Shelly on Film: Deeper Into Dragons and Tigers

By Shelly Kraicer

Rumination (dir. Xu Ruotao)

The 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival (September 30 to October 15) has just concluded. This was my fourth year programming Chinese language films for VIFF’s Dragons and Tigers section for East Asian cinema; this year’s edition featured 43 features and 21 shorts, co-curated by Tony Rayns and myself. I selected 19 features and three shorts: 12 from China, 4 from Hong Kong, 3 from Taiwan, 2 from Malaysia, and one from Singapore. Details of the films from the People’s Republic of China, including comments derived from my catalogue notes for VIFF, can be found below.

Within the D&T section, the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema, programmed by Tony Rayns, featured 8 films by young, as yet “undiscovered” directors. The jury, comprised of Jia Zhangke, Bong Joon-ho, and Denis Côté, awarded its prize to the Japanese film Good Morning World!, directed by Hirohara Satoru. Two special mentions were awarded: one to the Chinese film Rumination (Fanchu), by Xu Ruotao, and one to Phan Dang Di’s Vietnamese film Don’t Be Afraid B!

As usual, I chose more films from China than from any other territory. I try each year to balance at least two goals in my programming: I want to give VIFF audiences a sense of the increasing variety of Chinese language filmmaking, both in the independent sector, and in commercial genres. At the same time, it has always been VIFF’s policy and my own personal preference to highlight the work of independent young filmmakers working outside of the system of official censorship and distribution (independent tizhiwai films). Indie documentary filmmaking continues to be particularly strong in China, and I could only choose a few examples: it would have been easy to devote the bulk of my 9 feature length film slots to Chinese independent films this year.

DOCUMENTARIES

Karamay
(Kalamayi)
(China, 2010, 356 mins, HDCAM)
Directed By: Xu Xin
Producer: Zhu Rikun; DP and Editor: Xu Xin
Print Source: Zhu Rikun, Li Xianting’s Film Fund
Web Site: lixianting.org

On December 8th, 1994, 796 of Karamay’s brightest young students assembled with their teachers at the Xinjiang city’s Friendship Hall to perform for a visiting official delegation. During the performance, a fire broke out and 323 people were killed, mostly school children aged 6 to 14. Survivors chillingly remembered hearing instructions for the children to remain in their seats as the officials evacuated themselves first. The details of the fire and subsequent coverup were suppressed by the local officials, and even now Chinese media are prohibited from openly discussing this event.

In this vacuum, thirteen years after the event, Beijing-based independent documentary filmmaker Xu Xin undertook to film this monument to the victims of Karamay, taking as his mission to provide, through cinema, the missing memorial that the victims’ families have been demanding since 1994.

Through the use of precisely framed and shot black and white images, Xu Xin’s film, completed this year, combines a graveyard visit, a series of interviews with surviving students, teachers, and parents of the dead, along with shocking first hand video from the fire and its immediate aftermath to commemorate in gripping detail and, later, with piercing and angrily political analysis, the event in its full horror.

The film gains its astonishing power throughout its monumental length, by its patient amassing of detail, its unlimited respect for the truth articulated by the victims and their parents, and its insistence on capturing, via sound and images, an unimaginable tragedy in all its dimensions.

I Wish I Knew
(Haishang chuanqi)
(China, 2010, 138 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Jia Zhangke
Producers: Ren Zhonglun, Chow Keung, An Gang, Li Peng ; Screenplay: Jia Zhangke ; DP:: Yu Lik-wai ; Editor: Zhang Jia; Music: Lim Giong
Print source (Canada):
Michael Boyuk, Filmswelike
Web Site: filmswelike.com

Master director Jia Zhangke’s eloquent Shanghai elegy recreates the hustle, the drama and the music of that fabled, romantic Eastern city’s glorious history. From glamorous art deco gangsters to modern-day literary idols, interviews and cityscapes bring cosmopolitan ghosts to vivid life.

Jia interviews a series of present and former Shanghaiers about their memories of life in the metropolis during its heydays in the 1930s and 1940s, including the sons and daughters of Jazz Age moguls and gangsters, left- and right-wing politicians, and contemporary investors and writers. He pays particular attention to actors and filmmakers from Shanghai’s fabled movie industries, including the great actress Shangguan Yunzhu (her son is interviewed) and revered director Fei Mu (his daughter and his star actress Wei Wei appear). The appearance in the film of Taiwanese and Hong Kong figures like director Hou Hsiao-hsien and singer/actress Rebecca Pang illustrate how much of Shanghai’s creative spirit migrated to Taipei and Hong Kong after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Interspersed among the interviews are shots of Shanghai today, that speak tellingly, with a beauty and precision that only Jia Zhangke can capture.

According to Jia, “When I sat face-to-face with characters in my film, and listened to them talk ever so calmly about the hair-raising events in their pasts, I suddenly realized what it was that I captured with my camera: a dream of freedom twinkling in their eyes.” Jia’s film celebrates a story of a vibrantly creative metropolitan culture, made in China, whose heart, although transplanted, continues to beat with passion and glory.

See my essay on the film at the Moving Image Source.

Fortune Teller
(Suan ming)
(China, 2009, 157 mins, DVCAM)
Directed By: Xu Tong; DP & Editor: Xu Tong
Print source: Xu Tong

Xu Tong is one of the most controversial documentary filmmakers working in China today. His first film Wheat Harvest (Mai shou) depicted the family life of a young sex worker. Fortune Teller offers a deeper, richer look into the margins of Chinese society that’s both somewhat shocking and deeply revelatory.

Li Baicheng is a traditional Chinese fortune teller. He lives in a village not far from Beijing with his wife Little Pearl, a deaf and dumb woman who has the mental age of a child. Li takes gentle, patient care of her after rescuing her from her own family’s mistreatment. Li himself is a charismatic gnome of a man, stooped and tiny, with an irresistible sparkle in his eyes. His clients seem largely to be sex workers in the town, who come to him for advice on careers, loves and even when and how they should change their names to improve their luck.

When police crackdowns threaten the livelihoods of both the prostitutes and the fortune tellers – who, as unlicensed workers, occupy similar positions in the social ecology of small town Chinese traditional culture – Li Baicheng and Little Pearl are forced to move to his hometown.

Formally, the film is divided into sections with paired chapter headings, just like Qing dynasty popular fiction. Insisting on putting marginal lives at the epicentre of Chinese spiritual and physical existence, Xu Tong’s film – and filmmaking – is both breathtakingly intimate and fiercely socially committed.

FEATURES

Feature fiction films from China at VIFF this year covered the entire range, from the independent art-house fractured narratives of Rumination and The High Life and the rollicking village sex comedy Single Man; through tizhinei (i.e.passed censorship and screenable in theatres in China) experimental fiction Crossing The Mountain, art house comedy Winter Vacation, and the essentially unclassifiable Daoist action/comedy/doc Thomas Mao; all the way to the super-blockbuster Aftershock.

Rumination (dir. Xu Ruotao)

Rumination
(Fan Chu)
(China, 2009, 110 mins, DVCAM)
Directed By: Xu Ruotao
Producers: Xu Shan, Zhan Chen ; Screenplay: Xu Ruotao ; DPs: Cong Feng, Xu Tong, Xue Li ; Editor: Xue Li ; Production designers: Qiu Hongfeng, Wang Haiyuan ; Music: Yang Haisong
Cast: Deng Bin, Xiao Wu, Yang Xu, Sun Xiangyang, Liu Bin, Li Pengbo, Zhang Quanyu, Nie Mengfang
Print source: Xu Ruotao

The brief prologue to visual artist Xu Ruotao’s adventurous debut feature shows youthful Red Guards on the rampage: shouting slogans, waving red flags, trashing the “capitalist-roader bourgeoisie.” It’s everybody’s stereotypical image of the Cultural Revolution, the ten chaotic years (1966-76) in which Mao and his “Gang of Four” acolytes set out to reinvent Chinese communism. We now know that the Cultural Revolution was essentially a political putsch: Mao regained power from Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping and ruled (through a fog of dementia) until his death in 1976. But few understood that at the time. The film proper presents itself as a chronicle, chaptered in years from 1966 to 1976, but the action actually proceeds in reverse-chronological order. It opens in the dog years leading up to Mao’s death and the first chapter features the Tangshan earthquake (from 1976), climaxes in the bloody years when the Red Guards ran wild and closes with an idealistic communist hailing the coming upheaval. The longest chapter is 1973, when a gang of roving but already defeated Red Guards occupies an abandoned factory in which a vagrant is sleeping. Xu himself was born in 1968, at the height of Red Guard madness. His film is truly a rumination, a wry attempt to think through the meaning of one of history’s great cycles of idealism and disillusionment. (note by Tony Rayns)

See also David Bordwell’s recent discussion of the film, from his VIFF coverage.

The High Life
(Xunhuan zuole)
(China, 2010, 91 mins, HDCAM)
Directed By: Zhao Dayong
Producers: Zhao Dayang, David Bandurski ; Screnplay: Zhao Dayong, Li Qing ; DP: Xue Gang ; Editors: Zhao Dayong, Wei Chunyi ; Production designer: Wang Jian ; Music: Zhi Ying, Mei Mei
Cast: Qiu Hong, Liu Yanfei, Shen Shaoqiu, Su Qingyi, Diao Lei
Print source:
David Bandurski
Lantern Films China

Celebrated young Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhao Dayong (Ghost Town / Fei cheng, New York Film Festival 2009) has already won several awards for his fascinating first fiction film The High Life (Hong Kong Film Festival 2010).

He tells a bifurcated story: young con artist Jian Ming makes a living in Guangzhou (Canton) China pretending to help migrants from rural areas find jobs. In reality he just takes their money and pins their photos on his wall. Practicing a little classical Chinese opera on the side, he does, once, send an innocent young woman (Xiao Ya) to work in a hair salon, but these establishments are frequently obvious fronts for prostitution in Chinese cities. Jian Ming feels responsible when the local gang boss takes Xiao Ya for a sex worker, with predictably violent results. Moving into pyramid selling schemes, Jian Ming is busted by the police and ends up in prison. The film’s second part shifts with eery inevitability into an entirely different tone and register. It portrays an unusual prison guard Dian Qiu (played by an actual prison guard) who forces the inmates under his supervision to recite, out loud, his sexually and politically subversive poetry.

VIFF audiences who saw Zhao’s experimental short Rough Poetry (Xialiu shige) last year will recognize it as the source for this mid-film turn towards the literary absurd. Zhao’s realist-poetic imagination marries a sharp critical political eye with a subversive absurdist sensibility. Dangerously provocative entertainment, from China’s vibrant independent film sector.

Single Man
(Guanggun)
(China, 2010, 95 mins, HDCAM)
Directed By: Hao Jie
Producers: Li Zhifeng, Yu Huiying ; Screenplay: Hao Qitian, Yang Cuilan, Hao Jie ; DP: Du Pu ; Editor: Hao Jie, Ye Lan, Du Pu ; Production designer: Wang Lei
Cast: Yang Zhenjun, Du Tianguang, Liang Youzhong, Liang Chunying, Ye Lan, Wang Suzhen
Print source:
Li Zhifeng, Heaven Pictures (Beijing) Culture & Media

This is a strange and delightful find from China: a sex comedy, bawdy and a little raunchy, about four elderly farmers. New director Hao Jie, with a bit of Boccaccio and a dollop of Rabelais, shows you a side of rural China you’ve probably never seen before.

Decades ago when they were young, Old Yang had a thing for Eryatou, until her father violently intervened. Liu Ruan was married as a child to an older girl, but seems to prefer the embrace of his mother. Big Head Liang lost a hand while paying more attention to a village beauty than to the grain thresher he was operating. And Gu Lin, in bed with his wife, was caught seducing his young wife’s sister. Now, Eryatou is the village mayor’s wife. Which doesn’t impede her willingness to satisfy the erotic needs of these four now elderly co-villagers when the mayor’s away on business.

Director Hao grew up in a village in rural Hebei, northern China. His childhood memories, and the lives and loves of his relatives and neighbours make up the raw material of this fiction feature. But it’s all based on fact, he says, and all but one of the actors in the film are non-professionals playing themselves, or somewhat fictionalized versions thereof. Which is all the more remarkable considering both the saucy nature of the material, and the genuine vitality and naturalness of the performances. Chinese indie cinema, at its most wryly entertaining.

See also a Variety review by Jonathan Holland.

Crossing the Mountain
(Fan Shan)
(China, 2010, 98 mins, HDCAM-SR)
Directed By: Yang Rui
Producer: Xiao Kaiyu ; Screenplay: Yang Rui ; DP: Liao Ni ; Editors: Kong Jinlei, Yang Rui
Production designer: Li Qiang ; Music: Cheng Huihui
Cast: Chen Qiang, Xiao Yonghua, Xiao Ying, Zhong Lihua
Print source:
Yang Rui , Beijing Culture Broadcasting Co.
Sales contact:
Molly Zheng, United Star Co.

Quite possibly the most mesmerizingly beautiful film from China this year, and definitely one of the most challenging, Yang Rui’s poetic tale of teachers and soldiers wandering in the jungle is a uniquely captivating cinema experience.

Yang experiments with a fictional narrative form but hides most of the story’s connective tissue. In a small forest village deep in Yunnan, right near the border with Burma, we see three teachers, a man and two women, at work and at play. There are dangerous grenades in the jungle, and one teacher instructs his students how to spot them. The students collect twigs, soldiers creep through the brush, and the teachers seem to form something of a love triangle. A television is brought into the village, then is violently attacked. There seems to be a murder and an ensuing investigation, and tales of headhunters and ghosts insinuate themselves into the story’s liminal spaces.

This is a mystery film, full of beautiful landscapes, dreamlike silent connections, eerily gorgeous light. It is a documentary and a story; mythmaking and ethnographic investigation, as tough in its anti-exoticizing savvy as it is captivating in its embrace of an intangible spirituality. Violence lurks in the forest – headhunters, bombs, riflemen – but so do games, puzzles, dances and love.

Winter Vacation
(Hanjia)
(China, 2010, 91 mins, HDCAM)
Directed By: Li Hongqi
Producers: Alex Chung, Ning Cai ; Screenplay & editor: Li Hongqi ; DP: Qin Yurui ; Production designers: Yi Xiaodong, Qin Yurui ; Music: Zuoxiao Zuzhou ; The Top Floor Circus
Cast: Bai Junjie, Zhang Naqi, Bao Jinfeng, Xia Ying, Wang Hui
Print source:
Alex Chung, Ego Sum Mediatore Interculturale

Li Hongqi has slowly been perfecting his style of drop-deadpan humour with philosophical underpinnings: a kind of minimalist sitcom-Kafka, Kaurismaki-cum-Jarmusch blend that is as mesmerizing as it is hilarious. With his third feature Winter Vacation, he hits the bullseye. The mix of slacker teens and semi-comatose adults is perfect; with precociously world-weary little children thrown into the mix. Set against the ultra-drab but ingeniously photographed pre-mixed Chinese instant urban architecture of some benighted remote settlement in Chinese Inner Mongolia, a group of kids convince themselves to spend their winter vacation doing basically nothing. One is a sporadic bully, though he’s not very effective. A chubby kid and his grandfather have a TV room standoff: but it appears that the joke’s on them: the only thing on TV in Inner Mongolia seems to be Li Hongqi’s earlier films.

The ‘action’ (non-action is more like it, attenuated to the extent that one wonders if director Li, a popular poet with university students in China is stealthily implanting some rather sophisticated Buddhist thinking deep inside the film) is punctuated by offbeat chants and a song by China’s most radical independent musician, Zuoxiao Zuzhou. Did we mention that the film was, also, oddly, unnervingly beautiful?

Thomas Mao
(Xiao dongxi)
(China, 2010, 80 mins, DigiBeta)
Directed By: Zhu Wen
Producers: Geng Ling, Zhu Wen ; Screenplay: Zhu Wen ; DP: Wang Min ; Editors: Zhu Wen, Kong Jinlei ; Production designer: Huang Xinming
Cast: Mao Yan, Thomas Rohdewald, Jin Zi, Gou Zi
Print source:
Zhu Wen, China Film Assist

VIFF regular Zhu Wen has never been more dazzling than in his new poetical/philosophical drama Thomas Mao. “Thomas” is a European artist, played by an art curator from Luxembourg. “Mao” is a Chinese farmer, played by famous artist Mao Yan. In the film’s first section, Thomas is trekking in some remote but scenic Chinese backwater and, lost, is taken in by Mao. Neither speak the other’s language, and comic miscommunication rules as Thomas arrogantly demands service, and Mao does his scruffy best to oblige.

Whereupon space aliens descend on Mao’s cabin. But not before a swordsman and a flying goddess do elegant battle on the grasslands. And only after this does the film begin to get seriously weird.

The film’s opening quotation of the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi’s most famous line, suggests what Zhu Wen might be up to here: “Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly. Suddenly he woke up, solid and unmistakably Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.”

Dreams of the other, the (artificial) borders between self and other, West and East, dreamland and “reality,” fiction and documentary. This audacious, playful, profound film takes on the weightiest subjects with the lightest of touches: be prepared to be amazed.

See also David Bordwell’s recent discussion of the film, from his VIFF coverage.

Aftershock
(Tangshan dadizhen)
(China, 2010, 135 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Feng Xiaogang
Producers: Chen Kuo-fu, Wang Zhonglei ; Screenplay: Su Xiaowei, based on the novel by Zhang Ling ; DP: Lü Yue ; Editor: Xiao Yang ; Production designer: Huo Tingxiao ; Music: Wang Liguang
Cast: Xu Fan, Zhang Jingchu, Li Chen, Chen Daoming, Chen Jin
Print source: Lana Peng, Huayi Brothers Media Corp.

Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock is the most popular Chinese blockbuster in history. It has broken every box-office record in China this summer, and established itself as the dominant Chinese cinematic event of this very early Chinese century.

Known mainly for the sardonic hit comedies that established him as China’s box-office king, Feng Xiaogang here tells the story of the survivors of one of China’s greatest natural disasters, the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976. What starts as a disaster movie of Titanic proportions – the brilliantly conceived special effects go far beyond shaky-cam earthquake pics of old – moves quickly to something more deeply moving: a full-throated, classical family melodrama that has become famous for provoking rivers of tears from Chinese audiences.

When the earthquake strikes, father Daqing is immediately crushed, and mother Yuanni (Xu Fan, in a career-defining performance) is forced to make an awful (and thoroughly melodramatic) choice. Her young son Fang Da and daughter Fang Deng are pinned under a slab of concrete: saving one means sacrificing the other. Though both survive, Fang Deng hears her mother’s choice, and the family is sundered. Mother, son and daughter, against the background of 30 years of Chinese history, must find the emotional pathways that allow them to reconnect with each other.

A film can’t be this overwhelmingly successful in contemporary China without simultaneously working as irresistible commercial cinema, crafty propaganda, subtle national-historical mythmaking, cathartic weepie and subtly incisive social critique. Aftershock does it all, full-pitched, unapologetically bold, ostentatiously operatic. Find out what all China is watching and what makes China cry: an unmissable cinematic experience.

See also my discussion of recent Chinese earthquake films at dGenerate.

SHORTS

I selected two shorts from China to precede a couple of the films above, Liu Jiayin’s playful 607 and Ying Liang’s dazzling Condolences.

607
(China, 2010, 17 mins, DVCAM)
Directed By: Liu Jiayin
Producers: Zhang Xianmin, Samantha Culp
Cast: Liu Zaiping, Jia Huifen, Liu Jiaying
Print source: Liu Jiayin, Beijing Film Academy

Six hands, three mushrooms, and one noisy plastic fish. Abstract fun in a bathtub, where father (the hand guiding the fish) knows best?

See also David Bordwell’s description, from his VIFF coverage.

Condolences
(Wei Wen)
(2009, 20 mins)
Directed By: Ying Liang
Producer: Peng Shan ; Screenplay, editor, production design: Ying Liang ; DP: Li Rongsheng ; Ying Liang ; Production design: Li Rongsheng ; Peng Shan
Print source:
Ying Liang, 90 Minutes Film Studio

Bereaved Grandma Chen sits impassively while a TV crew, an official delegation and several workmen buzz around her, in one brilliant virtuoso shot.

See my previous post for dGenerate.

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