The Wild Goose Lake (Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui, China-France, 2019) – LIFF3

Straining to be arty

Writer-director  Diao Yi’nan won the Berlinale with Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo, China, 2014), but it failed to win me over and The Wild Goose Lake suffers similarly because it fails to get beneath its often wildly engaging surface. I’m not criticising films for emphasising entertainment over profundity but when the spectator suspects the film’s author is striving for more than ‘mere entertainment’ then the film needs to be judged as such. There’s no doubt that Diao is a virtuoso filmmaker and there’s dazzling cinematography from Dong Jingsong (who also did Black Coal) but when you get to the end of a film not caring about the protagonist who we are meant to empathise with there is a problem. Maybe I’m wrong and Diao doesn’t care either.

Hu Ge (Zhou Zenong) is a classic noir protagonist: the police are after him; a gang is after him; a woman he probably shouldn’t trust offers to help him. I agree with the Variety reviewer when she says Zhou channels Robert Mitchum, he has a looming, self-contained presence. We know he’s a noir protagonist from the first shot where he lurks beneath an underpass at night and a woman in a red dress meets him. The stylisation makes for an absolute visual treat and the, at first, convoluted narrative means you have to be alert. A conclave of gangsters meet to learn about stealing mopeds and divvy up territory in a basement of a hotel; violence ensues. The absurdity of the situation suggests the influence of Tarantino but apparently Diao based the events of the film on news stories. Despite this, the ghost of the American director haunts the film, for me, whereas Diao would have been better channeling the aesthetic of Wong Kar-wai: there are some quite long sequences of Hu on a motorcycle with the woman that reminded me of Fallen Angels.

For a Chinese film The Wild Goose Lake does push boundaries of representing sexual behaviour (although I may have missed other boundary-pushing films): the woman, Liu Aiai (played by Taiwanese Kwei Lun-Mei), is a ‘bathing beauty’ on the titular lake, a euphemism for prostitute and she services Hu in an entirely unambiguous fashion. Whether, of course, this scene is actually seen in China (it opens in December) is open to question.

I will bother with Diao’s next film but it would be great if he shot a script that says something rather than just parade genre tropes albeit in an interesting way. The standfirst of Sight and Sound‘s review nailed it as an ‘exhilarating if skin-deep experience’.

Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren , China-France-Japan, 2015)

SF melodrama

To an extent most films are melodrama because they rely upon a narrative that, by its nature, is contrived and try to engage emotions through exaggeration. That said, melodramas – and there are many different types – do form a distinct genre; in them the emphasis is on relationships, often using a particular time and place for context. Jia Zhang-ke’s films, however, although melodrama (A Touch of Sin may be an exception), emphasise the time and place as much as the characters. Mountains May Depart has an epic scope, it covers 26 years of Tao Shen’s life; at the start she is a young woman having to choose between two male friends.  Strikingly the years cover 1999-2025, so the final section of the film can be defined as science fiction! There aren’t many films that move from the past to the future, unless it’s a time travel narrative; 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK-US, 1968) is one. Whether the final segment is strictly SF is debatable, although there is some futuristic technology, but as writer-director Jia is clearly making a comment about the China of 2015, like most SF it is a film that is about the now.

Somewhat bizarrelyit can be argued the film is based on The Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘Go West’. It frames the  narrative which is about the lure of western capitalist values: just like the song, there are scenes on a beach; friends depart; the west (Australia in the final segment) is seen as a kind of utopia. The protagonist, Tao Shen (played brilliantly by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife), is seen dancing exuberantly at the start. One of her friends, Jingsheng (Zhang Yi), is a successful businessman; the other, Liangzi (Dong Liang Jing), is alienated from the go-getting world that China had become at the end of the 20th century. The film is set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, in the Shanxi province of Northern China; as are a number of his other movies. Fenyang, we see, has an amazing pagoda which sticks out in contrast to the rundown nature of the town. There are some typical Jia almost-surreal shots: blasting dynamite in the ice floes on the river; an aeroplane crashes at the roadside. From a western perspective, China is an unusual place but Jia accentuates this weirdness as a melodramatic emblem of how capitalism is making China a place where no one belongs – Still Life is a great example of this. Jingsheng even names his child ‘Dollar’, such is his love of money.

Whilst the ‘loser’ character somewhat peremptorily drops out of the narrative, the focus is undoubtedly on Tao Shen who struggles to reconcile a life of wealth with a soulless existence. In the final scene, she achieves some kind of redemption though it obviously can only be temporary.

Behemoth (Bei xi mo shou, China-France, 2015)

Hell on earth

I don’t know what the symbolism of the man who we see carrying a big mirror on his back throughout the film is, but there’s no doubting the message of this incredible film. Co-writer-director-cinematography Zhao Liang has produced a modern version of Dante’s Inferno but the hell we visit is on earth. On the Mongolian steppes a gigantic open-caste mine blights the landscape and the lives of all those who work in it and live by it. As the narrator, presumably Zhao, tells us, the reference to Dante is explicit.

In the early 19th century the Romantics ‘discovered’ the natural landscape and found it ‘awesome’, in the sense that it filled them with fear. It wasn’t until urban areas became sufficiently large that the town-country opposition was created and so the countryside could be seen as a distinct entity. Behemoth, too, presents awesome landscapes but they are scary because the capitalist pursuit of profit creates absolute devastation. Pastoral images of Mongolian shepherds have the industrial mine as their backdrop, the behemoth of the title. Zhao’s images are themselves awesome in the modern sense of the word. The framing and positioning is quite extraordinary, especially when we realise that he was a ‘guerilla filmmaker’ when operating within the mine; there’s no way he would have gotten permission to film. Such is the ‘beauty’ of his cinematography that it’s comparable to the photographs of Sebastião Salgado‘s and Edward Burtynsky; the open cast mine also reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (US, 1988).

In keeping with the astonishing compositions, the narration is poetic; it tends to deal with what we’re seeing in an oblique way, as if it is impossible to comprehend the disaster in front of us. However, he is not simply dealing in abstracts as the film progresses to focus on the people who work in the hell. One scene starts with an entirely red screen and it seems that Zhao is using an expressionist device to portray the violence done to the landscape but then shadowy shapes appear and we realise the colour is from a blast furnace with workers in close proximity. Later we see some of the unfortunates who simply stare into the camera, their faces scarred by their work. They are silent witnesses to the human cost of the rampant exploitation of the environment. They are scarred inside too as many are suffering from pneumonociosis; we see protestors demanding restitution and men lying on their death beds.

The narrative is brilliantly structured, by Sylvie Blum and Zhao, as we end in what could be one of Burtynsky’s landscapes. A deserted city is seen with tumbleweed blowing across the road. Is everyone at work? Then a litter picker runs to capture the detritus of nature and then we are told it is a ‘ghost city’, one of many that were built in China but there was no one to live in them. You couldn’t make it up: the stupidity of capitalism, in the guise of property speculation here, that is destroying the planet and its people.

I tentatively look forward to seeing Zhao’s other documentaries.

The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Hong Kong-China, 2013)

Style and substance

I’ll try to ignore the mauling this film has probably been given by Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ (aka Weinstein), in order to make the film commercial, as I’ve only seen the cut version which is 25 minutes shorter than the original. The grandmaster is Ip Man, the teacher of Bruce Lee; I imagine the three Ip Man films (Hong Kong-China, 2008, 2010, 2015) are more straightforward biopics than this Wong Kar Wei production. Wong, as is his wont, focuses on the philosophical, interior lives of his characters which is communicated through an often elliptical voice over. It matters little to Wong whether the protagonist is a cop (Chungking Express, 1994) or a gangster (Fallen Angels, 1995), the almost stream of consciousness commentary we hear is what drives his films. Plus, philosophy and kung fu are ready bedfellows, so although The Grandmaster eschews Confucius (at least I think it does), there’s plenty to think about.

Another link to Wong’s oeuvre is the casting of the great Tony Chui-Wai Leung who, I imagine, is Wong’s alter ego. This is not to say that Wong wanted to be Ip Man.

The great Tony Chui-Wai Leung

Wong’s early indie movies with which he made an impact on the west (to whom he was introduced as ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’ – a form of patronising colonialism) make it somewhat surprising that he should delve into action cinema. He had done so with the wuxia Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk, Hong Kong-Taiwan, 1994), given the ‘redux’ (whatever that means) treatment in 2008 but there (I’m talking about the original as I haven’t seen the update) the action was rarefied to sort of appear to happen off screen. What I mean to say is I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

I’m wasn’t sure what was going on all time in The Grandmaster however the action is straightforwardly staged by Yuen Woo-ping (who also coordinated the stunts and fights on Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 (US, 1994) with stunning production design by  Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. ‘Straightforward’ doesn’t cover it for the mise en scene and balletic movements are absolutely spectacular; the sequences are on a par with Zhang Yimou’s Hero (China-Hong Kong, 2002). Hero has Leung in common, as well as the Weinstein’s marketing muscle that helped make that film a worldwide hit. Leung apparently broke his arms three times during shooting of Grandmaster; the man is (nearly) my age! Zhang Ziyi graces both films and her fight scenes are the film’s highlights; once with Leung, which is more of a tango, and in the climactic battle on a station platform with a train barrelling through.

It was an expensive film to make and did reasonable worldwide box office but, unsurprisingly, it’s not simply a commercial film; hence Weinstein’s cutting. This version is presented as ‘Martin Scorsese’ presents and it’s disappointing that the doyen of American indie-art cinema should lend his name to cultural vandalism. At least Tarantino was genuinely trying to find a wider audience for a cinema neglected by many in the west at that time.

I enjoyed My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong-China-France, 2008), Wong’s English-language US set melodrama but found 2046 (Hong Kong-China, 2004) too dense; that was the sequel to what’s widely regarded his greatest film, In the Mood for Love (Faa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong-China, 2004), another beautiful looking film that I found frustrating (I’m sure that’s my fault and not the film’s).

A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, China-Japan-France, 2013)

The genre film

The genre film

I’m a fan of Jia Zhangke’s work (see Still Life and Xiao Wu posts) and his latest is no disappointment. The title references the classic  A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, Taiwan, 1971), a wuxia that was successful at Cannes, and suggests that Jia is working in genre rather than the social realism of his previous features. The latter label doesn’t quite do justice to Still Life as its setting, a town about to be submerged for the Three Gorges Dam, is semi-surreal and includes a shot of a building blasting off into space. However, the purpose of Jia’s work is no doubt to highlight the plight of ordinary folk left behind by the vast expansion of China’s economy.

A Touch of Sin tells four stories, based on ‘true life’ as told through Weibo (China’s Twitter), of ordinary folk being pushed to their limit and each, while telling of sin, ends in violence. Thus we get a fascinating mix of Jia’s, as usual, brilliantly fluid steadicam direction, that waltzes us through the ridiculously rundown places to the sublime modernity of, for example, a massive bridge, and genre violence. The third (of four) story, featuring Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao (below), who also appeared in Still Life, steps into the wuxia of Zen in its bloody climax.

The social realist film

The social realist film

I enjoyed the audacity of mixing two discourses (genre and social realism) and it worked to emphasise the way in which China’s headlong rush into modernity has left many people behind so their only recourse is to violence. Apparently President Xi is a fan of Jia’s work which is why the film has been distributed in China; a surprising eventuality given how critical it is of the state, albeit indirectly – see Tony Rayn’s excellent piece.

Ju Dou (China-Japan, 1990)

Doomed

Doomed

Spoiler alert!

Ju Dou is an exemplary melodrama that uses its setting, a small-scale dye-works, and filters, to create an ‘excessive’ colour scheme that’s perfect for the overwrought narrative of sexual betrayal. Jinshan, the brutal owner of the works, buys a third wife, Ju Dou (Gong Li), after beating two previous ones to death in anger over ‘their’ inability to produce a male heir; it is he, in fact, that is impotent. His adopted nephew, Tianqing (Li Baotian), is sympathetic to her plight and she seduces him and produces a boy that Jinshan thinks is his. The child, Tianbai, grows up to be monstrous and kills both his ‘fathers’; one accidentally.

Zhang Yimou’s direction, partly no doubt due to Chinese censorship (it was still banned for two years), shoots the sex indirectly: the first time Ju Dou and Tianqing copulate an enormous cloth, dyed deep red, unravels from its position into what looks like a bloody mess on the floor.  Ju Dou had claimed to be ‘pure’ just before so, presumably, Jinshan is a bit confused when he thinks the child is his.

Obviously there are specifically Chinese elements in the melodrama such as the funeral ritual for Jinshan where Ju Dou and Tianqing have to try and prevent the coffin reaching the burial grounds 49 times. Propriety demands that the two be separated afterwards and so over the following years they can only see each other in secret. ‘Propriety’ doesn’t quite explain the situation as Confucian tradition would demand their death if they were found out. In western melodrama ostracism is often the highest price paid for breaking social mores, as in All That Heaven Allows (US, 1955).

Confucian values are highly patriarchal and the film is a critique on their continued prevalence in modern China. At the end the film steps into gothic horror as the boy Tianbai has committed the ultimate sin under Confucianism in committing patricide (twice in fact) and Ju Dou burns down the dye-works. The film ends with a freeze frame of her engulfed in flames.

Unfortunately the only copy I could get hold of, a DVD via Lovefilm, reminded me of watching much-used 16mm films at university. It was heavily scratched in places and although the colour isn’t too bad, I’m sure that the palette could have been better. It’s strange that one of the mosts feted of Chinese directors, Zhang was responsible for the Beijing Olympic ceremony, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, should not have a decent DVD available in this country.

Red Cliff (Chi bi, China, 2008)

‘This is really really important’

Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) we’ve been, in the west, regaled with a number of spectacular films from China. John Woo, who’s gone ‘full circle’ from Hong Kong to Hollywood and back to China, directs this conflagration of a film.

It lacks nothing for spectacle but maybe I’m getting jaded at seeing yet another shedload of extras being mown down by heroic men. It was Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro who kept me watching; I doubt there’s a pair of more charismatic actors operating anywhere in the world. Lueng, in particular, is terrific whether he’s playing one of Wong Kar Wai’s alter egos or in the cut and thrust of wuxia. That said, I’m also getting bored of frowning men who have to go off to fight for justice; Russell Crowe’s wearing this frown on posters for the forthcoming Robin Hood.

Women aren’t neglected in Red Cliff but they are so secondary. A bleat of a complaint really, as I’m sure that’s historically accurate; I should be watching other genres.