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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The Hole (1998) 洞

Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese
Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang-sheng

Theme: Culture (People-People Relations)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Chicago International Film Festival
1999 Singapore International Film Festival
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize
(for its daring combination of realism and apocalyptic vision, desperation and joy, austerity and glamour)
1998 Chicago International Film Festival: Gold Hugo for Best Film
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Actress (Yang Kuei-Mei, for the subtlety and sophistication of her performance in the role of a woman determined to hurdle the stresses of urban life)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Director (Tsai Ming-Liang, for his creation of a new cinematic expression which challenges the very meaning of human existence)
1999 Singapore International Film Festival: Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature Film (for its intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination)
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1998 Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival: Best Film

The Hole (1998) is a morose tale of how two strangers living in close proximity to each other are forced to acknowledge each other’s existence in what are perverse conditions of that time. It is the turn of the new millennium, and while jitters abound at that time with regard to the unleash of the Y2K bug that might potentially create havoc within computer systems all around the world, in The Hole it takes the form of a strange disease. Setting the mood is the never-ending typhoon rain that lashes down outside the apartment where most of the scenes occur in, a scenario at once depressing and further accentuating the humdrum ordinary existence of the two individuals. They live in their own pads, leading their own separate unexceptional lives, and their own mediocre existence rearing its ugly head in a lonely comme ci, comme ça state. The taciturn duo are neighbors in an apartment block, with the man living above the woman, and their lodging is not only bijou, but also in a mess. As the saying goes ‘there is no place like home’, but the two lead characters look like they’d rather be someplace else, only having to return there because of the average nature of their respective lives.

Their names are never given much prominence throughout the show, and if I am not wrong, we never learn the name of Yang Kuei-Mei who acts as the woman living downstairs. The man upstairs, in a wonderful turn by Lee Kang-sheng, is Hsiao-kang, and this is only revealed through necessary dialogue that exists in his everyday life. We have also explored such an added veil of anonymity in The Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami in which the motivation of the protagonist’s intent to commit suicide is hidden, whilst in Raise the Red Lantern (1991) by Zhang Yimou the face of the husband remains obscured for the entire show. What this serves to add, aside from the facetious reason of adding to an aura of mystique, is to create a sense of detachment of the viewer from what is going on onscreen. Of course, the director runs the risk of alienating the audience from the fare on screen, but what eventually prevails is the subtlety and sophistication of powerful performances with attention dedicated to minute detail as the characters go through the stresses of urban life. Their drab surroundings, indeed, as the film notes of the 1999 Singapore International Film Festival write, “challenge(s) the very meaning of human existence” in an “intelligent exploration of the spectrum of human experience in both dismal reality as well as in the realm of imagination”.

The woman downstairs is prone to escapism tendencies. She has her own song-and-dance routine in her daydreams, where she performs à la a caberet dancer, perhaps her only form of expression in an otherwise repressive and apocalyptic world. A plumber arrives at Hsiao-Kang’s apartment to check the pipes, in an event that strangely involves the drilling of a small hole into the ceiling of the woman downstairs. And this is Hsiao-Kang’s moment of respite. The hole becomes a rubbish chute, it becomes an avenue for him to dangle his legs and engage in a myriad of weird stuff that hinges on the brink of insanity. And it becomes an avenue for him to spy on his neighbor.

There is minimal dialogue throughout the dreary show. The characters keep to themselves in spite of (or because of) the apocalyptic conditions they find themselves in. Many long takes that envelope the shadows and dreariness of the apartment and the man’s store, cast in muted hues of mostly whites, fluorescent blues, greys, and blacks create a sense of alienation and loneliness, with the exception of the dance sequences that explode in a flurry of colors.

The strange disease continually lurks in the shadows of everyday existence, and the severity of it all a foreshadow of the subsequent SARS that impacted the region several years on. In what is tantamount to an epidemic, we see how little help is given to these lost and aimless struggling residents. They were ordered to evacuate the rundown apartment they put up in, but they chose to stay put – how little power the government can exert over their citizens in times of such epidemic where quarantine is necessary is indeed baffling and perhaps a running thread that begs investigation. As the walls (or floors) crumble, what’s left of the reclusive human existence can only be oneself. A brutal satire of the lack of communication fuelled by the technological age with everyone isolated in their own bubble fantasies, this absurdity of everyday life has never been clearer through the polarization as in this scene.