Singapore Cinema

While I did not attempt this question during the Asian Film History exam last week, I felt I had some thoughts that I wish to share with regard to the following question. So here I am, again, with what I would probably have written should I have attempted that question.

Has there ever been a breakthrough film movement in Singapore cinema? Justify yes or no, and why.

No I do not think there has never been a breakthrough film movement in Singapore cinema. The revival of Singapore cinema in then 1990s may be considered a “breakthrough” for the sudden, dramatic and important development of film, a renaissance since the flourishing industry of the 1950s and 1960s met its demise following the shift in focus of Cathay-Keris Films and Shaw Brothers from that of a production house to a film distributor. But there has not been a “film movement” to talk about that is much alike the other film movements that I have discussed. A primary factor to consider in a film movement is a similarity in aesthetic and treatment of the films within a specific time period. Yet this has not yet been evident in Singapore cinema. Amid the local film circle are established auteurs like Eric Khoo, Royston Tan, Jack Neo and Kelvin Tong but their works all deviate widely from each other. Further, these directors (save for Jack Neo) are very sporadic, which does not fulfill the prolific nature of moviemakers within a film movement.

They possess distinctive styles. Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995), 12 Storeys (1997), Be With Me (2005) and My Magic (2007) were all akin to neo-realism in their reflection of proletariat Singaporean society—as personalities like the hawker vendor, an alcoholic single parent, a prostitute came under the spotlight of his film. His style is more quasi-documentary, and he does not serve to sensationalize the films beyond the simplicity that they are.

Yet Royston Tan’s films like 15 (2003), 4:30 (2005), 881 (2007) take on an entirely different aesthetic with a staunch focus on musical elements. While he also deals with a reflection of the layman Singaporean society, dealing with marginalized characters like the gangster and the getai singer, unlike Khoo he opts to intersperse this contemporary realism with MTV-esque elements of song and dance such as rap in 15 (2003) and Chinese opera in 881 (2007).

Erstwhile, there is Jack Neo, the most prolific of the lot. But even though his films reflect contemporary Singaporean society too, he generally does it with a comedic twist, and in an almost catered-for-television manner that bears a throwback to his television roots. His repertoire includes Money No Enough (1998), I Not Stupid (2002), The Best Bet (2004), Just Follow Law (2007), though it also comprises the anomaly that was Home Run (2003). His style can hardly be considered experimental à la Khoo’s or Tan’s.

In comparison, Kelvin Tong’s style cuts the swarthe from experimental comedy (Eating Air, 1999) to horror (The Maid, 2005) and comedy horror (Men in White, 2007). Furthermore, his upcoming 2011 feature It’s a Great Great World is more of a historical biopic, and this lack of singularity in his style further contributes to the argument of a lack of a breakthrough film movement.

Yet the recent works of fledgling filmmakers may just serve to provide the impetus needed for a breakthrough film movement that Singapore cinema needs., These films bear Italian neorealist trademarks, and are generally experimental works that blend theatrical elements with realism in a quasi-documentary manner. Pertinent filmmakers of this movement—if they gain in prolificacy—will include Boo Junfeng (Sandcastle, 2009; Keluar Baris, 2008 (short) ), Han Yew Kuang (18 Grams of Love, 2008; When Hainan Meets Teochew, 2010), Nicholas Chee (Becoming Royston, 2007) and Loo Zihan (Solos, 2007). But whether or not this movement will kick start is determinant of the course that is set in the next two years or so.

Advertisements

Iranian Director Jafar Panahi Sentenced to Six Years in Prison, Banned From Making Films

I just felt compelled to share the following news article that I chanced upon, considering how I’ve also reviewed one of his past films “Crimson Gold“. This six-year sanction will definitely mark a huge setback on Panahi’s career and I really wonder how he will manage to bounce back from this hiatus from film. Yet this move would perhaps mark ten giant steps backward for the Iranian film industry. Such moves seem antediluvian at best, and with many countries the world over taking strides in free expression (Singapore included, given its relaxation of political film laws despite the underlying undertones) perhaps Iran will be left in the dust.

Yet on the other end of the spectrum there is also the plausible argument that the film medium need not touch on politics to be successful. With so many armchair vigilantes around operating under the guise of anonymity and recluse given the Internet era, would such films even be necessary anymore to raise public awareness of social or political ills? Going by this line – maybe Panahi really had it coming, straddling too near the grey lines.

So, what next? The film community may be incensed and the human rights groups angered. But ultimately what’s the point, given the inane troglodytism that obviously permeates the incumbent government?

——-

Source: The Hollywood Reporter | http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/iranian-director-jafar-panahi-sentenced-61918

The helmer was accused of making a film without official government sanction and inciting opposition protests.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films for the next 20 years, the U.K.’s Guardian reported.

Panahi had been accused of inciting opposition protests and making a film without official government sanction. On Monday, the director was convicted of colluding in the gathering and making of propaganda against the regime.

He also was banned from writing scripts, traveling abroad and giving media interviews, his lawyer said, adding that she plans to appeal the conviction.

Muhammad Rasoulof, a filmmaker arrested at the same time as Panahi, was also sentenced to six years in jail Monday.

Panahi drew the ire of Iranian authorities by backing an opposition candidate in last year’s presidential elections. When hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term as president, millions took to the streets in massive protest marches, which were violently broken up by the police.

The Iranian government arrested Panahi in March and he spent three months in prison, during which he went on a hunger strike. The film industry — including director such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford and Martin Scorsese — rallied to his support and called on Tehran to release him.

They did so, on bail of $200,000 a week, in May but Iranian officials prevented Panahi from leaving the country in September to attend the world premiere of his short film The Accordion at the Venice Film Festival.

Earlier this month, Panahi was invited to join the jury of the Berlin International Film Festival for its 2011 edition.

Panahi’s credits include Offside, which won Berlin’s Silver Bear in 2006, and The Circle, which nabbed the Gold Lion in Venice in 2000. He made his debut with The White Balloon, which nabbed the Festival de Cannes’ Camera d’Or in 1995.

 

Endnote, and Goodbye. For now.

Despite having watched all the films—and it was truly a fun experience—I have to admit that it is a massive struggle trying to juggle the impending examinations whilst doing adequate research, analyzing key scenes and drawing frequent parallels between films, as well as maintaining the stamina of the standards of the write-ups that I have set myself since Day One.

Alas, the deadline of the project is coming right up, and I still have six films that I have yet to do a proper write-up for (the dates I’ve back-posted to the date I watched the film). I am not about to make excuses for myself; I have to admit that I got lost midway through the project with all the other assignments and readings that were piling up as well.

Yet whilst I was straddling the pros and cons between running the risk of not being able to finish on time versus sacrificing the consistency of quality of the report (at least, I would like to think that they are pretty good) I write for each film, I opted to go with the former instead, creating pieces that are on average 800 words long each (35,200 words *gasps*)

Hopefully this blog will be the start of something special, and will not die off after the conclusion of the FIL230 Asian Film History module, that indeed has taught me a lot about Asian films, their value and their innate quality, as well as the skill sets required to analyze a film, whether for aesthetic/cultural/historical context.  For that, thank you Bee Thiam for your patient guidance throughout the length of the course, and I apologize if I have not been a good student in any way. I have tried to include as much as what I’ve learnt as I can, and I certainly do hope that it has been a fun read.

I would like to hereby apologize once again for not being to keep up with the work I have done on the blog so far. But for now, here is a brief summary of the six films that I have not touched on, including a short analysis of the pertinent aesthetic style and my reflections upon watching the film. And no promises – but I’ll try to relook at this after my examinations end.

Blissfully Yours (2004, Thailand)

  • Thai film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival
  • A believable experimental film (no, that is not an irony) set in a jungle near the Thai-Burmese border
  • You suspect that there is more to the jungle than meets the eye in this deadpan funny film
  • A lot of full-frontal nudity occurs in this movie. And sex. But it is admirable that Apichatpong Weerasethakul approaches the taboo head-on rather than shy away from it by creating shots that obscure the gist of the action. Reality has always been in your face, and when you’re out in the woods in the middle of nowhere there shouldn’t be anything to hide.
  • The opening credits only appear 45 minutes into the film, and that took me by surprise.
  • Rather than scrutinize the film for any political innuendoes that many online critics have done (I’ve read some that proposes connections to the shaky Thai economy, the Burmese military junta causing the collapse of the Burmese economy, which from the rather hilarious and tragic hyperlink it is easy to draw a correlation why), I much preferred to appreciate the film for its simplicity, and the rawness of the desire and longing for love.
  • Ultimately the film meanders but it is ultimately akin to listening to a jazz piece play on the stereo, ethereal and romantic.

Jellyfish (2007, Israel)

  • Israeli film directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen
  • Winner of the Camera d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and was part of the official selection at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival and 2008 Telluride Film Festival.
  • The cinematography is stunning little wonder it clinched the Camera d’Or prize, with poetic images cast against the emptiness of the sea.
  • “Life Stings” as the movie tagline perhaps the only connection between the title to the film, the allegory being quite an intangible one unless you consider how the jellyfish has no control over its movements – somewhat akin to the lack of direction of the characters in the film who opt to go with the tide rather than yield control over their lives.
  • Happenstance and chance occurrences are favored in a zero-sum game that gives perhaps just too much emphasis on fate.
  • An arthouse film that packs a punch in its very abstract yet ultimately haunting tale weaving the narrative threads of the three interconnected women together.
  • Some have even termed this film “spiritual”.

Shutter (2004, Thailand)

  • Thai film directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
  • One of the most genuinely creepy horror movies of all time, and it has also cemented Thailand’s reputation in producing scary horror movies.
  • Rather than adopt cheap in-your-face thrills like—for the lack of my ability to conjure Asian examples at the moment—the American Saw franchise or a complete psychological affair like Paranormal Activity, Shutter is successful in being, simply, a marriage of both horror techniques. It eats into you, it toys into your psyche, and it leaves you scared.
  • Adding to its weight is how it revolves around analog photography – one of the most leisurely and common hobbies today – and how the darkroom scenes are at once creepy because there is no option of flicking a light switch on. Circumstances force the room to be dark, and the protagonist’s job as a photographer forces him to be in the darkroom. It is not like some B-grade horror flick like The Human Centipede that has the victims luring the killer to their doorstep themselves.
  • As in a horror movie, it is worth contemplating the elements of sound effects that can really add to the atmosphere of the film. By far one of the best elements of the film, it literally jolts you at the sudden moments, and pre-empts you in the scariest moments. The funny thing is, the sound usually precedes the imagery, but no matter how mentally prepared you are, you still get taken aback.
  • And no, do not bother with the remake. At all.

Nobody Knows (2004, Japan)

  • Japanese film directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
  • Yuya Yagira won the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, while the film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.
  • This is an emotionally affecting film based on a 1988 real-life event that is known as the “Affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo”
  • A mother has four children, but each fathered by a different man. Abandoned, they are left to fend for themselves.
  • There is no need to wring about any lengthy ethical discussion about the moral righteousness of the mother, who is plain in the wrong. But at least she had the decency to turn herself in.
  • Critics have lambasted the film for not being true to the original story and for painting the children in a more positive light as compared to their real trials and tribulations, but I find this necessary for the movie to be taken seriously. Any further sensationalization and it would have been degraded into a major sob story.
  • The stoic resilience of childhood is paralleled against the aloof nature of the big major city, pretending that everything is okay so as to escape the purview of the social welfare system.
  • There is hardly any dialogue in this sentimental tragic masterpiece that has evoked plenty of visceral emotions that are admittedly hard to grapple with – the senseless cruelty the root of it all.

Rashomon (1950, Japan)

  • Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa
  • Clinched the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival as well as an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.
  • Minimalist sets convey Akira Kurosawa’s love of silent film and modern art.
  • The crime/murder mystery unfolds in flashback sequence as the four characters, also involving the raped wife and the murdered husband, each respectively recount the events one fateful afternoon in a grove.
  • The audience is tempted into becoming the judge, the determinant of who is right and who’s wrong as the movie unfolds. Kurosawa dangles the carrot of taking sides, of forming judgment in such a cinematic arrangement.
  • This is perceptual cinema as its best, casting light on the respective characters and their different perceptions of the same event.
  • Lighting is an aspect of the film that has garnered plenty of accolades, with the clever use of natural lighting, albeit reflected by a mirror that creates a dappling effect that creates beautiful shadows amid the trees and branches, while the rain was tainted with black ink so as to appear visible on film.
  • But is there really a resolution to what must definitely be Kurosawa’s most defining film?

Eros Plus Massacre (1969, Japan)

  • Japanese film directed by Yoshishige Yoshida
  • Black-and-white film that contravenes the color technology that was already available at that point of time. Why? Could it be because of the need to create a more realistic flashback of 1923 Japan, that would otherwise only be seen in black & white sequences on film?
  • The story is a biography of an anarchist, Sakae Osugi, who was assassinated by the military in 1923, and the story of the relationship with three women, while two students research on and discuss the ideologies of love that he upheld.
  • Moulds time and space within the confined edges of narrative cinema to create a world where the characters are real. It does not attempt to conform at all – as seen from the color choice. It is simply different from all the cookie-cutter biographical films out there. The movie doesn’t seek to solve questions and conjure answers, but to encourage more questions to be asked, thus is the elusive nature and ephemeral quality of the expressionistic scenes.
  • Could there have been an influence from Japanese theatre given the narrative devices used?
  • A cinematic classic, and a milestone in Japanese cinema for sure.

Pulgasari (1985) 불가사리

Country: North Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Shin Sang-ok, Chong Gon Jo
Starring: Chang Son Hui, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri, Gyong-ae Yu

Theme: Monsters

Ratings: IMDb: 5.1/10

Film Festivals: N/A
Awards: N/A
Nominations: N/A

Given the regime’s immense liking of cinema and films, one should never write North Korea off the charts in terms of its cinematic history. Pulgasari (1985) was a joint production between Shin Sang-ok and Chong Gon-Jo, and this would not have raised eyebrows if not for the fact that Shin Sang-ok was actually a prolific South Korean film director who was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il in 1978 for the sole purpose of producing critically-acclaimed films to establish a credible film industry in the country to impact international opinion regarding his political party. He finally escaped in 1986 while in Vienna for a business meeting before seeking political asylum in the United States. Pulgasari, North Korea’s answer to the Japanese Godzilla (1954) was directed with the “Dear Leader” acting as executive producer.

The leader, who also published a book in 1973 entitled On the Art of Cinema, was convinced “that revolutionary art and literature are extremely effective means for inspiring people to work for the tasks of the revolution” (cited in Demick, 2010, pp. 14-15). In the 1970s before famine and drought struck the country, the film studio “churned out forty movies per year”, albeit surrounding the same themes of anti-capitalism and pro-socialist, adopting a sanctimonious stance against Seoul as the films usually portray degrading imagery of South Korea’s capital.

But the two films cannot have been more different in terms of its portrayal and editing techniques. Godzilla is much stronger and polished, and this comes as no surprise given how Japan was at the forefront of technology and the film industry even at that age. In comparison, Pulgasari, despite being filmed in colour, would have been much better as a black & white film. The colour tones are dull, the images grainy, and the storyline a tad too draggy to sit through. Contextually, we can see the backward nature of Pulgasari as well, as Godzilla roamed through modern Tokyo, albeit that 30 years before the release of Pulgasari, while Pulgasari only served to show how much of an agrarian utopia North Korea was/is. The camera appears to deliberately frame Godzilla and Pulgasari in the lower-up angle at times, so as to make the monster appear more powerful and superior to the common people. Meanwhile, the camera utilizes an excessive amount of zooms, that rendered the image very shaky at times as the camera zooms-in for a close-up rather than closes in on the subject. Special effects are relatively tacky, as per the blue glimmer of light indicating that Pulgasari was coming to live (10:11, Part 2). In fact, scenes like that of 02:15 (Part 7) and 07:10 (Part 8), are a glorification of North Korean weaponry as a sign of technological prowess – there are close-ups of nuclear artillery despite the film being set in the 14th century. The typical bottom-up shot of Pulgasari that conveys power was now used on the leader, as a sign in the shift in power.

The story is set in the 14th century Koryo dynasty period, when peasants languishing against tyranny stands up to their military regime in an uprising that led to a confiscation of farming tools and a jailing of key figures in the upheaval. A political prisoner makes a doll out of rice, naming it Pulgasari, after a mythic creature that was believed to help people through hard times. It comes alive when a drop of blood from his wife falls onto it, and then grows into a giant metal-eating monster. The more iron he ate, the larger he grew, and the monster sided with the peasants in their uprising, winning decisive battles against the soldiers of the regime. But his unquenchable appetite for iron proves to be the villages downfall subsequently as they had to give up their farm tools to meet his insatiable appetite. The protagonist who brought Pulgasari to live gave up her life by hiding inside an iron bell to restore peace and order to the community, telling Pulgasari to “sleep calmly” from within.

Critics like Ross (2004) have commented that the film is “intended to be a propaganda metaphor for the effects of unchecked capitalism and the power of the collective”, a point of view that does not fall out of line given the propaganda and brainwashing of the isolated North Korean citizens the regime has been known for so as to instill full-fledged loyalty in them. All in all, while Pulgasari might only boast B-grade effects, it is seminal for being one of the few North Korean films that have been earmarked for commercial release around the world, though it surprisingly failed to raise much of a ripple (I would have thought that more people would be much more curious with the reclusive country).

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il’s love for movie manifests in the organization of the Pyongyang International Film Festival, a biennial cultural exhibition, that has screened among others, a censored version of Bend It Like Beckham (2004). In a sign of the times, the isolated country has also created ripples in the film festival circuit, seeking to push its recent films into international watch. Of worthy note is Rim Chang-bom’s On The Green Carpet (2001) that was invited to the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival in a one-off screening though the poor quality rendered Sheila Johnson, a critic of FIPRESCI to comment that it “could have been made forty years ago”. Meanwhile, Jang In-hak’s The Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006) had sought for bidders at Cannes albeit to no avail, though it was subsequently picked up for release in France.

References

Demick, B. (2010). Nothing to envy: Real lives in North Korea. London, UK: Granta Books.

Ross, J. (2004). Jonathan Ross’ Asian Invasion: Korea. Retrieved on October 7, 2010, from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/cinema/features/asian-invasion3.shtml

Watch It!

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4299325314122049461#

The Blue Kite (1993) 藍風箏

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Starring: Lu Liping, Pu Quanxin, Chen Xiaoman, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang
Theme: Politics

Ratings:
IMDB: 7.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1993 Cannes International Film Festival
1993 Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF)
1993 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF)

Awards:
1993 HIFF Best Feature Film
1993 TIFF Tokyo Grand Prix (Tian Zhuangzhuang); Best Actress (Lu Liping)

Nominated:
1995 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

The Blue Kite (1993) by Tian Zhuangzhuang is a politically-motivated film set in 1950s to 1960s Beijing, a span of time encompassing three main events in China’s Communist history, namely the Hundred Flowers Campaign (in which deliberate attempts were made to flush out anti-establishment dissidents by encouraging them to be critical of the regime, before wiping them out), the Great Leap Forward (based on the economic Theory of Productive Forces, the aim was for China’s vast population to transform the poverty-stricken backward country from an agrarian economy to a modern communist state through industrialization) and finally the Cultural Revolution (in which liberal bourgeois elements were alleged to be permeating the party and capitalism was to be struggled through violent class struggle). It was admittedly very difficult to appreciate the nuances within the film not being well-versed in Chinese history, though research for these film notes after watching the film made it resonate deeply in me for its clever inclusion of anti-establishment messages that blatantly mocked the policies of Mao Zedong’s government then.

Little wonder that the film was banned by the Chinese authorities. Bypassing the local censors, The Blue Kite (1993) was smuggled out of China by Tian’s friends to Cannes, where it premiered in 1993. The harsh reality of the messages in the film led to a ten-year ban on filmmaking being imposed on the Fifth Generation filmmaker, that also marked the start of a near-decade long exodus from directing. A pity, indeed, given his eye for detail and an ability to capture everyday imagery on screen. And testament ot the everyday realism and simplicity of his images, he also does away with fanciful cinematic techniques, opting instead for regular standard framing techniques and camera sequences. He doesn’t contravene any standard cinematic rules, and the 180º rule is often used in dialogue.

The Blue Kite (1993) is typical of Fifth Generation films that do away with swashbuckling martial art elements of the wuxia pian for a more realistic portrait of life that captures everyday Chinese going about their everyday means of life. Perhaps the realistic depiction and illustration of hardship and frustration were too much for the Chinese authorities who are otherwise well-removed from the suffering of the proletariat to bear, thus leading to harsh actions by the censors. Caught through the eyes of a boy named Tietou, the film chronicles the period from 1953 to 1966 as the boy grows from a young kid into a teenager. The movie opens with a blue kite flying against the white horizon, supplemented with a children’s folk song in the background to evoke a quaint sentiment. This image recurs throughout much of the film, thus creating an stoic, determined, staunchly liberal attitude that stands in stark contrast to the regulations and clampdowns being imposed by the authorities.

The movie is also split between three chapters – Father, Uncle and Stepfather – and Tietou’s relationship with each of these characters. The three chapters also signify the three distinct periods of Chinese history. As Tietou’s mother remarries twice, following the death of his father and his uncle subsequently. These three characters somehow err on the wrong side of caution, get blacklisted by the authorities, and are either executed or sent away to reformative camp, never to be seen again. But what is pertinent is that Tietou’s mother, while trying to be happy and to make ends meet so that the family can be happy, fails at each time. Tietou takes centerstage in the show, evident through the frequent use of his voiceovers. Several cutaways establish the background of the family and the context of the town. We realize at this point of time that the narrator is the child of the bride and groom we see in the wedding. Though this is marred by news of Stalin’s death on March 5 1953, and their rites had to be postponed by ten days to mark respect – a sign of allegiance between the communist nations. Patriotic songs, rather than wedding tunes are sung on the wedding day of Tietou’s parents. But the father, Shaolong (Pu Quanxin) falls prey under the “Hundred Flowers Campaign”. From the point of view of a commited citizen who is very respectful of Mao Zedong, he openly voices out his opinions as he believes they will do good to better society. But they were construed otherwise, as the goading of the librarian who is in cahoots with the county authorities cause further comments on Shaolong’s part that causes him to be branded a dissident, and to be sent away.

Tietou is very smart for a precocious young child, and he is aware of the mercurial political climates within the country. He takes advantage of his youth by daring to question, by daring to ask, and in turn we see the mark of a pugnacious, rebellious and aggressive young boy who stands up for what he thinks is right. He notes the volatile, shifting political climates with numerous upheavals of the country, some of which bordering on plain ludicrious. Like how his landlady was charged simply because of her assuming the authority despite the fact that she had already lowered rates and should pretty much be viewed upon as one of the proletariat. He disses his mom a “maid” when she becomes nothing more than a servant to Lao Wu, her third husband and his rich stepfather that he isn’t especially fond of. He dares to ask, he dares to question, and we see through Tian Zhuangzhuang’s camera lenses a plausible indication of what Tian Zhuangzhuang himself should have been like in his youth, a prodigious young boy he must have been to become such a visionary filmmaker.

The Blue Kite, like many other films by the Fifth Generation filmmakers, is useful in providing international audiences an insight into everyday Chinese life. We see the typical Chinese home of communal living, and we get a sense of their blind allegiance to authority and Mao Zedong, bowing before his portrait everyday.  Even in a wedding, the bride and groom bow to Mao Zedong instead of their parents as a sign of allegiance to the country. The kite in this movie is a certain symbolism of freedom and democracy, and stands in stark contrast to the airplane references (01:03, Part 3; 05:00, Part 11) that also occur during the start of the movie. The blue kite’s subsequent ensnare within the branches of a tree becomes a stark sign that hope is being pilfered away from the hands of the locals and into the cold arms of the authorities. There is little room for any liberty and freedom in such a bureaucracy, where loyal citizens are easily branded Rightists at the whim and fancy of then government. Why, then a kite and not other flying devices? My only guess is that a kite goes with the flow of the wind, a kite is both subject to personal and natural forces, unlike mechanically-powered devices that might be akin to yielding a bull by its horns. In 8:53 (Part 11), the kite ensnared in the tree is filmed via a reflective shot that captures the kite being stuck in the trees and the two kids staring out of the window. Tietou tells his niece Niuniu that he can “make another one, an obvious sign of hope and defiance against where life has taken him to. But in the pivotal scene where his stepfather was hauled away and Tietou was beaten up by the Red Army, Tian resorts to a top-down shot (6:29; Part 13) that captures the severely-wounded Tietou lying on the ground with a trail of blood flowing from his mouth, staring up. We follow his gaze upward, and a cutaway shows the kite, still stuck in the tree, now broken and torn. The camera zooms out and gradually shows his entire body as he lies on the ground (6:52)

Flowers of Shanghai (1998) 海上花

Country: Taiwan
Language: Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Shuan Fang, Michiko Hada, Hsu An-An, Annie Yee, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Theme: War

Ratings: IMDb: 7.4 /10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1998 Kerala International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Art Director / Best Director

1998 Kerala International Film Festival: Golden Crow Pheasant (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

Based on the 1892 novel ‘Sing Song Girls of Shanghai’ by Han Bangqing, Flowers of Shanghai is set around 2 strands of narratives – one involving Wang, a rich gentleman caller caught between his long-term lover and new mistress and the other around Emerald, a pompous but popular prostitute who aims to buy her way out of the brothel to freedom. The setting is a brothel in 1880’s Shanghai. Overarching themes of the movie center around power struggles amongst the call girls, the dilemmas faced by the gentlemen callers and the powerful head mistress of the brothel.

Most of the film is shot in the dark with lighting coming from candlelight or oil lamps, casting warm hues of reds and golds. The use of such luminous, natural-light cinematography techniques is a very powerful visual impetus because it creates the type of feel one would get in a brothel back in the 1880’s – which are dark sleazy places that men go to for comfort. Most of the shots in the movie consists of long, widescreen shots that track slowly from side to side, taking in lengthy and whole conversations at once, making the overall pace of the movie very slow, ultimately drawing us into the world of 19th Century Shanghai. It creates a “fly-on-the-wall” effect, which allows us to observe small but privileged moments as well as the intricate details of the settings without interference or commentary (Anderson, 2000).

Even though the movie centers on brothels and call-girls, there is hardly any mention or show of sex or passion. Instead, what we get on-screen are shots of the call girls feeding their clients, stoking their ego and bringing them their opium pipes.

Augmenting the slow paced nature of the film is its tendency to repeat certain things. For example, a particular sound track is repeated several times throughout the film and the movie constantly returns to the main round table where the gentlemen callers wine and dine, while the girls stand behind or sit beside them. I’m not really sure what this represents but the use of such repetitive techniques seem to suggest a sort of circular causality – that these are events that took place because of something and will continue to do so unless something drastic happens. Another thing to add about the musical score is its dreamlike and almost timeless undertone, this combined with the slow narrative and visuals of the show creates an almost hypnotic effect that dulls our senses and draws us deeper into the scenes. Furthermore, every shot in this film is an interior shot; we almost never ever see the outdoors or the sky, not even through the windows.

Overall I must say that I found that Flowers of Shanghai could have been better had the plot and characters been more compelling. But the visuals i.e. colors and costumes are lavishly detailed and the cinematography creates a more than worthy mood for the film and its premise.

By mostly relying on the little schemes and problems between the courtesans and their clients, the movie focuses too much on petty elements which results in a minimal plot, ultimately that makes it hard for us as viewers to be engaged in what is happening on-screen. The fact that the story moves at an incredibly slow speed, combined with the dull dreamy visuals alleviates the pain of sitting through this film. Furthermore, the lack of close-up shots, and restrained physical expressions of the characters make it very hard for viewers to get any sense of their emotional states. It becomes hard to identify with and find any emotional connection with the characters on screen. The end result is an equivocal and distant one.

References

Anderson, J. M. (2000). Combustible Celluloid film review – Flowers of Shanghai. Retrieved on December 6, 2010, from http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/flowshang.shtml

The Traveling Circus (1988) Gánh xiếc rong


Country:
Vietnam
Theme: Culture
Runtime: 74 minutes
Director: Việt Linh

Ratings: N/A
Film Festivals: 1991 Berlin International Film Festival

Awards:
1991 Berlin International Film Festival: UNICEF Jury Prize
Grand Prix at Fribourg 3rd World Film Festival (year unavailable)
Audience Award at Uppsala (Sweden) International Film Festival (year unavailable)
First Prize at Madrikd Women’s Film Festival (year unavailable)

Vietnamese cinema is an area that is relatively underexplored and unknown. There is a startling lack of information surrounding Vietnamese cinema in general, let alone this film on the World Wide Web, as I discovered whilst doing some research in my preparation of these film notes. It is definitely unbefitting of The Traveling Circus, a film that some have regarded as one of the most acclaimed Vietanamese films of the 1980s, and which has clinched numerous awards at international film festivals.

The Traveling Circus (1988) is a bittersweet tale of a small traveling circus from Hanoi that stops by an ethnic minority village amid the lush landscape of Vietnam’s central mountainous region. The materialistic troupe has solely set its sight on the gold mines that allegedly permeate the mountain regions, and exploits the pitiful naivity and desperation of the villagers at their starvation because of an ongoing famine. The troupe makes the villagers abandon their padi field harvests and throng the fields to mine gold for them, with the ultimate promise of teaching them the art of creating rice. Through the eyes of Dac, a village youngster, the magical realm of the circus is captured, along with the innocent hope that illusions can be real. He screams excitedly, “I saw it with my own eyes!” as the unwitting accomplice to the syndicate lures other villagers to the circus. He even forges a mutal relationship with Lanh, the sole female performer of the troupe whom he sees as a motherly figure who he can trust. He shows her the path to the stream, gives her his sister’s beloved pet monkey, and rescues her from a poisonous snake. His sheer excitement and hope of salvation permeate through his skin and bones, ultimately to be let down as tragedy strikes on a scale that can only be apocalyptic in his eyes. Lanh betrays his trust, his sister Poupon poisons herself in her bid to find food, and the trick he perpetrates to be true is all a hoax. The plot is rather realistic, and mise-en-scene vivid in capturing the stark poverty the ethnic tribes of Vietnam are facing. One can only sympathise with the sensitivies captured in the film.

The movie opens with heavy gong beats setting the tone for the movie. A wide establishing shot (00:06) has two horses ferrying passengers appear within the frame in the distance, which gallop towards the camera. This is followed by several medium and close-up shots that focus on various artefacts like the wheels of the trishaw, the sand of the ground and the characters riding the horses. Amid the ongoing gong beats, an isolated tree is captured on the right of the frame amid the vast plains and mountains (01:16). This isolation of the tree is cinematically beautiful while providing a context of its importance to the storyline – it is featured in direct contrast during the climactic scene of Dac’s dream sequence of being burnt on the stake. To capture the desolate nature of Vietnam of the 1980s, a lot of wide establishing shots are used to highlight the desolate nature of the scene. The circus ringleader, at 04:17 talks down on these lodging as “houses of the dead”, a view supported by the next shot of the impoverished boy and his sister who are both dressed skimpily.

Most of the circus scenes are captured in a slightly off-center position rather than in perfect symmetry, perhaps to convey a sense of dissonance and the imperfection of illusion amidst the perfection of what their tricks may seem (28:57). This is in contrast to the flashback scene in Dac’s mental impression (30:33).

Indeed, Dac tries to replicate the trick inside the house (31:35) engaging the help of his younger sister, but to no avail. Further, this scene is captured from a low angle that conveys a sense of power and authority that Dac possesses among the village kids for his leadership skills. Meanwhile, Dac’s father has gone mental and abusive. He is seen wandering aimlessly throughout the scene, mouthing liners like “Why doesn’t God just kill us all?”

But I do find Lanh’s character a tad too unbelievable. No matter how one might be shielded from the outside world or stuck in her own shell, it doesn’t make sense for her not to know of the famine or poverty that is plaguing the village. It is only through clearcut dialogue with her circus mate (52:08) that she gets a glimpse of the gravity of the matter. Even so, the scene needs to be cut away to a trail of villagers walking through the village crying in agony, that is eventually contrasted with the mocking tunes of the circus trumpet player while Lanh lies in bed, upset and conflicted.

One really cannot help but sympathize with Dac, the young protagonist for having hope given and then harshly snatched away from him. At 1:04:43, he returns home to find his sister poisoned to death through one of the strongest misè-en-scènes of the entire film We see the sister framed at the top-left corner of the shot, cutting an isolate figure against the stark emptiness of the hut. As Dac walks toward the lifeless body, we do not see his face but we observe his body movements through his heavy footsteps as he approaches his dead sister. The camera remains still as he breaks down when he kneels beside the limp body. He finally realizes his folly, but opts to tearfully sound the alarm in a manner that is self-defeating. It is as if he still harbours feelings for Lanh and cannot bear for her to get hurt. He picks up the circus gong (in contrast to an earlier scene where he played the gong for the troupe) and creates a ruckus, thereby alerting the troupe in the process as well.

Shot entirely in black & white despite the presence of color film technology in the 1980s, this could be inferred as a sign of the backward and primitive cinematic technology the fledgling Vietnamese film industry had at that point of time. Vietnamese filmmaking met a huge obstacle in the Đổi Mới reform, where the country underwent a paradigm shift from the centrally-planned Communist economy to a market economy in 1986. Struggling in face of the influx of video and television, the number of Vietnamese films has dropped off since 1987.

It comes as no surprise that The Traveling Circus was once banned in Vietnam. Clearly evident as one core moral in the film is the difficulty Vietnamese are bound to face in their adjustment in the economic changes. The central authority in the form of the Village Chief still takes charge of the village, but he spouts moral values regarding the need for hard work, through lines such as “If you want to eat, your hands have to work. And your head has to brave the rain and sunshine. There are no miracles, my son.”

Director Việt Linh now lives in Paris, France, but an increasing number of Vietnamese films that are making its rounds in the film festival circuit marks a cognizance in the industry. Tony Bui’s Three Seasons (1998) was at Sundance Film Festival, while Bùi Thạc Chuyên’s short film Night Cyclo Trip (2000) clinched third prize at Cannes Film Festival. European collaborations are common, with Indochine (1992) that is set in French Indochina perhaps the most prominent. But without adequate media structures, government support, an active moviegoing culture and a preference for the tubebox, this growth is still stuttering at best at the moment.