An Elephant Sitting Still (Da xiang xi di er zuo, China, 2018)

No light at the end

With a running time of nearly four hours (full disclosure: I did it in two sessions), Bo Hu’s directorial feature debut, and his last film, is a gruelling, grim near masterpiece. Bo committed suicide, aged 29, before the film was released and as scriptwriter and editor, it’s clearly his vision which if it isn’t quite nihilist certainly borders on it. It’s unlikely that the awards the film garnered would have encouraged Bo to prolong his stay but his talent has been wasted.

Its realist camerawork, constantly (except for the final shot) handheld with natural lighting only (taking a Dogme95 edict to the letter), portrays a day in the life of four characters all of whom are having a bad time. The lighting means there is, fittingly, little of beauty in the film; though the above still is an exception. In addition, it’s not always easy to see what’s happening and the almost-guerilla style filmmaking on the street often necessitates a low angle, medium shot behind a walking character to avoid seeing the immediate environment in detail; even then one bystander can be seen waving at the camera. So aesthetically there is some frustration, however the impact of the narrative and superb performances (Wang Yuwen, Peng Yuchang, Zhang Yu and Wang Jin) make this a film worth suffering through.

The setting is an unnamed city in North East China and, hopefully, Bo chose the shittiest areas to shoot because it looks like hell on earth and its inhabitants deserve to live there. Of course, the latter isn’t true as living conditions, both actual and social, have a massive influence on personality. It reminded me Jia Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wuwhich was banned in China on release as it gave such a negative representation of the country; An Elephant Sitting Still tops it by some degree! From a western perspective, at least, much of what we see is shocking: a boy is injured at school but the Vice Principal refuses to call the police as he says the family will take their own retribution. Nobody, and that’s nobody, is nice to anybody else, with one exception of a loyal friend and that doesn’t end well; the housing is dreadful; I could go on. The cross cutting narratives resemble a soap opera as does the family conflict that intensifies any TV drama grief ten-fold.

Taking the film as a distinct representation of a desperate worldview, it is a superb rendition of hopelessness. Hence the title, the story of the elephant in a nearby zoo, who sits and won’t move, appears throughout the film. The elephant, it seems, has given up; the film’s characters don’t but it seems they might as well do so.

The Goddess (Shen nu, China, 1934)

Suffering motherhood

Despite the closure of cinemas, and having an inordinate amount of time to watch them, the films-to-see keep piling up. Recently I stumbled across ‘videos on modern Chinese culture, curated by faculty of the Department of Asian Studies of the University of British Columbia’ on YouTube giving me zero excuse not to investigate films that I’d never been able to see and had virtually no knowledge of.

Goddess, a ‘silent’ film despite being produced in the mid-thirties showing China was behind slightly in the transition to sound, proved to be a full-bloodied melodrama of maternal sacrifice. Ruan Lingyu plays the unnamed ‘goddess’; titles at the start tell us she is a prostitute and, because she is a devoted mother to her baby, the titular deity. Wikipedia tells me that ‘goddess’ was also a euphemism for prostitute in Shanghai at the time where there were 100,000 ‘street walkers’. Typically of melodrama, the downtrodden woman is the hero and the film is progressive in some ways: one of the narrative problems is that she has to overcome is social prejudice. According to Yingin Zhang, in Chinese National Cinema (2004), progressive (leftist) films in China at the time usually were a result of the scriptwriters and states that:

‘it was not unusual that the leftists praised one film by a director and then criticized his next work. Such examples include Wu Yonggang’s Goddess…, an acclaimed leftist classic, and his Little Angel [was] judged to be reactionary…’ (68)

This is puzzling as, according to imdb.com, Wu both directed and scripted Goddess. In an interesting essay ‘The Goddess: Fallen Woman of Shanghai’, Kristin Harris shows how the film was balanced between a progressive representation but at the same time fulfilled the reactionary needs of the KMT Nationalist Party which was increasing its censorship of the arts at the time. Hence, the goddess had to be punished for her transgression, as a prostitute, even as the narrative shows her to be innocent. Of course Hollywood maternal melodrama rarely offered happy endings for their victim-heroes either.

The fact that the film strongly references Hollywood productions, Stella Dallas (1925) in particular springs to mind, is not surprising as this ‘first golden age’ of Chinese filmmaking was heavily influenced by American productions. That said, there are some very striking moments in Wu’s film, particularly at the inevitable ‘murder of the pimp’ scene where the violence is directed at the camera with Lingyu’s fierce expression clearly showing she is at breaking point.

Breaking point

Lingyu was a big star and killed herself only a few months after the film was completed; she was 25. Apparently the pressures of fame and gossip columns, along with an abused childhood, broke her. She’s the subject of Centre Stage (Ruan Ling Yu, Hong Kong, 1991), directed by Stanley Kwan with Maggie Cheung in the title role; a film that’s been waiting patiently on my shelf for some time so that’s another one that will need adding to the pile.

Balloon (Qi qiu, China, 2019) – GFF2

The balloons are condoms

Although the film is slated as Chinese, it is in essence Tibetan (although writer-director Tseden Pema is Chinese): it’s set in rural Tibet and, I believe, most of the dialogue is Tibetan. Key is the Buddhist religion which, alongside China’s ‘one child’ policy, introduced in 1985, are the restraints on the ordinary people’s lives we observe. From a western perspective (I’ve never been to Tibet) the ‘slice of life’ aspect gives the film an ethnographic feel (which is one of the delights of ‘world’ cinema). Only three actors are listed on imdb so it’s likely most of the cast are non professionals which, along with the location shooting, adds to the authenticity of what we’re seeing. However, the film is also a melodrama, a heightened version of reality, and, as the title suggests, the balloons are representative.

The film starts with the Dargye (Jinpa – above right) arriving to provide supplies to his dad who’s tending sheep and the lively youngsters. We see the scene through what appears to be a misty lens which transpires to be a subjective shot from one of the boys through the balloon they found under their parents’ pillow. The ‘balloons’ are condoms and so links directly to the information we are give right at the start which informs us of the ‘one child’ policy introduced in 1985. Any family having more than one is fined and as this particular family are scrimping to send an elder son to college, this would have serious consequences. The family’s eldest child has become a nun after an unspecified trauma in a relationship with a man who now teaches at the boy’s college: a perfect example of melodramatic narrative coincidence. The teacher’s written an acclaimed novel, called Balloon, about that relationship which he gives to her when she picks up her brother for the summer holidays.

In the narrative, women are more important than men even though the society is patriarchal. The mother, Drolka (Sonam Wongmo), seeks sterilisation from an enlightened doctor (female) and when she becomes pregnant the drama reaches a crisis. There’s some humour, particularly over the young boys’ bargaining with their mates with the ‘balloons’.

The narrative deals the clashes with tradition (particularly religion) in the context of China’s oppressive policy of the time. The time is something of a confusion: at one point the dad has what looks like a small mobile phone (placing the film late in the 20th century at the earliest) and a news broadcast about the world’s first test tube baby is seen; that was in 1978. I was confused. However Lu Songye’s stunning cinematography creates a ‘bleached’ mise en scene that is accentuated with spots of colour (a red sweater, for instance). As to what the balloons represent? I think it is the future (the condoms prevent children in the future) and the teacher is trying to mend his relationship with the sister. Pema finishes with another humorous scenes featuring the boys but there’s a devastating ending too…  I need to seek out the directors’ other six features.

So Long, My Son (Dijiutianchang, China, 2019)

The personal and the political enmeshed

So Long, My Son is a flabbergasting film (partly due to its three hour plus running time) in that it manages to intricately combine the political with the personal. While melodrama is often used to tell a story of an era sometimes, as in the case of this film, as a family saga where we see how the changing times affect different generations, it rarely does so in such a convincing way. The context here is the highly politicised China at the end of the last century when, in the late ’70s, the ‘one child’ policy was introduced to help the transition to state capitalism. The long running time of the film isn’t a strain on attention, just on brain power to hold all the detail; not a moment is wasted.

I first encountered Wang Xiaoshuai, a ‘sixth generation’ (from the Beijing film school) director, with his Beijing Bycycle (Shiqi sui de dan che, France-Taiwan-China, 2001), a homage to Bicycle ThievesThis generation’s defining moment was the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989) and so it’s no surprise to find a critical edge to their films. The criticism was not just toward the Chinese government, western consumerism was also a likely target, especially as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were aimed at introducing ‘luxuries’ such as refrigerators and colour televisions. So Long, My Son critiques the ‘one child’ policy through the couple, Yaojun and Liyun, played respectively by Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei (both award winners at last year’s Berlin Film Festival), as the film follows their lives from the mid-’80s to the present day. To avoid spoilers I won’t offer details of the narrative other than to say it is brilliantly structured (written by Wang and Ah Mei) so that the final 30 minutes is a brilliant summation of the preceding two and a half hours. That’s not so say it’s always easy to follow as, increasingly in modern ‘arty’ cinema I feel, it freely uses flashforwards and flashbacks without clearly indicating when we are. Dramatically I think this serves to show how our lives are a sum of our past: we can never escape our memories. In this sense the past is always with us.

Stylistically Wang is flexible, from a devastating use of a pan in extreme long shot, of a dramatic event early in the film, to striking ‘reverse shots’. The latter occurs with long takes followed by a shot of what is, in effect, behind the camera. In one scene the boss of a factory tells the workers there will be redundancies in the national interest, his long speech is followed by a shot of the audience, all wearing blue Mao suits. Their uniformity fills the screen and then they burst out in protest. Similarly, a scene at a tatty graveside is followed by a reverse shot of the immaculate graveyard. There is one brilliant, almost throwaway shot, of Yaojun looking out of a car window, when they return to their home town after years away, where he sees a statue of Mao. Behind him there’s building and the word ‘victory’ can be seen. Moments later, as the car moves, we can see it’s the name Victory Mall, so the building is shopping centre. Yaojun chuckles.

From a British (western?) perspective the use of tune from Auld Lang Syne in a Chinese version seems incongruous. I suspect the lyrics are the same, though, as the theme of old friendships runs throughout the film. The cinematography, by Kim Hyun Seok, is often beautiful and this is a film that needs to be seen more than once.

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.