The Blue Kite (1993) 藍風箏

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

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

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

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

Nominated:
1995 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Mad About English! (2008)

Country: Singapore, China
Language: English, Mandarin
Director:
Lian Pek
Running Time: 90 minutes

Theme: Culture (Language) / Documentary

Ratings: N/A

Awards: N/A

Film Festivals: N/A

Nominations: N/A

Mad About English (2008) is a peculiarity, simply for the lack of information that is even available on this documentary helmed by Singaporean filmmaker Lian Pek on the World Wide Web. Running a search through Google hardly throws up any hits save from a few (local) reviews here and there, such is the low-key nature of the film. But this is surprising, though, as I expected much more international media attention on the underground documentary that deals with the very timely and contemporary issue of Chinese nationals picking up English en masse to deal with the (then) upcoming Olympic Games and Shanghai World Expo, so as to play their part as good hosts and being able to bridge any communication barriers between themselves and the international community. Boy are those scenes captured on the parade square really scary, with tens of thousands of citizens congregating everyday just to listen to one man lecture at the podium in a scene perhaps similar to a revolutionary revolt.

Broken English, bizarre accents and awful grammar aside (“I not lazy, so I will success! – er, what?), their efforts are indeed commendable and Lian Pek’s social commentary ventures deep into the heart of China. They are inexorable and tireless in their spirit to pick up the language as a community, working in tandem and each doing his or her own part, however small it may be, in a widespread nationalistic sentiment that pushes China into a positive global limelight. There is, after all, only so much new state-of-the-art infrastructure like the Birds’ Nest can do. Camaraderie and rapport struck between the locals and the foreigners will be what eventually count and make the difference.

There is no excuse, regardless of age. There is a young girl enrolled in elementary school joining a language boot camp, and a retiree volunteer for the Games who practises her English everyday whilst doing taiji (“I a volunteer”). “Hello, how are you today?” they greet warmly. They are humble in the face of their lack of knowledge, and appear to be willing to listen to advice, correct themselves and learn—very much unlike Singaporeans who fall prey to grammar lapses such that a “Speak Good English Campaign” is necessary, or the Taiwanese who flamed the Singaporean brand of English on a variety show that is very much uncalled for, given the higher standard of the language Singapore has over the Taiwanese. (And I say this for a fact: the foreign friends I made while I was on exchange could hardly understand the Taiwanese brand of the language)

The documentary at just 90 minutes long is a terse affair—and I can’t help but feel that much more could have been done to ensure a more all-rounded perspective of the issue. The film pans out like a propagandistic affair that has no downside to it, as hardly any negative point of view is acquired through the lenses of the camera. But still, it is undeniable that the documentary is a well executed one, gently paced with moments of unintentional comedy shining through with massive grammar faux pas

 

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

Ratings:
IMDB: 5.0/10

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

Awards:
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.

References

Kraicer, S. (2002). Fish and Elephant: review by Shelly Kraicer. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from http://www.chinesecinemas.org/fishandelephant.html