Monthly Archives: April 2007

China 07

Gong Li as Ju Dou

First chance this week to get to screenings in the China 07 season (10 years since the handover of Hong Kong). At Cornerhouse on Wednesday I watched Judou (dir. Zhang Yimou, China/Japan 1990) in the cinema for the first time since the early 90s. Somebody appears to have found the original UK 35mm print lurking in the ICA basement. The projectionist told me that it was ‘fragile’, but apart from the usual scratches at reel ends it played fine and the colours were just sensational. Judou is one of the most visually spectacular films I’ve ever seen and one that depends to a large extent on colour grading, especially the reds for which Zhang Yimou is famous. According to various sources, this was one of the last films to use the original Technicolor process. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s rare to see anything like Judou today.

I’d skimmed through a VHS copy before the screening in order to prepare some notes for my introduction, but I sat and watched the film all through, mesmerised by its beauty and promising myself a Zhang Yimou feast. I’ve just bought some DVDs from The Chinese DVDs of Red Sorghum and Shanghai Triad are terrible with poorly dubbed sound and awful colour (thankfully Apple’s DVD player lets me tweak the colour) — but they are very cheap. The ‘digitally remastered’ Hong Kong DVD of Raise the Red Lantern is excellent.

It was intriguing to go back and watch one of the early collaborations between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li in the same week that The Curse of the Golden Flower opens in the UK. I’m looking forward to the opening, though I’m a little apprehensive after Gong Li was wasted in Miami Vice last summer.

Today I joined Keith to watch The Arch (Dong fu ren) in Bradford. We both enjoyed the film, but were a little puzzled by the season’s notes (presumably written by Mark Cousins). They tried to suggest that this was a film which heralded a new direction for Chinese Cinema in 1970 – essentially pre-dating the breakthrough of Yellow Earth in 1984 (or “pre-figuring the modernity that was to come”). I’m not sure about this. The Arch is certainly unusual and I’m not sure I’ve seen many films from Hong Kong/Taiwan of this vintage in order to make comparisons.

The Hong Kong print we saw was in good condition and at first I thought it was going to be a fairly slow romance set in that indeterminate past (the notes say the Ming Dynasty) often featured in Hong Kong Cinema. But as it got going it soon became evident that it was indeed a melodrama with a familiar central figure played by Lisa Lu (an actor with a long list of Hollywood credits), a woman who is driven to desperation by the rules of patriarchy which prevent her from having an emotional/sexual life in middle age (40!). Without reading the notes beforehand we both felt that this was a film with elements of Indian and Japanese cinema and possibly influences from further afield as well. A black and white melodrama in 1970 already feels slightly old-fashioned and the various devices that the notes suggest are ‘pre-figuring modernity’ are all more associated with 1950s and 60s cinema: freeze frames, use of soft focus/blur and what seemed like optical special effects that would not have been out of place in the 1920s.

The production context of The Arch is difficult to research. (One of the other audience members told us that the dialogue was Mandarin. At least one of the web references I was able to follow claims it as Cantonese. My ear is not reliable and I don’t understand either language, but by the sound I would have guessed Cantonese.) It was written and directed by Cecile Tang (Shu Shuen) who, according to IMDB, was 29 when she made the film. She then made four more Hong Kong features in the 1970s. The film was produced independently and was apparently photographed by Subrata Mitra, famous as Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer in Bengal in the 1960s. This isn’t corroborated on IMDB but perhaps explains why some of the shots looked familiar. The editing is attributed to Les Blank, a well known American independent filmmaker with a string of credits as director, cinematographer and editor. Overall, the film appears to be a conventional melodrama presented in a hybrid style. It obviously depends on audiences, but I saw several shots (the departure of the daughter across a lake, for example) that could have come from Mizoguchi and the use of visual devices that reminded me of early Kurosawa. I don’t think the Yellow Earth connection is valid, but programming the film alongside Judou and Two Stage Sisters as part of the evolution of Chinese melodrama makes sense.

Judou (China/Japan 1990)

Working in the dye factory

Sneaking a meal in the dye factory

The third film directed by Zhang Yimou, Judou forms the the second part of the trilogy of period melodramas that the director made with the young Gong Li. It followed Red Sorghum (1987) and preceded Raise the Red Lantern (1991). Viewed in 2007 when director and star have been reunited on the third part of another, rather different, trilogy with The Curse of the Golden Flower, Judou reminds us of both the range of Zhang Yimou’s visual imagination and of his central role in the renewal of Chinese Cinema after the rigours of the Cultural Revolution.

The first film of the Fifth Generation of Chinese directors to reach the West and to receive major critical attention was Yellow Earth (1984) directed by Chen Kaige. The striking visual qualities of that film, and of Chen’s follow-up, The Big Parade from 1986, were both attributable in large part to the cinematography of his classmate Zhang Yimou. Zhang also appeared as an actor in the Old Well (1986) and when he moved into directing he shared the credit with his colleague Yang Fengliang on Judou, as he had on the commercial thriller Codename Cougar (1989). Despite the joint credit, Judou has always been seen as primarily a ‘Zhang Yimou film’. Zhang did not photograph his own films and on Red Sorghum and Judou he worked with Gu Changwei. Yang Lun, who photographed Raise the Red Lantern, also worked on Judou.

Unlike Chen and Tian Zhuangzhuang, the other Fifth Generation director to achieve critical acclaim in the West, Zhang was from a ‘bad class background’ and he struggled to be accepted for the Film Academy. All the Fifth Generation films challenged the orthodoxy of cinema in the People’s Republic since 1949, but Zhang’s did so by means of revitalising the female-centred melodrama and the attractions of traditional genre cinema, presented by a visual artist with a genius for colour and composition. Where Chen and Tian might explore more ostensibly cerebral issues, Zhang’s approach was seemingly more basic in its appeal to eroticism and visual splendour.

Red Sorghum mixed family melodrama and the war with Japan in the 1930s and proved to be a massive commercial success in China. Its success overseas also enabled Zhang to get funding for Judou (mainly from Japan) and Raise the Red Lantern, films that were then viewed in the West as ‘arthouse’. The theme of all the films in the trilogy is the oppression of young women in the highly patriarchal system of China in the 1920s and 1930s. The popular success of Red Sorghum was not repeated in China with Judou, largely it would seem because the film fell foul of the Communist Party censors. There are major problems with any discussion of how films like Judou played in China on their release. We have little access to any reliable statistics on film distribution and audience numbers. The decisions taken by the censors in this period are not explained and do not seem to be consistent. Decisions may be made for personal, idiosyncratic reasons or because of changes in Communist Party policies. (Tony Rayns in the Monthly Film Bulletin review of Judou in April 1991 suggested that the official concerned had no real knowledge of film culture as such.) The result is that Western commentaries on Zhang’s career have often depended on perceptions of how the films were being seen by the authorities in Beijing. Films like Judou were perhaps more warmly received because they were thought to be banned in China, whereas later films such as The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), also starring Gong Li and written by Liu Heng, author of the novella Judou, were treated with some suspicion because they were thought to be ‘Party approved’.

Zhang’s long career has survived many changes in both official Chinese cultural policy and international film culture. It is worth noting that his directorial career began in the Xi’an Studio in Central China where he was able to experiment away from the more hierarchical major studios in Beijing and Shanghai (which would also be more accessible to the censors). The fact that Zhang has remained in China as a Chinese filmmaker (albeit often funded from overseas) suggests that he has always been to a certain extent his own man, making the films he wants to make despite how they may be perceived in terms of official ideologies. However, he has found himself caught in a trap which sees him as a ‘popular filmmaker’ in China and still as something of an arthouse director in the West – despite the big box office success in America of Hero in 2004. (But then, Hero was renamed ‘Jet Li’s Hero’ in North America, shifting attention to its star.)

Zhang Yimou is a visualiser, a creator of filmic narratives most often developed from previously published stories. All three films of the trilogy are based on stories that had been published only a few months before the films’ release. Zhang’s skill is in presenting the stories in a visual way and this he achieves through careful collaborative work with cinematographers and production designers. Judou is primarily about the use of sets rather than landscapes and much of the action is shot in the enclosed spaces of the dye works. As Rayns suggests, this inverts the approach taken in Red Sorghum where the action is often viewed from outside the brewery. But it is followed by a similarly ‘interior drama’ in Raise the Red Lantern. Also inverted is the sense of lives destroyed by outside forces (i.e. the Japanese invaders) in Red Sorghum. In the two succeeding films, the impetus for destruction comes from within.

Judou feels ‘modern’ in its direct representation of the emotional (and sexual) lives of its characters, yet visually it draws on compositions that evoke earlier films from international cinema. The set is very well-used. Rayns points to the way in which Zhang denies us a coherent sense of the layout of the dye works. We are aware only of the importance of the loft, the cellar, the stable, the tank in which the dyes are mixed, the winding gear for the drying racks etc. The cinematography shows us the processes in a montage style reminiscent of Soviet Cinema of the 1920s/30s but it signals emotional turmoil rather than craft and industry.

Judou is clearly a melodrama in terms of its set of characters and relationships, but it doesn’t match ideas about melodrama from other cinemas, nor indeed from traditional Chinese Cinema. Rayns points out that the social context of 1920s rural life is evident off-screen, but played down in the interior world. At the same time, the confrontations of conventional melodramas are also less in evidence, certainly on the level of dialogue or music. Instead, the film is primarily visual. The explanation for the film’s effect and its status as a ‘modern-spirited folk tale’, as Rayns puts it, is perhaps best articulated in an essay by Jenny Kwok Wah Lau (1994). She presents Judou as a film that explores a specific form of traditional Chinese painting – the ‘portrait painting’ that was largely replaced by ‘landscape painting’ after the Tang dynasty in 11th and 12th Centuries AD. She suggests that Zhan’s shot selection “makes use of the four elements in classical Chinese portraiture; that is, posture, facial expression, spacing, and environment to delineate not body forms but the spirit of, and the relation between, the characters.”

Traditional Chinese art did not of course follow the perspectives of Western art post the Renaissance, so, in compositional terms, the influence of such portrait painting ideas would automatically create tensions within a cinematic presentation (i.e. the representation of 3D space in a 2D medium). This perhaps explains why Judou sometimes feels ‘odd’. Zhang uses a number of ‘flat’, head-on formal compostions as well as several high and low angles. This play with the depth of the image is also affected by the use of lighting. Kwok Wah Lau argues that whereas conventional Western lighting techniques are used to ‘sculpt’ the image, creating depth, Zhang uses lighting in Judou to emphasise the two-dimensionality of the painting style.

The result of this approach is that more emphasis is placed on colour. Judou is first and foremost a narrative that uses colour – it is set in a dye works! In this respect it is worth considering the film alongside Hero – another occasion in which colour is primary, but one in which the functional basis for the division into different ‘story colours’ is more obvious. In Judou the use of reds and yellows and blues and blacks is much more subtle, though no less beautiful. In 1991 when the film appeared in the West it provoked admiring comments from film critics who claimed that it offered the kinds of colours not seen in the West since the demise of original Technicolor. After the traditional Technicolor process was replaced by cheaper Eastmancolor etc., one of the Technicolor plants (the one in the UK) was stripped and the equipment sold to China. It is claimed that this was the equipment used to process the negative for Judou.

The ‘portrait painting’ of Judou can be related to the ‘landscape painting’ of Yellow Earth. In Judou the effect is (according to Kwok Wah Lau) of “highly idiosyncratic expression” forcing us to react to the terrible consequences of the patriarchial oppression suffered by Judou. (Mary Farquhar (2002) points out, however, that Zhang’s beautiful women are not just to be looked at in the patriarchal gaze, “. . . these women also look back and in actively looking they also choose their destinies.” The ‘landscape’ approach in Yellow Earth is of a more distanced contemplation. However, the films are complementary in that both effectively critique the official socialist realism that characterised Chinese Cinema from the 1950s onwards. They were therefore both open to the charge of ‘negative portrayals of rural Chinese life’.

Judou appeared in the West (and was banned in China) not long after the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989. Because the film is so ‘open’ to interpretation in its presentation and storytelling, it is possible to read the narrative as both/either a condemnation of feudal patriarchy (subsequently overthrown by the PRC) or of the ‘old men’ who repressed democracy on 4 June 1989.

Mary Farquhar (2002) ‘Zhang Yimou’ on:
Jenny Kwok Wah Lau (1994) ‘Judou: An experiment in Color and Portaiture in Chinese Cinema’ in Ehrlich and Desser (eds) Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press
Tony Rayns (1991) Review of ‘Judou’, Monthly Film Bulletin, April

Notes by Roy Stafford for a Cornerhouse, Manchester screening 10/4/2007

BBC4 Roots showing

I managed to catch most of a BBC4 programme celebrating the 30th anniversary of the screening of the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book, and I’m glad I did. The programme neatly fitted into the current series of programmes marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. I didn’t watch the series all the way through in 1977. In those days I was rarely in during the evening, being at meetings, at work or the movies. However, I saw enough to know how it worked and I was well aware of it as a cultural phenomenon. What intrigued me most about the BBC4 programme was the use of a clutch of high profile 40 something British actors and writers to tell us about their memories of the programme as young schoolchildren. The likes of Adrian Lester, poet Lemn Sissay and actor/writer Kwame Kwei-Armah all spoke about how the programme had been a revelation since they had not learned enough about the slave trade in the classroom to understand what their own identity meant. Indeed Kwame Kwei-Armah changed his name from the ‘slave name’ of Ian Roberts, partly because of his experience of watching Roots. This set me to thinking about how much I knew about the experience of slavery and where I had learned this.

We certainly did cover the ‘triangular trade’ in secondary school history (but not by age 10-11 as the interviewees attested). I think I must have picked up most of my knowledge from popular literature, film and television and certainly a great deal from Jamaican music. I’ve got to acknowledge that it was coming across Bob Marley and the Wailers in the early 1970s that really got me interested in Jamaican history and led me towards Marcus Garvey and the powerful music of Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear. Sometime before 1977 I must also have got into Walter Rodney the Guyanese historian, probably through meeting Black activists in London.

One thing I certainly learned from the BBC4 programme was the extent of Alex Haley’s success as a journalist and writer. I’d forgotten that Haley was the journalist to whom Malcolm X told his story and which produced a book that went on to sell millions of copies as ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’. I bought that book sometime in the mid 1970s and it had a big impact on my teaching. I remember the fuss over the release of the film Mandingo in 1975 (a melodrama about sex and race championed by Movie magazine), but I don’t suppose that even that controversy penetrated far into the popular imagination of the period. That was the achievement of Roots. I wonder how the mini-series would do today? And I wonder too, how much today’s students really know about the history of slavery? Do they have time (or the inclination) to look for the literature and the music that tells the personal stories that carry the emotional power of a Roots? More on this please BBC4.