Savage (Cui Siwei, 2019)

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Cui Siwei’s directorial debut is not, unfortunately, a remake of the classic blaxploitation film Savage (tagline: “On the streets, or in the sheets, he’s. . . SAVAGE!”). Instead, it’s another moody Chinese noir, this one headed by two excellent actors and set in a snowy mountain wilderness. Chang Chen plays a cop who stumbles across escaping gold thieves, led by Liao Fan. The bad guys shoot Chang and kill his partner. Chang suffers angst for a year, which even his friendship/romance with the pretty local doctor cannot cure. Then, he and another partner, in the course of chasing after some poachers hours before the biggest blizzard of the year, run into the very same gang of thieves who have returned for their stash of gold. Everyone shoots everyone with a seemingly endless supply of bullets and cartridges, until all the brilliant whites are stained with blood.

Given that Cui’s last credit was for the screenplay of The Island, a film which played here last year that I thought was quite well-constructed and clever, it’s a bit of a shock that Savage is so shoddy. Action thriller clichés abound: the dead partner, the pretty woman in peril, the double-crosses, the double deadlines of impending storm and the doctor leaving town. There’s a scene where the doctor watches Chang beat the hell out of three men in a restaurant and responds by making out with him, fully clothed, under a running shower. The plot collapses amidst a blizzard of coincidence, and very little in the final half hour or so makes much sense.

Chang and Liao are two of modern cinema’s finest serious face actors, they’re great at being sad and angry at the same time. But those are the only emotions they’re allowed. Still, Cui has a terrific eye, and in some alternate universe this could have been a solid elemental thriller along the lines of Track of the Cat, or at least Shoot to Kill. One stand-off takes place outdoors, in a field of tall grass covered by blinding snow, the score hinting at Morricone without the least bit of subtlety. And yes indeed two men do slide down a mountainside, firing rifles at each other as they go. Near the climax, someone drives a sno-cat into a building for no apparent reason other than it lets Cui backlight snow falling inside a room for the final showdown. But it does look pretty cool.

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Suburban Birds (Qiu Sheng, 2018)

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The Northwest Film Forum’s commitment to rethinking the movie release calendar continues this week, and part of last week, with the oddball Wednesday-Tuesday run of Suburban Birds, the feature debut of director Qiu Sheng. That the film should play here at all is somewhat remarkable, contemporary Chinese cinema releases being almost entirely limited to the small runs of pop genre films that we like to highlight here at Seattle Screen Scene. Sure, festival blockbusters like Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night play too, but it’s exceedingly rare that a film by an unknown Chinese director gets an art house release. The film has been well-received at Locarno and the New York’s New Directors/New Films Festival, and has the backing of a solid distributor in Cinema Guild. That is likely because, like Bi Gan, who also had his debut feature released in one the art house circuit, Suburban Birds is heavily influenced by the works of established and well-known East Asian star directors. Audiences familiar with Jia and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang will have no trouble relating to this beautiful, dreamy, yet precise tour through the contradictions of modern China.

Set in an unnamed Chinese city, one of those meticulous and vast urban spaces that has cropped up over the past twenty years, where a surveying crew is attempting to account for the subsidence of various buildings. The new city is literally sinking into the ground. Exploring an abandoned elementary school, one of the crew, Xia Hao, discovers an old diary and the next hour or so of the film is an extended flashback, or dream, of his childhood, complete with title cards for the date and day of the week (but not the year), as if we too are reading the lost diary. There’s little forward momentum here: the middle school kids, almost entirely without adult presence, wander their town, in between forest and construction zones, exploring the city as the old is being demolished to make way for the new. The two timelines, past and future Xia Hao, intersect in minor ways, recalling more the temporal contradictions of Hong Sangsoo’s In Another Country than anything more serious (Bi Gan’s scrambling of time in Kaili Blues, for example). The middle section is less coming of age than slice of life, what plot direction it has is more toward a falling away than growing up, entropic rather than progressive.

Back in the present (or the future), Xia Hao is increasingly convinced that the whole city is resting on a groundwater leak, that its unstable foundations will eventually, possibly quite soon, lead the whole thing to collapse. The metaphor here is not the least bit subtle, but Qiu underplays it, relying on image and landscape and cityscape, captured in crystal clear and brightly colored 1.33 images, to build a mood of societal unease, of inevitable collapse. In this it recalls another recent Chinese film to have been released here (in the US, not Seattle, as far as I can tell), Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary Behemoth, which ended its exploration of China’s coal industry in a vast, freshly-constructed ghost town, a space of cutting edge modernity that was nonetheless wholly empty of human habitation. The streets of Suburban Birds are similarly empty, we really only see Xia Hao and his companions, past and present, though the sounds of others are omnipresent. Birds chirp constantly in the past, but there’s only construction and traffic in the present, and the drip drip drip of the new city’s impending watery doom.

Legend of the Demon Cat (Chen Kaige, 2017)

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Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat is not what you’d expect it to be. Well, at least not after the first 20 minutes or so, wherein the eponymous feline wreaks havoc on the lives of Tang Dynasty courtiers, promising buried treasure in exchange for fish eyes and then turning to murder. That kind of Strange Tales of a Chinese Studio off-beat horror-comedy kind of thing (the cat talks, oh boy is this a talking cat movie). But after the set-up, the horror dissipates and for long stretches of time, the talking cat is absent. And what we get instead is a moving melodrama based on some real history about the fall of the Tang Dynasty, famously beautiful concubine Yang Kwei-fei, and master of drunken poetry Li Po, plus or minus some eunuchs and a magician or three. Our heroes in exploring this mystery are a Japanese Buddhist monk and an unemployed Imperial Scribe/would-be poet, and they live in a world as lushly gorgeous as anything Chinese CGI has yet been able to muster.

The two tones, that of a deeply romantic melodrama and a talking cat picture, should be, by all conventional rules of movie-making, incompatible. And judging by the film’s reaction in the 14 months since it was originally released back in December, 2017, the combination does not work for most (it’s hard to know where to laugh, I suppose), though it should be noted that it did seem to be greeted positively when it played in Toronto last fall, in a supposed Director’s Cut (I have been unable to find out any details on what did and did not change since the film’s initial release). But I’m weird and I loved it. Because I’m perversely fond of history, I loved how the whole long middle section of the film contains almost no action, but is instead just the monk and the scribe talking about what might have happened thirty years earlier, while gorgeous visions of a lost Golden Age play out on screen. It’s that loss that is at the film’s heart: a movie motivated by people who have had a vision of perfection (a woman, a world, a poem) and lost it, and the anguish that can cause. And it’s about the lengths they’ll go to to bring it back, defying the laws of physics and even death itself for that end.

The film’s vision of the present isn’t quite degraded enough for the dichotomy to work, though. Chen is still as decorous as ever (fans of Farewell My Concubine need have no fear: the costumes here are just as decadently lustrous). Even his lost world, which should be significantly diminished even 30 years after the An Lushan Rebellion, possibly the bloodiest conflict of the entire Middle Ages, looks pretty nice. But, maybe that’s to the point: that even in relatively prosperous times, not unlike our own, the lure of the ideal can still be destructively strong. Maybe it’s time to let the old dreams die.

I opened at random my copy of David Hinton’s translation of Selected Poems of Li Po, looking for something to tie into this lovely, sad, weird movie. This is what I found:

Making My Way Toward Yeh-lang in Exile, I Remember Walking
Among Peach Blossoms Long Ago at Autumn River

Peaches in blossom, spring waters high,
white stones appear, then sink away,

and rustling wisteria branches sway,
a half moon drifting azure heaven.

Who knows how many fiddleheads wait,
clenched along paths I once walked?

In three years, back from Yeh-lang,
I’ll resolve my bones into gold there.

Mojin: The Worm Valley (Fei Xing, 2018)

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A prequel to 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, in which a band of intrepid treasure hunters brave mysterious wilds and scary animals in search of a MacGuffin that will cure a curse they picked up during an earlier treasure hunting expedition. Where the first Mojin film had an exceptional cast, led by Shu Qi, Angelababy and Huang Bo, and an intricate plot weaving present-day scenes in New York’s Chinatown, a love triangle amid the Cultural Revolution, and effects-driven action scenes together in an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful blend of the personal, the political and the ridiculous, Worm Valley is linear all the way through. After a quick setup, including a minimal amount of backstory related in a speech and a visit to a crazy, blind, and sexist old man, the party of six adventurers head into the jungles of Yunnan to discover whatever the thing is they’re looking for.

Also missing from the first film is the cast, which has been entirely replaced by young actors who kind of but don’t quite resemble their forbears, an uncanny valley effect to match that of the film’s CGI monsters and environments. Also gone is director Wu Ershan, and in his place is Fei Xing, making his first film since the 2013 Aaron Kwok/Sun Honglei film Silent Witness. Fei, somewhat surprisingly given Wu’s history with the effects genre, proves much more interesting a director of spectacle, though that may simply reflect a welcome change in the genre’s conventional style. Like last year’s Monkey King 3 and the previous year’s Once Upon a TimeWorm Valley is full of bright environments, lush with greens and pinks and blues: tall grasses and crystalline flowers, flying bugs that burst into flame when touched. Only its initial action sequences are set in the darkness, but even those are well-lit, allowing the digital creations to shine rather than hide in the murkiness of bad effects. As such the film has a cartoonish quality, at best approaching something like the charm of a lesser Ray Harryhausen movie (more Mysterious Island than Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans).

The Mojin films are based on a highly popular book series called Ghost Blows Out the Light (or alternately, Candle in the Tomb) by Zhang Muye, which has been adapted several times into film and television. There was another film the same year as The Lost Legend, (Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe) though it didn’t, to my knowledge, get a US release. There have also been three TV/web series adaptations of different books in the series, and another film version is to be expected in 2019, Candle in the Tomb (or Mojin X), starring Zhang Hanyu and Celina Jade and directed by Li Yifan. I imagine that knowing the source material or some of the other adaptations is helpful in filling in some of the backstory and fleshing out the characters, but Worm Valley is at its best when it isn’t concerned about any of that, when it just gives into the straight-ahead thrills of an old school adventure serial, with one literally cliff-hanging sequence after another. The only times the movie slows down over its final hour and a half are for brief moments of rest, some joyous nightswimming and a pre-climax motivational crisis, neither of which have the kind of emotional resonance a serious movie would require. It’s not camp, overblowing genre clichés with Aquaman-ian gusto. But it is almost two hours of pretty people wearing leather and canvas shooting giant alligators with arrows and slicing at razor-toothed fish with machetes.

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

This film played earlier this year at SIFF,where bopth Evan and Sean reviewed it. But, because of SIFF’s embargo policy, they were only able to use 75 words apiece to do so. I’ve combined those two capsules into this, single review for ease of reference.

Evan:

Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.

Sean:

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.

Golden Job (Chin Ka-lok, 2018)

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In the wake of the 1997 Handover, when Hong Kong turned from a relatively independent British colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, the Hong Kong film industry, which had been for most of the previous 30 years or so one of the glories of the world, almost completely collapsed. Uncertainty was the primary cause, both in economic and political freedom, which led many of the industry’s brightest talents to seek employment in the United States and beyond (Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Ringo Lam, Michelle Yeoh, Corey Yuen, Ronny Yu, etc), while the excesses of production in the 80s and early 90s, plus infiltration of unsavory, criminal elements into the filmmaking business, led to the dissolution of most of the major production houses that had led Hong Kong’s last Golden Age. But still, the Hong Kong cinema didn’t collapse entirely: Herman Yau kept churning out low-budget horror and gangster films (as he continues to do to this day); Johnnie To founded his own studio, which found a way to produce anywhere from two to six high quality films a year, both popular entertainments and idiosyncratic personal explorations of genre; Stephen Chow, who for much of the mid-90s was the only star who mattered, single-handedly keeping the industry afloat, began directing and produced increasingly ambitious and accomplished work. But above all, the Young & Dangerous series struck a chord with the youth audience, leading to something in the neighborhood of a dozen sequels, prequels and spin-offs between 1996 and 2001.

The Young & Dangerous films, shepherded by director Andrew Lau (an accomplished cinematographer (he shot Wong Kar-wai’s debut As Tears Go By and parts of Chungking Express, he also co-directed the Infernal Affairs films, the first of which came out in 2002), were a cheap, glossy, teen idol-driven, comic book variations on the heroic bloodshed sagas of the late 1980s. Stars Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan had fancy hair and stylish clothes and a propensity for finding themselves in musical montages depicting the anguish and joy of violent brotherhood. They are wholly absurd and a great deal of fun. Now, more than 20 years after the first installment, director Chin Ka-lok reunites the stars of the series for Golden Job, a maudlin action film about brotherhood among formerly stylish middle-aged men.

Five “brothers”, friends since they were orphans together, work as vaguely immoral mercenaries for hire, kind of like the A-Team, but with more hugging. One of them goes bad and betrays the group, and the others have to, well, not really seek revenge, but do something to fix his errors. The film skirts topics familiar from recent Chinese action films (the pharmaceutical foul play of Woo’s Manhunt and Lam’s Sky on Fire, the paternalism of China’s relationship with East Africa from Wolf Warrior II), but in most ways it is a throwback to those older movies, albeit with much more expensive and impressive action sequences. Director Chin is a former member of Sammo Hung’s stunt team with a long career as an actor and fighter, though this is only his third film as a director in his own right (he did Aces Go Places ’97 with Tony Leung and Alan Tam, and the 2002 Yuen Biao film No Problem 2). His action scenes are solid, if not original. Capable facsimiles of the military maneuverings of Operation Red Sea and vehicle stunts that honestly aren’t all that much worse than what you’d see in a Mission: Impossible movie. It’s just hard to take them seriously because the rest of the film is so generically earnest, its aged heroes so out of step with the times that their posed male laughter and tears play even more absurdly than they did twenty years ago.

The difference isn’t with the film’s earnestness. That was always there in the Young & Dangerous movies: their sentimentality is entirely believed. But what those earlier films also had were brilliant supporting performances, like Anthony Wong chewing up scenery and picking his nose, or Simon Yam at his oiliest, or which served to cut the sap with a bit of irony or acidic cruelty. Golden Job has Eric Tsang being wise and noble as the gang’s father figure, which is a complete waste. In fact, the only actor who seems to be having any fun at all is Yasuaki Kurata, who continues his late career rebirth with a far too brief appearance. His short fight scene is the best one in the film, though it’s also the smallest and probably the cheapest. Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok’s Gallants similarly revived stars of the past now well into middle-age into a genre film, one with its share of sentimentality but also one that updated the genre stylistically and ideologically for a new era. Golden Job plays everything straight, all as it would have been done twenty years ago, and as a result there’s nothing to leaven the soapiness, leaving a bunch of nice action sequences surrounding a sickeningly schmaltzy core.

The Island (Huang Bo, 2018)

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Opening this week at the Oak Tree (which in itself is interesting, as recent Chinese releases have almost exclusively played downtown at the Pacific Place or the Meridian), is the directorial debut of Huang Bo, a comic actor probably best known for playing the Monkey King in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. In The Island, he’s reunited with one of his co-stars from that film, Shu Qi, for a fascinating film that’s half adventure/rom-com and half allegory about the different stages of socio-economic evolution.

Huang and his co-workers, thirty of them in all, counting their boss, go off on a team-building trip in one of those buses that go on the water (you know, the ones with a duck face on the front), out of the local harbor and into the ocean. Unfortunately for them, a massive meteor is headed for that very same ocean, which creates a tidal wave that deposits them all on a deserted island, at the very same moment that Huang learns he has won the lottery.

What follows are the usual escapades, familiar from Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies, but structuring it all are the different phases of leadership and economy the survivors follow. Initially, it is sheer physical strength and dexterity that determines power, with the bus driver (played by Detective Chinatown‘s Wang Baoqiang) assuming tyrannical powers because he’s the only one of them able to climb the trees necessary to retrieve fruit. Soon though the society is split, with the (former) boss promising more freedom for his followers, only to essentially enslave them in a wage-labor and currency system, which he manipulates for his own benefit.

The boss is able to get his start because he discovers an old shipwreck full of essential supplies, basically he lucks into an enormous stockpile of capital. The same thing eventually happens to Huang, which he uses to assert his own control, with even more fanciful promises of freedom, this time based on a kind of communitarianism. This too, though will be corrupted by lies and greed, leaving the workers desperate.

What happens next, after feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, is up in the air, and Huang’s vision of a future outside of these systems is slippery at best, essentially fanciful and inevitably tied up with his character’s obsession with Shu Qi, the co-worker he’s had a crush on for years. Over time, she begins to warm up to him, and her faith in his decency forces him ultimately to confront his own corruption.

But despite Shu Qi’s ever-present charm, she isn’t much of a person, serving instead only as a foil or object of desire for the hero. None of the islanders are any more than types, really, which I suppose is the danger of making a film that is driven more by theory than relationships or individuality. Despite that, The Island is fascinating, defying analogy (maybe a materialist Lost? . . .) while being both funny and surprising in its narrative twists and in its ultimate ambivalence towards, well, everything. People, society, economics, religion, fate, politics and so on. A singular work, one not to be missed.

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.

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.