject is also a “structure” – the small village of Zhiziluo in the Southeastern part of China, near Tibet and Burma. Zhao focuses on the breakdown of this place, formerly a county seat and now all-but abandoned by the Communist government. Only the locals remain, struggling with their day-to-day existence and dealing with poverty, divorce, alcoholism, lack of work, marriages of convenience. (more…)

Three New Chinese Indie Docs Reviewed in Variety and Twitch

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

By Kevin B. Lee

"Are We Really So Far from the Madhouse?"

Covering the Vancouver International Film Festival for Variety, Robert Koehler has been filing rave reviews of some new Chinese independent documentaries he’s seen at the festival’s Dragons and Tigers lineup. We are excited to see his praise for Bachelor Mountain, the new film by Yu Guangyi (whose Timber Gang is distributed by dGenerate) and Are We Really So Far from the Madhouse, the latest by Li Hongqi (whose Winter Vacation is available through dGF).

Coincidentally, the same three documentaries are also reviewed enthusiastically by Kathie Smith, who covered VIFF for the website Twitch.

Click through to read excerpts from Koehler’s and Smith’s reviews – click on their names to access the full text of Koehler’s reviews on Variety (registration required) and Smith’s on Twitch. Also read the program notes on all Chinese language films at VIFF by programmer Shelly Kraicer.


Review: The Transition Period shows the true power center of Chinese government

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

"The Transition Period" shows the inner workings of local politics in China

U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke’s recent arrival in Beijing generated intense discussions among Chinese nationals about how Chinese civil servants compare unfavorably to their American counterparts. As reported in a September 20th article in The Wall Street Journal’s blog “China Real Time Report,” the central government and its affiliated media bodies such as the Guangming Daily and the Xinhua News Agency tried to cast aspersions over the political motives behind the U.S. government’s choice of a Chinese-American ambassador. But Chinese online netizens focused on something entirely different. After seeing photos of Locke buying his own coffee and carrying his own bags, and learning that he flew coach to China, Chinese web commentators assailed their civil servants for squandering taxpayers’ money on ridiculously extravagant meals, cars, and the like, and for shirking physical work and other chores that they consider to be below their dignity.

Zhou Hao’s 2011 documentary The Transition Period, which will be playing next Monday in Chicago’s Doc Films series on Chinese independent cinema, looks at the working life of one typical Chinese civil servant by the name of Guo Yongchang before his transfer to a new post within the Chinese government. Shot over the last three months of Guo working as the party secretary of the Committee of the Communist Party of Gushi County in Xinyang Municipality of Henan Province, this documentary presents different facets of Guo’s work as a medium- to low-level Chinese civil servant in a leading position. This article aims at laying out some groundwork in China’s political system and its political environment for first-time viewers of the documentary, as sometimes the stories in the documentary are more complicated than their presentations. (Spoilers may follow.)


Ode to Life: The Poetry of Qiu Jiongjiong

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

By Sara Beretta

"Madame" (dir. Qiu Jiongjiong)

Qiu Jiongjiong is an artist who paints and makes films; but more importantly, art for him is a way of life, full of vitality and laughter. The preciousness of his work, aside from being technically accomplished with the brush and lens, lies primary in his own personality and attitude. Surprise, enthusiasm and wonder direct his approach to the world and its actors. Everyone plays a special and unique role on the stage of life, author and the viewer included.

In August UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing held a retrospective of Qiu’s documentaries, curated by master of indie film Zhang Xianmin, including the première of Qiu’s latest work My Mother’s Rhapsody. Art and life have interplayed in Qiu’s personal history since the beginning: born in 1977 in Sichuan, he grew up among actors (his grandfather was a famous Sichuan Opera performer), and started painting and wandering around the stage since he was a child. He still holds the amazed gaze of the child marveling at (re)telling his family’s history, as an ordinary epic saga in black and white poetry, reconstructing and reshaping memories. With the exceptions of Madame (2010) and A Portrait of Mr. Huang (2009), his documentaries are all about his relatives, playing their own role, making up the “Chatterbox Trilogy”. It would be insufficient to go in depth here with all Qiu’s documentaries, any of them worthy of its own entry. But a precis of his Trilogy could help in beginning to approach and to enjoy his poetry.


The Outrageous Reality of Chinese Cops: Crime and Punishment

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

By Steve Erickson

Originally published on Fandor, where Crime and Punishment is available on streaming video.

Zhao Liang has distinguished himself as one of the fiercest of the Chinese documentarians who’ve emerged in the past ten years. His 2007 debut Crime and Punishment offers a dose of Zhao’s filmmaking at full force. At first glance, the film, which closely follows the lives of Chinese military police monitoring a North Korean border town, might bring to mind American reality shows like Cops and its ersatz offspring. But its sensibility couldn’t be more different. Zhao’s film emphasizes punishment more than crime: his cops, remarkable for their lack of media savvy, repeatedly beat subjects in front of his cameras. Unlike American reality TV, these incidents aren’t served to the viewer as exploitation passing as entertainment, but something more ethically committed and unnerving.


Chicago Critics Crazy over Disorder; Screening at MoCA NYC This Friday

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

From Chicago to New York City, "Disorder" has film critics dancing in the streets.

This Friday at 7pm, Huang Weikai’s cinematic hurricane Disorder storms back into New York City, screening at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in Chinatown as part of MoCA’s Chinese Cinema Club. Film programmer, lecturer and writer Chi-hui Yang will be on hand to discuss the film following the screening, with dGenerate’s Kevin B. Lee moderating.

Earlier in the summer, the film screened at the Nightingale in Chicago riding a wave of strong reviews from area critics. Here’s a sampling:

Ray Pride, New City:

Of the 300 or so movies I saw in 2010, partly on the weekly beat but also at festivals and for juries, one entry’s sheer strangeness and immediacy took me more by surprise than any other film or video. The movie’s even more headlong than this paragraph, hyperbole for the hypnotic: Huang Weikai’s fifty-eight-minute “Disorder,” is a black-and-white shot-on-video portrait of urban Guangzhou, but it’s also a sustained fury of delirium. Tossed into a maelstrom of deracinated images from Huang’s native province, we’re left adrift and agog at brief scenes of traffic jams, floods, accidents, police violence, fools winding through lanes of heavy traffic, and so many, many farm animals gone astray. Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel went beyond considering “Disorder” a “city symphony,” saying it’s set in “Chris Marker-ville,” and Huang’s film is indeed an act of sustained bricolage, essaying contemporary China through a reported 1,000 hours of footage from news shooters with greater-than-average access to strange goings-on, creating an eruptive, hallucinatory landscape, resisting narrative, that is both tactile and otherworldly. It may be the first great film of the twenty-second century.


Jia Zhangke’s “Dong” Reviewed at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Dong (dir. Jia Zhangke)

By Ariella Tai

As part of a larger feature on the films of director Jia Zhangke at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Leo Goldsmith focuses on “Jia’s first documentary proper;” Dongavailable for purchase or rental through the dGenerate catalog. Goldsmith discusses the ways in which this multilayered documentary meditates on the shifting landscapes of China, both literal and economic, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the artist in these times. Goldsmith observes that Dong is,

partly about the effect the [Three Gorges Dam Project] has had on the people of the region. … Fengjie, home to the Qutang Gorge, is captured by Jia’s films as it vanishes: landscapes seem to dematerialize in the distant fog while, in the foreground, buildings are ripped apart by the hands of dozens of shirtless laborers.

The film is also, in large part, about artist Liu Xiaodong as he paints the day laborers in Fenjie and eventually travels to Thailand to complete portraits of young sex workers in Bangkok. The role that he occupies as an artist in contemporary China is as important to the film as the physical sites he visits:


Wang Bing’s “The Ditch” Reviewed

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

By Dan Edwards

This review originally appeared in Screening China.

Prisoners in Wang Bing’s The Ditch.

Bedraggled men sit in a seemingly empty desert landscape, the bareness of their surrounds strangely beautiful on screen. We see the group from a distance, as if the desert itself is a brooding presence observing these puny beings on its surface. The men are allocated numbers and descend into caves dug into the desert floor, where earthen “beds” carved out of the wall await them. Welcome to the world of Wang Bing’s The Ditch, surely one of the most stark depictions of the deprivations of the Maoist era ever committed to celluloid.

Many Chinese features since the 1980s have touched on the suffering inflicted by Mao’s endless mass political campaigns, but few have been so brutally raw in their depiction of the era’s cruelties. The Ditch plays out on the edge of the Gobi desert in China’s northwestern province of Gansu, where thousands were exiled after taking up Mao’s invitation to speak out about societal problems during the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1957. The wave of criticism spooked the regime – or perhaps as some claim the entire setup was designed to lure out dissenters. In any case, the Anti-Rightist Campaign followed hot on the heels of the Hundred Flowers movement and saw many of those who had spoken out imprisoned or otherwise persecuted. As some of the characters in The Ditch recall, many suffered for ‘crimes’ such as pointing out incidents of corruption or suggesting the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” should be widened to become a “Dictatorship of the People.”


How American Idol Introduced Democracy and Tomboys to China

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Over at Fandor, our own Kevin Lee has a piece on Jian Yi’s Super, Girls!, coinciding with the finale of American Idol Season 10, airing tonight and tomorrow. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Super Girl (once officially known as the Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Super Girl Contest, after its brand sponsor) launched in 2004, just a couple years after Pop Idol and American Idol. Originally a local TV production, the show took advantage of a newly formed nationwide satellite network to broadcast across China, and quickly became a runaway success. By its third season the show drew over 400 million viewers, exceeding not just the total number of American Idol viewers, but the entire US population. Whether due to this alarming display of voter mobilization or the runaway popularity of a show that glorified pop idolatry, the Chinese government shut down the show after three seasons (though it has since been revived).