…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “China

HMWYBS: Raise the Red Lantern


Raise the Red Lantern is my first Zhang Yimou and first Gong Li, the latter’s talent discussed with exclamation so much that it makes me feel like I missed out, although there are many beauties who have come to grace cinema after her. Nonetheless there can’t be a better first impression than watching her play Songlian, determined to dig her own grave despite her mother’s warnings. She behaves as stiffly and as nervous as a wall in one minute and trying to shout those same walls down during the next. I’m used to more Western narratives where a woman, whose only companion is her husband and perhaps a lover, becomes unhinged in isolation. But this movie complicates that dynamic by making Songlian one of four mistresses to an early 20th century Chinese aristocrat Master Chen (Ma Jingwu), whose attitudes to each other are less cooperative and more competitive, adding to her isolation, a crippling yet universal feeling for many of literature’s heroines. But while we’re sympathizing with her and want her to succeed and play her wifely role perfectly, we’re also frustrated by her introversion the growing viciousness that her servants (especially Lin Kong as her servant Yan’er) begin to notice.

I love how the mistresses are depicted, Songlian, the dowager one, the ‘nice’ one (Cao Cuifen) and Meishan (He Caifei), the holdout who still introduces herself as an opera singer. She always uses lipstick and light make up and her chamber reflects her former occupation, looking like a stage as Songlian remarks. It’s has the most personality compared to the golden warmth of the first two mistresses’ chambers. It’s one of the last times that the two women will be positioned as equals, both having the same stakes at the game, both deferring a chance to be in their Master’s company to the ‘nice’ mistress through one’s schemes and the other’s indulgence.

But I noticed that there’s more to Songlian’s off-white chamber when her frenemy the third mistress visits. Plastered on the walls are scrolls as large as Meishan’s masks, a reminder of her off-screen past as a university student – funnily enough that Meishan looks up to her because of the former’s unfinished education. I’m starting to grow into the shot above as my best because of the inadvertent double effect that these scrolls put attention to themselves as well as recede to walls of the same colour, as well as reflecting the restrained nature of both her studies and as a mistress-in-waiting. Even the red lanterns don’t even make the place look more colourful. Yimou’s camera prefers to push the camera back, making these women as secondary to the room as the room’s motifs. She finally lets Meishan into her chamber not as a competitor but as a confidante but there’s so much going on with the body language and blocking to reinforce the borders between them, as Meishan furthers herself into Songlian’s quarters there’s still some reluctance, with her arms crossed and the latter with a demure pose, not looking at her visitor directly.

The shots that came close to being the best are exteriors. Songlian is outside her quarters, giving her the freedom to navigate the palace in open air but she again recedes, making her insignificant compared to the palace’s grand scale as well as its many, conniving inhabitants. But this new knowledge has a price, giving her more access to the family’s ghosts. The ‘nice’ mistress tells her not to go to the locked chamber. Of course the household likes to keep their oppression from reach but she goes back when her friend Meishan is dragged there through her own drunken fault.

Because of an injustice the house seems as if it has its own spirit, or that Songlian makes it seem that way to keep her victim alive. In the household light means power and most of the time the Master and the men have this, the lanterns symbolizing the Master’s company and the favour tipping towards a certain mistress. But sometimes the women get this power like the shot below where the women can scare the men off, being unable to kill off or rid of a subversive mistress.

Her freedom is eventually negated in the end when she regresses into her childlike self with school girl outfit, walking back and forth in her own hallway like Minotaur, barred from the Master and the household’s company as they fear the destruction she might cause to the society that’s been equally cruel to her. It was kind of frustrating to get this shot, as Yimou kept cutting these static shots too fast and with slightly different angles. It had this effect where the lanterns criss crossed together. There’s probably something more to these shots that I can’t articulate but I eventually embraced its beauty.


Reel Asian: Piercing 1


I tweeted earlier that Liu Jian’s début movie Piercing 1 is like “Beavis and Butthead Do The 2008 Economic Collapse And Its Effects On China.” The animation is like Mike Judge’s early work – gaunt two-dimensional figures, the movements are pretty one-two. But it also adds its own spin to a seemingly primitive, 90’s era take on the visual medium. It’s as if there’s no air in this fictional universe – flags and lamps don’t move but smoke rises up in the air. And the palette, lacking the colours yellow and purple, is dour and dark, which seems right with its depressing and scary subject.

Among the handful of characters that it follows are two men who have moved to Beijing. After a boss beats one of them for allegedly stealing, they hang out on a public space. Their litanies in their first scene together resonate with younger people and/or immigrants, as one of them is more defiant against returning to their small town, not even considering if their lives have been better or stable there. It’s like this refusal of an alternative because it feels like a million steps back. The more defiant youth also seems attracted to the trappings of capitalism. The money, the clothes, the promise of women – of which there are only two in the movie who aren’t sexually pursued – the exciting day and light lives, the population.

It loses steam after that scene, as it’s littered with Kafkaesque accusations and assaults. It’s as if every person they meet is misanthropic because of the anomie-inducting big city. The beaten youth comes back to his boss and asks for ‘mental damages’ and gets beaten. While eating noodles, he sees a woman get hit by a motorcycle only for that woman’s police officer daughter to beat him again. It’s like Jia Zhangke and Sion Sino collaborated and made an animated feature, the former’s portrayal of ghostlike modernity mixes with the latter’s theatrical violence. The last scenes veer into ridiculous heist movie territory since i this movie’s world, all Chinese businessmen are also sketchy money dealers. But I do give the movie credit for going into unexpected places.


Iron Monkey on morals and men


Iron Monkey has a pace that I’m not used to. It’s a story about the titular Iron Monkey (Rongguang Yu) whom a 19th century municipal Chinese government is pursuing because he’s stealing from them and giving the money to the refugees. It moves from drama to fight scenes to slapstick to ridiculous sadism to showing beautiful Chinese architecture all within the same scene. Some of Iron Monkey’s fight scenes have comic interludes on them, throwing rocks at those who deserve it or kicks and stands on them as if slapping or disciplining them. And if this martial arts movie looks like it has enough on its plate, there’s romantic tension and foodie moments in there too.

ph. Miramax

It isn’t until half an hour into the movie when I realize the film’s moral ambiguities. Wong Kei-Ying, (Donnie Yen) a man trying to arrest the Iron Monkey, is trying to buy food only to be turned away repeatedly. A vendor who sells him food in the hush-hush gets stuff thrown at him. Yes, Wong is more fleshed out as a character than the vendors, but it’s not that either’s fully in the wrong. The vendors snub Wong out of loyalty to the mysterious Iron Monkey, who brings them gold and defends them. Wong has to capture the Iron Monkey to get his son back from the government and believes the latter doesn’t help the situation and actually brings animosity between the government and the people. Then everything clicks. The film’s portrayal of early 19th century China is a country where children enslave each other. Iron Monkey, hiding as Dr. Yang, also contemplates surrendering to the police to save the boy even if his time in the dungeons mean that the refugees won’t be protected.  These characters, testing our sympathies actually make the film richer.

The film also has an interesting spin on masculinity as both male characters, adversaries and eventual friends as they are, are capable fighting machines who also know how to cook. Dr. Yang, and Wong also have a sense of community with the things I already mentioned. Not to mention that both fight for and against female characters too. This film of great fights, both internal and physical, end in a bigger fight involving bamboo poles and fires that’s both ridiculously lengthy and elegantly choreographed.

The Toronto Underground Cinema is playing this film tonight. They’ve managed to get a print with the original Chinese audio, even if , apparently, the subtitles are inaccurate.


Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor


Hazy childhood movie memory – Pu Yi goes from child emperor (Richard Vuu) to teenager (Tao Wu), either doing group martial arts warm-ups or military warm-ups with the Communists within the Forbidden City. That’s probably not how the movie actually goes.

My first film class showed Visions of Light, where it talks about this film’s use of symbolism through colour. Red means tradition and authoritarianism. Yellow, apparently is transition but I think it’s actually marks discovery. I haven’t seen Visions in a long time. I remember Pu Yi’s tutor Reginald Johnston’s (Peter O’Toole) bike being yellow. Lastly, green, and thus all the cool colours – even brown, strangely enough – means change, abdication, moving away from Pu Yi’s (John Lone) Imperial past. The words ‘open the door’ are often said with hostility in this film. This is the first movie I remember to use blue as a feminine colour, worn by women in the Forbidden City, or blue lighting/screen to depict an escape where the women are in focus and in their most troubled and precarious. Or white for loneliness. Great cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci’s longtime collaborator.

I’ve tweeted that a big chunk of The Last Emperor is the Asian Conformist, which is reductive, yes. Bertolucci’s about style and morally cold-hearted characters, a combination he masters here. The film is essentially political, as it publicly calls out authoritarianism’s hypocrisies. I suppose knowing that Pu Yi wasn’t that nice of a person makes the film more morally complex. It makes an emperor’s story relatable because it’s about any individual’s growth from unwanted independence to confusion to selfishness to adult self blame to resignation. Lone performs this rollercoaster of an arc beautifully, like playing hide and seek with the character’s moral ambiguities, changing depending on the man’s place in life. Other great performances include O’Toole’s enunciation, Maggie Han as Easter Jewel and Ric Young as an interrogator, the latter two camping it up without distracting from the film’s even tone.


Female Characters – Crouching Tiger, Hidden…


ph. Columbia Tristar DVD

I’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in parts before, watching Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) sharing tea together and talking about their repressed feelings. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi)reminiscing about her lost years in the desert. They make me feel like I’m watching a story from Regency period in England as it is a story taking place probably in third century China. But then this movie has fights in them so I know what kind of movie I’m watching. These characters have already made an impression on me before finally seeing the film in entirety, in layman’s terms, knowing what they’re already like.

So I don’t know what it is seeing Shu Lien skip towards the common room to greet Li that strikes me, her feelings emanating through her face and posture. I’m not even sure if this image from the film perfectly captures a young lover within someone supposedly more mature and controlled, because she goes back to being more formal within a split second. I’m comparing this introduction to Shu Lien’s character with the way the film introduces Jen, a demure aristocrat in disguise. Shu Lien’s introduction, however, is a revelation. I use that word even if it doesn’t feel like the rest of her character is lying to herself. She isn’t, she’s just disallowing herself that bit of freedom other thinks she deserve.

There are other women in disguise – like Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), who trained Jen masquerading as the latter’s governess and a policeman’s daughter calling herself a circus performer while trying to find Fox, Jen hiding her own talent from Fox and from the rest of the world. The social strata calls for the female characters to go into these disguises, at the same time this game of pretend allows them to act out freedom and aggression. When other characters, male and female, allow them some defiance, they take on the chance. An example would be the scene when the daughter tells an inspector of her certain belief that a murderer is living under Governor Yu’s household, letting her father’s blood on her shoulder seen by Sir Te.

In a way, this story is just about these two leading women as it is about the Green Destiny. One wants what the other has. There’s also some delicious passive aggressiveness between them specifically from Shu Lien’s part. She tells Jen that she’s happy for Jen’s engagement, temporarily killing the latter’s fantasies of becoming a warrior. She also invites Jen and her mother in guise of an engagement party to test the latter, giving her faint praise after damnation. Jen of course gives the results Shu Lien expects, and does so either because of carelessness, vanity or both. The differences between them are constant until the end, when one goes one direction and the other chooses drastically different. One presumably moves on despite of the death around her, while the other can no longer accept happiness because of the past.


TIFF: Late Autumn


Late Autumn puts Anna (Tang Wei), a Chinese-American, and Hoon, a Korean male escort, on a bus from Fresno to Seattle to find each other. What we see are adequately paced, two-headed character studies. We watch Anna mumble to herself, wear hooker earrings for the first time in seven years, investigate her motel room and relearn normal human interaction. We also watch Hoon and his permagrin fix his hair, talk on his phone, a man trying to exude confidence while running from his client’s husband. We watch them interact although he does all the talking.

The digital photography starts out in faded colours that remind us of foggy Seattle, making Anna’s face look pale and unflattering. Then she meets Hoon again, they walk through streets with potted plants, go to a tiny version of an amusement park and the colour punches its way in. Colour smoothly introduces itself, and brightens up Anna’s face too, the same way that other films about women temporarily out of prison remember how to live again. That’s not a spoiler. And we see a Seattle awake at night.

And it all comes crashing down. Subtlety’s good as a rule, and the characters never talk about the source of pain but instead of plainly hiding it they make excuses and talk about other things. As Anna’s lover tells Hoon, ‘I think you don’t know what you’re talking about’ and accuses him of playing games. Hoon doesn’t evolve and doesn’t help Anna in doing so neither. Rating: 2/5.


Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky


While introducing Riki-Oh, the Story of Ricky, Edgar Wright reads from a list of keywords that includes the different ways Ricky could do damage to the bad guys’ bodies. Foot on leg, head bashed in, head ripped off. I know they don’t even try to make the blood look real but it was still oh-so-disgusting.

‘He does one thing in the end and we ask “Why didn’t he just do that in the first place?”‘ I guess he just had to make sure that it wasn’t an empty gesture. But yeah, there’s many ways he could have escaped the prison or at least a room where he’s in. Don’t life the damn ceiling, that guy just broke the brick wall over there! But no, he has to do it the hard way. He has to be the hero, he has to hurt himself, he has to be shirtless all the time, he has to break flutes, he gets buried alive, he has to soak himself in the rain and do karate moves for dramatic effect. I do give him props for not getting grossed out while touching maimed body parts. And his acting is more tolerable if you’re hearing the dialogue in Chinese.

When the film looks back at Ricky’s childhood, his uncle asks, ‘You are no longer a boy, do you still have your superhuman strength.’ Because his uncle knows smooth segues like that. Knowing that, we understand how he can heal quickly when he gets cuts on his face.

Also, horrendous Asian haircuts. I also don’t understand why the gang leaders need licenses to ridiculous outfits and hairdos.

All in all, ridiculousness. Not that there’s anything wrong…