SIFF 2018: The Widowed Witch (Cai Chengjie, 2018)

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A woman survives the explosion at the makeshift fireworks factory that kills her third husband. Now homeless, she wanders in and around the wintery Northern Chinese villages she has called home alongside her young, deaf-mute brother-in-law. The villagers decide that she has magical powers, and she might, but whether she does or not, and whether she believes it or not, the results are much the same: everything goes wrong and everyone is out to screw over everyone else.

As a stark black and white journey through the dark side of society, it recalls Dead Man in style, but more cynical and hopeless. Director Cai Chengjie makes sparing but deft use of color, sometimes highlighting objects (usually light) within the black and white image, other times brightening into full color (the opening sequence, for example, which may be a dream or may be the afterlife). The evocation of a persistent (resurgent?) pre-Taoist, animist worldview existing alongside the deprivations and struggles of contemporary China recalls other recent films that fuse mysticism with the documentary realism and social problem focus of the previous, Sixth Generation filmmakers. Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown for example, and Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent.

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SIFF 2018: Girls Always Happy (Yang Mingming, 2018)

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Yang Mingming edited Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, but this film is almost nothing like that one. She stars as well as directs, playing a young woman who has a rough relationship with her mother, with whom she lives (off and on) in ramshackle house in a Beijing hutong (an kind of neighborhood built out of narrow alleys). The two women are both aspiring writers, and they alternate between vehement arguments (over things both big and small) which can get devastatingly cruel, and happy times sharing meals and shopping trips. It’s a fascinating relationship, we don’t normally see a family filled with such evident love and hate. The film never really evolves, and in its stasis, both women are stuck both professionally and romantically in addition to being continually forced back together, it finds a unique kind of misery. It might be a dark comedy, and there are moments of delightful whimsy (in the devouring of food, in Yang’s rides around town on her scooter), enough that the suffocating relationship never feels unbearable.

SIFF 2018: Dead Pigs (Cathy Yan, 2018)

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As overstuffed with ideas both political and cinematic as any debut feature you’re likely to see this year is Cathy Yan’s film about the intersecting lives of a family in Shanghai and its environs and their war with both capital and the very concept of property itself. Vivian Wu plays a hair salon owner (her employees gleefully begin the day with a self-affirming song and dance) who doesn’t want to sell her family home to a big corporation, which has plans to develop the area it into a giant Spanish-themed apartment complex surrounding a replica of the Sagrada Familia. Her brother is a pig farmer who finds himself over-extended with a local loan shark after he falls for an investment scam and all his pigs die in a mysterious plague that sweeps the city (eventually some 16,000 pigs end up dumped in local waterways). His son is a busboy working in the city who meets and falls for a rich girl who becomes disillusioned with her club life after a car accident. The brother needs money and so tries to get his sister to sell her house, and alternately appeals to his son (who he mistakenly thinks is earning big money with a real job) for help. The sister refuses: the house is hers, the property is a part of herself and she cannot conceive of relinquishing it. The son tries to help, but all he can come up with is scamming cash off of driving by running into their cars with his bicycle.

Yan skips deftly between the stories, and the drama is leavened by a light touch and a great deal of comedy, ably waling the line between maudlin and silly. The satire is pointed, both in the amoral greed of the corporation and the sympathetic unreasonableness of the sister. But it’s also brightly colored (thank God for Chinese cinema, one of the few cinemas in the world that has yet to abandon pink and green and red in favor of gray and teal and orange) and knows how to bring everything together for a musical sequence, Magnolia-style.

Yan, who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong and Washington DC, went to Princeton and got both an MBA and MFA from NYU, clearly has a unique insight into the contradictions of global capitalism in an ostensibly class-free society. While most of the characters are recognizable types (the sister as a variation on Yuen Qiu’s landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, the brother as an older version of the striving workers of Jia Zhangke’s films, the girl in the city a wealthier version of Shu Qi’s club girl in Millennium Mambo), the one that seems to resonate most for her is an American architect, from rural Minnesota, who finds himself in charge of this massive project on the other side of the world, where he doesn’t speak the language and may not even be qualified for the job. He’s the human face of capital, muddling along just like the rest of us, increasingly aware that things in our world are all out of whack.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

How Long Will I Love U (Su Lun, 2018)

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It’s been awhile since we had a Chinese release of interest here on Seattle Screens, but this time-travel rom-com certainly fits the bill, the kind of clever, unique popular cinema that the Mainland film industry will hopefully start churning out in greater numbers, as opposed to cartoonish action films packed with stars who have little to offer but a basic ability to look cute on camera. A weird temporal anomaly smushes together a single apartment, occupied by a man in 1999 and a woman in 2018. Lei Jiayin plays the man, a down on his luck young aspiring developer with big dreams for the outskirts of Shanghai and a boss engaged in shady business. Tong Liya is a former rich girl who has fallen on hard times and is desperately in search of a husband to lift her out of poverty.

The special effects and design of the squished apartment (mirror images colliding in a chaos of broken lamps and crushed furniture) united by a door that opens onto one time or another depending on who opens it, are especially striking, a unique twist on the premise of something like The Lake House, to which the film bears a superficial similarity. Like another recent Chinese time-travel film, Duckweed, it hearkens back more to early 90s Hong Kong comedies like Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, in exploring the ways Chinese culture has, and hasn’t changed during an era of more rapid than can reasonably be comprehended modernization. Tong’s grasping materialism is as much a sickness of the 21st Century as it is her own character flaw born of a privileged childhood, while Lei’s more proletarian attitudes and values prove less durable than he’d like to believe when the couple encounter his 21st Century self, a real estate magnate with a dark past.

The couple have a nice chemistry, though Lei, at 34 years old, seems miscast playing a callow 25 year old. In some shots he looks positively middle aged. Tong though is delightful, as she was as the landlady in Detective Chinatown. Director Su has a fine eye as well, she knows enough to just let the colors and actors pop and not drag down the conceit with too much science (the mad scientist who caused the problem (time travel in China as to be result of either a dream or science, no magic allowed). A fun, well put together movie with an interesting approach to an old formula, as with last year’s This Is Not What I Expected, China is rapidly becoming home to the best romantic comedies in the world.

The Monkey King 3 (Soi Cheang, 2018)

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The latest in director Soi Cheang’s saga inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West might be the strangest one yet. The franchise blockbuster has always been a weird fit for the former director of indie horror movies and slick crime dramas, and Cheang’s first Monkey King was kind of a mess, taking place in an almost parodically artificial computer-generated environment when it wasn’t populated by humans in sub-Cats animal costumes, and led by a distractingly fidgety performance by an unrecognizable Donnie Yen. The second film was a big improvement, as the effects were higher quality and more strikingly original, the acting, with Aaron Kwok taking over the title role and Gong Li playing the primary villain, much improved and the story much more in Cheang’s comfort zone. The second one was the first to follow the Journey to the West itself, with the Monkey King designated to help Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk from Tang Dynasty China, travel to India in order to bring back essential scriptures. The plot involves the Tang monk’s efforts to reform the White-Bone Demon (Li), a malevolent creature whom everyone else would prefer to simply destroy. The Monkey King must learn to submit his violent impulses to his master’s compassion, despite his firm belief that he knows best.

The third film in the series opens with an image from the second, the massive skeletal incarnation of the White-Bone Demon glowering over the Earth, and flips it, literally, as we plunge into a film wholly opposite its predecessor. Where the second film was dominated by mountain snow, dark nights, and cruel, demonic violence, this one takes place in lush green riverlands, and its concerns will be romantic and all-too human. Escaping an angry river god in the film’s first moments, the monk and his party (the Monkey King, the reformed pig demon Bajie, the blue-skinned muscle-man Sha, and their magical White Dragon Horse) are thrown, thanks to a wormhole helpfully provided by Buddha himself, into a secluded kingdom populated entirely by women. Men are banned from the kingdom, and the heroes are to be executed on sight but are saved by the young queen (Zanilla Zhao, an earnest waif last seen here in Duckweed), who has fallen in love with the monk. With a few sidetracks (including an ill-considered subplot about obtaining abortions for the men who become pregnant and some spectacular water effects as the river god reveals his own unrequited love story), the rest of the film is about Xuanzang’s desire to remain with the woman he now loves and his need to abandon her to continue his quest.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the monk’s story, and he really takes center stage here, with the Monkey King relegated to a supporting role. William Feng builds on his strong work in the second film with his most soulful performance yet. The Kingdom of Women story in the novel plays out very differently, with the monk pretending to marry the Queen and then sneaking away, and it’s not one I’ve ever seen adapted before. Though Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons has the monk come to the same realization, that you can’t really renounce anything if you don’t have any attachments in the first place, as the final step in his enlightenment. Choosing this as the next story in the saga I think is a telling choice, especially when one might have expected a more famous subject like the Cave of the Spider Women, in which female demons lure the heroes with the promise of sex and then try to eat them. That would have been more in line with the White-Bone Demon story of the second film. But instead Cheang zigzags into completely the opposite type of story, neatly subverting the misogyny inherent in both the original Kingdom of Women chapter and the popular Spider-Women stories. Once again, Soi Cheang has utterly defied expectations within a single blockbuster film series: from goofy cartoon to bleak action horror to gorgeous romantic tragedy.

Goldbuster (Sandra Ng, 2017)

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In her directorial debut, veteran comic actress Sandra Ng gives us a goofy farce, a compendium of horror movie tropes and references, and a sappy tribute to the underdog spirit of Hong Kong’s working class in the days of hyper-capitalisim and real estate speculation. She plays a ghostbuster hired by a handful of families to protect themselves from the evil spirits haunting their dilapidated apartment building. The ghosts are a scam, a scheme by a developer to get the last remaining tenants of a property to sell so he can tear the building down and make something new (the pull-away shot revealing the location is striking: a lone run-down concrete block surrounding by a massive ditch separating it from the city itself all CGI skyscrapers and hazy lights, an island of the real in the middle of an urban fantasy). Ng, no stranger to con games herself, quickly deduces the scam and helps the residents out-scare their ghosts, a game of horror movie one-upsmanship that turns into a full-scale zombie invasion.

Ng has been one of Hong Kong’s brightest comics for over two decades now, equally at home in slapstick, grotesquerie and wordplay, and while her film doesn’t have the classical misanthropy of Michael Hui or the blinding verbal games of Stephen Chow, it does recall her own Golden Chicken films in the way it explores how the feeling and ideology of a place can be expressed through the stories it tells itself. In Golden Chicken and its sequel (from 2002 and 2003), she plays a gregarious prostitute who recalls her life story in parallel to the history of Hong Kong, political and pop cultural, from the late 70s through the immediate post-Handover era. Goldbuster isn’t as expansive, but rather explores how stories of the supernatural can paralyze us and how fear is manipulated by ruling elites to bend us to their whim, Scooby-Doo as Marxist allegory.

While, pointedly, Goldbuster‘s location is never specified, it could technically take place in any Chinese city, that seems more a concession of vagueness for the Mainland market than any real conviction. In tone and purpose this is a resolutely Hong Kong film, where stories about housing complexes and tenants’ wars with their landlords have a long tradition, a byproduct of the housing shortages which followed the influx of massive numbers of refugees in the post-World War II and Civil War years. Chor Yuen’s House of 72 Tenants almost single-handedly saved the Cantonese language film from extinction in the early 70s, and in recent years as speculation and real estate bubbles have made affordable housing increasingly hard to find, the subject has become ubiquitous. Comedies like Temporary Family, which played here at SIFF in 2015, and last year’s Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey address it head-on, while Goldbuster folds the crisis into the fabric of its gonzo vision of a city driven to apocalypse by decades of unease and overdevelopment.

Each of its characters, generic types all of course, are refugees in some way from the past twenty years of economics and pop culture: scientists scammed out of their patents; a webcam girl; over-the-hill Triads, one of whom (the great Francis Ng (no releation) thinks he’s a cop); a doctor who failed to save his wife from some illness. The latter is the most melodramatic character, afflicted as he is by an adorable son and a penchant for whininess, obsessed with finding his wife’s ghost and somehow atoning for her death. This is the paralytic state the tenants find themselves in: trapped by fear and overcome with superstition, surrounded on all sides by rapacious capital. Only with the wit and heart of a scoundrel like Sandra Ng can they hope to defeat the forces waged against them. Another victory for the indigenous scrappiness of Hong Kongers against the powers of vague superstition and vampiric elites.

The Legend of the Naga Pearls (Yang Lei, 2017)

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In what has been a strong summer for Chinese language releases here in Seattle (with Our Time Will Come, Wolf Warrior 2, Meow, Once Upon a Time, and The Adventurers following SIFF’s minifestival of Hong Kong films and their presentation of the restored Taipei Story last week), Legend of the Naga Pearls shrugs its way on screen for the last week of August. The latest in a string of fantasy films built around special effects and photogenic stars, it’s set in the universe of Novoland, which is apparently a popular fictional construction in China, home to more than thirty novels by various authors. This story follows 25 years after a war between humans and the villainous Winged Tribe. A gang of evil former Winged People are trying to assemble a weapon with which to unleash a horde of deadly flying tapirs (seriously) on the human population, which has built their city, Uranopolis, atop the ruins of the Winged Tribe’s city in the clouds. A rag tag team of adventurers unites to steal the key item first. They include the daughter of a good Winged Person, the callow son of a human prince, and a thief with a mysterious blue mark on his hand that turns out to be connected to the eponymous MacGuffin.

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The Adventurers (Stephen Fung, 2017)

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Almost thirty years after A Moment of Romance, Andy Lau still looks impossibly cool riding a motorcycle. He does it here as the lead of a small gang of jewel thieves in Stephen Fung’s heist movie, his first film since the lunatic double punch of 2012’s Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero. Those films are the most successful yet adaptation of the comic book steampunk aesthetic to the kung fu film, supplementing its basic conceit with a breathless storytelling verve: the on-screen titles introducing the film’s stars all end in exclamation points. The Adventurers finds Fung in a much more relaxed mode, the idiosyncratic personal expression bound within the generic form of a movie designed to meet audience expectations rather than defy them. To this end he’s helped immeasurably by Lau, who has spent much of his long career making otherwise interminable movies watchable (for example Ringo Lam’s laziest film, also called The Adventurers, released in 1995) and Shu Qi, who’s undeniable greatness as an art house actress (Millennium Mambo, The Assassin) tends to overshadow, in the West, a sparkling, magnetic movie star charm (as in Ringo Lam’s goofiest film, 2003’s Looking for Mr. Perfect). The two great stars, ably supported by a multinational cast of veterans (Hong Kong’s Eric Tsang and France’s Jean Reno) and relative newcomers (Zhang Jingchu from China and Tony Yang from Taiwan), enliven what is blatantly a Mission: Impossible knock-off (Reno of course featured in the first film in that series, while Zhang was in the latest one, a performance which amounted to nothing but a superfluous 30 second pandering to the Chinese audience).

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Once Upon a Time (Zhao Xiaoding, 2017)

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The intersection between myth and teen drama, between cartoon wuxia and soap opera, with a dash of Hitchcock just to make things interesting, Once Upon a Time is unlike anything likely to play on Seattle Screens this year. The directorial debut of longtime Zhang Yimou cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (he shot all of Zhang’s films from House of Flying Daggers through The Great Wall), it’s as lushly gorgeous as anything in higher profile releases like Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, with acres of peach blossoms, castles in the clouds, and godlike beings morphing freely into animals. The story is adapted from a 2008 online fantasy novel called Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms by Tang Qi, which may have been plagiarized from an earlier online fantasy novel called The Peach Blossom Debt by Da Feng. (You can read about the allegations and compare some evidence for yourself here. I can’t read Chinese, so I can’t judge if it is outright plagiarism or simple imitation. The fact that both works were published online and that in Da Feng’s the romance is homosexual (LGBT depictions are officially banned on television and online media in China) makes the issue particularly complicated). The novel was also adapted earlier this year as the Chinese TV series Eternal Love starring Mark Chao and Yang Mi.

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