Monthly Archives: May 2007

Going domestic in East Asia

In the week that Pirates of the Caribbean opened to record business on 17,500 screens in 102 territories, it’s worth noting that it isn’t all going Hollywood’s way. In 2006, Japan and China joined India and South Korea as major territories in which the domestic film industry managed to achieve 50% of domestic box office. If you want to know what kinds of films these industries are producing, a good starting point is Leung Wing-Fai’s review of the 2007 Far East Film Festival in Udine, which we are honoured to present on the in the picture website. Fai wasn’t that impressed with what was on offer, but “telling it like it is” is part of her style. What’s clear is that these industries function much like other commercial industries and we need to keep track of the range of their ouputs.

2007 looks like a good year for Hollywood, but it is increasingly looking towards East Asian markets — the Pirates franchise brought in Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-fat for the latest instalment. The latest MPAA figures suggest that Hollywood’s share of the global market has been falling. Partly this is because some territories are growing fast (e.g. Russia) and partly because the difficulties of collecting box office figures in many territories have led to an underestimation of some national totals. In 2006, MPAA quotes a global market for cinema of $25.8 billion with US on $9.49 billion and East Asia on $6.32 billion (an increase of 15% over 2005-6).

Helpless, helpless: Away From Her

“There is a town in North Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.”

k.d. lang sings Neil Young’s words for ‘Helpless’ at the end of Sarah Polley’s wonderful film Away From Her (a recording taken from her album of Canadian songs entitled ‘Hymns of the 49th Parallel’). Young’s words are powerfully suggestive of the emotions in the film and the cover of k.d. lang’s album could be a still from the film.

I was certainly helpless from about twenty minutes in when I began to weep (possibly as the strains to ‘Harvest Moon’ started on the soundtrack) and couldn’t stop throughout the rest of the film. I had approached the screening with much trepidation. Like most people my age I’ve had some experience of Alzheimer’s disease in the family and the prospect of Julie Christie gradually deteriorating was worrying to say the least. But what I watched was a sensitive and moving story of a marriage which was not sentimental or romantic, but nevertheless optimistic.

On reflection, this is a film in which a quartet (or possibly a quintet) of women effectively help a man to come to terms with being parted from his partner of 44 years (i.e. being ‘away from her’). Some of the women help with compassion, the care home manager is coldly (and irritatingly) efficient, another woman is ‘plain talking’. The chief nurse is the compassionate one – but is also to the point in her criticism of him. And at the centre is Fiona (Julie Christie) devastatingly beautiful and knowing, even as her hold on memory unravels. The man, Grant (a great performance of bewilderment by the veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), worries that she may be putting on an act — and perhaps she is because she does manage to get him to question what he has done during the marriage.

I’ve read some interesting reviews, including one on the Village Voice website by Ella Taylor. I haven’t see too many comments about the style of the film, except to suggest that it is ‘conservative’. I think it is probably a good idea for a first time director to be cautious in presenting a story, so that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming sense is of whiteness, blankness and cold, which seems appropriate. The only visual flourish I remember is the series of cross-fades which removes the visiting relatives from the dining tables in the care home — an appropriate and effective device.

I don’t think I’ve read any of Alice Munro’s short stories (this film is adapted from ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’), but this reminds me of other Canadian women writers. There is something of Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood in it — and also something older and more Nordic (perhaps it’s the landscape). Fiona is supposed to be from Icelandic stock and Grant reads to her from Auden and Louis MacNeice’s book ‘Letters from Iceland’. Trying to research those Canadian stories I’ve read (and regrettably forgotten) I came across Marjorie Anderson, an academic and author whose bio explains that she is of Icelandic fisher stock from a community on Lake Winnipeg — a background which is presumably common in Manitoba and Ontario. There is something about the landscape of Ontario , the Protestantism, the Northern European culture, that creates a tone that you just don’t find in American movies. It’s evident in this film (in the landscape seen through the car windows and in the “brand spanking new” facility that is Meadowdale (or similarly horrible name for a care home)). I’m nudged to think of Cronenberg films like Crash, eXistenZ and A History of Violence (filmed in Canada). Anglophone Canadian Cinema is usually ‘weird’ — but in a good way! This film is simply very good. I must watch more Canadian movies and I’ll certainly be looking out for Sarah Polley, who sounds rather like Jodie Foster in beginning as a child star and making it to respected indy star and now acclaimed director at 27.

(The film was actually shot in Paris and Kitchener in Southern Ontario. My research turned up a literary genre which was new to me — ‘Southern Ontario Gothic’. This includes Munro and Atwood and also my favourite, Robertson Davies. It includes the elements I listed above and tends towards themes of moral hypocrisy according to Wikipedia. Isn’t the internet wonderful? But why isn’t anyone making movies based on Robertson Davies? I guess they would just be too ‘weird’.)

What’s in a name?

I’ve rarely been so engaged by a film as I was by The Namesake. What I mean is, that I was at the same time enjoying the story and the characterisation, wishing I was in Calcutta, remembering visiting the Taj Mahal, reliving Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak films and occasionally being irritated by the American characters (and possibly cross because they seemed a little too much of a type when the central couple were so beautifully drawn).

There is something about Bengali Cinema which is irresistible and nearly always involves trains, the Ganges and the streets of Calcutta. But perhaps it is those thick black-rimmed spectacles that only Bengali intellectuals (and Buddy Holly) can wear and still look cool. All of these iconic signs are present in this film and its much the better for their inclusion — the first section of the film is wonderful. This was my introduction to Tabu and I wish I’d seen her before. (I’ve subsequently realised that I have seen her before in the wonderful Tamil adaptation of Sense and Sensibility under the title Kandukondain, Kandukondain, 2000) Now that I’ve discovered that she is the niece of Shabana Azmi, I’ll be looking out for her. Irrfan Khan as the father is also very good and I hadn’t recognised him from The Warrior.

I guess on reflection that I enjoyed the American scenes between the son and his partners slightly less than those featuring the parents, but overall the story held my attention (and Zuleikha Robinson is an actor well worth keeping tabs on). I’ve read a couple of fairly damning reviews of Kal Penn’s performance as the son and I’m afraid I’d probably agree that his character was the weakest element of the film. On a simple structural level, Mira Nair did well to handle what was almost a family saga on a limited budget and within the boundaries of quite a small and intimate film.

Curse of the Golden Flower (Hong Kong/China 2006)

Gong Li and Zhang Yimou on set.

I’ve always associated Chrysants with Japan, so it was a surprise to see thousands of them in Curse of the Golden Flower.

I went into this screening not knowing what to expect. I’d seen the trailer and got a sense of lukewarm reviews, but neither really prepared me for the film. I shouldn’t be surprised that I was very taken with it – after all, I’ve never been really disappointed with one of Zhang’s films. He remains for me one of the top players in the premier league, whatever political confusions his films create.

The first task in responding to the film is to try to categorise it. Despite the use of the term by several critics, I don’t think the film is a wu xia, at least not in the sense that I have understood the term. The main characters are not warriors following the code of a dedicated master and displaying ‘super skills’. There are opera techniques in the fight scenes, which are choreographed on an epic scale, but not with the romantic intensity that ran through Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Instead, I think that this is melodrama/opera with clear links to European/Indian/Japanese films/theatre.

In terms of melodrama, I’ve never seen this use of colour in anything else (I saw a digital print and the effect of slightly different contrast and shades might mean the 35mm print looks more familiar). Zhang does it again, I guess. The music was the only problem for me. By the end of the film I’d got used to it, but earlier it just didn’t seem to fit.

Above all, the film offered two pleasures I hadn’t ever imagined I would see, the return of Gong Li to a Zhang Yimou film and the chance to see Li and Chow Yun-fat together. I could have done without all the thrusting bosoms, but Gong Li’s wonderful face drew my attention all the time. If the film isn’t really the third film in a trilogy, it might just be a return to Zhang’s first trilogy (and indeed his first Gong Li trilogy). The film that Curse of the Golden Flower most reminded me of is Raise the Red Lantern. The Gong Li character is proud, haughty and independent, plotting to achieve some power for herself but finally defeated by the implacable nature of patriarchy in Imperial China, just as she was in the earlier film. No doubt the China watchers in the West and in China itself are working on readings. I did think of the Tiananman Square massacre and I could see the film as a critique of both patriarchy and the internal plotting of the ruling elite. On the other hand, Chow Yun-fat’s Emperor has risen up from a relatively lowly position to assume power and he intends to keep it. Perhaps Zhang secretly wants to celebrate this? As usual the posters on the IMDB bulletin boards are claiming the film as ‘communist propaganda’. You takes your choice. I want to know why I’m not getting to see the film Zhang made before this, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. UK distribs please note.

Far East Film Festival 9

Memories of Matsuko (Japan 2006) -- a "tragic comedy with a life-affirming message".

Report by Leung Wing-Fai

At Far East Film Festival, Udine, Italy this year, I was disappointed once again (see in the picture issue 54). In four days, I watched 14 films, 1 television drama, walked out of 8 screenings (a personal record) and could not finish one title. First impressions: the mainland Chinese outputs seem to be moving towards the commercial mainstream; Hong Kong cinema continues to decline; the results of effort to generate Asian blockbusters are mixed; Korean titles are steady, solid productions but fail to impress. There was only one retrospective this year, of Patrick Tam, one of the most underrated directors from the Hong Kong New Wave. I was glad to revisit his early works, as well as see After This Our Exile (2006), his first film after fifteen years. Even the general atmosphere of the festival was a little subdued: only on 25 April (Italy’s National holiday) was there a sell out (for the unfortunately lame sequel to Nana, Kentaro Otani, 2005, see below). Having said that, FEFF is still the prime promoter of Asian film culture in Europe and the debates in and around the main venue Teatro Nuovo carried on in its lively tradition. For itp readers I shall examine Asian commercial cinema, including co-productions and blockbusters, and genre films.

The national selections reflect the respective commercial health of the industries. China reportedly produced over 300 films in 2006 (153 releases). Censorship seems to have been relaxed in order to allow for more realistic and popular themes to emerge. The Matrimony (Teng Huatao, 2007) was the first officially passed story involving supernatural elements, disguised as a ‘ghost-melodrama’ where one side of the love triangle is a dead girlfriend. In China, domestic films took 55% of total box office (FEFF 2007: 25) which is a sure sign that the Chinese industry is one to watch. With the continuous decline in the number of productions from Hong Kong (50 in 2006), the film industry relies on co-productions, most notably, with China, Japan and Korea. In March, the city hosted the first Pan-Asian film awards, alongside existing ventures such as the Asian Film Financing Forum, a step closer to the dream of region-wide cinema. Confession of Pain (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2006, the team behind Infernal Affairs) is a suitably convoluted thriller though the performance lacks charisma (main cast includes Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Takeshi Kaneshiro); its glossy, high value production does not hide the dull blockbuster formula. Apparently, Confession has already been sold to the production team behind The Departed and another inferior remake is expected. Sakuran (photographer-turned-director Ninagawa Mika, Japan, 2007) travels in the opposite direction: a Memories of Geisha cloned, deliberately colourful, inauthentic tale of an oiran (high class prostitute) set in the Edo period. The combination of good visual elements and inappropriate choice of score of cheesy western pop, J-pop, jazz does not detract from a flimsy narrative.

In 2006, Japanese films took just over half of the domestic box office; South Korea also had 60% market share (FEFF 2007: 37, 53). Apart from Hong Kong, on paper at least, East Asian cinemas seem to be relatively healthy. It is a tad worrying if the offering at this year’s festival is an accurate reflection of the commercial outputs from the various Asian film industries. The Hong Kong-China co-production Battle of Wits (Jacob Cheung 2006) turns out to be a dull CGI epic that plays (sic) like an annoying computer war game, one over which the audiences do not have any control. Death Note, a Warner Brothers release, and its sequel (based on Ohba Tsugumi manga, both directed by Shusuke Kaneko, Japan, 2006) also fall under this category of ‘joystick-less game-film monstrosity’. The story is an unnecessarily complex psychological battle between a student-killer and detective, featuring CGI egos (one of them looks like David Bowie, which freaked me out). Another spectacular failure is Dynamite Warriors (Chalerm Wongpim, Thailand, 2006). Obviously trying to capture the post-Ong Bak market, it attempts to combine far too many, annoying computer-generated fight scenes with an Indiana Jones type character (an almost entirely silent Tony Jaa clone). One lesson from all these is that computer imagery helps and enhances the narrative but does not compensate for poor script and the lack of rounded characters.

Genre films, once the speciality of industries such as Hong Kong, are now a firm tradition in South Korea. The most impressive is The Host (Bong Joon-ho 2006), about a sea monster holding a couple of children hostage, hotly pursued by an anxious, eccentric family. It has high production value, featuring the best of monster flicks from Hollywood (quality special effects) and Japan (Godzilla-style villain and the quintessential family in peril). After its disappointing cinema release in the UK, this film is now enjoying a good reception on DVD. Elsewhere, Asian horror fails to recapture the fresh surprises of several years ago. This year’s horror day featured the likes of Chermin (Zarina Abdullah, Malaysia, 2007) and The Slit-Mouthed Woman (Koji Shiraishi, Japan, 2007), low budget films with standard tropes (e.g. vengeful female ghosts) that fail to break new grounds.

The titles that I was most impressed with this year were genre-defiling drama. Soi Cheang’s Dog Bite Dog (Hong Kong, 2006), an extremely dark thriller, contains an element of male melodrama. Memories of Matsuko (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan 2006) is the epic life story of the eponymous downtrodden, unfortunate heroine. Nakashima, a former commercial director (evident from this and his previous film Kamikaze Girls, 2004), manages to use highly stylised, technicoloured, MTV imagery to convey some very dark materials in a tragic comedy, that at the same time has a life affirming message. Cruel Winter Blues (Lee Jung-bum, Korea, 2006) turns the gangster movie, by now a familiar Korean standard, on its head when the protagonist (a great performance from Sul Kyoung-gu of Peppermint Candy and Public Enemy fame) stakes out at his rival gang member’s mother’s roadside café and develops a relationship with her. The result is a drama that grabs you quietly and questions the meaning of violence and the so called gangster ethic. As such, breaking generic iconography could be interesting but other attempts seem forced: Righteous Ties (Jang Jin, South Korea, 2006) offers a good first half gangster-prison-comedy, followed by a familiar overblown, overlong Korean finale.

2006 might not have been a vintage year for East Asian cinemas, although the film industries still held out against foreign (mainly Hollywood) films. Formulaic films in Japan turned audiences off: a good example during the festival was Nana 2 (Kentaro Otani 2006), a lukewarm manga-adapted-rom-com sequel. Despite the number of productions and good domestic market shares for China, Korea and Japan, many commercial films are too eager to repeat existing formulas and rely on technology to hide weak story and character development. Asian horror and Hallyu (Korean wave) are on the wane. Foreign sales for South Korean titles have dropped. The surprises have come from directors not afraid to stick to an uncompromising vision, engaging scripts, aided by good actors (that East Asia has plenty of) and appropriate visual style and score.

Far East Film Festival (FEFF) (2007) Catalogue Udine, Italy: CEC

Thanks to Centro Espressioni Cinematografiche for my attendance at Far East Film 9 and Ben Heal for additional ideas.

Yellow Earth (China 1984)

The soldier is out of place in the village.

Yellow Earth was one of the most important films to appear in the 1980s, not just in China, but in the whole of global cinema. When it was released in the UK in 1986 it had an immediate impact and was recognised as one of the few films to be marked by a genuine attempt to create a ‘new’ kind of cinema. For the UK audience this was very much concerned with the cinematic qualities of the film – its use of colour, composition and framing and its use of sound to evoke an ‘unknown’ time and place. A similar response met Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 Malian film Yeelen which presented a different but related view of a sub-Saharan African culture. A further similarity between these two films is the background of their creative forces – filmmakers educated and trained in the context of European film culture, who then turn to their own traditional cultures to find stories to tell and an aesthetic through which to realise their vision.

All the Western scholars referenced here are agreed on the importance of the ‘auterist vision’ adopted by the trio of Beijing Film Academy graduates, director Chen Kaige, cinematographer Zhang Yimou and production designer He Qun. Where previous creative teams thought to realise Chinese films using a conventional mode of representation developed from the 1930s through the 1950s (Stage Sisters being a good example of such an approach), the Fifth Generation filmmakers on Yellow Earth looked to the traditions of Chinese painting and folksongs for a suitable aesthetic to convey a story that was also ‘different’ in its concerns. Although taken from a novel, the ideas contained in Yellow Earth were thoroughly re-worked for a film produced by the young filmmakers from their base in Guangxi, far from Beijing in Southern China. They travelled north to shoot on location and drew on a range of specifically local influences.

The ‘look’ of the film
Yellow Earth is set in Northern China on the Loess Plateau of Shanbei in Shaanxi province, where the soil is the result of a wind-blown fine silt carried to the region from the plains of Central Asia. The landscape is constantly being sculpted by wind and water erosion, producing deep gorges. Not only is the earth yellow, but the area is also traversed by the Yellow River – one of the major river systems of China. Zhang Yimou was born in the region and he went to great lengths to represent it on film – shooting at particular times of day to capture the range of yellows, ochres and browns in the soil. Traditional painting styles used bold colours and Yellow Earth also includes what have now become the almost trademark vivid reds of Zhang Yimou – all the more startling against the austere backdrops.

The framings frequently use the horizon line to comment on the importance to the characters of their environment. In a conventional landscape framing the horizon line might be place somewhere in the central third of the image, but Zhang pushes it further towards the top or bottom of the frame.

The compositions in Yellow Earth draw upon traditional modes of Chinese painting, especially those of the Shanbei region which see single human figures or trees, or small groups, set against the empty terrain. Sometimes the compositions can appear to mirror those of the ‘socialist realist’ tradition derived from Soviet Cinema (see the ‘heroic’ pose in the image above), but across the film they tend to present a very different visual style:

Yellow Earth rejected the aesthetics of social realism by critiquing them through traditional aesthetic codes. It contains a limited range of set images: earth, water, sky, mountains, a tree, a boat (all from the classical landscape painting tradition), and peasants, an ox, a cave home, a Party cadre and PLA soldiers (all Maoist images). (Berry and Farquhar, 1994:95)

Yellow Earth has a minimal story line. But, although little happens as such, there is narrative development through the lyrics of the songs. These are explored in some detail by Farquhar, who demonstrates that it is through the songs (and the singing) that the central discourse about bringing the ‘new’ (the Communist ideology) to the ‘old’ (the traditional life of the peasantry) is articulated. The re-writing of the lyrics of traditional songs was a major concern for the Party – ‘new wine in old bottles’, but, as Farquhar points out, the song collector misses the importance of the voice of the young woman.

Yin and yang
Farquhar’s 1992 analysis (also alluded to in her 1994 paper with Berry) explores what she calls the ‘hidden gender identity’ in the film. She suggests that the meaning of the film is hidden in its presentation of the people, the landscape and a minimal story. She uses the Taoist concepts of the yin and yang to foreground the story. The concepts do not relate directly to ‘men’ and ‘women’ but rather to gender principles which could be manifest in all things. Thus yin refers to the moon, the Earth, Autumn, Winter, darkness, water, femininity, death and stillness. Yang refers to sun, heaven, Spring, Summer, light, fire, masculinity, life, movement.

“The yang/yin structure of the film is not one of fixed gender confrontation, or simple patriarchy, but one of disharmonious relationships” (Farquhar 1992: 156)

Since the film begins with a memorable image of sky (yang) and earth (yin) and goes on to explore several other ‘elemental’ oppositions, it is clear that this approach to an analysis offers rich pickings.

The location of the film has a further symbolic power as it represents both the mythic birthplace of the Chinese people and the base from which the Communists went forward, after the Long March in the 1930s, to eventually wrestle control of the whole country from the Japanese and the Nationalists. Uniquely, it represents the birth of ‘old’ and ‘new’ China.

Farquhar recognises that the yin/yang approach offers only one reading of what is, as many audiences have discovered, a film which hides its meanings very carefully. But whatever approach we take to the film it is clear that it represented in 1984 a decisive break with the socialist realist tradition, not only in its aesthetics, but also in its lack of a clear central social message about the revolution. Indeed, it seems reasonably clear from the film that a central tenet of Maoist thought (and practice) is being challenged. Although the soldier and song-hunter Gu Qing is a sympathetic character with noble motives, he is too distanced by his own training to be able to understand the peasant world that he encounters and as a result he does not bring the promised transformation to the lives of Cuiqiao and her brother and father.

In their different ways, many Fifth Generation films would later question how the ‘modernisation’ offered by Maoism could engage with the traditional lives of people also being subjected to the external pressures of globalisation and consumerism. Like Yellow Earth, some films would look at the earlier decades of the twentieth century for a ‘way’ in to this question. In doing so, filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou would also have to withstand charges of ‘elitism’ from audiences, more used to ‘easy to understand’ narratives as well as attempts by the government to curtail activities that could be seen as critical of central policies – a tall order indeed.

Chris Berry and Mary Ann Farquhar (1994) ‘An Analysis of Yellow Earth and Black Cannon Incident’ in Herlich and Desser (eds) op cit.
Mary Ann Farquhar (1992) ‘The ‘hidden’ gender in Yellow Earth’ in Screen Vol 33 No 2.
Linda C. Herlich and David Desser (eds) (1994) Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press
Tony Rayns (1986) ‘Review of Yellow Earth’ in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 53 No 633, October

Roy Stafford 3/5/07