Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: Summer Palace (2006)

For starters, this film was not what I expected. Based on the trailer and other promotional material I had seen, I was expecting the plot to focus much more squarely on the events of 1989. Instead, those events play a very brief and secondary role to the overall plot, that is, the complicated relationship between the characters Yu Hong and Zhou Wei. Truth be told, only a handful of scenes are expended on the history. Now, if this movie were trying to make some point thereby, namely, that these two young Chinese self-absorbedly consume themselves with their love affair and ignore what's happening around them, I might be forgiving. However, that's not what the film seems to be trying to do, and moves far too quickly time-wise to give the sense of time and space that even that approach would require.

Thus, even as a character study, which I think is in fact what it is trying to be, it falls a little flat. It strikes me as problematic that I finished watching a movie that was more than two hours long still not really understanding the motivations of most if not all of its characters. This weakness if perhaps most demonstrated via the use of the film's other heavily promoted aspect, the sex. While I never got the feeling that the sex was exploitative per se, the lack of character development made the amount of sex seem excessive. Example: Yu Hong teaches her roommate Dongdong how to masturbate. To the extent that the audience never really got to know Dongdong very well, that scene, and its implied taboo nature, felt like a throw-away especially considering the tumultuous period in which it occurred. Yes, there was a later scene where the same character had a sexual encounter with a male student, and thus continuity was expressed, but after that the character basically disappears. Discontinuity. Later, we hear only that she had become a housewife in Guangdong. Ultimately, the movie is not clever enough to play with expectations like that.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Review: The Chinese Botanist's Daughters (2006)

I was pleasantly surprised to run into this film; I had never heard of it though it's directed by Dai Sijie, the author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Like the film version of Balzac, this one is awash in luxurious landscapes and colors. Also, like Balzac, with this film, Dai once again treads into territory that still remains relatively untouched in mainland Chinese film. Fortunately or not, Dai is an exile, and he takes what liberties he likes. The film itself was shot not in China, but in Vietnam.

In this case, Dai takes on the topic of the Lesbian relationship between an orphaned student and the daughter of the "botanist," that is, the practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, who serves as her mentor. Given that this is still a "Chinese" movie, the sexual aspects of their love are downplayed, almost too much, as the characters do not seem to develop any sort of self-reflection on what it means to be Gay, and rather the focus is on how the relationship affects traditional familial and gender roles. While Dai may be criticized for portraying the father and the brother/would-be husband as stereotypes of homophobic, patriarchic men, I'm willing to give him more slack considering that he is breaking new ground by virtue of making the film in the first place.

My main criticism of the film, however, regards the ending. I felt it was a little excessive although it too perhaps reveals an uncomfortable truth about China. You'll have to watch it to understand what I mean. A more minor quibble I have is that Dai doesn't really do anything with the fact that his main character, the student Li Ming, is bi-racial. The half-Russian girl could have been used more effectively to show ethnic boundaries within China. As it is, her background seems like more of an after-thought and perhaps was included just so that Dai could make use of the half-Chinese, half-French actress Mylène Jampanoï. That Dai did not is particularly unfortunate given his use of Yunnan as his setting, and that province could certainly serve as fertile ground for any such discussion.

Review: Please Don't Call Me Human (2003)

This is the second book by Wang Shuo that I have read. While the narrative aspect isn't as strong as in Playing for Thrills, it is more explicitly satirical. It is also very timely.

The plot concerns the workings of an organization known as the Mobilization Committee ("MobCom" for short) who give themselves the task of finding an heir to the Boxer Rebellion who can reverse China's recent history of humiliation at the hands of Western powers. Eventually they settle on a young pedi-cab puller by the name of Tang Yuanbao who has inherited the technique of "Big Dream Boxing" from his father. From beginning to end, Wang describes the lengths to which the Chinese nation will go to regain their pride at the expense of the life (and body) of this man. Reading this book, it's impossible not to see some connections to the recent events surrounding the Beijing Olympics.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Review: Nanking (2007)

Recently I was given the opportunity to view a special screening of the documentary Nanking, which is currently only in limited distribution despite the fact that it is Western-produced and was released in China in Summer 2007. In general, I liked it, but I do have some mixed feelings. Why? Well:

The use of several well-known Western actors (including Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway) to do in-character visible narration was interesting in terms of technique, but it might also be a little distracting.

That fact, combined with the obvious dependency on Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking, meant that the movie tended to present the Western residents of the city as the sole saviors, while failing to give any mention of similar actions undertaken by the native Chinese. While I do like Chang's book, and I must admit that these foreigners did play a large part in saving the lives of many Chinese, the cynic in me views the movie as something of a self-congratulatory pat on the back.

In addition, I always have anxious feelings regarding anything that uses popular media to depict Japanese wartime acts, particularly when those media are shown in China. On the one hand, I certainly favor greater awareness of what happened. Yet, on the other, I know that every piece of material such as this will only increase anti-Japanese sentiment in China, and readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of such sentiment. After watching this movie, which is quite graphic, such sentiment is inevitable despite the fact that one of the narrated characters claimed that he didn't want his footage to inspire hatred of the Japanese.

That said, I reiterate that this movie is a useful tool to disseminate information about what happened particularly for Western audiences.

Review: Playing for Thrills (1997)

A few weeks ago I finished reading my first Wang Shuo novel. For those of you who don't know (which might very well be most of you), Wang Shuo is considered to be China's "bad boy" author in so far as his novels prominently feature crime, cursing, and sex.

The plot concerns a former PLA soldier, Fang Yan, who, in a turn that bears some similarity to Kafka's The Trial, finds that he is the chief suspect of the long-ago murder of one of his friends. Fang, the narrator, then proceeds to try to put together the pieces of the forgotten past, which in turn becomes a sort of subtle satire on the effects of China's Reform and Opening.

I think what is most interesting about the book is Wang's continual toying with the linear progression of the story, both through scenes that are simultaneously surreal dreams and flashbacks and through the concluding chapters in which the story actually progresses backwards a la Memento. Such a style contrasts with what I've found to be the overwhelmingly realist style used by contemporary Chinese authors without going the route of complete surreality that one might find in the most avant garde Chinese authors such as Can Xue. Wang's is a refreshing approach although it can be confusing at times. Further, given the unique structure of the ending, it leaves a fair number of threads unresolved, which is somewhat unsatisfying.

Nonetheless, I generally recommend the work, and I'll be starting on my second Wang book soon, for which you can likewise expect a review.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A New Wei

I've said in the past that I'm a fan of the work of Wei Hui; this might diminish my credibility in the eyes of some. Whatever.

Naturally, I read her blog, and I was quite surprised to find that she's trying her hand at independent film making, producing the following clip. In my humble opinion it's actually not bad; if nothing else, the technique is good. Subject-wise, it's not quite what I would expect from her, and it rather strikes me as being somewhat Xu Jinglei-esque.


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Globe All Lies?

Japan Probe posted this clip of a Japanese news report discussing recalls of a speaking globe sold in Japan that states explicitly that Taiwan is part of the People's Republic of China. That this "mistake" occurred owes to the fact it was produced in Shenzhen.

Because the clip is in Japanese, read the post on Japan Probe for the full rundown of what's going on. Pay attention to the bit at the end which features China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu discuss the fact that Chinese companies must obey domestic laws even in the case of constructing products for exports.