The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 2016)

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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.

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Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 2016)

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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.

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The Wasted Times (Cheng Er, 2016)

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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.

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The Sword Master (Derek Yee, 2016)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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.

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

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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.)

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VIFF 2016: Crosscurrent (Yang Chao, 2016)

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Poetry is the subject of the moment for 2016. Like Volcanos and Asteroids and Mars before it, we’ve been blessed this year with a plethora of films about writers of verse. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, and Pablo Larraín’s Neruda have all the headlines, and as great as those are (and the first two are without a doubt, great films, while the third, well, isn’t really about poetry and I’m not sure how much it’s about its poet either), the best film about Poetry here at VIFF might just be Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent. Like last year’s Kaili Blues and 2013’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, it’s an independent, somewhat obscure Chinese film where the lines between past and present, myth and reality, documentary and fiction are difficult to grasp. Reversing the direction of Jean Vigo’s great river film L’Atalante, Yang follows a boat on its journey up the Yangtze from Shanghai to its source high on the Tibetan plateau. The captain, whose father has recently died, sees a woman in the Shanghai harbor but fails to meet her. The next night, the boat’s engine stops working and the captain finds, hidden in the machinery, an old and dusty book, filled with poems chronicling another man’s journey on the river (dated 1989), a different poem for every stop on the way along the third longest river in the world. The engine restarts (machines always work better when you take the poetry out of them) and the journey begins in earnest.

On-screen titles give us the locations of each stop, along with how many days the boat has been running, as well as the corresponding poem, composed by Yang himself. At each stop, the captain sees the woman again, always looking for him on the shore. They fall in love, have sex, make food, steal vegetables, but always he goes back to his boat and always she reappears further down the line on land. Ace DP Mark Lee Ping-bin shot the film on 35mm: back in 2012 (when it was filmed) digital technology was incapable of capturing his images, from the fog and steam of the harbors, to the depths of night on the river (a beam of light tracing the movements of the woman high on a cliff-face), to the pairing of the woman’s face, in close-up with a ball of fire: first a lamp, then a candle flame (the floating balls of light Lee found in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin appear briefly here as well). Two-thirds of the way up the river, the Three Gorges Dam severs their connection, its locks taking over the movement of the boat with a ear-shattering, inhumane shriek, throwing the vehicle out into an artificial landscape, through the drowned villages of Still Life and past towering limestone cliffs. The Dam is the definitive break with nature, with the past: modernity cannot recapture what went before, and the captain and the woman can no longer meet. The central mystery of the film is ungraspable in all the best ways. The woman at times seems the soul of the river, or an apparition from the past, doomed to repeat her tragedy Marienbad-style. She could be a manifestation of grief, of longing, of loneliness. She’s all of that and more, and the captain, lost in his dream, can only follow her to the river’s end.

VIFF 2016: Beautiful 2016 (Hideo Nakata; Alec Su; Stanley Kwan; Jia Zhangke, 2016)

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There are always one or two duds in these omnibus things, so let’s get those out of the way. Beautiful 2016’s first short is an embarrassing Ozu homage that repurposes his hometown (Kamakura) and his one-time actress (Kyoko Kagawa), though if you’re going to steal from the master, at least do us the favor of making off with some of his good humor. A dull banality best left forgotten. Dama Wang Who Lives on Happiness Avenue is quite possibly already forgotten. An indistinct void focused on a spritely, well-coiffed older woman jazzercising her way through Shangahi, Alec Su’s debut short is mercifully, well, short.

A real sense of artistry kicks in with One Day in Our Lives of…Director Stanley Kwan crafts some lovely images of nocturnal Hong Kong, his sense of texture undiminished even after a decade or so out in the wilderness. Distorted Wongian clocks, vertiginous tilts, and a weirdly haunting pop song provide the primary pleasures, though the Day for Night behind-the-scenes antics feel a bit stale. Kwan, once an inheritor of Hong Kong’s art-film tradition, seems to have lost opportunities as the industry shifted production modes this century, though it’s perhaps equally plausible that Kwan’s open life as a gay man curtailed his early promise. Whatever the case, One Day in Our Lives of… should prod those who’ve ignored Kwan for a decade or more (guilty as charged!) to give films like Everlasting Regret a belated look.

Jia Zhangke, on the other hand, is at the apex of his career. He comes swinging into Beautiful 2016—and I do mean swinging—with the swagger of a filmmaker who recognizes his own mid-career mastery. That self-knowledge is not, however, a straight-jacket for Jia. If anything, he’s discovered a more elastic vision of himself as an artist, willing to let in a kind of looseness that he kept at bay with the more static, calling-card early films. Last year’s Mountains May Depart proved that definitively, so it’s not coincidental that The Hedonists begins with a snatch of melancholic score from the prior feature. The presence of Jing Dong Liang as Liangzi, the poor miner destined for destruction in Mountains May Depart, also reiterates that we’re in a pre-established world. But without wasting time, Jia reconfigures the melodrama of his 2015 masterpiece into a buddy comedy. The transition plays subtly at first, until an uproarious cameo from the director himself, equipped with cigar and sunglasses and shouty bravado, brings down the house. Jia’s sense of play extends to the camera too, which he mounts on a newly acquired drone. Given that Jia helped reorient the Chinese film industry around digital technology, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he employs the newest tech better than just about anyone else. But when a standard tracking shot suddenly achieves lift off and ascends to the heavens, a genuine sense of wonder sets in. At this point in Jia’s career, you can only marvel at the corporeal and artistic weightlessness.

Operation Mekong (Dante Lam, 2016)

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Opening this week at the Regal Meridian is the latest action film from director Dante Lam, whose Beast Cops and Jianghu: The Triad Zone were two of the better Hong Kong films to come out during the industry trough that followed the colony’s handover to China in the late 1990s. More recently, his MMA film Unbeatable earned a handful of acting prizes for its star, Nick Cheung, back in 2013. Operation Mekong is a procedural programmer based on true events, starring Eddie Peng (Rise of the Legend) and Zhang Hanyu (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Mr. Six). Thirteen Chinese citizens are killed on the Mekong River, in the notorious no-man’s land known as the Golden Triangle, the intersection of Burma, Thailand and Laos that has long been the headquarters for the drug trade and action movies using the drug trade as a plot motivation (see, for example, John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears from way back in 1986). It’s meth now, rather than heroin, but the more things change, the more they’re exactly the same. Suspecting drug lord involvement, the Chinese government convinces the other three nations to cooperate, and sends in an elite squad of heavily-armed cops to expose, capture and, if necessary, kill the bad guys.  Zhang heads the squad, all of whom are given code names from Greek mythology, except for their remarkable German Shepherd, who is named “Bingo”. Peng serves as their local contact, an intelligence officer who has been working the area with an impressive array of fake mustaches for five years.

What follows are all the familiar beats of a high-explosive action film. Strong extended set-pieces packed with carnage, leavened with stretches of exposition and character-building. There’s a scene where every member of the team introduces themselves around a communal meal, a scene where one muses about his daughter back home, another one where a cop has a tragic backstory relived in flashbacks which will come back to haunt him at a narratively-convenient time. The remarkable thing about Johnnie To’s Drug War is that he didn’t bother with any of this stuff, trusting the tightness of his plot and sequence construction to carry the audience through the running time of the film. Lam and his team of screenwriters though settle for the typical, thus no matter how good the actors and the action is, and they’re pretty good for the most part, the movie is ultimately is just treading water, doing everything we’ve seen before, just a bit louder, and with more drone-mounted cameras. As an homage and update to the heyday of Cannon Films-era actioners, it doesn’t get much slicker.