The Traveling Circus (1988) Gánh xiếc rong

Theme: Culture
Runtime: 74 minutes
Director: Việt Linh

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

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.


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

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

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.

Fish and Elephant (2001) 今年夏天

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Li Yu
Starring: Pan Yi, Shitou, Zhang Qianqian, Zhang Jilian
Theme: LGBT Issues

IMDB: 5.0/10

Film Festivals:
2002 Berlin International Film Festival
2001 Venice Film Festival

2002 Berlin International Film Festival: Best Asian Film Prize (Forum of New Cinema)
2002 Berlin International Film Festival: NETPAC Special Mention
2001 Venice Film Festival: Elvira Notari Prize

The Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema is an “edgy underground film movement” that is characterized by quick and cheap filming processes, thereby creating a documentary feel akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité techniques than the lush everyday realism of the Fifth Generation films. Names like Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye have been bandied around, but here’s a question: can Li Yu be considered a Sixth Generation filmmaker as well? Yes, she is new, with Fish and Elephant (2001) being her debut feature film. It bears certain aesthetic trademarks of a film by a Sixth Generation filmmaker, with a pseudo-cinema vérité technique that involves amateurish, unpolished cinematography. There are many long takes with a motionless camera. Many scenes, like the dinner scene around [29:00] appear underexposed, the minimal lighting casting low light on faces, as the two leads secretly clasp hands under the table. Li Yu is also plucky and audacious in her movie themes. Fish and Elephant (2001), for instance deals with the still-taboo topic of same-sex relationships. In fact, it is the first Mainland Chinese film to broach the topic of lesbian relationships, thus casting a spotlight on this marginalized group of society that is affected by their own personal disorientation away from social norms, and that mainstream society casts an unapproving eye on as an evil brought about by Western imperialisation and globalization. Further, the film was an “underground” production filmed on 16mm and that was made without any official support, and which was not submitted to the censors for approval. Further, Li Yu casted non-professional actors whom she found from visiting lesbian bars (Kraicer, 2002).

The only tangible link to the animal references in the movie title is the animals under the care of the two lead protagonists, Xiaoqun (Pan Yi) and Xiaoling (Shi Tou). They are two single women. Xiaoqun is an elephant keeper at the zoo keeps a tank of fish in her tiny apartment. The fish die later, but allusions to relationship changes are difficult to draw. After all, why did something happen to the fish but nothing to the elephant? Meanwhile, her mother, clueless to her sexuality, tries to matchmake her with a string of eligible bachelors and even spins a positive light on her chain smoking to the ills and stresses of everyday life. Many of the bachelors were actually recruited via fake ads placed by the director, says Li Yu. This implies that the conversations were unscripted and partially improvised, and the pseudo-vérité technique an indication of such a drama might unfold in reality. Xiaoling is a clothes designer and she sells her own clothing at a stall in an indoor market. She chooses to hike up or lower the prices of her clothes at her own whim and fancy, depending on whether she likes the customer or not. The two women meet, and they fall in love. The mother can only struggle to accept the sexuality of her daughter, and her favorite song by retro Chinese star Cui Jian ironically goes “It’s not that I cannot understand, it’s just this world that’s changing too quickly”.

It is very unfortunate that Li Yu tries to over-achieve in the movie rather than stick to a single thread as that of East Palace, West Palace (1996) by Zhang Yuan – China’s first homosexual film that made it to Cannes Film Festival 1997 as part of the Un Certain Regard competition. We see the sudden introduction of an ex-girlfriend who is on the run from the authorities, presumably because of robbing a bank but in actuality because of murdering her father who raped her during her teenage years. The final climactic scene is not so much between the two lead protagonists, but involve a police stand-off with the ex-girlfriend wielding a gun. Admittedly, though, credit has to be given where it’s due – Li Yu managing to pull off such a big effort despite being an underground production.

Li Yu divulges in an interview that the pair was in actuality a real-life couple who split following the completion of the movie. Whether or not this bears testament to the closeted nature of Chinese society and how homosexuality issues remain taboo begets debate, as we do not know whether it is because of the pair succumbing to societal norms within the puritanical state.

After Fish and Elephant, Li Yu went on to direct her sophmore film Dam Street (2005), a film that involves French collaboration that broaches yet another controversial topic of underage sex and pregnancy. Erstwhile, her third and latest film Lost in Beijing (2007) deals with prostitution, blackmail and rape in the modern-day Beijing context. But one thing is for sure – Li Yu’s films have been wildly popular in the film festival circuit. All of her films have featured amid the Top Three Film Festivals of the world, with Dam Street (2005) premiering in Venice and Lost in Beijing (2007) premiering in Berlin. Fish and Elephant (2001) however even manages to buck the trend of being featured in a single Top Three Film Festival screening, having been shown at both Venice in 2001 and Berlin subsequently in 2002.


Kraicer, S. (2002). Fish and Elephant: review by Shelly Kraicer. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from


The End of Summer (1961) 小早川家の秋

Language: Japanese
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Starring: Ganjiro Nakamura, Setsuko Hara, Yōko Tsukasa
Theme: Romance

Ratings: IMDB: 8.0/10
Film Festivals: 12th Berlin International Film Festival (1962)
Nominated: 1962 Berlin Film Festival – Golden Berlin Bear

The End of Summer is Ozu’s penultimate film, succeeded only by An Autumn Afternoon (1962) before his untimely death of cancer in 1963. Following his forte of capturing realism through his camera lenses, The End of Summer is as down-to-earth as any of his earlier films, albeit with a comedic twist as he puts a spin on the common societal notion of marriage. Unlike most of his earlier films that is set in Tokyo, The End of Summer breaks this norm by being set in Kyoto and Osaka, with picturesque scenes in the Japanese countryside.

As mentioned, marriage takes centerstage in this movie, and in particular the themes of philandering and matchmaking. The protagonist is an elderly man with three daughters, Manbei Kohayagawa, who is also the head of a small sake brewery on the verge of a takeover. He tries to matchmake his youngest daughter, whilst he constantly and secretly sneaks out of home to meet his old flame Sasaki, a former mistress who has a grown-up Westernized daughter (whose Westernization is emphasized through her desire for a mink stole – “I’ll only consider him as my father if he buys me that mink stole”) who may or may not be Manbei’s own – a question that Ozu keeps audiences guessing throughout without providing a clearcut answer. Manbei has a weak heart, and survived an initial heart attack whilst at a memorial service for their late mother. However, he dies shortly after another heart attack on a secret trip with Sasaki, who then informs his daughters of what happened. Instead of a subsequent bust-up, we see the two families uniting in grief over the loss of their loved one, culminating in a final cremation scene as the family gathers and reminisces.

Cultural and sociological elements abound, with a reference to baseball at 05:16, the most popular sport in Japan. A character is also obsessed with collecting paraphernalia relating to the “ox”, a throwback to the year 1961 which incidentally was also the Year of the Ox according to the Japanese zodiac. We see a child being tuitioned in Mathematics, a sign that education has taken on huge significance within the forward-looking and progressive Japanese society. It is worthy to note that unlike Chinese cultures that consider the crow to be an inauspicious creature, crows are considered the Messengers of the Gods in Japanese culture and is accorded high respect in traditional ceremonies. This symbolism is evident within the final few minutes of the film, when the camera cuts away from the funeral procession that is marching across the bridge set on clear picturesque waters to land on a still shot (1:38:05) where five crows rest upon a small strip of land, followed by a cutaway to two crows resting on graves at 1:38:09. All this is juxtaposed against philosophical messages that were uttered in previous frames, like “New lives follow the old. This is the law of nature”.

We can infer from the scene from 16:27 a polarization of the gender classes of Japanese society at that point of time, or a cultural tradition at the very least, as the males and females are sitting on opposite sides of the dining table at the farewell ceremony of sorts. We get non-diagetic sound of a traditional folk song being sung in the background, before the camera cuts into the scene.

Standard cinematic semiotics apply, as the camera centrals on a particular female character through a medium shot with only her gaze directed at the male character (18:07), after the male’s glance towards the general direction. We can sense the importance of this relationship even before the context has been established. This is affirmed in the next scene with the two characters sitting by each other at the train station and talk about writing to each other in future.

There is a sharp sence of cinematic framing as light is cast against shadows in the scene at 43:45. The characters’ faces are always lighted up even whilst their bodies may be cast in the dark shadows as they move about. We also note that the camera is on a lower angle, capturing Manbei within the same plane as when he bends down to clean the house – a sign of capturing the humanity of his actions, that he would put aside his patriarchal nature and ego to help out with menial household chores. This is as opposed to a topdown frame that would perhaps mock his actions. Similarly, the entire conversation between the two ladies at 53:06 is captured within the same frame as they kneel down and talk by the river before cutting to a topdown shot only after their conversation has ended. This scene also has a balanced weight among all the objects within the frame.

Ozu has also been credited for perfecting a sense of mono no aware through his films, that is, an empathy toward things or a sensitivity of ephemera. This can be seen in The End of Summer through Manbei’s understated last words: “So this is the end!”

All in all, Ozu’s early experience of dabbling with black & white silent films must have honed his unrivalled sense of geometry and  symmetry, as well as musical rhythms. Lines take precedence in many scenes, which fill the scene and capture attention just by virtue of simple symmetry and geometrical shapes. The traditional Japanese house setting also adds to this through the paneling in its doors, for example. An acute sense of musical rhythms is also seen through the ideal selection of musical tones that complement the mood of the movie, whether the light-heartedness quirkiness of Manbei sneaking away to meet his old flame (22:51), or the heavy atmosphere that surrounds his subsequent death.

The End of Summer (1961) is noteworthy because of Ozu’s nomination for the Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1962 — his only in one of the Top Three film festivals.  Though ultimately it may not exactly be his most remembered work among his filmography of 54 titles that also consist of Tokyo Story (1952) and I Was Born, But (1932), in a cognizance of the cinephile only in the decades following his death.

Monga (2010) 艋舺

Country: Taiwan
Language: Taiwanese (Hokkien), Mandarin
Director: Doze Niu
Running Time: 140 minutes
Starring: Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan, Rhydian Vaughan, Huang Teng-hui

Theme: Crime/Gangsterism

Ratings: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2010 Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
2010 Taipei Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Tokyo International Film Festival
2010 Stockholm International Film Festival

2010 Golden Horse Awards: Best Actor (Ethan Ruan) / Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year (Lee Lieh, producer) / Best Sound Effects
2010 Taipei Film Festival: Best Art Direction
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival: Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Award
2010 Stockholm International Film Festival: Telia Film Award

2010 Golden Horse Awards: Best Original Film Score / Best Art Direction / Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year (Doze Niu)
2010 Taipei Film Festival: Best Actor (Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan) / The Grand Prize
2010 Tokyo International Film Festival: Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award [lost to Israel’s Intimate Grammar by Nir Bergman]

  • Selected as Taiwan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2011 Academy Awards.

There is without doubt a revival of Taiwanese commercial mainstream cinema that began with Cape No. 7 (2008) that managed to draw dwindling theatre audiences back to the cinemas for a local production. This upward trend is further bolstered with Monga (2010), a gangster film set in 1980s Taipei within Monga in the Wanhua District, an area akin to the seedy red light district of Geylang in Singapore with its chain of brothels and gang affiliations within the area. The key to this revival, I believe, lies in the nationalistic sentiments towards modern Taiwan, unquestionably fuelled by Mainland Chinese sentiments that the island once known as Formosa and that is formally named the Republic of China should fall under their control, which the fiercely-independent Taiwanese frown upon. Both movies are historical and somewhat indulges in the rich cultural heritage of Taiwan in their respective portrayals, whilst being mainstream fare that cast big names as their leading protagonists. Cape No. 7 had popular singers Van Fan and Rachel Liang while Monga has popular teen idols Ethan Ruan and Mark Chao who definitely played a major role in drawing crowds to the theatres. This formula can probably be referenced by dwindling national cinemas around the world. Monga, essentially isn’t exactly cookie-cutter mainstream fare with its dark and broody ongoing narrative.

Monga may be mainstream fare, but it doesn’t alienate alternative audiences as well – Director Doze Niu (鈕承澤) in his sophomore feature film directorial effort since the critically-acclaimed low-budget “What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?” (2007) that clinched a FIPRESCI Prize, and which told a story about a director attempting to canvass money so as to produce a mockumentary film. Casting upcoming actor Rhydian Vaughan from Winds of September (2008) which made it to Toronto International Film Festival was also wise. As a result, Monga cuts greater swarthe across the film festival circuit, being an official selection under the Panorama section of Berlin International Film Festival this year, whilst also playing in Hawaii, Tokyo and Stockholm. Not bad at all for an otherwise commercial movie that eventually opened during the Lunar New Year period in Taiwan, edging out the worldwide hit Avatar in its opening week.

Doze Niu straddles the fine line between criticizing the gang lifestyle and unnecessarily sensationalizing it in this movie, and as I watch the disquieting story unfold there is a sense of paramount importance of the environment plays in adding to the realism of the conventional story, which sets the movie apart in spite of its stereotypical story arc. Setting the story elsewhere would simply do injustice to the film. The sharply entertaining film is divided chiefly into three acts – that of initiation of Mosquito into the gang, the everyday processes the gang go through and lastly that of Monk’s betrayal, with the tone that is cast very different within these three acts. The first one is also the most engaging, as the greenhorn gangster learns the ropes of what it takes to be a gang member with the tone of black comedic wit.

A key scene occurs when the gang members play truant, sitting on the school fence pondering what to do for the day. Monk with his outstretched hand inviting Mosquito to join them (0:13:58), and  the clasp of the hand as he helps Mosquito up the wall (0:14:01). The camera lingers on the gaze between the two characters as they sit on the wall (0:14:04) in spite of the establishing lower-up shot that captures the other gang members. This sets the stone for the important relationship as it unfolds throughout the movie. Further, Mosquito’s seemingly innocuous action of looking back into the school ground as he jumps up the wall is a lasting symbolism of him bidding the old life farewell. And this key scene is recaptured in the final moments of the film. But the way the film has transcended conveys a melancholic feel to this flashback.

Two metaphors are prevalent throughout the whole film. They are the yo-yo which Monk gave to Mosquito which the latter can be seen holding and playing with throughout most of the film as an indication of the status of their friendship, which sometimes seem to harbor subtle homosexual connotations in terms of how close the characters are (and as testament to that the actors Mark Chao and Ethan Ruan kissed whilst on a local variety show to promote the film). Also, the Japanese Sakura flower bloom as something that Mosquito wants to personally witness at least once in his life, with his (apparently) late father in a postcard, pasted in Mosquito’s wardrobe, that is set against the flower bloom. This is given absolute significance in the final scene as the wounded Mosquito lies on the ground, while Monk was shot by the other gang members, his blood spatter blending into the sakura (2:12:51).

The fight scenes are beautifully shot and framed, sometimes in many lengthy shots interspersed with sweeping close-ups that capture the realism of the blows and punches, cast against slow motion techniques and a soft instrumental accompaniment in what really is Mosquito’s coming-of-age tale. A young prostitute bearing a birthmark on her face that she desperately tries to hide from her clients was interweaved into the story as a separate narrative, Mosquito and herself teaching each other about the value of tenderness and love, with Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing at All providing the ideal soundtrack to the scene.

But the resounding question remains: what next for Taiwanese cinema? How will it build on this ongoing momentum created by Cape No. 7 and Monga in creating more cinematic masterpieces that can withstand international competition, yet straddling the fine lines of arthouse and commercialism? Even Jay Chou’s Secret (2007) was a relatively beautiful work that was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2008. Will this eventually spark of another wave of filmmakers who will build on the legacy left by the Taiwanese New Wave filmmakers of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in the 1980s which captured realistic, down-to-earth portrayals of Taiwanese life in stylistic treatments akin to the Italian neorealism movement? Only time will tell.