Shelly on Film: Chinese Selections for the 2011 Vancouver Film Fest

By Shelly Kraicer

Fan Bingbing in "Buddha Mountain," one of several films directed by Chinese women directors at Vancouver International Film Festival

I’ve chosen 22 films for this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival (September 28 – October 14 2011), 17 feature films, 2 medium length fiction films and 3 short films. My usual beat is films from Chinese speaking territories (this year: mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia).

The films are listed below, with commentary that I’ve written for the VIFF programme catalogue. I’d like to point out a few things about the selection. I’m particularly pleased to have chosen films by seven Chinese-speaking women filmmakers this year: seven out of twenty is not a bad ratio, I think, and speaks to the increased opportunities for young independent filmmakers in Hong Kong and Taiwan (see Heiward Mak, Mo Lai, Chen Chiu-ling, and Jessey Tsang below), to make fine work. They follow in the footsteps of veterans like Ann Hui (A Simple Life) and younger established filmmakers like Li Yu (Buddha Mountain).

The continued vitality of the mainland Chinese independent documentary sector is also evidenced by my selection for VIFF, with four powerful indie docs in this year’s programme: Shattered, Apuda, Are We Really So Far From A Madhouse, and Bachelor Mountain. If strictly independent feature film making (i.e. Films that bypass the censorship system) isn’t looking at its strongest this year (with notable exceptions like Pema Tseden’s Old Dog and Zou Peng’s Sauna On Moon), then the fascinating cross-over space populated by films of independent spirit who do manage to get the Film Bureau’s approval seems more vital this year than ever (see Buddha Mountain, Mr. Tree, Here There, The Sword Identity).

In other territories, Taiwan’s blockbuster Seediq Bale is complex and troubling epic, and despite (or because of?) this, is on track to become the biggest blockbuster hit in Taiwanese film history. And Hong Kong’s sole remaining resident master “local” filmmaker Johnnie To has come up with a personal / political work (Life Without Principle) that revises the terms of his art (no guns, no fights) while intensifying the power of his social critique.

Full list of films after the break.

Mainland China

Apuda / Apuda de shouhou

(China, 2011, 145 mins, HDCAM)

North American Premiere

Directed By: He Yuan

Producer: Feng Xiaoqiu

CAM/ED: He Yuan

Apuda is meditative, slow, mesmerizingly beautiful ethnological/visionary documentary by young director He Yuan. He is a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography of the Yunnan Academy of Sciences. His film records–more than records, it transmutes into a virtual rural epic poem–the life of Apuda, an orchard farmer from the Naxi minority who live in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. Apuda lives with his elderly bed-ridden father. The father is slowly slipping towards death. Apuda himself is the kind of extraordinary figure that many of China’s independent documentary makers have been particularly fascinated by lately: he’s mildly mentally disabled, though more than able to manage a singularly ordered and independent life of severe poverty. Apuda’s language, too, is fascinating, as he talks largely to himself (and sometimes to his father, and very occasionally to rare visitors) with a distilled, articulate, quasi poetic voice whose every word one wants to hang on to.

Ghostly images of remarkable power loom out of near darkness, in an aesthetic that might remind Western viewers of Pedro Costa or even Alexander Sokurov. With an extraordinarily patient eye, He renders Apuda’s daily routine with exquisite attention to minute details, so that changing his father’s shirt, or preparing him a cigarette become powerful dramatic moments. This long film asks for an audience’s patience, but more than repays it by offering a deep comprehension of dimensions of life and death rarely seen on film.

Are We Really So Far From a Madhouse? / Women li fengrenyuan jiujing you duo yuan

(China, 2010, 87 mins, HDCAM)

North American Premiere

Directed By: Li Hongqi

PROD: Alex Chung

CAM/ED: Li Hongqi

PROD DES: Qin Yurui

MUS: P.K. 14, Dear Eloise

CAST: P.K. 14

VIFF favourite Li Hongqi (So Much Rice, VIFF 05; Winter Vacation VIFF 10) has come up with a documentary concept that might be perverse if it wasn’t so brilliantly executed: he’s made an experimental music documentary that never lets the audience see and hear the band simultaneously. The band is China’s most famous underground post-punksters P.K.14. Their music is terrific: tough and lyrical, noisy and articulate. In Li Hongqi’s camera, they’re on the road in China. Lolling indolently in hotel rooms in stark black-and-white images, they look like characters in Li’s other films. But their voices are replaced by a menagerie of pig snuffles, lion roars and various other caterwauling animals. During their big on-stage performance set piece, a crescendo of screeching multilayered animal-human noise replaces their music. The effect starts off annoying but quickly intensifies, becoming mesmerizingly dense, abstract and powerful, weirdly, compellingly energizing. Stay beyond the first ten minutes and you’ll be hooked.

We do get to hear plenty of music from P.K. 14 (and from its more lyrical spin-off private music/noise music duo Dear Eloise) when we’re on the road with the band. Long tracking shots through dark, mysterious night roads haunt the film, poetic interludes that take the band, and the audience, deep into a soulful, punky, rocking China that is as unforgettable as it is uncanny.

Bachelor Mountain / Guanggun

Dragons and Tigers

(China, 2011, 96 mins, DVCAM)

International Premiere

Directed By: Yu Guangyi

PROD: Han Lei

CAM: Yu Guangyi, Yu Qiushi

EDS: Yu Guangyi, Yu Qiushi, Bao Wei

For the solitary lumberjacks of Heilongjiang’s Changbai mountain range, located in the extreme northeast of China, life has become almost unsustainable. New environmental regulations protecting exhausted forests have forced most of the local men out of work. Meanwhile, the allure of better jobs in nearby cities has led to an outflow of local women. The result is a “bachelor mountain” populated by legions of lonely, impoverished, single men.

San Liangzi, an unemployed logger and jack-of-all trades, has been divorced for 12 years. He seems naive, sweet, almost simple-minded in his obsessive crush on a young woman named Meizi, for whom he does unpaid chores and construction work at her family’s inn. She seems aware of his affections but, for reasons of her own, won’t reciprocate. She is tough and ambitious: she’s building an “environmental tourism” inn with Meizi’s help. When it is finished, she welcomes busloads of the new young urban middle-class Chinese tourists, who try to commune with nature through ritual fire-dancing and singing.

Yu Guangyi is one of China’s foremost independent documentarists: this film is the third in his “Hometown Trilogy” (including Timber Gang, VIFF 06, and Survival Song, VIFF 08) exploring through intensely personal stories the way unusual individuals, under stress, respond to changing social conditions in China today. His patient camera gets extraordinarily close to these strange and solitary men, and through them makes strikingly tangible astonishing worlds of struggle, pain and hope that we could not otherwise imagine.

Buddha Mountain/ Guanyin shan

(China, 2010, 108 mins, 35mm)

Canadian Premiere

Directed By: by Li Yu

PROD: Fang Li

SCR: Li Yu, Fang Li

CAM: Zeng Jian

EDS: Zeng Jian, Karl Riedl

PROD DES: Liu Weixin

MUS: Peyman Yazdanian

CAST: Sylvia Chang, Fan Bingbing, Chen Bo-lin, Fei Long

Three 20-something buddies drift like free-spirits through Chengdu, Sichuan: Nan Feng, a gorgeous and fearlessly feisty bar singer (played by Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing), and her two admirers, bike delivery guy Ding Bo (heartthrob Taiwanese idol Chen Bo-lin) and roly-poly Fei Zao (played by Fei Long). When Nan Feng accidentally assaults a well-connected bar patron, the three need to find not only compensation money but also a new place to live. They find the apartment of Chang Yueqin, a retired but agelessly elegant Beijing opera performer (the great Taiwanese actress and director Sylvia Chang, in one of the best performances of her impressive career). Life styles and generations clash: Yueqin tries to impose discipline on the youths, and they in turn mock her old-fashioned harshness. When their reckless violation of her privacy exposes Yueqin’s hidden sorrows, the four learn to accommodate their differences, then how to offer emotional and ultimately spiritual support.

Since Li Yu’s debut film Fish and Elephant (VIFF 01), she has developed a unique space in Chinese cinema, one where a commercially viable independent art film can thrive. Buddha Mountain is a rare film that speaks to Chinese ticket-paying audiences as well as international festival goers (and won two awards at the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival).Terrific performances, especially by the women, vitalize this unpredictable comedy/drama/tragedy. Chang is glorious; Fan Bingbing shows herself capable of impressive acting in the right director’s hands. Li Yu’s style is free, vibrantly alive, with a heightened, expressive naturalism perfectly in tune with her film’s buoyant spirit.

Here There / Zheli nali

(China, 2011, 93 mins, HDCAM)

World Premiere

Directed By: Lu Sheng

PRODS: Jia Hongwei, Guo Xiaowei

SCR: Liu Yong, Xu Yang, Lu Sheng

CAM: Lu Sheng

ED: Kong Jinlei

PROD DES: Liu Qiang

MUS: Yongmin Moon

CAST: Lu Yulai, Huang Lu, Yao Anlian, Wang Deshun, Qin Wei, Bai Yanbo, Suo Yulan

Three stories, three locations: China’s frigid northern border, Shanghai and Paris. Director Lu Sheng intertwines three distinct narrative threads in this original and highly accomplished feature, his first film as director (he is also a noted cinematographer who has worked with Wang Bing among others).

In the forested, snowy mountains of Inner Mongolia, a forest ranger (Bai Yanbo) from the Ewenki people–an ethnic minority related to the Manchus, who live in Siberia, Mongolia, and China’s northeast–works in solitude protecting reindeer from poachers. He’s overjoyed when his son returns from school in the city to visit. In a working-class noodle restaurant in Shanghai, young waiter Guoguang (Lu Yulai) bumps into a sad young insurance saleswoman Ms Xia (Huang Lu) who may have once been his lover. In Parisian Chinatown, poor student Lu Hao (Qin Wei) is robbed of his ID, and forges a tense and surprising relationship with his elderly Chinese landlord Old Liu (Wang Deshun).

Lu weaves these three stories (whose subtle interrelations are hinted at) into a delicate skein full of emotion and pregnant with meaning. The film features stunningly beautiful photography–each place is shot in a different style–and finely integrated performances from professionals and non-pros alike. The “here there” of the English and Chinese title points towards the film’s underlying suggestion that who we are depends on where we are: place defines us, especially our distance from home, even if home is fractured, multiple and disparate.

Mr. Tree / Hello Shu Xiansheng

(China, 88 mins, 35mm)

Directed By: Han Jie

PROD: Jia Zhangke

SCR: Han Jie

CAM: Lai Yiu-fai

EDS: Matthieu Laclau, Baek Seung Hoon

PROD DES: Zhang Xiaobing, Liu Qiang

MUS: Lim Giong

CAST: Wang Baoqiang, Tan Zhuo, He Jie, Li Jingyi

You’ve probably never seen a film from China quite like Han Jie’s gently absurd, somewhat twisted social-romance-comedy Mr Tree: there’s a bit of Fellini, a hint of Jia Zhangke, and a lot that’s utterly original in this eccentrically inventive movie. It’s extraordinary that a film like this passed Chinese state censorship and will be shown to local audiences there.

This is Han Jie’s second film under producer Jia Zhangke, with Jia’s own company XStream Pictures. The gifted Hong Kong cinematographer Lai Yiu-fai crafts extravagantly expansive crane shots and complex long takes full of expressive power. Jia’s usual composer Lim Giong provides a subtly bouncy score.

But the centre of the film is the sensational character actor Wang Baoqiang (who had key supporting roles in Blind Shaft, 2003 and World Without Thieves, 2004). With his windmilling arms, canted body, spiralling voice, and anywhere-but-straight-ahead stare, Wang, as the protagonist, Shu (Chinese for “tree”), creates an unforgettable character: hilariously eccentric, deeply wounded, borderline mentally deficient, uncontrollably scrappy, but in certain, imaginative ways, wildly creative. Shu’s odyssey takes him from home, a run-down village in China’s northeastern Jilin province, to the provincial capital Changchun. On the way, Shu somehow magically woos the beautiful deaf and dumb Xiao Mei. After an abortive stint as a school janitor, Shu is haunted by visions of his dead father and brother. He returns home for a cataclysmic wedding, then retreats into his own imagination, where his fantasy and his reality clash and confound each other.

Old Dog / Khyi rgan

(China (Tibet), 2011, 88 mins, HDCAM)

North American Premiere

Directed By: Pema Tseden

PROD: Zhang Xianmin

SCR: Pema Tseden

CAM/PROD DES: Sonthar Gyal

ED: Sangye Bhum

CAST: Lochey, Drolma Kyab, Tamdrin Tso, Yanbum Gyal, Chokyong Gyal

In Tibetan (with English subtitles).

Pema Tseden is the most important independent Tibetan filmmaker now working in China. VIFF has presented his first two films The Silent Holy Stones (Dragons & Tigers competition, 2005) and The Search (VIFF 09). Like them, Old Dog is set in the Tibetan region of the Chinese province of Qinghai. Unlike them, this film hasn’t received the Chinese film bureau’s approval to be released locally.

The story seems elemental, and is told with a precise, detailed realism. An old man and his adult son live together in the countryside with the old man’s dog, a Tibetan mastiff. Father and dog herd the family’s sheep on the high Qinghai plains. The son discovers that Tibetan mastiffs are now prized by urban Chinese dog owners, and can fetch extraordinarily high prices. With an eye to making a quick buck, he tries to sell the dog to a Chinese trader in town. But the father finds out and demands the dog back. After a helpful Tibetan cop sorts out the problem, the issue of the dog remains; dog rustlers are always a threat, and the son still sees potential big bucks where the father sees tradition, lifestyle, and heritage.

The film’s cinematographer, Sonthar Gyal, has his own feature, The Sun-Beaten Path, in this year’s Dragons & Tigers Competition. This is a a film of almost Chekovian power and range, where a patient and detailed accumulation of what seem like the plainest elements of ordinarily life gradually assume tragic dimensions.

Sauna on Moon / Chang E

(China, 2011, 94 mins, 35mm)

North American Premiere

Directed By: Zou Peng

PROD: Chen Zhiheng

SCR/PROD DES: Zou Peng

CAM: Yu Lik-wai

ED: Wenders Li

MUS: Wang Lei

CAST: Wu Yuchi, Yang Xiaomin, Lei Ting, Zhan Yi, Meng Yan, Xiao Houqiyu, Pan Chunhui

In a sauna cum massage parlour in Guangzhou, southern China, proprietor Wu is trying to make an honest living. It’s no secret that these establishments offer “extra services” in China. What marks off Wu’s establishment, Chang E (aka Goddess of the Moon), is his idealistic new-Chinese-capitalist attitude to the business. He’s a model modern Chinese businessman, with enough drive and chutzpah to make his business thrive. No shame or prudery here: getting rich fast, Chinese style, is government policy after all; it’s the Communist Party’s new unshakeable ideology.

Zou Peng’s film concentrates on three of Wu’s employees, elegantly jaded Li Jie, dreamer Xiao Meng and struggling Rose. As it moves ambitiously and elliptically through time, we see Wu’s establishment moving upscale (glitsy Las Vegas-style upscale). When gangster/official Lin demands a virgin for his pleasure, innocent young factory worker Xiao Hou is drawn into a darker side of the business, though with typically Chinese pragmatic results.

Master cinematographer Yu Lik-wai’s (Jia Zhangke’s regular d.p.) beautifully saturated, hyper-stylized photography makes this a sumptuous visual treat, and precisely the polar opposite of Yu’s equally beautiful, classically restrained photography in Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, also showing at this year’s VIFF.

Mixing detailed realism (the sex toys scene is a hoot) with something more surreal/symbolic (see the stunning pool-side fashion extravaganza), the film manages to tell finely grained personal stories while still working as a spot-on microcosm of China’s tacky, unrestrained, so-perfectly-corrupt-it’s-pure-capitalist ethos.

The Sword Identity / Wokou zongji

(China, 2011, 110 mins, DCP)

Directed By: Xu Haofeng

PROD: Li Rui

SCR/ED: Xu Haofeng

CAM: Sha Jincheng, Meng Xiaoqing

PROD DES: Xie Yong

MUS: Zhang Yang

CAST: Yu Chenghui, Song Yang, Zhao Yuanyuan, Ma Jun, Xu Fujing

Chinese director Xu Haofeng’s first film is a mysterious swordplay (aka wuxia) movie that is both an homage to and an elegant, comic deconstruction of the classic Chinese and Japanese martial-arts cinema traditions.

The typically convoluted plot takes place in a southern Ming dynasty setting. Liang Henyu and a colleague, sneaking into town, are mistaken for Japanese pirates by government soldiers. Handsome, dashing Liang is in fact a disciple of anti-Japanese fighters, who had used specially modified Japanese long swords to defeat said pirates. Seeking to establish his sword technique as a recognized martial art, Liang stages a series of mysterious combats with the town’s official martial arts sects involving a comic chorus of Xinjiang maidens, the estranged wife of a great master swordsman (along with her own young not-so-secret lover), and a bumbling quintet of hapless soldiers. The final master vs. swordsman showdown is refined to a pure philosophy of swordplay, where age faces youth and non-action vies with action.

Director Xu is a professor at the famous Beijing Film Academy, as well as a martial-arts fiction writer and wushu practioner himself (from a long line of famous wushu masters, in fact). He describes his movie as an anti-wuxia film. Paying tribute to King Hu’s aesthetic of ultra-fast glimpsed action, Xu succeeds in injecting a fresh combination of both idealism and realism into classic visual wuxia language. With brilliant sound design and strong inventive cinematography, this is an utterly up-to-date classic, a comic-epic swordplay film for a postmodern age.

Shattered / Lao Tang tou

(China, 2011, 105 mins, HDCAM)

International Premiere

Directed By: Xu Tong

PROD: Han Lei

CAM/ED: Xu Tong

Xu Tong’s third documentary continues the story of Tang Caifeng, the charismatic brothel boss from his previous doc Fortune Teller (VIFF 10). But Shattered also stands alone as a micro-monumental documentary portrait of her fascinating father Tang Xixin, a vigorous 80-year-old railroad company retiree. Old Tang has seen a lot of Chinese history, from the World War II Japanese occupation through the rise and fall of Mao Zedong. He has wildly detailed, animatedly amusing stories to tell about every episode, from his resignation from the Party in 1958 to his skepticism at general condemnation of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death. His and his daughter’s re-enactment of Communist Party corruption via a train conductor role-playing game is particularly precious.

National history mixes with family dynamics–and what a family. Old Tang had three daughters and three sons. Caifeng is a fierce customer when freeing the young prostitute who worked for her from prison, or when tracking down the informant who betrayed her gangster coal-mine boss partners,. But she’s tenderly loyal when clearing her father’s blocked ears or singlehandedly whitewashing his wretched apartment. Soap-operatic histrionics take over when Old Tang, charmingly eccentric at his best, provokes his addle-brained middle son (a would-be novelist) or older brother-in-law with his odd nighttime behaviour and unrelentingly judgmental personality.

While Xu Tong’s camera sustains an absolutely nonjudgmental attitude, the closeness he establishes with his subjects is astonishing, at times alarmingly intimate and confessional.

Ten Years From Now

(USA/China, 2011, 15 mins, HDCAM)

World Premiere

Directed By: Jordan Schiele

Trailer

A man and a woman — gay-straight-bi — are good friends, maybe more. It’s complicated. This has nothing to do with the accompanying feature, but the actors are the same… (S.K.)

Clown’s Revolution / Shige gongchang

(China, 2010, 10 mins, HDCAM)

Directed By: Sun Xun

China’s foremost experimental animator Sun Xun’s latest is a virtuoso multimedia collage with an absurdist, ineluctably political bite. (S.K.)

Hong Kong

A Simple Life / Tao Jie

(Hong Kong, 2011, 116 mins, DCP)

In Cantonese with English subtitles

Directed By: Ann Hui

PRODS: Ann Hui, Roger Lee, Chan Pui-wah

SCR: Susan Chan, based on a story by Roger Lee

CAM: Yu Lik-wai

EDS: Kong Chi-leung, Manda Wai

PROD DES: Albert Poon

MUS: Law Wing-fai

CAST: Deannie Yip, Andy Lau, Qin Hailu, Paul Chun Pei, Wang Fuli, Anthony Wong

After an elderly maid for a Hong Kong film producer has a stroke, he finds a nursing home for her to move into. With that simple premise, based on the real life story of producer Roger Lee and his actual family’s amah Chung Chun-tao (aka Ah Tao), Hong Kong director Ann Hui has crafted one of her greatest films. This low-key masterpiece of almost documentary realism features big stars and nonprofessionals: king of Hong Kong cinema Andy Lau plays Roger and the remarkable actress Deannie Yip plays Ah Tao; elderly residents play themselves.

Quiet, polite, almost diffident Roger negotiates film budgets for a living. At home, he’s aided by his family’s long-time maid (amah), Ah Tao, who’s been with his family for over 60 years. She’s a tough bargainer in her own right, buying just the right ox tongue in the market for Roger’s favourite stew. But when she collapses from a stroke, she’s the one who needs to be cared for. According to her wishes, Roger finds a nursing home for her to live in. She gradually integrates into a new society with strong characters each with their own stories.

Deannie Yip, winner of two Hong Kong Film Awards more than 20 years ago, is remarkable as Ah Tao, embodying a quiet but vibrantly alive woman whose spirit, once sharp, now flickers with age. Andy Lau’s performance gives her perfect support: reserved, subtle, self-effacingly warm. Ann Hui’s brilliant filmography extends back to 1979: this new work instantly earns pride of place as one of its glories.

Big Blue Lake / Da lan hu

(Hong Kong, 2011, 98 mins, 35mm)

World Premiere

Directed By: Jessey Tsang

PRODS: Teresa Kwong, Rita Hui

SCR: Luk Bo-bo, Jessey Tsang Tsui-shan

CAM: Yau Chung-yip

ED: Kattie Fan Ho-ki

PROD DES: Wong Liang-yih, Ko Man-yan, Siu Man

MUS: Masamichi Shigeno

CAST: Leila Kong, Lawrence Chou, Amy Chun, Joman Chiang

Indie fiction films from Hong Kong are not so common these days: a HK indie as polished and moving as this second feature by Jessey Tsang is rare indeed.

Unemployed 30-something actress Cheung Lai Yee returns to the town where she grew up, rural Ho Chung Village in Hong Kong’s New Territories hinterlands. Cheung has been away for ten years, and everything about home seems different. Her mother is showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease; the village is showing signs of being modernized and “developed” out of its old character. Both mother and village have an increasingly tenuous hold on their memories, their sense of place, the very thing that grounds them to their histories and their identities. While taking a series of very odd odd jobs (pretending to be a disabled customer to test shopkeepers’ reactions), Cheung determines to reconnect with her mother. She has a plan for the old villagers she meets, as well, built around reviving and reenacting stories from their youth. When she meets an old classmate Lin Jin who has stayed behind in the town (who has his own unresolved girlfriend-history problems), shared backgrounds click and new intimacies begin to form.

Young director Jessey Tsang herself grew up in Ho Chung Village. Her passionate dedication to preserving Hong Kong’s fading local historical memories and her ability to capture fleeting moments of disappearance on screen imbue her work with palpable emotion and urgency.

Life Without Principle / Duo ming jin

(Hong Kong, 2011, 107 mins, DCP)

Directed By: Johnnie To

PROD: Johnnie To

SCR: Au Kin-yee, Wong King-fai, Milkyway Creative Team

CAM: Cheng Siu-keung

ED: David Richardson

PROD DES: Sukie Yip

CAST: Denise Ho, Lau Ching-wan, Richie Ren, Lo Hoi-pang

Celebrated Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To (Sparrow, VIFF 08) returns with one of what he calls his “personal films,” a dramatic thriller set during a financial crisis in the East Asian market. An ordinary bank teller turned financial analyst (Denise Ho) is forced to sell high-risk securities to her customers in order to meet her sales target. Thinking he can earn easy money to post bail for a buddy in trouble, small-time thug Buzzard (Lau Ching-wan, one of the finest actors in Hong Kong cinema today) tries his luck in a mainland China gangster-run gambling operation that bets on the futures market. Straight-arrow police inspector Cheung (To regular Richie Ren), who enjoys a stable career and comfortable middle-class lifestyle, suddenly needs money when his wife makes a down payment on a luxury flat she can’t afford.

Three people in desperate need of money encounter one bag containing five million dollars of stolen cash. What sort of principles apply in a life where money determines everything?

To’s pessimistic vision of a society where nothing is valued above money (in this aspect mainland China has more than surpassed Hong Kong) is allied, as usual, with his mastery of urban space, tension and action. There are few greater cinematic pleasures than watching one of contemporary cinema’s preeminent visual structuralists at work on his home ground.

1+1

Dragons and Tigers

(Hong Kong, 2011, 35 mins, HDCAM)

Directed By: Mo Lai Yan-chi

SCR: Mo Lai Yan-chi, Barky Yeung Ping-kei

CAM: Billy Yung

Lai Yan-chi’s sweet, charming tale of a little girl and her grandfather hides a sharply subversive spirit, set to memorably edgy indie HK pop. As they explore Hong Kong, planting baby bamboos in memorable places, they discuss the city’s history and struggles. And they are followed by a mysterious photographer in red… Best film, 2010 HK Fresh Wave Festival.

Beside(s), Happiness / Xingfu de pangbian

(Hong Kong, 2011, 35 mins, Digibeta)

Directed By: Heiward Mak

SCR: Heiward Mak, Poon Hang-chi

CAM: Yip Siu-ki

After a drunken one-night stand with handsome young student Kwan, who’s almost 10 years younger than her, salesgirl Ling finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. What will she do: throw herself at a future with no prospects, or end the pregnancy? Heiward Mak’s (High Noon, VIFF 08) fluent pop-romance of 20 somethings in lust and perhaps love pulsates with HK’s anxious lyric energy.

Taiwan

Honey Pupu / Xiaoshi dakan

(Taiwan, 2011, 102 mins, 35mm)

North American Premiere

Directed By: Chen Hung-I

PROD: Lin Fu-Jing

SCR: Chen Hung-I, Monica & Shabelle, Lin Fu-Jing

CAM: Fisher Yu

EDS: Chen Hung-I, Liu Yua-hsing, Lin Fu-Jing

PROD DES: Kang Chun-Wei

MUS: Chang Wu-wu

CAST: Peggy Tseng, Chiu Sheng-Yi, Lin Zaizai, Lin Po-Sheng, Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying

The most creative feature film from Taiwan this year is Chen Hung-I’sHoney Pupu. This vibrant visual fantasia on Taipei City, love, transience, social media, history and youth culture has a lot on its mind. Although it sharply divided Taiwanese audiences, it won best feature film at this year’s Taipei Film Awards, and richly repays careful viewing.

The plot is dense with detail, jumping freely between fantasy, memory, virtual and real space. Dog, the boyfriend of mellow-voiced radio DJ Vicky, has disappeared. She searches for him online, and discovers a community of young aficionados of disappearing phenomena at a website Dog frequented called Missing.com (the film’s Chinese title). Among them are Assassin, prone to fainting fits, his would-be girlfriend the aggressively stylish Money (aka Cheesebaby), and dreamy artist type Cola, who wants to replace Assassin in Money’s affections. An old fashioned floppy disk is their clue, leading to poetry, soothsayers, an S-M fetishist, and a host of surreal (and hyper-stylized) Taipei urban scenescapes.

A sensational musical score and richly imaginative sound design features Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, Saint-Saens and Bach.The film deploys a delirious array of gorgeous cinematographic gambits, post-production visual effects, and editing brio to capture the shimmering present, fading past and hyper-realistic future that inflects contemporary Taiwan culture, always under the threat of disappearance. Chen’s film is one of the most imaginative–and indispensable–movies that Taiwan’s newly renascent young film culture has yet produced.

Return to Burma / Guilai de ren

(Taiwan, 2011, 84 mins, HDCAM)

North American Premiere

Directed By: Midi Z

PRODS: Mizi Z, Patrick Mao Huang

SCR/CAM: Midi Z

EDS: Grussy Lin, Midi Z

CAST: Wang Shin-hong, Yang Shu-lan, Chou Jung-kuo

Trailer

Independent fiction films shot in Burma are rare indeed. One filmed by a Chinese-Burmese minority director like Midi Z are unprecedented.

Xing-hong is a Burmese labourer of Chinese ethnicity who has worked on construction in Taipei for 10 years. Changes in Burma (aka Myanmar) prompt him to return with the ashes of his friend and coworker Rong, who died in Taipei. Back in his home village of Lashio, Xing-hong feels like a stranger in a foreign land. Family, friends and neighbours earn next to nothing. Everyone yearns to save enough money to illegally work abroad: Malaysia, Dubai or China are aspirational destinations. As he travels around his ethnic Chinese district, regaled by uniquely Burmese pop songs (lauding, for example, the government and congressmen for fostering Burma’s push towards “democracy and freedom”) Xing-hong explores work options, asking everyone he meets how little they make. The best prospects, other than going back to work abroad, seem to be the thriving black markets for openly smuggled Chinese goods he finds everywhere.

First time director Midi Z films the milieu he knows best: like his protagonist, he is an ethnic Chinese who moved from Burma to Taiwan when he was young. His fiction film, while preserving an ultra-realistic documentary feel, is also inspired by classic Taiwanese new wave principles: he uses a largely still camera, with beautifully framed long takes and sequence shots that slowly reveal, with precise intensity, the essential reality of a part of rural Burma at a critical moment of its history.

Seediq Bale (Taiwan version) / Saideke Balai

(Taiwan, 2011, 270 mins, 35mm)

Directed By: Wei Te-Sheng

PRODS: John Woo, Terence Chang, Jimmy Huang

SCR: Wei Te-Sheng

CAM: Chin Ting-Chang

EDS: Chen Po-Wen, Milk Su

PROD DES: Taneda Yohei

MUS: Ricky Ho

CAST: Lin Ching-Tai, Umin Boya, Ando Masanobu, Kawahara Sabu, Vivian Hsu, Lo Mei-Ling

Trailer

Language: Seediq & Japanese (with English subtitles).

The most expensive film in the history of Taiwanese cinema, Seediq Bale is a major cinematic event. Director Wei Te-Sheng based his Taiwanese aboriginal epic–it premieres in Taiwan in September in the version we are showing at VIFF, in two separate two-and-a-half hour sections–on an extraordinary though little known historical event: the Wushe incident of 1930. During the 50-year long Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the remnants of the aboriginal tribes who first settled the island lived in the central Taiwanese mountains. The Japanese colonial government restricted these tribes from practicing their traditional head hunting and facial tattooing, and deprived them of their lands and weapons. An uneasy peace came to a head in 1930, when tribal leader Mouna Rudo, a “hero of the tribe,” or “Seediq Bale,” organized six villages of the Seediq tribe to attack the Japanese occupation police on October 27, 1930 in Wushe village. Their carefully planned and executed rebellion resulted in the killing of 136 Japanese men and women.

The rebellion lasted for 50 days, as Japan sent police and army reinforcements to crush the aboriginal fighters. Eventually, the Japanese resorted to dropping poison gas on the rebels from aircraft. The rebellion took on an epic–and desperate–aspect of a 20th-century Trojan siege. Seediq heroes fought to the death, while their family members were instructed to commit suicide in order to escape capture and humiliation.

Wei Te-Sheng’s filmed version of the Seediq’s heroic resistance doesn’t shy away from the violence, the darkness, and the moral ambiguity of the story. The sometimes self-destructive ferocity of the Seediq warriors is balanced against fascinating characterizations of the Japanese policemen caught in the middle, who knew both Seediq culture and their homeland’s militarized culture.

Seediq Bale is true epic cinema: many thousands of extras, large-scale battle scenes shot against the lush forests and mountains of central Taiwan, a multigenerational time span, and larger-than-life heroes paint an unforgettable picture of a little-known society’s life and death struggle to preserve their environment, their beliefs, and their values.

The Other Side / Bi an

(Taiwan, 2010, 23 mins, Digibeta)

Directed By: Chen Chiu-ling

SCR/ANIM: Chen Chiu-ling

(animated short)

Chen Chiu-ling’s animated dreamland artfully inscribes a daughter’s and a city’s (Taipei) subconscious onto beautiful, simply drawn images of a couple, in love, in the big city. Best animated film, 2011 Taipei Film Awards.

Malaysia

Year Without a Summer / Wu zhi xia nian

(Malaysia, 2010, 87 mins, 35mm)

Canadian Premiere

Directed By: Tan Chui Mui

PRODS: Liew Seng Tat

SCR/ED: Tan Chui Mui

CAM: Teoh Gay Hian

MUS: Azmyl Yunor

CAST: Nam Ron, Azman Hassan, Mislina Mustaffa, Mohd. Norsuhaizan Hanafi, Mohd. Shahrudin

(Malay language)

Official Film Website

Quiet, gentle, mysterious, with a unique subtle beauty all its own, Tan Chui Mui’s second feature is an impressive follow up to her debut Love Conquers All (VIFF 07).

Set in Kuantan on the eastern Malaysian coast where Tan grew up, Year Without A Summer tells two simultaneous stories, of Azam and Ali as young boys, and then Azam and Ali as adult men. It’s typical of the film’s subtlety that we are never directly told that these are the same two characters, but the director allows us to think so if we please. Azam is the wanderer, who claims to want to leave to work in Kuala Lumpur when he’s young. But he ends up as a menial labourer in a sawmill. When Azam returns years later, seemingly walking out of the sea, with a career as a musician behind him, he reunites with Ali, who is now married to Minah. They swap stories, and all head out on a moonlight fishing trip, where things take an unexpected and alarming turn.

The film’s photography by Teoh Gay Hian is consistently beautiful, varied in a wide range of keys, from the luminous darkness of the sea glimmering in moonlight to a bright, primary-colour infused ocean surface sunlight, to the enchanted, astonishingly dark sunlight of rocks looming over the coast. The cinematography serves a sensibility that mingles hyper-reality and nostalgia, myth and daily life, that infuses the present with vibrant memories of a living past.

Tags: ,

  • Joe

    Hi Shelly,
    I’m really surprised by how much praise you gave to Apuda. Half of the people I saw the movie with were asleep. I didn’t fall asleep, but it was an agonizing experience and demands too much willpower to decipher something that may simply has nothing to say after all.

    Especially I would to hear you explain the following:
    “Apuda’s language, too, is fascinating, as he talks largely to himself (and sometimes to his father, and very occasionally to rare visitors) with a distilled, articulate, quasi poetic voice whose every word one wants to hang on to.”
    Which lines are those? Care to support your words on a line by line basis? His calculation of how many tonnes of apple he needs to sell to make 800 yen, or that he’s tired and needs a rest? Why should I hang on to those?

    and

    “With an extraordinarily patient eye, He renders Apuda’s daily routine with exquisite attention to minute details”

    So this means from now on, every aspiring filmmaker can place a camera at 45 degree angle, shoot a subject doing one small thing for 10 minutes straight, and can be called as having “extraordinarily patient eye…exquisite attention.” Am I right? Boy is it easy to be a Chinese doc filmmaker these days.

    Just because you are promoting a film for a festival, doesn’t mean it deserves such lavish praises. Makes it hard for me to take your other writings seriously from now on.

    Cheers

  • Pingback: Three New Chinese Indie Docs Reviewed in Variety and Twitch | dGenerate Films

  • Pingback: “Old Dog” to Join Films from China and Hong Kong at San Francisco International Film Festival | dGenerate Films