The Mighty Peking Man/Goliathon/Colossus of Congo (1977) 猩猩王

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ho Meng-hua
Running Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Li Hsiu-hsien, Evelyn Kraft, Hsiao Yao, Ku Feng, Lin Wei-tu

Theme: Monsters (B-Grade)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 5.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 55%

Film Festivals:
2009 Perspectives Film Festival (Singapore)
1999 Sundance Film Festival
1999 Toronto International Film Festival

Awards: N/A

Nominations: N/A

The Mighty Peking Man (1977) is directed by Shanghai-native Ho Meng-Hwa (1929-2009), who arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 and began a career as a screenwriter. He soon ventured into directing with his debut film Wild Girl (1957) for Cathay. Impressed, Shaw Brothers hired him as a director, and it is worth watching the film to gain a glimpse of how movies produced by the two rival studios in their heyday were like, before their unfortunate respective downfall. Ho has worked in a wide spectrum of genres ranging from martial arts to science fiction and erotica. But The Mighty Peking Man takes the cake for blending all three elements at the same time in a film that was filmed to milk the cash cow that was the 1976 American remake of King Kong that breathed life into the ailing monster genre. The film is cheesy and not as horrifying as it is hilarious, but the list of names that has endorsed the film certainly lends it credence. In spite of the fact it is blatantly obvious here that there is a guy masquerading in the monster suit.

This film does not even attempt to buck the trend of the archetypal B-grade films.  The footage is grainy, the colors of the set are too vivid to be real, and the studio sets look extremely fake. The dialogue is cheesy, as the monster gets melancholically involved in a triangulation among a blonde jungle babe, an adventurer and itself. When left to his own devices to deal with the homo erectus invasion, and to deal with the betrayal of the woman it had adopted and raised into a buxom curvaceous young lady who fell in love with the outsider, the eponymous monster reacts terribly in a chain of events that could only be described as tragic.

I found it worthy to include at least one campy B-grade film within the Fifty Films list, given the massive cultural significance and popularity that the subgenre possesses. This major cult following is not only restricted to Hong Kong alone, but even worldwide. The acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino, who certainly has an eye for quirky films given how he has named Filipino film director Bobby A. Suarez’s They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong (1978) one of his major influences, re-released the film in North America in 1999 so as to bring the classic to contemporary audiences, especially for its eccentric genius. In his Sun Times review, Roger Ebert (1999) also wrote, “I am awarding the film three stars [out of four], for general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius.”

 

The Hole (1998) 洞

Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang-sheng

Theme: Culture (People-People Relations)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Chicago International Film Festival
1999 Singapore International Film Festival
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize
(for its daring combination of realism and apocalyptic vision, desperation and joy, austerity and glamour)
1998 Chicago International Film Festival: Gold Hugo for Best Film
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Actress (Yang Kuei-Mei, for the subtlety and sophistication of her performance in the role of a woman determined to hurdle the stresses of urban life)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Director (Tsai Ming-Liang, for his creation of a new cinematic expression which challenges the very meaning of human existence)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature Film (for its intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination)
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Best Film

The Hole (1998) is a morose tale of how two strangers living in close proximity to each other are forced to acknowledge each other’s existence in what are perverse conditions of that time. It is the turn of the new millennium, and while jitters abound at that time with regard to the unleash of the Y2K bug that might potentially create havoc within computer systems all around the world, in The Hole it takes the form of a strange disease. Setting the mood is the never-ending typhoon rain that lashes down outside the apartment where most of the scenes occur in, a scenario at once depressing and further accentuating the humdrum ordinary existence of the two individuals. They live in their own pads, leading their own separate unexceptional lives, and their own mediocre existence rearing its ugly head in a lonely comme ci, comme ça state. The taciturn duo are neighbors in an apartment block, with the man living above the woman, and their lodging is not only bijou, but also in a mess. As the saying goes ‘there is no place like home’, but the two lead characters look like they’d rather be someplace else, only having to return there because of the average nature of their respective lives.

Their names are never given much prominence throughout the show, and if I am not wrong, we never learn the name of Yang Kuei-Mei who acts as the woman living downstairs. The man upstairs, in a wonderful turn by Lee Kang-sheng, is Hsiao-kang, and this is only revealed through necessary dialogue that exists in his everyday life. We have also explored such an added veil of anonymity in The Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami in which the motivation of the protagonist’s intent to commit suicide is hidden, whilst in Raise the Red Lantern (1991) by Zhang Yimou the face of the husband remains obscured for the entire show. What this serves to add, aside from the facetious reason of adding to an aura of mystique, is to create a sense of detachment of the viewer from what is going on onscreen. Of course, the director runs the risk of alienating the audience from the fare on screen, but what eventually prevails is the subtlety and sophistication of powerful performances with attention dedicated to minute detail as the characters go through the stresses of urban life. Their drab surroundings, indeed, as the film notes of the 1999 Singapore International Film Festival write, “challenge(s) the very meaning of human existence” in an “intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination”.

The woman downstairs is prone to escapism tendencies. She has her own song-and-dance routine in her daydreams, where she performs à la a caberet dancer, perhaps her only form of expression in an otherwise repressive and apocalyptic world. A plumber arrives at Hsiao-Kang’s apartment to check the pipes, in an event that strangely involves the drilling of a small hole into the ceiling of the woman downstairs. And this is Hsiao-Kang’s moment of respite. The hole becomes a rubbish chute, it becomes an avenue for him to dangle his legs and engage in a myriad of weird stuff that hinges on the brink of insanity. And it becomes an avenue for him to spy on his neighbor.

There is minimal dialogue throughout the dreary show. The characters keep to themselves in spite of (or because of) the apocalyptic conditions they find themselves in. Many long takes that envelope the shadows and dreariness of the apartment and the man’s store, cast in muted hues of mostly whites, fluorescent blues, greys, and blacks create a sense of alienation and loneliness, with the exception of the dance sequences that explode in a flurry of colors.

The strange disease continually lurks in the shadows of everyday existence, and the severity of it all a foreshadow of the subsequent SARS that impacted the region several years on. In what is tantamount to an epidemic, we see how little help is given to these lost and aimless struggling residents. They were ordered to evacuate the rundown apartment they put up in, but they chose to stay put – how little power the government can exert over their citizens in times of such epidemic where quarantine is necessary is indeed baffling and perhaps a running thread that begs investigation. As the walls (or floors) crumble, what’s left of the reclusive human existence can only be oneself. A brutal satire of the lack of communication fuelled by the technological age with everyone isolated in their own bubble fantasies, this absurdity of everyday life has never been clearer through the polarization as in this scene.

 

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) / S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge

Country: Cambodia
Language: Khmer/Vietnamese
Theme: War
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Rithy Panh
Starring: Chum Mey, Vann Nath

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival
2003 Toronto International Film Festival
2003 New York Film Festival
2003 Vancouver International Film Festival
2003 Chicago International Film Festival
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival

Awards:
2003 Cannes Film Festival: Prix François Chalais
2003 Chicago International Film Festival: Best Documentary
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Jury Special Prize
2003 European Film Awards: Best Documentary
2003 Leipzig DOK Festival: FIPRESCI Prize, Golden Dove
2004 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema: Human Rights Award
2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival: Humanitarian Award

Nominations:
2003 Copenhagen International Film Festival: Golden Swan

A comparison between S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) by Rithy Panh and Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman seems pertinent here. Both films deal with wartime atrocities and massacre, with the former on the Khmer Rouge massacre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia of the 1970s, and the latter on the Palestine slaughter in Israel in the 1980s. Both films involve directors who were involved in, and who survived their respective ordeals. Yet both films cannot be more different in terms of their stylistic treatment and aesthetics.

Waltz with Bashir is a highly stylistic animation film full of lush colors, crisp lines and catchy music that draws attention right from the start, before presenting the reality with strong impact by a cutaway to actual news footage showing the grieving citizens of the time. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, however, is a very down-to-earth documentary that casts a spotlight into the Khmer Rouge regime that occurred in remote Kampuchea of the 1970s, a historical incident that is slowly fading into the international shadows of obscurity with the passing of time and tide. With little media attention and Cambodia being pretty much off the radar on the international scale, this is not surprising despite the Khmer Rouge regime being one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century that has left at least a quarter of Cambodians dead.

Waltz with Bashir creates impact largely through playing with contrast, but the straightforward approach taken by S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is in my opinion equally, if not, downright more chilling. Rithy Panh survived the regime, and the director, who presently resides in Paris (France appears to be the ideal country for these war-stricken directors to seek asylum), returns to his hometown to seek answers in a straightforward interview face-off that brought together two of only around a dozen survivors of the S21 prison against their captors. This is what makes the film so intense, the survivors confronting their captors who once engaged in incomprehensible evil and trying to seek answers out of them.

The difference is stark. Age has caught up with these alleged wartime criminals who are, today, old and into their golden years. Vanh Nath’s saving grace was his artistic talent and his ability to paint realistic portraits of the war generals, and today he looks jaded with his head full of white hair. The other survivor, Chum Mey, broke down at the mere sight of the building, restored as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today, and could not bear to face the violent history and the ghosts of his past (“We suffered so much. Don’t think about it. My wife, my children… I’ve lost everything” (12:46)). And it takes a lot to watch a grown man break down. Meanwhile, their former captors back then are all middle-aged today, being barely teenagers when they were recruited into the regime.

In a tour around the museum, the previous captors chillingly recounted scenarios of their routines in the past. They unflinchly re-enact scenes where they beat prisoners, give them food, deprive them of food, and send them for execution. They complain over having to clean up after these prisoners, how they stank and how the trucks that shipped them to the execution grounds usually end up reeking of poo and urine. Worst, they appear unrepentant, brainwashed by the regime of the past that sought to create a Communist agrarian utopia into thinking that this was for the best. They do not stop to consider the implications of their past actions, and when the angered Vanh Nath—veins literally popping out of his neck as he struggles to control his emotions—confront them on what they make of their past deeds, they shy away from owning up to them by saying that there wasn’t any choice. But one can’t help but feel that it runs deeper than that, their bonechilling re-enactments suggestive of the fact that such torture and torment have been inbred into the recesses of their dehumanized soul, and that they still think that it is legitimate and even normal. (“When the Party makes an arrest, it arrests an enemy of the Party. Even husbands, wifves, children. The Party, S21, never made arrests by mistake” (29:43)), with one showing apparent remorse (“I was arrogant, I had power over the enemy. I saw him as an animal. I didn’t think. My heart never checked my brain, never stopped my hands and feet from striking” (37:41) / “Today when I think about it, it was against the law” (1:29:44)) as the camera pans away from the interrogator and casts a harsh light upon the captor.

The camera switches between medium shots that capture the vastness of the larger rooms, with the prisoner numbering of the wall bearing an indication of how packed these rooms once were despite its size, and the close-ups of the smaller cells where prisoners deemed to be trouble were sent to “repent”, by which a sense of claustrophobia was evoked. Adding to that are the numerous scenes that are framed from outside the prison grilles (51:26). The camera zooms in on the detailed records of the prison, including photographs to jolt memories. Interviews are honest: “They were putting a rope around our necks and pulling us along, like cattle. We cannot hear anyone except our own footsteps. They’d kick anyone who fell. And we obeyed, they laughed. Just like blind men!” (08:46)

This film has won numerous international humanitarian prizes, and was the catalyst leading up to a confession about the Cambodian Civil War after years of public denial. A slight pity, though, that the short black & white grainy news footage shown at the beginning of the film (00:54) was in sufficient to create the context required to fully appreciate or understand the film, which cuts straight to the chase. But one takeaway from the film is without doubt the similarities of the incident with the Fascist propaganda of the Nazis that led to the Holocaust. A single influential person could possess enough power to yield control of the minds of key individuals in a population that could lead to a massacre against dissidents. And one might perhaps even draw parallels to the ongoing Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea, or even among the militant Islam extremist terrorists plaguing the world.

The Housemaid (2010) 하녀

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Im Sang-soo
Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo, Yoon Yeo-jeong, Ahn Seo-hyeon, Park Ji-young
Theme: Family/Aging, Romance/Erotica

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.7/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50%

Film Festivals:
2010 Cannes Film Festival: In Competition
2010 Toronto International Film Festival
2010 Fantastic Fest
2010 Pusan International Film Festival
2010 Sitges Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Philadelphia Film Festival
2010 The London-Korean Film Festival

Awards:
2010 Daejong Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Critics Choice Awards: Best Music
2010 Korean Film Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong)
2010 Blue Dragon Film Awars: Best Supporting Actress (Yoon Yeo-jeong) / Best Art Direction

Im Sang-soo’s The Household (2010) is a contemporary remake of the 1960 classic thriller by Kim Ki-young of the same name that was recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. In the half a century that has transcended between the two films, a mammoth sociological shift had taken place in South Korea. According to director Im Sang-soo who revealed in his interviews, this is the reason behind the different caste background of the families in the two films. The original takes place among the rising middle class of the 1960s, while the remake is set in a luxurious upper-class environment, a timely update that is more relatable given the rich nation today.

The maid is Eun-yi (the effervescent Jeon Do-yeon, who once won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in Secret Sunshine (2007)), hired as a servant for Hae Ra (Seo Woo) who is pregnant with twins, and her rich husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae), with a precocious daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyeon). Hoon flirts with Eun-yi, enticing her with high-couture symbols like the piano—which takes on central significance in the original but remains on the sideline as a sheer prop in this remake—and they begin a sexual relationship. Hoon is horny and likes to be in control in bed, his perverse erotic fetishes shine through in a scene with him having anal sex with his very pregnant wife. He lies naked on bed with his wife on top of him upon penetration. He spreads his arms out wide in a symbolism of being in charge as Christ allegories take over, in a direct reference to the prominent image of Christ on the cross. Hoon is wine-loving and visits Eun-yi in the middle of the night in his bathrobe or underwear. Palpable sexual tension manifests, and the camera at one point of time does an extreme close-up of an intense sexual sequence that pans across the two sweaty bodies gyrating against each other as they make love. Hoon’s hunky tanned frame fills the frame as he lies on top of Eun-yi’s chaste body. The whole sequence is erotic. “I’m about to cum. Can I do it inside you?” Hoon asks.

Eun-yi remains warm with Hoon’s wife, Hae Ra, but their clandestine relationship is outed by the older maid Byeong-sik (Yoon Yeo-jeong), who sees everything that is going on in the vast premises ot the house. She struggles to hang onto her clout gained from her experience, and we know that within her warped mind of her own she fantasizes over having Hoon to herself, her jealousy shining through in her betrayal of Eun-yi, and her regret compounding that in the finale. In a story of twists and turns, Eun-yi gets pregnant, and Hae Ra realizes that her love for children means that she will never abort the baby. Thus the wife plots and scams against Eun-yi, poisoning her stash of herbal medicine that she takes everyday. A gory scene ensues, with the topdown camera causing Eun-yi to seem small as it captures the solitary bathtub in the middle of the toilet, and a naked Eun-yi bleeding from her womb. She hangs herself from the chandelier in the middle of the living room to which she once clung onto for dear life having been sabotaged by the mother-in-law, before lighting her body on fire in front of the family.

The movie is in fact split into three distinct segments, each with a strong aesthetic treatment of its own. Casting a spotlight on present-day Korea is the opening scene that uses the cinema vérité technique in capturing a suicide. We do not know the significance of this suicide, but we see it transposed against the affluent society of modern Korea with cutaways to luxury labels in a grainy shot that documents the shock surrounding the death.

The bulk of the movie that revolves around the dynamics of the house is filmed with a more matter-of-fact aesthetic, using established camera angles and framing techniques to portray the vast size of the house in contrast with the emotional shifts of the characters. The house closes in on the viewer, the walls creating a lonely claustrophobia in spite of the vastness, as the characters are seen walking through the emptiness of the house. Loneliness seems to be the price of luxury.

The final scene captures the family a few years after the tragedy that is Eun-yi’s death. The family appears to have been psychologically scarred by that moment, and the ghost of Eun-yi lives on around them. We see Hoon speaking in English throughout this scene rather than his mother tongue Korean. We note the vivid, quirky colors the scene is captured in, and the eccentricities of this surrounding is further compounded by the outfit of the family. It is Nami’s birthday, and the “Happy Birthday” song that is sung is cold, emotionless, and wintry.

It is debatable whether or not such an upgrade in social class to be more relevant is even necessary, but this is perhaps not the main cause of the rift this remake has created. While the film went to Cannes, Im Sang-soo has caused vast divides in opinion with respect to this film. Some accuse it for not being truthful and respecting of the original in terms of the motives and intentions of the characters, with some critics going as far as to claim that this film should be a standalone rather than a “remake” as it is hardly faithful to the original. The 1960 classic has gone down cinematic history for its “bold, disturbing look at lust, greed, and revenge.” (Tan, 2010), centering on the maid as the seductress of the husband. The maid was devious, wielding sexual control and ill-treating his materialistic pregnant wife and two children. Rather the modern update has the husband being the seductor of the maid in a paradigmic shift of intent and a reversal of personalities. The maid reciprocates, indeed, but the husband remains in control, wielding his power over the innocent maid. The maid also forges an unlikely bond with the child who does not judge her by her social status or background – unlike the wealthy family she works for who disapproves of her lower-class status.

References

Tan, E. (2010, October 22). Report Card: The Housemaid (2010). Retrieved November 25, 2010, from http://filmnomenon2.blogspot.com/2010/10/housemaid-2010.html

Spring Fever (2009) 春風沉醉的晚上

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Lou Ye
Starring: Qin Hao, Chen Sicheng, Tan Zhuo, Wu Wei, Jiang Jiaqi
Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 50% | Metacritic: 64/100

Film Festivals:
2009 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
2009 Cannes Film Festival: Best Screenplay

Nominations:
2009 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

I thought it worthy to catch this movie in the theatres during its limited run given its numerous accolades at Cannes 2009 serving as a backdrop to the film. There is French investment and support in this film that Lou Ye released in spite of a five-year ban imposed on filmmaking given his involvement in the seminal Summer Palace (2006) which portrayed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres in a pro-democratic light. And this is evident through the French subtitles included with the film. Further, it is noteworthy that the film was shot discreetly amidst the drab industrial landscape of Nanjing using a video recorder, and then transferred onto the 35mm format. This nondescript measure is characteristic of the Sixth Generation filmmaking wave that Lou Ye himself is a part of. Using the documentary style of cinema vérité, the film appears to be a biographical story of the lead characters. The style’s jarring nature taking on heightened relevance given the underground and taboo homosexual relationships the protagonists find themselves engaged in. Natural lighting is used throughout the film, which means most of the intense sex sequences for instance that take place are poorly-lit, save for the minimal moonshine that casts a bluish glow within the room. The audience becomes the voyeur—or the peeping tom even—glimpsing into their psyches and peeping at their intimate actions. Lending credence to this whole indie, underground edgy feel is the typography used at the start of the film that is a throwback to Chinese films of the 1960s era, and which fits perfectly with the extreme grain and noise of the shots.

The opening shot is of flower petals in a pond, and the literary allegories are evident. Referencing a 1923 work by Chinese author Yu Dafu, the voiceover regales “Drunken nights without hope, like this one: I spend them wandering outside until the sky grows pale.” The camera cuts away to a shot that focuses on the scenery outside a moving vehicle, the fast-moving trees and the shaky shots creating a jarring nauseating sense right from the start that persists throughout the film. We see the male leads holding hands in the car, peeing by the river as they exit the car, and sharing an intimate smooch in public. This is also perhaps the happiest moment of the brooding film, an instant of unbridled joy and ecstasy at being in the embrace of a loved one. The scene is “dissonant and jarring, the film’s sounds and images oscillate between lust and frustration, and as the past and present are hauntingly blurred, so too are the identities of the story’s characters.” (Gonzalez, 2010). Later, as the couple engages in sensual acts in public grounds like a bookstore, it all appears brief, fleeting and unfulfilling. Allegories to nature are evident, and the handheld camera focuses a lot on rain pattering on the roofs outside, the lotus roots, etc. The first instance of trouble beckons when we see a camera-toting photographer spying on the intimate actions and snapping some shots, and we soon learn that one of the characters are married and he is a private investigator hired by a jealous wife who suspects infidelity, but not expecting it to be with another man. There is confrontation, there is embarrassment, and there is shaming.

Fast forward to a series of nightclub scenes, and we see a more gritty misè-en-scène with loads of color and campy music. The lead Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) is a crossdresser who sings in the nightclub, albeit a very bad tone deaf one because his singing was, really, unbearable. The private investigator, Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) trails Jiang to the nightclub and unwittingly discovers his bisexual tendencies and falls in love with the protagonist during his moment of fraililty at having undergone a nasty fight with his lover, Wang Ping (Wu Wei) over his wife. We see Luo Haitao engaging in scenes with Jiang Cheng that parallel the original relationship between Jiang and Wang – a shower scene being the most affective with the two characters in the bathroom sharing erotic moments of soaping each other and kissing. But Luo also has a girlfriend, and Jiang chooses to let her come in between the two of them this time round in light of what happened during the original relationship. They share moments of passion when the girlfriend is not around, but is caught in the act. The pop ditty by Pu Shu and covered by Fan Weiqi “那些花兒“ (loosely translated as Those Flowers) is the theme of this movie, with the lyrics bearing a direct reference to the story thread and the frequent flower lotus references made (“The flowers have been blown away by the wind and scattered in the horizon”)

Wang Ping soon commits suicide at the top of a picturesque and deserted hill, much to the loss of Jiang Cheng who ditched him, and to the agony of his wife Li Jing (Tan Zhuo) – how how foolish she must have been that her confrontations would have done good for the relationship. In what is an exceptionally gory scene in the climax, Li JIng attacks Jiang Cheng in public, and the subsequent scene provides an insight into the apparent apathy of the mainland Chinese public as Jiang Cheng lies on the road, bleeding, with nary a soul willing to stop and help, all opting to stare instead.

Au (2010) brings up a pertinent continuity issue in the disparity in tension between the first half of the story that was abandoned in the second half, as Luo Haitao was the single individual who disrupted Jiang Cheng’s first relationship, and the entire guilt or irony this must have encompassed was totally ignored when he himself got involved. Work remains work, one might say, but this argument is, really, tangible at best.

The film is undoubtedly arthouse, and a very disjointed one at that. The ban means that China has cut all ties with the production of this film, and it was registered as a Hong Kong/French co-production instead, despite the director being Chinese. Such a tactic to bypass the Chinese censors is certainly noteworthy and interesting, as this precedent may provide an avenue for future directors to address more controversial topics and be able to work outside the purview of the Chinese censorship board. The film captures the meandering nature of the Chinese homosexual, driven by purposeless eroticism and sex and drifting through the motions of life as they struggle to come to terms with themselves.

References

Au, A. (2010, November 19). Amnesia of the sensual: the film Spring Fever. Retrieved on November 25, 2010, from http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/amnesia-of-the-sensual-the-film-spring-fever/

Gonzalez, E. (2010, August 1). Spring fever. Retrieved on November 25 2010, from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/spring-fever/4925

Centre Stage/The Actress/Yuen Ling-yuk (1992) 阮玲玉


Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 167 minutes
Director: Stanley Kwan
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Chin Han

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb: 7.7/10

Film Festivals:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival

Awards:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress (Maggie Cheung)
1993 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Actress (Maggie Cheung) / Best Art Direction / Best Cinematography / Best Original Film Score / Best Original Film Song

Nominations:
1992 Berlin International Film Festival: Golden Berlin Bear (Stanley Kwan)
1993 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director (Stanley Kwan), Best Costume & Make-up Design, Best Picture, Best Screenplay

Centerstage (1994) is a biopic of the efferverscent Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935), China’s first prima donna of the silver screen. Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan pays tribute to the legendary actress, nicknamed the “Chinese Garbo” in her fleeting nine-year career, chronicling her rise to prominence up till the moment of suicide. This film is also credited to be Maggie Cheung’s breakthrough role, and the numerous Best Actress accolades she picked up, including the Silver Bear at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival, is testament of that. Today, Maggie Cheung has become one of Asian cinema’s most recognizable faces, her oriental porcelain face an expression of stoic calmness in an exquisite tranquility that the seminal Ruan Lingyu once possessed. How befitting that the versatile Cheung was chosen for the role, given their similar aura of being method actresses who embrace the art form by possessing the characters they portray.

The biopic adopts a unique editing structure in how it intersperses original scenes from Ruan Lingyu’s movies (or rather, the few that remain in circulation today given how many of them were lost during the tumultuous years of World War II and the Chinese Cultural Revolution that followed her death, including The Goddess (1934) and New Women (1934)) with present day re-enactments. Maggie Cheung breathes life into Ruan Lingyu’s character in her scenes, along with character interviews where the personnel involved in the show—including Stanley Kwan himself—give their personal opinion about the tragic life of Ruan Lingyu, conveying their respect for her as well as providing insights into what might have been different should Ruan Lingyu be alive in the present era. In fact, such a cross-era comparison is significant in bringing out the tragedy of it all, that the impudence and double standards of the past could have led to the loss of such a brilliant actress whose name will remain in the Chinese cinema folklore forever. Thus, such a non-linear story allows the viewer to see Ruan Lingyu’s flaws, as well as the vulnerabilities and strengths of the dedicated actress.

What rescued Ruan Lingyu from poverty eventually proved to be the downfall of the silent film star who has portrayed a plethora of roles ranging from a war revolutionary, an independent woman and a peasant girl. Some key scenes is how Ruan Lingyu apparently refused to rest on her laurels. She was diligent in her picking up of Mandarin despite being well-versed only in Cantonese, so as to break into the mainstream China and Hong Kong market. She refused to be pigeon-holed as the frail victimized lovelorn character, but rather took the initiative to approach her director, volunteering herself for the role of a headstrong war revolutionary – and excelling at it along the way in what would eventually become a breakthrough role. She was helpful in offering guidance to fellow actresses like the loud Lily Li, when she was unable to grasp the proper emotions required in a scene.

It is beyond me to ascertain whether the scenes in the film are entirely faithful to the goings-on that happened in the past, but some scenes are emotionally affecting. The patriarchal double standard of the Chinese media in the past that unjustifiably vilified the adulterous woman, with Ruan having been involved in not one, but two, extra-marital affairs, but letting the male get away scot-free comes into question, and it is indeed a pity when cultural ethics betray the journalistic demands of the era. Ruan was perhaps an icon of the liberation of Chinese feminism, in charge of her career, in charge of the tragic heroine roles she play, and ultimately in control of her relationships. Not to imply that she was a control freak, but it must have been hard when reality snatches away threefold the things she hold dearest to her. It might have been troubling times for the Chinese movie industry given the imminent onset of the war – uncertain times that might have piled pressure on her career. The psyche of the tragic heroine roles she portray must have dealt a blow to her personal psyche, especially with the scandal enveloping her career. Further, it takes a lot for someone to even engage in extra-marital affairs despite knowing that social and cultural norms dictate that it is taboo and even immoral. She must have loved very deeply. Yet her old flame tries to extort money from her popularity, while her then-boyfriend was hardly supportive at all. With the control of her relationships gradually landing into the hands of the paparazzi that report and sensationalizes her every move, she was devastated and pushed to suicide. Yet her funeral rites as portrayed in the movie, full of glitz and glamour as all the directors crowded around her deathbed offering her last words, and the eventual procession, reportedly three miles long, is indeed befitting of the star that has lost her shine.

The following is a summary of the filmography of works that is captured by the film:

[1930] Reminiscences of Peking 故都春夢. Director: Sun Yu / Film no longer available (06:19, Part 1). A unique misè-en-scène occurs at 06:58 where Ruan’s face is backfacing the camera and turned towards the mirror, but her expression is evident through the three-fold mirror at her dressing table, while the overly white make-up is characteristic of the opera influences that Chinese cinema was once based on in its early days. Of course – the original footage will certainly not have been in color, with color film technologies not having been invented yet at that moment.

[1930] Wayside Flower 野草開花. Director: Sun Yu / Film no longer available (02:29, Part 2). We see the frail Ruan, in character, walking in the snow when she falls down and removes her coat. The camera slowly tracks to a close-up by 03:13 as she caresses her arms as if holding onto her baby. She lies down again and bites her finger to feed baby blood.

[1931] Weeping Peach Blossoms 桃花泣血記. Director: Pu Wan-Chang / Film available. (07:36, Part 3).

[1932] Three Modern Women 三個摩登女人. Director: Pu Wan-Chang / Film no longer available (02:30, Part 6), and it is apparent that this scene was shot in a studio by its backdrop (03:20).

[1933] Night in the City 小玩意. Director: Fei Mu / Film no longer available (03:01, Part 7). An insight is given into the rain-making process of movies here, particularly at 01:03, and it is in this scene that we see Ruan Ling-yu establish herself as a method actress with a strong emphasis on feeling. Despite her director feeling that the take was workable, she insisted on doing the scene once again because she did not feel right.

[1934] Sea of Fragrant Snow 香雪海. Director: Fei Mu / Film no longer available (05:28, Part 9)

[1934] The Goddess 神女. Director: Wu Yong Gang / Film available (00:00, Part 10). We see here an original scene from the movie, the cinematic classic where she walked down the path in a psychopathic swagger.

[1935] New Woman 新女人. Director: Tsai Chu-Sheng / Film available (04:40, Part 10). Ruan Lingyu’s agony is felt through a scene where she emphasized her will to live (“I want to live!”) repeatedly through dialogue, in stark contrast to the tempestuous period of her life at that moment.

The efforts by cinephiles of today in restoring and rescuing films of ages past and that were thoroughly enjoyed by audiences generations ago suggest the timeless nature of a good film. It is indeed humbling watching re-enactments of such key scenes of Ruan Lingyu’s movies that were shot some eight decades ago, and it suggests that a brilliant movie of today will certainly be preserved as a cinematic classic in the decades down the road. But what also ensues is a feeling of bittersweet pity, for the film prints that are no longer available, a sign of a legacy that has been lost forever and never to be recovered again. Hopefully, though, that copies of the scripts have been recovered (such that the re-enactments were possible) and film studios would count it feasible to invest in remakes in the near future.


Where Is The Friend’s Home? (1987) خانه دوست کجاست

Country: Iran
Languange: Persian
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Babek Ahmed Poor, Ahmed Ahmed Poor, Kheda Barech Defai, Iran Outari, Ait Ansari

Theme: Culture (Friendship)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.8/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1987 Fajr Film Festival
1989 Locarno International Film Festival

Awards:
1987 Fajr Film Festival: Golden Plate for Best Director / Special Jury Award
1989 Locarno International Film Festival: Bronze Leopard / FIPRESCI Prize – Special Mention / Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention

Nominations:
1989 Locarno International Film Festival: Golden Leopard

Where Is The Friend’s Home? (1987) by Abbas Kiarostami is considered the first film in Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, which also includes follow-ups such as And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). But the director has also claimed that it might be better to take Taste of Cherry (1997) as the third film whilst omitting Where Is The Friend’s Home? because of the running narrative theme of “the preciousness of life” (Cheshire, 1999).

The film is deceptively boring yet intelligently simple. It tells the story of a young boy, Ahmed, who travels from Koker, a rural town of Iran, to a neighboring village to return the notebook of a schoolmate, Reda, that he had accidentally picked up by mistake. Ahmed deems this act important because his friend had been harshly reprimanded earlier on in the day because of not doing his homework on the notebook as it was in the hands of another classmate. The teacher threatens to expel Reda, who promptly burst into tears at the unfairness of the situation. It is not as if he did not complete his homework – he merely did it on loose sheets of paper that could very well have been pasted back into his notebook after all. This thereby creates an unsettling scene as Kiarostami plants Ahmed, who sits next to Reda within a few frames as well, thus capturing his uneasiness at the situation amid a sense of not knowing how to react to console Reda. Thus lies the root of the title of the movie, as the conscientious schoolboy sneaks out of home alone, for the first time, and attempts to search for Reda’s home.

Kiarostami’s movie is very affective, as there is nothing more that can capture one’s attention and draw the viewer in other than the raw emotions of a young child. You cannot help but root for Ahmed in his quest to fulfill his the sense of civic duty, and to uphold the basic loyalty one should have for a good friend. Adults here are portrayed in a bad light in the movie which acts as a very good social commentary of how Iran might be at that point of time. Adults are portrayed as strait-laced single-minded people who are, to say the least, unreasonable. The teacher is hypocritical and exercises double standard, himself not fulfilling the duties of a teacher and arriving late for class. Yet, unless punctuality is not a virtue that is condoned in the Iranian society, he turns a blind eye on the student that arrives later than him. How would this impart the correct moral values into the young children? Further, Ahmed’s mother is unwilling to listen to reason, even when Reda had willingly lent his notebook to Ahmed in the first place – which morally and rightfully gives Ahmed the impetus to ensure the notebook is returned to Reda. She even says at one point in time, “Serves him right. He deserves to be expelled.” Thankfully, the innocent children tend to be the most self-righteous in their actions (yet another similarity could be drawn to Tietou in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 1993 film The Blue Kite). In the middle of the movie, we see Ahmed’s grandfather resting by the roadside. He proclaims “I want the child to be brought up properly” but a few scenes later sends Ahmed away to buy him a packet of cigarettes. He also says, “Anyway, I’ll find an excuse to give a beating every fortnight.” How does introducing a vice to a young boy constitute “proper” upbringing?

The movie is engaging in its numerous still shots and long takes that introduce the lives of the average proletariat Iranian family. Through a series of medium (thanks Hui Ping!) shots in the first scenes within the house, we see tension in the family taken between the mother and the son contrasted against still shots. Further, a wide establishing shot is captured as Ahmed runs up the slope on a barren hill, framed with a solitary tree standing naked against the background. This framing thus creates an impression of the height and depth of the field, whilst filling the empty space that would otherwise have been the horizon atop the hill. The camera follows the 180º rule strictly in Ahmed’s running sequence in the medium shots. As he runs out of one frame to the right, he is shown running back into the frame from the right.

I also cannot bear but note the anachronism this film contains. Being set in the 1980s, an age where mobile phones are not prevalent, a promise is a promise. There is thus no way in reneging a promise or a deal, nor will there be a way in the movie for Ahmed to reach out to Reda via a simple text message (you’d be surprised at what age children today start owning a handphone), who probably thought that he had misplaced his notebook and who was probably fearing the worse from the teacher the next day. This stands in stark contrast to a denigration of such virtues in present-day society, what with the increasing interconnectivity between people that thus has led to an ease in contacting people.

References

Cheshire, G. (1999). Taste of cherry. Retrieved on November 19, 2010, from http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/55-taste-of-cherry