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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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.