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101 Essential Chinese Movies
By Simon Fowler
Earnshaw Books Copyright © 2010 Earnshaw Books
All rights reserved.
Jia Zhangke's work often has the air of a documentary. The natural performances he elicits from his actors, coupled with a slow, methodical cinematic style, encapsulate the day-to-day realities of life in urban China. His film 24 City takes this pursuit of authenticity a step further. The film is based upon a true story and many of the "actors" are actually playing themselves, delivering monologues adapted from real interviews. If you're not aware of which actors are the professionals, you might not be able to distinguish the film's fiction from its reality.
The story (much like that of Jia's Still Life) focuses on the man-made destruction of communities on a massive scale. In 2006, an aviation factory in Chengdu – housing 30,000 workers and 100,000 of their family members – was slated for demolition to make way for a new apartment complex called "24 City". Hearing the story, Jia placeed an ad in a local newspaper and interviewed over a hundred of the factory workers. What started as a mission to record the oral history of a fast-disappearing world soon grew into something more complex. The interviews explained much about these people's lives, but there was still something missing. Jia decided to bring in some well-known actors – including Joan Chen (Lust, Caution) and Zhao Tao (star of Jia's The World) – to produce a series of monologues that he could intercut with the real-life interviews to create, in his own words, a "panorama".
Jia is obsessed with exploring the effects of China's surge to economic supremacy, and the persistence of memory is a key factor in this film. When the buildings that symbolize the lives of over 100,000 people and their relationships are destroyed, what is left in its place? High-resolution digital video adds another layer to the film's grittiness. The surroundings are presented as they actually are, with no cinematic embroidery to separate us from the reality of what we see. Jia's images fascinate us and his story grips us with its frankness and the plausibility of its circumstances.CHAPTER 2
And the Spring Comes
Individuality is neither easily cultivated nor tolerated in China. Whereas in the West a certain amount of quirkiness is found endearing, it's greeted mostly with suspicion in a population raised on the tenets of collectivism. Gu Changwei is attracted to stories (like that in his debut film, Peacock) about individuals who don't fit into China's rigid society. In his second film, And the Spring Comes, Jiang Wenli (Gu's wife) stars as Wang Cailing, a woman who aspires to become an opera singer to escape her mundane small-town existence. She works as a vocal coach at the local school, but her talent for singing Western opera is overshadowed by an unfortunate skin condition. Yet she still dreams of one day performing at the national theater.
Wang comes into contact with kindred spirits, all predictably quirky. Zhong Yu (Wu Guohua) and his friend Huang Sibao (Li Guangjie) take notice of Wang when she lies about having "connections" in Beijing. Huang is a frustrated artist, who hopes he can use Wang to get into the Beijing Art Academy. He leads her on, only to spurn her advances on a disastrous trip to Beijing. Zhong, meanwhile, really has fallen for the silver-voiced singer. Also in the group is Hu (Jiao Gang), an effeminate ballet dancer hell-bent on angering the locals. Nothing seems to go right for the group, which is heckled at a public performance. In chasing her dreams, Gu travels down a humiliating path, and it's only when she accepts that her best option may be her teaching career that she finds solace.
Striking a sympathetic chord, Gu's film is a light-hearted look at those who are desperate to rise above mediocrity, but somehow find themselves drowning in it. Jiang Wenli's performance was widely praised in the international film circuit, and it would take quite a heartless soul not to pity the downtrodden character she portrays. The setting is also a masterstroke. The harsh reality of Beijing's ugly urban skyline brilliantly contrasts with the lofty aspirations of the characters, who would do anything to escape their respective existences, but just don't have the skills to do it.CHAPTER 3
Listening to horns playing a melancholic dirge throughout the opening credits, we become aware that Assembly is a different kind of Chinese war movie – more reflective than triumphant. Made in 2003, we know that the action and plot were not constructed entirely to serve a political end – no Japanese "devils" here, just a realistic depiction of the war between the Communists and the Nationalists. In the competent hands of director Feng Xiaogang, whose barnstorming action is unlike anything seen in Chinese cinema before, the film draws easy (but unfair) comparisons with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
The film opens in the midst of a chaotic urban conflict in snow-drenched northeast China. Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) leads the People's Liberation Army Ninth Company in an attack against the KMT. Despite his victory, Gu is so enraged by the death of his political officer that he shoots KMT soldiers in cold blood. After serving a short sentence, Gu is plucked from the slammer to lead the Ninth Company in what amounts to a suicide mission to defend a vital coal mine from KMT forces. He is told to hold his position until the bugle of retreat is sounded, but over the course of the bloody action, his hearing is impaired and he is unable to decipher the signal. Outnumbered and outgunned, they fight until he is the last man standing. The first hour of the film features action shot in high-saturation akin to Saving Private Ryan, but the action gives way to a more dramatic second half. Two months after the battle, Gu – now in a war hospital – is unable to prove who he is. Several years later, he moves to the Korean Peninsula to fight against the South Koreans and Americans, meanwhile saving the life of Er Dou (Deng Chao), an old war buddy. The remainder of the film deals with Gu's personal mission to regain the honor of his company, which has been all but forgotten in the annals of history.
This compelling film is all the more powerful because it is based upon a true story. Combining tender moments with horrific, stylized bloodshed, it was one of the highest-grossing films of 2007. Proving his versatility once again, Feng Xiaogang's decision to abandon the comedic genre, in which he is more comfortable, and attempt a gritty war drama was admirable; and it was even more admirable that he created a Chinese war film that doesn't (overtly) bang its chest in patriotic fervor.CHAPTER 4
At the Middle Age
The 1980s marked the beginning of the end for films like At Middle Age. Chinese realism as a genre would remain popular, but the explosion of exciting new styles on the screen meant that these more thoughtful, gentle films lost their relevance. But in its understated approach, At Middle Age tells us much about Chinese society.
The Chinese people know a thing or two about societal pressure. The Communists necessitated conformity, as did the Confucians before them. Lu Wenting (played with elegant beauty by Pan Hong) is a middle-aged doctor, struggling with the difficulty of balancing her work, family and personal life. She suffers a stress-related heart attack and finds herself in critical condition. The emaciated, pale figure lying on a hospital bed is hardly recognizable as the bright-eyed doctor who first took up her position 18 years earlier; a change that deeply saddens the department director. Lu's spirit has been ground down because of the mistreatment of doctors in Chinese society. Doctors and other intellectuals had been maliciously portrayed in movies and treated even worse in society. During Lu's convalescence she laments her inability to be a good mother or a good doctor with the mounting pressures of hard work and family life.
One day, an old college friend, Jiang Yafen, comes to visit her. Jiang, similarly disillusioned, has decided to emigrate to another country, where she and her husband believe doctors are better respected. Jiang cannot fully move on, however. As she boards the plane, she looks back with a yearning for her motherland. In a letter, she promises Lu she will one day return.
After extended periods of rest and recovery – relying on her doting husband, the polite hospital staff and the indomitable spirit of her son – Lu eventually walks out of the hospital and returns home for the final stage of her recovery.
The sensitivity with which the story is told will not suit everyone's tastes, but Wang Qimin and Sun Yu's film unfolds at a sedate but pleasurable pace. It conveys its message with subtlety and clarity. This approach is greatly enhanced by the film's emotionally restrained score, somewhat reminiscent of that in Arthur Hiller's Love Story, which plays throughout. Its sweeping strings add a layer of gloom to the work, accentuating and informing the emotional peaks and troughs.CHAPTER 5
Back to Back, Face to Face
Huang Jianxin is one of the greatest satirists in China, a country that isn't big on irony. He often hits painfully close to home by exposing the farcical situations caused by many of China's cultural tendencies. His films, however, don't just poke fun without reason, but rather criticize unfairness and double standards in contemporary Chinese society.
In Back to Back, Face to Face, an ancient city's provincial cultural office is used as a microcosm for the political processes of Communist China. The deputy director, Li Shuangli, is a competent man, constantly overlooked for promotion despite successfully running his office for years. When the position comes up, Li takes the unprecedented step of nominating himself, an act criticized by other senior staff members as "selfish". The job eventually goes to Ma, a bumpkin wheeled in from the countryside. Sensing the opportunity to exploit Ma's naivety, Li sets up a construction project that financially benefits the office employees. Li's strange attempts to manipulate Ma eventually lead the latter to tender his resignation, leaving open the much-desired position. Although Li is still the best candidate, the position goes to a buddy of one of the senior officials who exploits his guanxi (connections) to get the job. Yan is a bit of a thug and when Li's father accidentally damages Yan's new leather shoes, the money is deducted from Li's salary. The situation literally makes Li sick and, realizing his political attempts are getting him nowhere, he loses interest in office affairs. He turns his attention instead to applying for a permit to have another child (the one-child policy has left him with a daughter when he wanted a son). His wish is granted and his wife becomes pregnant. Once again, opportunity knocks when Director Yan is framed for watching porn and fired. By now, however, all Li cares about is his family and he no longer has an interest in the promotion, even if it were to be offered to him.
The social criticism in this film is subtle, but biting. The double-dealing and thirst for power so common in contemporary Chinese life is used to emphasize a growing shift away from socialist ideas and back towards the traditional family values they had supposedly replaced. The film's biggest irony, though, came years after its release. In 2009, Huang Jianxin – after making so many films critical of the Chinese government – was hired co-direct The Founding of a Republic, quite possibly the most chest-beating, jingoistic pro-Communist film ever made. It seems Huang really does understand his Chinese politics.CHAPTER 6
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is not the only Chinese film of the naughties made with a Gallic feel. As Chinese directors – who have been festival darlings since the early 1980s – count on discerning European cinemagoers to provide the bulk of their international box office sales, it was only a matter of time before French companies started to provide financing for their films. Director Dai Sijie, who had left China for France on a scholarship in 1984, was an early recipient of such support. He directed three successful films (two of them China-focused) before adapting his own semi-autobiographical novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, in 2004. The book was originally published in French, but the film's dialogue is almost entirely in Sichuanese. This was just one of many changes Dai made in adapting his book, because he recognized that a novel must often be reworked to achieve the same success on screen.
Excerpted from 101 Essential Chinese Movies by Simon Fowler. Copyright © 2010 Earnshaw Books. Excerpted by permission of Earnshaw Books.
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