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Finding Ways to Fit: Mainland Chinese films at Toronto and Vancouver

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

Part One: Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-19, 2009)

One looks to comprehensive film festivals, such as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), for an overview of contemporary cinema that offers both breadth and depth. TIFF’s expansiveness, for example, allows one to make some judgments about the relative place of particular kinds of film in the world right now. I would like to try something of the sort with Mainland Chinese cinema in the context of TIFF, in particular how several new films might be situated in the world-cinematic scene.

Although Jia Zhangke seems in the process of retooling his cinema to head in new directions (though his public reaction, uncomfortably aligned with the Chinese government’s, to the Melbourne Film Festival Affair gives one pause), Jia-ist cinema, through its profound effect on most younger independent Chinese directors, seems lately more restrictive than liberating in its influence. Film language in “mainstream” indie Chinese films (both docs and features) seems to have temporarily congealed into something like formulaic liturgies: fetishization of the long take, the distant camera, the objective tone, the unedited minutiae of daily life.

At the same time, commercial Chinese film has adopted its own pathologies, giving us a series of big budget bloated historical epics cautiously tucked away, far from the sensitivities of the Film Bureau, into genres that are safely protected from any possible overt contemporary relevance. Several of these latter works found their way into TIFF, which has frequently, in the past ten years, extended a generous welcome to foreign fare that might attract the attentions of North American distribution. Since sword-wielding costumed Chinese actors sold in the past (thanks, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and your progeny), they have gained a marketable sheen that TIFF is one of the key agents in promoting.

He Ping’s Wheat (Maitian) stars actress/model Fan Bingbing as the wife of a lord of a small city in Zhao during the Warring States period. The men are off fighting the state of Qin, so the women are left behind, in charge. Two Qin refugees arrive: the comic actors Huang Jue and Du Jiayi, who while hiding their enemy identities, forge ambivalent relationships with the Zhao women. At first, the comic antics of Huang and Du seemed unbearable (light non-stop popular comedy banter, though it does work for a Chinese audience); but after a while their ritualized, dance-like movements and the film’s odd reveling in its own tonal heterogeneity infiltrate its ostentatiously pumped up visual scheme and make it oddly fascinating.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Warrior and the Wolf (Lang zai ji) is another plainly commercial venture that looks like yet one more attempt to cash in on the already-curdled wuxia swordplay fantasy trend. Based on a Japanese novella, the film’s story, set in a vaguely ancient imaginary Chinese past, involves a Chinese soldier (Japanese star Joe Odagiri, doing his best) sent to a frontier post who becomes sexually involved with a woman from a taboo minority tribe (Hong Kong model Maggie Q, woefully miscast). There are old-fashioned sex scenes, animated wolf spirits. And there are battles, filmed in an undistinguished shake-and-swish blur, vast panoramas of black, silver, and blue, whose stolidly sculpted heaviness (the whole things seems molded from lead) is surprising from a cinematographer as talented as Wang Yu. A colleague more generous to the film than I detected some signs of Tian Zhuangzhuang in this mess (an interest in ethnic minorities, a tale of the dilemma of the loner), but I couldn’t get past the muddy narrative, momentumless weight, and unconvincing performances.

City of Life and Death (dir. Lu Chuan)

City of Life and Death (dir. Lu Chuan)

The third “big movie” that TIFF selected from China poses an entirely different sort of problem: Lu Chuan’s controversial City of Life and Death (Nanjing Nanjing). There has been considerable confusion about the film, a Spielbergian epic that attempts to depict the historical horror of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. Chinese viewers (and reviewers) have reacted, violently at times, against the film’s most distinctive gesture: making a Japanese soldier the main character, with whom the audience is induced to identify, and through whose eyes most of the action takes place. This certainly distinguishes the film from the run-of-the-mill Chinese propaganda films who use black/white moral schemas to portray Japanese invaders as monstrous enemies and Chinese resistance as thoroughly noble. Nevertheless, City of Life and Death remains fundamentally aligned with CCP propaganda, though it dresses its message in modern, up-to-date cinematic skin and liberal-humanist clothes. While stripping away the most old-fashioned elements of the so-called “main melody” (zhuxuanlu) war film, Lu Chuan implicitly preserves the core: individuals are exalted as Martyrs to the Nation; State power is justified by its defense of the historically vulnerable Nation; hence State power is necessary to continue to defend the Nation. This is, like its model Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a “Never Again” movie, in which a quasi-masochistic spectacularization of great suffering is mobilized in the service of state ideology. What distinguishes City of Life and Death is that Lu Chuan has the originality and cleverness to forge a liberal/humanist version of this kind of Chinese historical mythification. It’s a Wen Jiabao-ist film (Wen Jiabao, the current Prime Minister of the PRC, is the leader currently, and successfully, presented to China’s citizens as the human, compassionate face of the Party’s rule) perfectly in tune with the gentler, more rational, modern, liberalizing factions in the CCP of today.

On the indie side, TIFF found room for three Chinese features and a documentary. Guo Xiaolu is represented by her second feature She, A Chinese (Zhongguo guniang) and her documentary Once Upon a Time Proletarian(Cengjingde wuchanzhe). Both films exhibit an undeniable fluency: Guo as a screenwriter hits all the right indie notes in her tale of a Chinese woman from the sticks who eventually ends up free and in possession of her own identity, leaving a trail of men (a rapist, a gangster, an English school teacher, a shopkeeper) in her wake. It’s all too rare to see a woman director’s take on this kind of story, and Guo puts a nice satirical, ironic spin on material which, in others hands, already feels stale. But it’s difficult not to see a certain expediency in this kind of filmmaking: it “works” quite well for foreign film audiences, who see something a little exotic, but not too much: the material simultaneously flatters and tweaks a foreign audience’s set of expectations. Guo’s documentary has similar strengths and weaknesses, though it has a fun and interesting structural conceit: each of its stories of contemporary proletarian struggle is preceded by a chorus of children reading exemplary tales from a school book.

Lou Ye’s Spring Fever (Chunfeng chenzuide yewan) seems to me a felicitous re-writing of his 2006 feature Summer Palace. If Lou’s dominant subject is freedom, and his material is sexual life, then his films can be read as having a common project: working through the conditions of freedom in an erotically charged realm. But there are always shields, obstacles, cloaking the main action, that complicate or block the work Lou’s cinema is striving to achieve. In Summer Palace, the obstacle was the Political. Erotics was taken to be subordinate to politics. Or, perhaps, vice versa — in fact each alternately substitutes for the other in this re-created world of post-adolescent fervor. For Spring Fever, the obstacles are cleared, political baggage is pushed aside, and erotic life is tackled head-on. Freedom is achieved, at first, through a series of struggles juxtaposing homo- and hetero-sexual couplings (I wouldn’t call this a “gay” film as much as a “polysexual” film). Then, the film reaches its emotional climax with a simplified, freely constituted threesome (two men and a woman) who manage to establish, for a shimmering few moments, an distant island of pure erotic liberty. It doesn’t last, but like the flowers that blossom briefly throughout the film, beauty is achievable, at least in motion.

The Search (dir. Pema Tseden)

The Search (dir. Pema Tseden)

One Chinese independent film at TIFF (which we also showed at the Vancouver International Film Festival) is a marvel. The Search (Xunzhao Zhimei Gengdeng), by the Tibetan director Pema Tseden (aka Wanma Caidan), is a road film, a love story, a Tibetan opera, and a film about filmmaking, all in one.. This is only the second feature film shot in Tibetan in China by a Tibetan cast and crew (it’s largely filmed in Tibetan minority areas of Gansu and Qinghai provinces): the first was the same director’s The Silent Holy Stones (Jingjing de manishi, 2005). Both managed to pass censorship: just imagine the difficulties.

A movie director is looking for actors to cast in his film of classic Tibetan opera Drime Kunden. Accompanied by a producer, a cameraman, and a driver, he drives through one spectacular mountainscape after another, interviewing and auditioning locals. When he finds the perfect actress to play the female lead, she insists that she will only participate if they take to find her former boyfriend, now a teacher in a provincial town. They agree. As they drive, the producer reveals that he was a former monk, with a love story to share of his own. The film’s all non-professional cast give performances of vivid authenticity. Pema Tseden’s classically still camera captures, through the characters’ deadpan line readings, an intense, hinted at, vividly felt reality behind their stories.

Politics are kept completely off screen, but the political is an absent presence that is still palpable. By my count, there is but one word of Mandarin in the film (appropriately, it’s “dianying” or cinema). Some critics I’ve talked to in Toronto and Vancouver talk about The Search’s debt to Kiarostami’s car-based conversation films: the image of a tiny car trundling slowly, in the distance, up a mountain road undoubtedly recalls Kiarostami. But in this highly charged context, such images acquires entirely new meanings. It’s a sense of incongruity: the vast scale of the dry steppes set against the human scale, crammed in tight, of five people in a car. Or a lonely figure or two, or a cluster of houses clinging to the side of a dusty road. People and places don’t quite fit, in the world of The Search. The film is, among other things, a search for a place where one can fit, a search for markers of human scale within a vast land. Or, inversely, a search for the presence of the vastness of a land and its grounded culture in the placeless new urban spaces that seem to be closed off from any kind of outside (the dance studio the director and his party visits, or the tinsel-tacky booze soaked bar, for example).

The Search is suffused with yearning: for lost loves, recalled paradises, for a traditional culture near the vanishing point. And for the possibility, which just might be real, of capturing on film an evanescent spiritual beauty, almost beyond reach.

Part Two: Vancouver International Film Festival (September 30-October 15, 2009)

Queer China, 'Comrade' China (dir. Cui Zi'en)

Queer China, 'Comrade' China (dir. Cui Zi'en)

Our focus at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) is squarely on East Asian independent films: following my colleague Tony Rayns’ footsteps, from whom I inherited half of the “Dragons and Tigers” section of VIFF in 2007, I am pleased to be afforded lots of space to feature new directors’ works, works that experiment with film language, and works that represent underrepresented voices in cinema.

Cui Zi’en has been a frequent visitor to VIFF, and we screened his informative, groundbreaking documentary Queer China, “Comrade” China (Zhi tongzhi) along with the young director Fan Popo’s sly and frequently hilarious short New Beijing New Marriage (Xin Tianmen Dajie), which gathers bystanders’ amused (and sometimes not so amused) reactions to a couple of same-sex couples taking formal wedding shots in front of Beijing’s Qianmen Gate.

On the radical end of the spectrum, VIFF screened young provocateur Wu Haohao’s documentary/essay Kun 1: Action (Kun 1 xingdong) in the Dragons and Tigers Competition. It’s a very Godardian meditation on cinema, youth, sex (rather explicit: the director leaves little of his anatomy to the audience’s imagination), political activism (flavoured post-Mao anarchistic), and the daring application of spray paint to public monuments. It’s fun, provocative, young, and unrestrained: one of already five documentaries, all in different genres, from 23-year old Wu, which together offer a filter-free look at the obsessions and energies of the coming generation of filmmakers.

We showed two other important Chinese documentaries at this year’s VIFF. Du Haibin’s Venice prize-winner 1428 takes as its subject the aftermath of the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 (the film’s title refers to the precise moment the quake first struck: May 12 2008 at 14:28 local time). Du’s two visits to the devastated town of Beichuan, one 10 days after the quake, the other 200 days later were provoked, initially, by a compulsion to volunteer in the rescue, and, then, after witnessing the false official Chinese TV version of the recovery, to construct a truthful version of the survivors’ indomitable commitment to go on living. Subtle, scrupulously non-dogmatic, compassionate, and critical, Du’s film is a rich, open text: it grants the audience full autonomy to judge for themselves.

Petition (Shangfang), by Zhao Liang, is a stunning, epic work of political filmmaking. A holdover from pre-Maoist China, individual petitioners still come to Beijing to formally seek redress from the central government for injustices meted out by local officials. Met with contempt and sometimes violence by the Petition Office (photographed, surreptitiously by Zhao at some risk), they settled in a “Petitioners’ Village” (now demolished) to which Zhao, over the course of twelve years, repeatedly returned to catalogue their lives and miseries. Linking the intimacies of shattered lives with the most radical political analysis, Petition is epic in scope and profound in its implications, as its critique expands to challenge the foundations of China’s current political system.

Sun Spots (dir. Yang Heng)

Sun Spots (dir. Yang Heng)

Two of the Chinese independent fiction features at VIFF provoked strong reactions. Yang Heng’s Sun Spots (Guangban) invited repeated screenings, for its stunning images and rigorous style. This film gets close to the epitome of the “long take Asian art film”. But in Yang’s hands, each shot justifies its own length, captured in precise detail and breathtakingly sharp deep focus with masterfully exploited digital photography. Though the main characters are often so far away that their facial expressions are more implied than shown, the backgrounds are alive and fairly vibrate with energy, so integrated are they in the energy of each shot.

Oxhide II (Niupi II) is Liu Jiayin’s follow-up to her multi-award winning Oxhide (Niupi, 2005), and it’s even better. This masterpiece of ultra super low budget stucturalist/narrative cinema is also, delightfully, quite a crowd-pleaser. Around the activity of Liu and her parents preparing and eating dumplings together (that’s the plot), Oxhide II emanates a rich field of associations: the survival of humane, artisanal economy in a ruthless finance/investment-dominated world being one. What Liu honours thematically is precisely what she enacts in her practice. Her father’s struggling handmade leather goods practice, the subject of a lot of conversation in both Oxhides, is evoked by her own hand-made filmmaking methods (cast and crew are Liu and her mother and father). David Bordwell’s analysis is acute and compactly comprehensive, worth reading in full here , but I’ll quote the punch line: “… every festival that’s serious about the art of cinema should pledge to show Oxhide II.”


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