SIFF 2017: Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)

201718718_2_IMG_FIX_700x700

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The second feature from director Liu Jian is an animated network-noir that in its amoral glee at the interconnected machinations of crooks and losers recalls early Tarantino, or at least his Korean imitators. A bag of money is stolen and passes through many vicious hands in dingy, bleak sections of a city at night (the pale, grimy animation recalls a hungover Duckman), a world away from the glitzy capitalist paradises of recent Chinese urban rom-coms.

SIFF 2017: God of War (Gordon Chan, 2017)

_98A4088

Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

It’s the King Hu film I can never quite remember, The Valiant Ones, remade as PRC propaganda, all national, class and gender unity in the face of foreign aggressors (in this case: samurai masquerading as pirates in Ming China). The action is mostly very good, but there isn’t nearly enough Sammo Hung and Vincent Zhao (The Blade) weirdly looks like Jimmy Fallon now. Veteran kung fu/ninja star Yasuaki Kurata is exceptional as the samurai leader.

This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)

好吃20161008_004 copy

One of two romantic comedies that tried and failed to unseat the powerhouse Fast & the Furious 8 at the Chinese box office this past May Day weekend, This Is Not What I Expected opens here on Friday, a week after its counter-part Love Off the Cuff. It’s a totally pleasant film that surfs gently on the charm of its lead actors, recalling at times the softer screwballs of the 1930s, or more exactly the modern imitations of those classics. It’s essentially You’ve Got Mail, but where the two leads secretly communicate not via letters or emails, but through food. Zhou Dongyou, who was exceptional last year in Derek Tsang’s SoulMate, plays a manic pixie who repeatedly runs afoul of aloof billionaire Takeshi Kaneshiro (aging nicely more than 20 years after Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). Kaneshiro is a fastidious foodie, a buyer and seller of hotels who checks into an aging inn somewhere in Shanghai and finds all of the food lacking. Except, that is, for a soup made by Zhou, known to Kaneshiro only as the woman who mistakenly vandalized his truck in an act of revenge for her roommate. Kaneshiro and the chef refuse to meet each other, instead using the peculiar qualities of food to bond.

Continue reading

The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 2016)

screen_shot_2016-07-28_at_2-00-40_pm-0

The Great Wall, an experiment in co-production between Hollywood and China, opens with the spinning globe of the Universal Studios logo, its computer-generated image rotating slowly as it zooms in on the eponymous defensive fortification, helpfully orienting the hoped-for American audience by showing them where exactly the nation of China is located. Matt Damon is our audience surrogate, a white man on the road to China to trade for (that is, steal) gunpowder, heretofore undiscovered in Christendom. He encounters The Wall and learns that it is designed not to defend against the horse archers of the Mongolian steppes, but rather vicious alien lizards that hatch every 60 years and attempt to eat everything in sight: half giant iguana, half locust, half cicada. The well-organized and color-coordinated Chinese soldiers manning The Wall are initially suspicious of Damon and his friend, played by Pedro Pascal, but eventually they join the fight in a series of entertaining spectacles leavened by a few moments of such beauty that you remember that this is a Zhang Yimou film after all.

Continue reading

Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 2016)

railroad-tigers

January is the greatest movie month there is. Not only are we in the lesser metropolises of America finally granted access to tardiest of the previous year’s award hopefuls (see this week’s Silence), but via studio counter-programming logic, we also get Hollywood’s most interesting action films. The bloated prestige actioners get released in the summer (your Marvels and Nolans), while a handful of unstoppable forces stake their claim to winter break (the Star Warses and Camerons), while the suits and bean-counters push the films they don’t know how to exploit to the shadow of Oscar season. This is the month of Paul WS Anderson (his Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens at the end of the month). It’s also blockbuster season in China, with big titles being released at Christmastime and especially at Lunar New Year, which falls between the end of January and the end of February (it’s January 28 this year). Two years ago the big early January Chinese import was Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, last year it was Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3. This year, we’ve got Railroad Tigers, opening this week at the Pacific Place.

Continue reading

The Wasted Times (Cheng Er, 2016)

thewastedtimes_trailer1

The Wasted Times was originally slated to be released in October of 2015. The film’s trailer has been playing before presentations of Chinese-language films here in North America for at least that long, but the film kept getting pushed back. There was speculation it might make the rounds of the fall film festivals (Vancouver, Toronto, etc) but when that didn’t happen, the film simply dropped off my radar. Then, when putting together the listings for this week, there it was, playing on a single screen, at the AMC Pacific Place, distributed by the good people at China Lion Film. And the movie provides exactly what that trailer promised: a ravishingly odd tale of 1930s Shanghai, interwoven stories of gangsters, actresses and the Japanese military, with superstars Zhang Ziyi and Tadanobu Asano looking impossibly cool and fashionable, all tinged with a self-conscious meta-humor. That last element is provided by an exchange in the middle of the film, reproduced in full in the trailer, when one of the actresses is describing the movie she’s working on to a friend:

Friend: I don’t get it.
Actress: Neither do I. The Director never wants us to get it. This is an art film, made for the 21st Century.
Friend: We’ll all be dead by then. It has nothing to do with us.
Actress: You’re right.

We’ll, fool that I am, I’m going to try to make sense of it anyway. Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading

The Sword Master (Derek Yee, 2016)

c%c2%99%c2%bee%c2%8a%c2%b1ae%c2%9e%c2%97c%c2%88ae%c2%9e%c2%81a%c2%af%c2%b9a%c2%86%c2%b3no-logo

In 1977, at the age of twenty and making only his third film, Derek Yee got the starring role in Death Duel, a film by prolific Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen. After helping spark a revitalization of Cantonese language language cinema with his hit ensemble comedy The House of 72 Tenants in 1973, Chor had settled into his own little corner of the Shaw Brothers universe, making a series of lavishly ornate studio-bound wuxias, usually adaptations of novels by popular author Gu Long. The stories are intricate fantasy tales of swordsmen who travel the jianghu, the chivalric world that runs alongside but separate from the everyday reality of the Chinese peasantry, a world with its own hierarchical structures (usually based on swordsmanship) and complex rivalries and feuds. Unlike the Shaolin films that Shaws directors Chang Cheh and Lau Kau-leung were making at the same time, Chor’s movies are relentlessly ahistorical, existing entirely in a world of their own making (even the geography is fictional). The fights scenes are acrobatic and wire-aided and make occasional use of magic but more usually bizarre weaponry and poisons are featured. Chor fills his brightly colored sets with beautiful decorations, gorgeously landscaped backdrops and ornamentations that block  and frame our view of the scene: it’s the closest Shaw Brothers ever came to replicating Josef von Sternberg’s aesthetic. After the success of Death Duel, Derek Yee went on to star in several more Chor Yuen films over the next decade, the final days of the Shaws’ studio, joining Alexander Fu Sheng and Ti Lung as Chor’s primary stars in films like Heroes Shed No Tears, the Sentimental Swordsman movies, and Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre Part I & II. But with Shaws in decline, wuxia work dried up and Hong Kong action cinema went in new directions: Fu Sheng died tragically young, and Ti Lung found himself overshadowed by his younger costar in A Better Tomorrow, Chow Yun-fat. Derek Yee turned to screenwriting and directing.

Never as prolific as many of his Hong Kong contemporaries, Yee has nonetheless had a productive and somewhat acclaimed career as a director. He won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best director for C’est la via, mon cheri in 1993 and One Night in Mongkok in 2004, and has been nominated for that award five other times. His 1996 film Viva Erotica, with Shu Qi and Leslie Cheung is one of the very best films I’ve seen in 2016. Cheung plays a young director with artistic aspirations who can only find work making a cheap soft-core porn movie. Shu Qi plays his star, a woman who comes to learn that she in fact has more to offer to art than her physical assets. Lau Ching-wan has a brief cameo as a successful director named “Derek Yee” who chats with Cheung and then runs and jumps off a pier, killing himself. Its the kind of weird, beautiful, romantic paean to art that one rarely finds among the work of martial arts actor/directors. Yee has made a handful of action movies over the years, along with comedies and romances, but now, with The Sword Master, he’s made his first period martial arts film. He’s gone all the way back to his beginning, remaking Death Duel in the style of 21st century digital wuxia.

050614_176

The story is about two swordsmen who have grown disillusioned with the cutthroat world of the jianghu, where all anyone cares about is celebrity and power. One, Yen Shi-san, cloaked in black with his face tattooed to look like a diseased skull, learns that he’s dying and retreats to a cemetery, where he works as a gravedigger. The other, the Third Master of Sword Manor, abandons his clan’s estate and finds work as an errand boy in a brothel, where he is known as Useless Chi. After defending a young prostitute (allowing himself to be stabbed multiple times by a pair of irate customers without flinching), he flees the brothel, knowing his identity will soon be discovered. He takes up with a friendly young man in a nearby village, who just happens to be the brother of the prostitute he saved and also happens to be located near to Yen’s cemetery. Eventually, all the forces of the jianghu descend on Chi and Yen and the village, led by the woman Chi was supposed to marry, the daughter of another powerful clan, along with a mysterious group of warriors in skull masks armed with nasty poisoned weapons. Everyone fights everyone while Yen resolves to defend the weak and Chi attempts to defend his new family from the psychotic woman who loves him without actually doing any fighting himself. It ends in a battle, followed by the inevitable duel between the two heroes.

a%c2%80%c2%9cc%c2%87%c2%95a%c2%8d%c2%81a%c2%b8%c2%89a%c2%80%c2%9da%c2%bd%c2%95ae%c2%b6%c2%a6a%c2%b8%c2%9ce%c2%8cao%c2%91ae%c2%89e%c2%90%c2%bda%c2%8f%c2%b6no-logo

In tone, the film is faithful to Chor Yuen’s works: while lacking the distinctive overcluttered visual style it faithfully reproduces his bright colors and fanciful locations (the setting for the final duel, a fog-enshrouded mountain-top crowned by an ancient, white-blossomed tree, is pure Chor). But Yee and his co-writer and co-producer Tsui Hark, have slightly shifted the emphasis of the original film, amplifying the emotions and the romances while cutting down on the characters and miscellaneous swordsmen who appear only to be cut down after an action sequence or two. The result is less a reflection of a cutthroat world where everyone is driven by ambition, the desire to be known as the best, to rise to the top of the jianghu, where the only way a swordsman’s life can have value is by being known as a great swordsman than it is a soap operatic entanglement of intersecting love triangles. Chor’s films reflect the decadence of Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, a laissez-faire world disconnected from the mainland and from history, a ruthless capitalist paradise. The new film is from a different world entirely, and its characters are driven not by ambition but by thwarted desire. Everyone in the film loves someone who doesn’t love them back, the heroes manage to make peace with this, the villains are twisted into evil. But along the way, we’re treated with many a lush romantic interlude, including several momentum-killing flashbacks to the lifelong romance between Chi and his murderous girlfriend.

072714_068

For the fight sequences, Yee adopts the digitally-enhanced techniques of contemporary wuxias, with lots of slow-motion and computerized movements. It lacks weight and none of the performances or scenes are particularly exceptional, though neither are they ever bad. The fights are fluid and faithfully recreate the fantastical style of the Shaws movies, eschewing the rapid cuts of Tsui and Ching Siu-tung’s wire-fus of the late 80s and early 90s. The choreography is by Yuen Bun, who’s most famous for his work with Johnnie To, and while it lacks the virtuosity of the fights in this summer’s Call of Heroes (with Eddie Peng and Wu Jing choreographed by Sammo Hung), it’s a step above the action in Yuen Woo-ping’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. That film provides the best point of comparison, as an adaptation of wuxia literature harkening back to the 1970s, but reformulating the characters and motivations for an audience trained to accept personal melodrama as the only motivation for action heroics (see also: every Marvel movie). The Crouching Tiger sequel though gets the balance all wrong: the characters don’t make much sense and the action is too disconnected, even when it’s quite good (and Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh are certainly more charismatic and accomplished performers than the competent stars of Yee’s film: Lin Gengxin and Peter Ho). The Sword Master is the best version of what Sword of Destiny tried to be, a pulpy wuxia romantic melodrama. A throwback and a tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive filmmakers.

Old Stone (Johnny Ma, 2016)

oldstone

A year or two ago, reports began circulating chronicling a disturbing phenomenon in contemporary China. The nature of the insurance industry there was mangled such that people involved in car accidents where another person was injured had been incentivized to kill the accident victim, because if they lived the individual at fault for the accident would be responsible for their medical bills in perpetuity, and even if that person themselves died, the debt would pass on to their surviving family. The story of just such a murder opens Old Stone, the debut feature from Chinese-Canadian director Johnny Ma. It’s heard over a car radio, and the film opens with a man stalking a motorcyclist through crowded streets. His name is Lao Shi, which, as far as I can tell, translates to “old stone”, hence the title. “Laoshi” also means “teacher” and this is a film meant to teach us a lesson. (This is also where I point out that I don’t speak Chinese at all.) We flashback to three months earlier and Lao, a cab driver, has accidentally run over a motorcyclist. After calling an ambulance he decides to take the man to the hospital himself, urged on by a crowd of on-lookers, some of whom advise him not to do anything, others who insist the man will die if he isn’t hospitalized right away (a fact later confirmed by the emergency room doctor). This proves to be a mistake however, as in moving the victim, Lao has given his insurance company an excuse not to pay the man’s medical bills, leaving Lao and his family responsible. For most of the rest of the film, we follow Lao’s increasingly desperate attempts to navigate the legal system, raise money for the victim, and find anyone willing to take his side. In true noir fashion, it’s the story of a man who made a mistake, once, and must suffer the consequences.

Ma sticks close to Lao Shi throughout the film, the movie’s perspective becoming increasingly shallow and fuzzy as systemic torments drive our hero off the edge. Chen Gang is very strong in the role. Tall and angular, with beaten down shoulders and sad eyes, he is the embodiment of the everyman ground down by impersonal bureaucracy. An Nai as his wife, a day care operator hoping to expand whose dreams are ruined because of her husband’s foolish altruism is very good as well, and Jia Zhangke regular Wang Hongwei has a supporting role as one of Lao Shi’s not particularly supportive taxi driver friends. Ma has a good feel for the actuality of the Chinese city, its crowded streets, its small gestures of respect and camaraderie and indifference (often involving the sharing of cigarettes), it has all the specificity that Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire (also opening this week) so frustratingly lacks. Unlike the bureaucratic satire of I am Not Madame Bovary, Ma doesn’t seem to find much humor in the absurdities of the system. As the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, the sense of accumulated doom is palpable: there’s no respite to be found, no outside perspective that might provide for some possibility of hope and change. We’re locked into the system with Lao Shi; all we can do is take a drink and face the on-coming headlights that, unmercifully, won’t ever arrive.

I Am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang, 2016)

2f83f0a0c246f24146904366bca04933

A comedy of bureaucracy like many a film of the Romanian New Wave, but rather than the drab and bleak institutional ironies of the Eastern Bloc, Feng Xiaogang’s satire is bright and sprightly, bouncing along its tunnel visions for two and a half hours of contradiction made irresolvable by a society’s fundamental lack of belief in the primacy of actuality over appearance. Fan Bingbing plays a rural peasant woman who wants to undo and then redo her divorce. She and her husband, she claims, only pretended to get divorced in order to qualify for an apartment near the factory where he works, while keeping her house in another town (a year later they would remarry and get both properties). But then her husband took up in that apartment with another woman, and claiming the divorce was real, kicked Fan out.

Continue reading

VIFF 2016: Notes on Ta’ang (Wang Bing, 2016)

201607407_1_img_fix_700x700

The cinema of Wang Bing is one that seems, even if a documentary, one where the physical body of a director has been removed, and the camera is guided solely by compassion. With this in mind, there is very little one can analyze or really write about – as my colleague Andy Rector stated quite astutely regarding this new work: “You’re with real people now – Essential cinema.” Wang shares an affinity with the Portuguese director Pedro Costa – both have found themselves making representational films but with the complete awareness and understanding of the potential pitfalls of such an approach. (Costa is even on record stating that Wang is his favorite contemporary filmmaker) Firstly, this appears to stem from the desire to document what otherwise would go undocumented. If there is another serious similarity – it’s that they both have found a way to remove a subject from any point of representational stasis; they have found ways to film with making those in-front of them subjects to their cameras. But while Costa seems to have moved in another direction since, Wang seems to be capable of doing this in a form that is impossibly natural. And while Costa aestheticizes and blurs (if not make entirely unnecessary) the lines between fiction and nonfiction, Wang gives us solely the world as is, more importantly the faces in it, and most importantly makes no attempt towards dialecticism within filmed reality and moreover makes no attempt to reconstitute it either. (Not that Costa necessarily does these things, but to discuss that would drift too far from the work at hand.)

Continue reading