Thursday, 19 February 2015 21:47

Memory and Small Town China: 'Hometown Boy' Review 《金城小子》影評


 

This is a slow-brewing documentary and Taiwanese director, Yao Hung-yi (姚宏易) clearly shares a love of long but poignant camera shots with executive director Hou Hsiao-hsien (候孝賢). The documentary is about Chinese artist and actor Liu Xiaodong (劉小東) going back to his hometown of Jincheng in China's north-western Liaoning province to paint his childhood friends. Liu was a producer on Devils On the Doorstep, which I reviewed here, and starred in the film The Days (《冬春的日子》), which I haven't yet seen.


Monday, 15 December 2014 16:34

A pantomime of a war film: 'Devils on the Doorstep' Review


In a phrase: A pantomime until the end, at which point it rushes to satisfy nationalistic appetites.

(Spoilers below)

This film is set in a small Chinese town called Guajia (hang up armor) under Japanese occupation during the second world war.


Thursday, 11 December 2014 17:46

A Touch of Sin Review

 A Touch of Sin is a film by Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯). I've only seen Platform (《站台》) by him before, so am unfamiliar with the majority of his work. The Chinese title of the film differs from the English title, in that the Chinese means literally, "fate appointed by the heavens," whereas the English title has a more Christian ring to it, although I read that it is apparently a nod to the English title of a martial arts film called A Touch of Zen (《俠女》).


Wednesday, 12 February 2014 00:00

Film Review: No Man’s Land

 

I heard about this film on the Sinica podcast, where it was described by a critic as a Coenesque dark comedy. When I heard Coenesque I was thinking Burn after Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy or Fargo, not No Country for Old Men, but the film resembled the latter more than the Coens' out-and-out comedies. Despite this, I thought many aspects of the film were funny, especially the comparison between Lü, the hotshot Beijing lawyer and the ruthlessness and uncouth spite of the "simple" people of the West of China. For this reason the climax of the movie, in which Lü suddenly grows a conscience was a little forced for me, and took away from the idea that despite his education and his sophisticated life in the city, he is no different from the extortionists and bullies he meets in the West of China, even though he thinks he is, which had been the underlying premise of the film in my eyes up to that point. Sadly the director feels the main character needs redemption, and he sacrifices himself selflessly when he could have gotten away, which seems a little bit of a stretch for the character, as we know him, up to that point. The film has a little bit of the character of Yu Hua's 'Leaving at Home at Eighteen' (余華的〈十八歲出 門遠行〉) but all that grit is lost to the melodrama of the 'brave self-sacrifice' trope that is typical fare in Chinese films and crime dramas.

The villain of the piece didn't have any of the gravitas or psychological depth of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and by the end of the film we're left confused as to his motives, as he neither seems purely motivated by money or psychotic enough for his desire to kill being about anything more than money, which results in a two dimensional traditional pantomime villain role, instead of the potentially more nuanced role i felt the character could have been given. The other characters from the west were more believable, including the comic scene where one of the falcon dealers is hammered to death by an innocent-looking mentally handicapped rest-stop resident.

The film is interesting in that it lends another, slightly more gritty perspective, to traditional American monster flicks, like Wrong Turn, or The Hills Have Eyes, except that the monsters aren't some bizarre inbred mountain tribe, they're just people driven by poverty or greed to survive. I thought that the discussion about the difference between animals and humans was another interesting aspect to the film, which I talked about in another film review here. It also came up in an interview with Professor Huang Zonghui of National Taiwan University here:

 In this film, many of the characters featured are "animalized humans" as Cary Wolfe puts it, which makes the title a play on words – as in there are no people in this place, only animals masquerading as humans – they have been reduced to fighting for survival. One scene that highlights this, is the scene in which Lü is stuck behind a truck carrying straw, which results in a confrontation, in which one of the men in the truck pisses on Lü's car, like an animal, displaying its superiority . What makes Lü's emotional journey in the film a little incomprehensible is that his behaviour towards the denouement of the film is at odds with his insistence that the only difference between man and beast is that man can make fire. This is the moment in the film when I thought he was going to set himself alight, but ended up just setting the truck alight with him inside it. I wasn't sure how his thought process turned towards redemption, as he had previously rationalized all his actions on the basis of survival. Why then does a country bumpkin girl's attempt to save his life, stop him from abandoning her, when he had been deaf to her pleas before.

One possible explanation is that it is the only way that Lü can see himself as different to the falcon dealer, and as more than just an animal. The falcon dealer can thereby be seen as a mirror for Lü, in which he sees his true nature, from which the only escape is the final gesture of self-sacrifice.

Despite this rather forced ending, the movie is darkly comic in a good way at parts, which distinguishes it from Yu Hua's short stories (which are simply dark without the comedy). 3.5/5

For Chinese speakers, you can read reviews by film critics Wang Mu and Zhou Liming here


Monday, 15 November 2010 20:19

Овсянки / Silent Souls (2010)

 

This is a Russian film by director Aleksei Fedorchenko (Алексей Федорченко) which was shown on the 14th November 2010 as part of the Golden Horse Film Festival (金馬影展) held in Taipei annually. The film lends itself to comparison with a recent Taiwanese film which is also being shown at the festival Seven Days in Heaven (父後七日). Both films deal with the grieving process, although the way it is dealt with and its cultural significance differ greatly. Silent Souls deals not only with the death of the wife of a friend of the protagonist, Tanya, as well as the death of the protagonist's father, mother and sister, but also with the death of the Meryan culture,

which the protagonist sees as a necessary evil, that should be let be. Although the Finno-Ugric Meryan language had been lost, some of the traditions, like tying coloured threads onto the pubic hair of new brides and dead women and "smoking" i.e. telling someone else all about the intimate secrets between you and your lover before their body is cremated, had been preserved by some. The protagonist had collected these cultural remnants, along with photographing the typical Meryan features, but he knows that with his death the only traces of the Meryan way of life will drift into oblivion. The Meryan customs bring comfort to the man whose wife has passed and to the protagonist when his father passes. Seven Days in Heaven, in contrast, although it also shows the traditional funeral rites, uncovers with gentle humour the artifice of these rites and how distant they hold one from the real emotions of grief. The two films on the surface seem then to work to opposite ends, the former is a melancholy eulogy for the great Meryan cultural traditions in anticipation of the imminent extinction of their memory, while the latter is a tender but satirical look at the traditional culture of Taiwan folk religion.

The film touched on issues of national identity and seemed to me to point to a similar yearning for the past as that of Irish Nationalism, which is a very tangible comparison for me. It is Irish Nationalism which invents for itself a pre-colonial conception of Ireland which a United Ireland could hypothetically inherit, it insists that Irish cultural traditions should be resurrected, and Irish language and culture should be imposed in what is now called Northern Ireland, which would be incorporated into the Republic of Ireland. It is likely however that it was Ireland's colonizers themselves that endowed a collective identity upon the Irish, whose concept of the world I doubt fitted into the modern concept of nations or indeed "the Irish". This in my opinion would change the nature of those traditions, reinventing them into autocratic conventions that mimic the very cultural hegemony that erradicated them in the first place. The protagonist's resigned entreaty from beyond the grave is to "let it be", to let the cultural traditions that he so painstakingly researched fall into irrelevance is moving and reminiscent of the words of Hugh in Brian Friel's Translations:

"a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of ... fact. [...] We must learn those new names. [...] We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our new home. [...] It is not the literal past, the 'facts' of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. [...] We must never cease renewing those images, because once we do, we fossilize."1

This then is the element that unites the two films, the necessary evolution and dissolution of cultural rites with the passing of time. Nothing can be forcibly retained in the cultural mêlée, retaining anything by force wil l change its nature.

The film is beautifully shot, and the emotions behind the stolid 'expressionless' faces are intriguingly moving. There is no doubt that the film is open to a variety of interpretations and at times, given my unfamiliarity with Russia, some of the jokes were lost on me, however, there was a remarkable anti-dramatic quality to the film, with the unresolved love triangle, the raging passion of grief and the death of a culture all faced with a melancholy abandon, and acknowledged dispassionately by the characters themselves. The activity of the birds in the film could be taken as a proxy for the human emotion, when the men are silent the birds call excitedly, and just before the violent crash that concludes the film, the birds become silent.

Film Rating:

5/5

Slow moving but beautiful for that

 


1 'Translations' in Brian Friel: Plays 1 Brian Friel Faber and Faber Limited London 1996 pp 419,444-445

 


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