Flowers of Shanghai (1998) 海上花

Country: Taiwan
Language: Cantonese, Shanghainese
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Starring: Shuan Fang, Michiko Hada, Hsu An-An, Annie Yee, Jack Kao, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.

Theme: War

Ratings: IMDb: 7.4 /10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Film Festivals:
1998 Cannes Film Festival
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1998 Kerala International Film Festival

Awards:
1998 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Art Director / Best Director

1998 Kerala International Film Festival: Golden Crow Pheasant (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Nominations:
1998 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or

Based on the 1892 novel ‘Sing Song Girls of Shanghai’ by Han Bangqing, Flowers of Shanghai is set around 2 strands of narratives – one involving Wang, a rich gentleman caller caught between his long-term lover and new mistress and the other around Emerald, a pompous but popular prostitute who aims to buy her way out of the brothel to freedom. The setting is a brothel in 1880’s Shanghai. Overarching themes of the movie center around power struggles amongst the call girls, the dilemmas faced by the gentlemen callers and the powerful head mistress of the brothel.

Most of the film is shot in the dark with lighting coming from candlelight or oil lamps, casting warm hues of reds and golds. The use of such luminous, natural-light cinematography techniques is a very powerful visual impetus because it creates the type of feel one would get in a brothel back in the 1880’s – which are dark sleazy places that men go to for comfort. Most of the shots in the movie consists of long, widescreen shots that track slowly from side to side, taking in lengthy and whole conversations at once, making the overall pace of the movie very slow, ultimately drawing us into the world of 19th Century Shanghai. It creates a “fly-on-the-wall” effect, which allows us to observe small but privileged moments as well as the intricate details of the settings without interference or commentary (Anderson, 2000).

Even though the movie centers on brothels and call-girls, there is hardly any mention or show of sex or passion. Instead, what we get on-screen are shots of the call girls feeding their clients, stoking their ego and bringing them their opium pipes.

Augmenting the slow paced nature of the film is its tendency to repeat certain things. For example, a particular sound track is repeated several times throughout the film and the movie constantly returns to the main round table where the gentlemen callers wine and dine, while the girls stand behind or sit beside them. I’m not really sure what this represents but the use of such repetitive techniques seem to suggest a sort of circular causality – that these are events that took place because of something and will continue to do so unless something drastic happens. Another thing to add about the musical score is its dreamlike and almost timeless undertone, this combined with the slow narrative and visuals of the show creates an almost hypnotic effect that dulls our senses and draws us deeper into the scenes. Furthermore, every shot in this film is an interior shot; we almost never ever see the outdoors or the sky, not even through the windows.

Overall I must say that I found that Flowers of Shanghai could have been better had the plot and characters been more compelling. But the visuals i.e. colors and costumes are lavishly detailed and the cinematography creates a more than worthy mood for the film and its premise.

By mostly relying on the little schemes and problems between the courtesans and their clients, the movie focuses too much on petty elements which results in a minimal plot, ultimately that makes it hard for us as viewers to be engaged in what is happening on-screen. The fact that the story moves at an incredibly slow speed, combined with the dull dreamy visuals alleviates the pain of sitting through this film. Furthermore, the lack of close-up shots, and restrained physical expressions of the characters make it very hard for viewers to get any sense of their emotional states. It becomes hard to identify with and find any emotional connection with the characters on screen. The end result is an equivocal and distant one.

References

Anderson, J. M. (2000). Combustible Celluloid film review – Flowers of Shanghai. Retrieved on December 6, 2010, from http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/flowshang.shtml

Advertisements

Eternal Summer (2006) 盛夏光年

Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Leste Chen
Starring: Joseph Chang, Bryant Chang, Kate Yeung
Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings: IMDB: 7.3/10

Film Festivals: N/A

Awards: 2006 Golden Horse Award: Best New Performer (Bryant Chang)

Nominations: 2006 Golden Horse Award: Best New Performer (Joseph Chang) / Best Supporting Actor (Joseph Chang)

 

Eternal Summer (2006) by Leste Chen is a gay-themed movie revolving around the complicated relationship of three high school students. Carrie (Kate Yeung), who loves Jonathan (Bryant Chang), discovers that he has actually been secretly in love with his best friend, Shane (Joseph Chang), ever since elementary school. Meanwhile, Shane falls for Carrie in a bizarre love triangle. The plot thickens as the relationship between the three become more complex and convoluted.

Matthijs (2010) claims that the film primarily centers on Taiwanese visual aesthetics and elements and it is not difficult to see why, through the numerous day scenes that incorporate nature through “vivid hues to blues and greens”. There are several landscape shots, such as green meadows and fields that do a good job in creating the film’s atmosphere and mood. It dives deep into the viewers’ hearts and paints a touching, melancholic picture especially when augmented by the soundtrack that is mainly made up of subdued piano music.

The film is very visually driven. The homosexual theme for instance is conveyed through the use of typical connotations such as the ear piercing on the right ear. The homosexuality-metro-sexuality conundrum is also explored, through the contemporary blurring of the lines of metro-sexuals and homosexuals, especially with the “pretty boy” culture that has been on the rise with Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean pop. (Meteor Garden (2001) anyone?) Despite being a very subtle indication (15:00), it sets a very early tone for the show. Further, innuendoes such as extreme close physical proximity, everyday acts such as the ruffling of each other’s hair, sharing a drink and lines like “I played badly when you were gone” provide a clear indication that there is more to the relationship than that meets the eye.

The director has a penchant for using mirrors as a form of aesthetic treatment, and I cannot help but suggest that this could perhaps have a special underlying meaning. Mirrors reflect reality, only in an inverted manner. This is further seen in the sex scene between Jonathan and Carrie (19:00) that was framed within a mirror, as well as the slanted mirror scene at 25:12. Further, subtle nuances like a train emerging out of a tunnel could be said to suggest the act of coming out of the closet into the open. Erstwhile, the scene has Carrie and Jonathan captured traveling backwards rather than forwards, seated against the direction of movement of the train. This could represent a shift in dynamics in the burgeoning love triangle. In a separate scene (27:53), the dim lighting in the room where Carrie and Jonathan are studying, the only source of light comes from Shane’s bedroom when he is sleeping. Could this probably symbolize the source of light in his life? This is in stark contrast to the subsequent scene when he was with Carrie, as both their faces were shrouded in the shadows of darkness, suggesting despair of some sort.

Prison imagery at 30:42 feature window grilles, staircase railings and gates that are used to frame the characters. Could this symbolize entrapment in the present status of their relationship, and how it is difficult for them to move on without hurting the feelings of anybody?

The colors in the movie are generally cold and dreary at the start of the show, when Jonathan is with Shane or Carrie. But there is a notable change of colors midway through the movie when Carrie opens herself up to Shane. Here, the warm reddish hue is used, thus presenting the scene in a more humane light (41:00), as compared to the gloom previously. This contrast in lighting is further evident in a later scene with Shane and Jonathan having a conversation in the former’s bedroom before the earthquake occurred (52:40). Shane, with his emotional crisis was cast in cold, harsh, bluish lighting in contrast to Jonathan’s warm lighting. The warm light later disappears with the earthquake, and the ensuing scene is shrouded with the cold, harsh bluish light. Of all the scenes, the scene where Jonathan and Shane finally make out was the warmest in terms of the color scheme and palette. This time round, Carrie was the one cast under the cold, dreary lighting (1:19:00).

Through an analysis of all the various elements and stylistic treatments such as colors for instance, it is a pretty good way to round up the film by saying that Eternal Summer could really have been more provocative. Aside from the short and restrained bed scene between Shane and Jonathan, there isn’t much to be found either. Perhaps it is the intense hype that always surrounds the release of a homosexual movie – and Director Leste Chen opts to rather buck this trend by focusing on the essentials of the relationship that matter rather than resorting to sensationalist tactics. We see Shane and Jonathan more as human beings who need each other’s love. Underscoring the whole film is a very engaging soundtrack with some beautiful pictures, à la the landscape shots of green meadows and fields that are akin to beautiful scenic photography off a postcard. The atmosphere strikes your heart, and you cannot help but feel touched by the drama that pierces through your soul, the mood created with the natural charisma and chemistry of the actors.

References

Matthijs, N. (2010, January 6). Eternal Summer review. Retrieved on December 1, 2010, from http://twitchfilm.com/reviews/2010/01/eternal-summer-review.php.

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: IMDB.com: 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

Awards:
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

Nominations:
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.