Raise the Red Lantern (1991) 大紅燈籠高高掛

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 125 minutes
Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Gong Li, Ma Jingwu, Jin Shuyuan, Cao Cuifen, He Caifei
Theme: Women (Suppression & Empowerment)

Ratings: IMDB: 8.2/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

Film Festivals:
1991 Venice International Film Festival

Awards:
1991 Venice International Film Festival: Silver Lion for Best Director / Elvira Notari Prize
1992 David di Donatello Italian Film Awards: Best Foreign Language Film
1992 Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography (Zhao Fei)
1992 New York Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
1993 Argentinian Film Critics Association Awards: Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film
1993 British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA): Best Film Not In The English Language
1993 National Society of Film Critics: Best Foreign Language Film / Best Cinematography
1993 London Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
1993 Kansas City Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
1993 Hundred Flowers Awards: Best Actress / Best Film

Nominated:
1991 Venice International Film Festival: Golden Lion for Best Film
1992 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film
1992 National Board of Review: Best Foreign Film
1993 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Language Film

The long string of accolades garnered by Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991) is testament of the high quality of the film, an adaptation of Su Tong’s Wives & Concubines, a 1990 novel. Critics studying the film have bandied the probability that this film could contain subtle innuendoes that are in fact a grim criticism of contemporary China. It is not difficult to see why, as the film takes place in an imperial home of 1920s China that bears strict regimentation to law and order, and the frowned-upon attempt of a mistress at provoking an upheaval to the accepted norms. Yet Zhang Yimou has flatly denied that the film contains any criticism of contemporary China. Whether or not Zhang was pressured into making such a stern denial in light of the Chinese censorship clampdown in those years will definitely remain a debatable issue whenever this film is discussed. This is especially because of a huge censorship crackdown of that time. Fellow Fifth Generation filmmakers having been imposed a censures due to omnipresent political subtleties in their films, with The Blue Kite (1993) by Tian Zhuangzhuang being a noteworthy example.

The film is mostly set within the mansion of the Chen clan, and it begins with a close-up shot of the pivotal protagonist Songlian (Gong Li) who would play such an important role in forcing a upheaval in the palace grounds later in the story. We see tears rolling down her eyes as she says, at 02:26, “I’ll marry if I want to. I’ll be a mistress if I have to”, an indication of the forced marriage predicament she is in. This is juxtaposed against the non-diagetic joyful marriage music in the background, before the camera cuts away to the next scene, a wide establishing shot of a jungle with the marriage procession venturing down the central path. Establishing shots are used in 05:49 to capture the vastness of the palace grounds. The rebellious streak and the impudence of the character is evident through her strut across the palace grounds. When quizzed about how she made her way there, she said, “I walked here myself”. We soon learn that she is a university graduate, and we perhaps infer the stereotype of the low importance graduates place on traditional etiquette and norms. She questions the practices of the mansion, “Why on earth are there so many red lanterns?” She is evidently uneasy at the notion of being waited on. Her arrival evokes the jealousy of the other wives, in particular the animosity of the third mistress, who has fallen out of favor given the fact that she is no longer the youngest mistress. The second mistress in comparison appears friendly and welcoming, perpetrating this image through the incessant feeding of rumors to Songlian that the third mistress, an ex-opera singer He Caifei, is in fact a jealous social butterfly who would not abate in her manipulative desire to remain in favor with the husband. The story twists and turns, and we learn who in fact is the most manipulative wolf in sheep’s clothing. A Chinese metaphor to this is used – “Buddha’s face with a heart of a scorpion”. Songlian, ever the rebel, tries to exact her revenge through numerous means (such as “accidentally” shaving off part of someone’s ear while giving a haircut), though she eventually succumbs to the regimentation of the authority in a sad tale that accentuates the power of corruption and normalization that make it a lose-lose battle as she is unable to win over supporters on her side.

The cinematography is frequently stunning, with the misè-en-scène giving the sets that are exquisite tableaux full glory through the establishing shots that capture the vast palace grounds. The lit lanterns against the darkness of the night, for instance, provides a startling blaze of color against the drab monotone of the courtyards. Zhang Yimou also awards attention to symmetrical elements in many scenes throughout the movie that thereby creates a sense of balance. Chilling dissonance is created, too, in the pivotal scenes – such as when Caifei was dragged to the Tower of Death, screaming and struggling, with the snow falling peacefully against the picturesque rooftops.

A clear stylistic device adopted by Zhang Yimou in this film is the omission of a clear shot of the husband’s face throughout the film. Most of the scenes involve the husband backfacing the camera, and in events when he is facing the camera, it is either through a wide shot, out-of-focus, and from a side view. One can only infer the artistic decisions made in having this character remain anonymous and out of the limelight despite being in control – a puppetmaster of sorts pulling the strings – and it is indeed tempting to somehow draw parallels to the Chinese government. There is a perpetual struggle for favor that precludes any unity among wives providing a depressingly apt metaphor for the fragmented civil society of China, post-Cultural Revolution. Songlian is symbolically the individual who rebels against the regime. The master is an apt metaphor for the government, who controls the country whilst trying to stay out of sight oftentimes, and the customs and etiquette the regulatory laws of an archaic system that rewards followers and destroys dissidents.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 臥虎藏龍

Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, USA
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ang Lee
Running Time: 120 minutes
Starring: Chow Yun-fatt, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen

Theme: Culture (wuxia pian)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 97% | Metacritic.com: 93/100

Film Festivals:
2000 Bergen International Film Festival
2000 Ghent International Film Festival
2000 Toronto International Film Festival

(Selected) Awards:
2001 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Art Direction/Best Cinematography/Best Foreign Language Film/Best Music, Original Score
2001 Australian Film Institute: Best Foreign Film Award
2001 BAFTA Awards: Best Costume Design, Best Film Not in the English Language
2001 Directors Guild of America Award: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures
2001 Golden Globe Awards: Best Director – Motion Picture, Best Foreign Language Film
2000 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Film
2001 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Cheng Pei-Pei)
2000 Toronto International Film Festival: Best Director (Ang Lee0

(Selected) Nominations:
2001 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Costume Design/Best Director/Best Editing/Best Music, Original Song/Best Picture
2001 Art Directors Guild: Excellence in Production Design Award for a Feature Film
2001 BAFTA Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actress (Zhang Ziyi)
2000 Golden Horse Film Festival: Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi), Best Director, Best Film
2001 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Actor (Chow Yun-Fatt), Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi)

Released at the start of the millennium, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Chinese language martial arts (wuxia) film directed by Ang Lee. It features an international cast of ethnic Chinese actors such as Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. The movie was based on the fourth installment in a series of novels – the Crane Iron Pentalogy – by early 20th century novelist Wang Du Lun. A multinational production with investments from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and USA, the film is credited to these four countries although the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Picture was accredited to Taiwan in the end. But this could prove to be an interesting case study of how countries want to gain co-ownership of a movie that does well in the international circuit, but this urge is of less important amongst co-productions that do not become as prominent on a global scale. [Point in note: I’ve always thought of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a Taiwanese film, and it is only through my research for these film notes that I realize the involvement of other countries]

Set amid the Qing dynasty, the story revolves around martial arts master Li Mu Bai, who embarks on a quest for revenge in his attempt to recover Green destiny, a seemingly invincible weapon. Along the way, he meets with resistance from a host of people, including his arch-nemesis Jade Fox and Jen.

Despite its largely ridiculous storyline, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did a magnificent job in terms of its martial arts portrayal. It was, as Park (2001) so aptly put it, “a rare example of fearless yet thoughtful experimentation by veteran filmmakers”, especially when we consider that this was director Ang Lee’s first experience with martial arts films. The camerawork is artful but not showy. Every shot is designed to sustain the illusion of reality.

One of the film’s features that really stood out was its heavy use of wirework. A controversial issue amongst martial arts movie fans, wirework is traditionally seen as cheesy and over-exaggerated. It dramatizes the characters’ actions and movements unnecessarily and makes everything seem really incredulous. However, in the case of Crouching Tiger, its extensive use of wirework actually came across rather positively and it blended well together with the dance-like choreography of the characters’ movements without going overboard. As Zacharek (2000) aptly says, “the camera work is artful but not showy, every shot is designed to sustain the illusion of reality”. Testament to this was the memorable sword fight sequence between Li and Jen where they were ‘flying’ high up in the lush greenery of tall bamboo trees. Most of this is largely due to the work of Yuen Wo-Ping, a highly revered choreographer who worked on big films such as Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994) and The Matrix (1999).

Another feature that struck me was the film’s stunning cinematography – with its breath-taking use of locations such as Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Gobi Desert and stunning shots of snow-capped mountains, all of which play a big part in conveying the epic scope that the story demands. Together with the enthralling soundtrack, viewers are treated to an imaginary China that is both lush and ethereal.

Personally, I felt that the movie was visually and aesthetically brilliant, but it could have been better had it adopted a more consistent tone throughout. I’m not sure if it was part of director Ang Lee’s strategy to create a film that straddled between being an art house film and a kung fu theatrical, but what we got (at times) is a film that swings unevenly between emotional melodrama and physical brawls. This could have been due to director Ang Lee’s background prior to Crouching Tiger, where his films were all built on highly personal levels that dealt with the detailed complexities of relationships and the conflicts that arise from them.

That aside, the entertaining mix of action, romance and the exotic settings gave the movie a very wide appeal and created a highly pleasant viewing experience that will entertain almost all audience.

References

Park, S. (2001, January 20). Review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Retrieved on November 5, 2010, from http://www.culturekiosque.com/nouveau/cinema/rhetiger.html

Zacherek, S. (2000, December 8). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Retrieved on November 5, 2010, from http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/review/2000/12/08/crouching_tiger/

 

Mother India (1957) मदर इण्डिया / مدر انڈیا

Country: India
Language: Hindi
Director: Mehboob Khan
Running Time: 172 minutes
Starring: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar

Ratings: IMDb.com – 7.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes – 83%

Film Festivals:
1958 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Awards:
1958 Filmfare Awards: Best Actress (Nargis) / Best Cinematographer / Best Director / Best Film / Best Sound Recordist
1958 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival: Best Actress (Nargis)

Nominations:
1958 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Considered to be the bedrock of Indian commercial cinema, Mother India was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Many people saw the film as an extension of Director Mehboob Khan’s earlier black-and-white film Aurat (1940), albeit in color.

The setting is rural India, as an apt metaphor of India’s independence after being freed of British colonial rule. Mother India depicts the story of Radha (Nargis), a single mother who struggles to survive in her village as she tries to raise her kids, and pay off the debts incurred by husband. The entire story is shot as a flashback.

Shot primarily using warm and earthly colors such as orange and brown, Mother India is a beautiful film that highlights the majesty of the rural Indian landscape and brings to life the mettle and strength of the drudgery in bucolic India. The movie’s themes also create a multitude of iconic and symbolic impressions. For instance – the scenes of i) Radha hauling an ox plow and ii) her standing neck-deep in floodwaters and lifting her children over her head symbolized hard work; that the people of India had to rely on themselves to keep the country going after its independence despite the slew of problems that besotted them. While the village, with its traditional and cultural values embodies India’s dependence on Agriculture as the backbone of its economy at that time, the portrayal of dams, tanks and canals were used in similar fashion to reflect India at its fledging stage of growth and development. Finally, one of the most iconic and powerful scenes in the film was that of Radha standing deep in the mud soaked soils of her fields and calling out to her fellow villagers not to abandon the land and their mother country India. The villagers then return to salvage the crops and in doing so, form the map of India out of the cut wheat. Overall, the film’s visuals provided a vivid and colorful picture of India in the 50’s.

Because the story was told from the perspective of a flashback, director Mehboob Khan makes use of visual/editing techniques such as dissolves to depict the progress in time. Compared to a straight cut, the use of dissolves creates a smooth transition that makes the viewers feel like they are watching everything unfold as time ebbs by. The recurring shot of a wheel throughout the film was also used to suggest the cycle of a season, not just that of a harvest but also the characters’ growth from childhood to old age. (Shakila, 2008).

One of the key issues that Mother India tried to address was feminism – of the Indian women’s fight against male oppression at that time, and for honor and integrity. Central to this was the strong commanding performance and focus on the film’s protagonist, Radha and how she relied on hard work and determination to surmount her problems, which incidentally were mostly caused by various male characters in her life i.e. her husband, the tyrant Sukhilala and her sons. The idealization of her as the sole breadwinner and the perfect mother further augmented all these.

Overall, Mother India is a strong and compelling portrayal of the status and ideological image of womanhood that director Mehboob Khan wanted to bring out for women at that time. Through Radha, we see a model of strength, determination, devotion and virtue – epitomizing the perfect model of the mother figure not just for her family and the village, but also ultimately to the entire nation.

References

Shakila. (2008, July 30). Mother India – the cinema of Mehboob Khan. Retrieved on October 23, 2010, from http://aboutfilm.wordpress.com/2008/07/30/mother-india-%E2%80%93-the-cinema-of-mehboob-khan/

Departures (2008) おくりびと

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yōjirō Takita
Running Time: 131 minutes
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 81% | Metacritic.com: 68/100

Film Festivals:
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival
2008 Montréal World Film Festival
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
2010 Pacific Rim Film Festival (Santa Cruz, USA)
2010 Borderlines Film Festival (Hertfordshire, UK)

Awards:
2009 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (controversially beating hot favorite Waltz with Bashir)
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Performance by an Actor  (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Asian Film Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki) / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Screenplay / Best Sound / Best Supporting Actor (Tsutomu Yamazaki) / Best Supporting Actresss (Kimiko Yo)
2009 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival: Audience Award for Favorite Feature
2009 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Film, Best Sound
2008 Montréal World Film Festival: Grand Prix des Amériques
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival: Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
2009 Yokohama Film Festival: Festival Prize for Best Director, Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Kimiko Yo; Ryoko Hirosue)

Nominations:
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Screenplay
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Ryoko Hirosue) / Best Art Direction / Best Film Score
2010 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Asian Film

Departures (2008) by Yojiro Takita won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, thus thrusting the otherwise humble film about traditional rites and rituals of death and funeral processions into international limelight. Much unlike the hot favorite nominee of that year, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) that created waves in the film festival circuit, Departures (2008) was not picked up by any of the Top Three film festivals in the world, such is the nondescript, low-key nature of the modest production. Its stoic sentimentality borders on calmness and tranquility, even in the face of death. The underlying emotional currents will thus land the greatest impact on anyone who watches the film, which is also based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiography Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.

There are no pretentious effects or fancy cinematic techniques. Everything is portrayed in its  barest stripped-down beauty that does not steal attention away from the core subject of death and moving on. And it would take someone with a heart of stone for the story to not tug at the heartstrings by the third quarter of the film.

The protagonist is an ex-cellist in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), who moves back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He falls for a cleverly-worded advertisement for a good-paying job seeking assistants for “departures”, and goes for an interview uncertain of what to expect. Comic relief is provided in the earlier parts of the movie with Daigo acting as a corpse for a DVD explaining the embalmment process. His first assignment involved a lonely old woman who has been dead for two weeks. While Daigo becomes more experienced, the sense of gratitude of the survivors of the dead gives him a sense of accomplishment in the job. But social taboos kick in as his peers started to ostracize and humiliate him for his “disgusting” profession. Yet the honor and respect of the profession finally shone through in a redemption only possible when he performs the rituals in front of his family when a family friend passes away. Daigo bears a grudge against his father, but when he dies Daigo was meant to prepare the body. The finale scene was emotionally affective, and it symbolizes Daigo coming to terms with the death and finally seeking closure to the innate hatred. It is ironic that Daigo has to give up his big-city dreams and reclaims his sense of his roots in the small-town context. Director Takita exercises restraint in sensationalizing the event, opting instead to show death as a commonplace cycle of life rather than flirting with it as a denouement or melodrama.

The topic is fresh as the hardly-understood profession takes centerstage and the movie is relevant in according morticians the transcendent respect amid cultural condemnations. No one likes dealing with death, and for someone to have to meet death face on everyday is no mean feat. The solemn film is able to straddle the balance of lamentations and regret of what could have been, with that of laughter—as the death of someone is clearly in today’s society taken on communal importance as people visit the funeral to pay their last respects, and this cuts across cultures. And it is with this positivity that the movie attempts to bring forth the positivity that might surround death. A euphemism for “death”, the title Departures hardly counts for a negative word especially when it primarily refers to the act of leaving for new places. Regardless of whatever cultural or religious beliefs you subscribe to, dying is a natural act of moving on, whilst the living—following a prolonged process of grief, denial and coming to terms with the unfortunate situation—learn to do so as well.