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.


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The Horse Thief (1986) 盜馬賊

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Running time: 88 minutes
Starring: Daiba, Dan Jiji, Drashi, Gaoba
Theme: Family/Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.3/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival
2001 San Francisco International Film Festival

Awards:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival – Distribution Help Award

The Horse Thief (1986) by acclaimed Chinese Fifth Generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang touches on the travails of Chinese minorities in a follow-up to On the Hunting Ground (1984). The ethnic minorities are given a spotlight in this movie which captures the vast plains of inner China, and in particular their faith to the Buddhism doctrine and the numerous rites and rituals that they go through so as to shun evil spirits and to bring good luck to the community. The colors are vivid, and through Tian’s lenses the tough livelihood of these ethnic minorities living in rural villages come to life. There is minimal dialogue, save for a couple of terse exchanges that goes against common perceptions of a close-knit commuity as the villagers have to fend for themselves against the course of nature, but that mirrors the empty plains of the landscape. This makes the film relatively difficult to sit through at the start as Tian Zhuangzhuang strives to set the tone. But soon we learn to empathize with the villagers, and we feel their pain as they seek a spiritual connection with God to ease them through difficulttimes. After all, in the middle of nowhere, there really is no way for salvation except the heavens. The cinematography is plain stunning, and Tian’s exploration of a lesser-known indigineous minority has earned him rave plaudits in the form of Martin Scorsese, who declared the film as his #1 favourite from the 1990s on a talkshow with acclaimed critic Roger Ebert.

The protagonist is the titular horse thief, Norbu, in his struggle to bring his family up in Tibet. He steals horses for trade and bartering for food for his family, much to the chagrin of his fellow villagers who upon catching him, banish him from the clan and curse that God would not turn a blind eye on his misdeeds. In a sign that the heavens might possibly have listened, Norbu’s son eventually dies despite him not having renounced his faith. The devastated father strives to change his ways, engaging in rituals like turning prayer wheels, ceremonial dances and so forth in a series of voyeuristic scenes that capture the process of a human being seeking divine intervention in his faith.

The skies and the worshipped deities take centrestage in this film. The villagers give all their faith and belief in the Gods above, but one cannot help but question—and pity them along the way—at whether the skies are really listening. Tian films Norbu in his normadic existence, so starved that he has to eat newly-fallen snow, the character’s devastation at the loss of his son in laying the dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow (41:0641:15), the establishing shot accentuating his loneliness and emptiness now that he has lost his companion. He films the actual slaughter of a sacrificial lamb (no pun intended) that Norbu sneaks up upon and slits the throat of in an offering to the heavens. This grisly scene is as realistic as it is potentially morally offensive to some religions. The unsuspecting lamb tremors, and writes agonizingly as it struggles for its last breath.

This is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s third feature film and it is one of intoxicating beauty. The movie opens with lush colors and tribal instruments blaring in the background, thereby immediately drawing myself into the emptiness of the landscape through the use of depth of field and close-ups on bells (00:56), birds (00:59) and so forth. We get a lot of still sequences of otherwise emptiness, for instance, at 07:33-07:41, 07:4207:45, 07:4607:50 and 07:5007:56. There are close-ups of Buddha, of birds feasting on dead carcasses that create an impression of empty grandiose, and of rows and rows of villagers decked in monk attire and praying by the field. The crying wails in the middle of the movie symbolizes the birth of a  baby, preceding his capture on the camera. But memories run deep, and this child is no replacement for Norbu’s loss. The movie comes full circle, with the harsh reality forcing the family to desperate means, and the final shot is one equivalent to the opening sequence in a portrayal of karma, and that what goes around, perhaps comes around.

While Tian Zhuangzhuang would go on to make more controversial movies such as The Blue Kite (1993), I sense from the lenses of his camera a form of stoic realism at capturing the lives of the minority. There hardly appears to be any script, and the fluidity of the actions and landscape aid in conveying a striking reality in his documentation of the people

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.

Taste of Cherry (1997) طعم گيلاس

Country: Iran
Language: Persian, Dari
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi

Theme: Death

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

Film Festivals:
1997 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1997 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
(tied with Shohei Imamura’s Unagi)
1998 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards: BSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film
1999 National Society of Film Critics Awards: NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Nominations:
1999 Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards: Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film
1999 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: CFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Abbas Kiarostami is a defining figure in Iranian cinema, the prolific and versatile 70-year-old director not shying away from controversial issues or avant-garde cinematic techniques in his massive repertoire. Ten (2002) for instance, highlights the socio-political landscape of Iran through the eyes of a woman as she drives through and speaks to ten strangers in Tehran over several days. There is no forgetting Shirin (2008), too, a movie featuring a series of simple close-up shots of female faces as they appear to be watching a film that can only be heard through dialogue in the background. Their raw visceral emotions are captured all too naturally in the film that premiered at Venice International Film Festival.

Though being released over a decade ago, Taste of Cherry (1997) is no different in terms of its stance. The film deals with suicide, a cause célèbre that is frowned upon in contemporary Islamic societies as it goes against Muslim beliefs, yet widely embraced by terror extremists today in its martyr acts. The protagonist is Mr Badii (Homayon Ershadi), and the camera becomes a voyeur in a cinema vérité technique that is used to document the moments leading up to Mr Badii’s eventual demise. But this death is only implied and not shown on the camera. We don’t see his body, and the audience is left to decide for themselves what happened in an open ending that throws up a lot of moral principle disputes surrounding professionalism towards a job that is paid for versus one’s own values and beliefs. Will you participate in burying a random stranger who has commited suicide—because he has given up on himself and the world—in a business dealing that sees a lot of money at stake?

And this is what happened in the minimalist film. Mr Badii drives through a city suburb looking for someone who could carry out the task. The irony is clear – there are innumerable unemployed laborers clambering at his car asking whether he was hiring any as he drives through the city. At every traffic junction, there are bound to be some laborers who approached Mr Badii, the implication of the luxury of owning a car in Iran at those times. Yet he fends them off and opts not to speak to them. He has his eyes set only on particular strangers to whom he has acquired a liking and the right feeling to. A greater paradox is how Mr Badii appears to have it all with the wealth he possesses but yet decided to end it all, in contrast to the unemployed laborers who meander on with the everyday fruitlessness of their lives.

There is the cowardly, young cadet who gladly accepts the ride of a stranger but was so frightened about the job that he flees from the car despite being in the middle of nowhere. There is the religious seminarist who preaches on and on about his religion’s point of view against suicide, but to no avail. And there is a taxidermist who once contemplated suicide, and it is this character—who has been there and (almost) done that—whom can best empathize with the feeling of wanting to end it all.

Many long takes comprise of the shot, and the movie meanders along a leisurely pace that does not feel draggy, primarily because of the reflections that it encourages. Erstwhile, long-range distance shots are interspersed with proximity close-ups that create a jarring contrast in the perception of the size of an individual in contrast to the magnitude of the world.

It is frustrating from the audience point of view as Kiarostami totally shirks away from revealing the reason behind Mr Badii’s suicide intent. But this creates manifold consequences. First, from the perspective of the film, it does not allow the audience any leeway to create a judgment of Mr Badii for his decisions to end his life, of whether his motivation is a valid one or not. He is “relentless” (Santas, 2000) in not revealing his reasons, and the triviality of this motivation is cast against the greater deed of commit suicide, and we see Mr Badii meander through the final desolate moments of his life. More importantly, the film encourages the audience to reflect and look upon oneself as a judgmental soul. How often has one’s judgment impeded one’s view from the bigger picture, or colored one’s point of view against the actions of an individual? That is, indeed, my biggest takeaway from watching this minimalistic film, rather than the moralistic dilemma faced by Mr Badii throughout the film. And this, is perhaps what makes the film so powerful and so deserving of the Palme d’Or it clinched at Cannes 1997.

References

Santas, C. (2000) Concepts of Suicide in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. Retrieved on October 1, 2010, from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/9/taste.html.