Too Much Heaven, Part Two: City of Life and Death and Detective Dee reviews
Two more Chinese-language films have their theatrical releases in San Francisco, and, although they are completely different in subject, tone, and treatment, both are testaments to the vitality of the new Chinese cinema.
City of Life & Death, dir. Lu Chuan, 2010
My head was spinning when I walked out of the screening for City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s devastating and uncompromising look at the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing). City of Life and Death is an unflinching look at the infamous Japanese occupation and destruction of the Chinese capital in 1938–the film is a stellar example of the ways in which cinema can both explicate and elevate events from real life. Lu masterfully utilizes wide-screen, black and white, mostly hand-held cinematography, subtle and emotional performances, and a story structure that precludes simplistic nationalism.
At the very start in the first hour of the film Lu kills off one of the main characters, forcefully undermining any pretense of a conventionally told story and serving notice that the film will be merciless in the treatment of its characters. As in the real-life occupation of Nanjing, no one is safe and no one will be spared from the casual brutality of wartime and the mentality it fosters. The film also refuses to focus on acts of heroism, although though there are brave and unselfish acts throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. No single character is a savior, nor are there any simple answers to the inhuman violence that was perpetrated upon the citizens of Nanjing.
As a Chinese filmmaker Lu makes the unusual choice of presenting the well-known story, which has been used in China to demonize Japan, in part through the eyes of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the wide-eyed and impressionable Kadokawa’s terrified face as he and his fellow Japanese soldiers prepare to storm the walls of Nanjing. Kadokawa’s horrified responses to the violence surrounding him as well as the pivotal choices he makes at the end of the film belie any condemnation of the Japanese as inherently bestial or subhuman, The film refuses to lay the blame for the events in Nanjing on inborn flaws in the Japanese national character, instead placing responsibility on the insanity of militarism itself.
Viewers shouldn’t be deterred by the grim subject matter as this is filmmaking of the finest order. The wide screen black and white cinematography underscores the huge scope of the atrocities, and director Lu Chuan understands the value of a long, long take in creating an almost unbearable tension. The performances are also uniformly outstanding. Liu Ye is excellent in his brief but significant role as a pragmatic Chinese officer, utilizing his sensitive, evocative face to great effect. Wei Fan is also very effective as a bureaucrat working for the Germans who realizes too late that his position does not grant him immunity from the horrors around him.
A scene near the end of the film where the Japanese soldiers perform a celebratory dance underscores the violent group psychosis of war. While taiko drummers beat out a mournful cadence, the crouched-over soldiers move through the rubble-filled streets with blankly fierce expressions on their youthful faces. After the screen carnage of the past two hours their procession seems like an exercise in group insanity as the men move in hypnotic lockstep, driven by a rhythm dictated to them and with little will of their own. The scene becomes a grim and surreal commentary on the collective madness of war and the indoctrination that makes young men such as Kadokawa into unfeeling, obedient machines of destruction. This image and many others in City of Life and Death make the film absolutely essential viewing, The film’s current theatrical release makes it possible to experience it on the big screen, where its vast and detailed rendering can completely engulf the viewer and magnify its cataclysmic impact.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, dir. Tsui Hark, 2010
A film epic of a completely different sort than City of Life and Death, Tsui Hark’s extravagantly fun and fantastic movie is another example of the outstanding product coming out of China and Hong Kong. Like Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Detective Dee is a brilliant blending of traditional Hong Kong moviemaking with the super-high production values of recent mainland films.
Detective Dee is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life historical figure Di Ren-jie, also known as Judge Dee, who has been the subject of several Hong Kong and Chinese films, books, and television series. Here Dee is played by the ageless Andy Lau, as an implacable sleuth assigned to determine the cause of a spate of spontaneous human combustion.
Carina Lau plays another historical figure, Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to ascend to the Chinese imperial throne. Both Andy and Carina, who started their careers at TVB long ago in the 1980s, are excellent as the titular sleuth and the Empress who may or may not be his adversary. Carina Lau holds the distinction of being one of the only actresses of her generation (along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh) who is still working, and she brings a presence and authority to her role. Andy Lau has turned into an excellent screen actor and his ability to convey thoughtfulness and depth (despite his incredible good looks) is a result of his experience in more than a hundred films. He’s not afraid to take roles that emphasize his maturity, as seen here and in Shaolin, which is a nice testament to his graceful aging.
As expected from a Hong Kong fantasy film, Detective Dee includes a surfeit of cleverly staged action set pieces, underscored by director Tsui’s fantasmagoric set designs and kinetic camerawork. But Detective Dee moves beyond earlier Hong Kong films’ visual realizations with its excellent use of extensive digital effects. The world of digital effects has finally caught up to Tsui’s gloriously saturated cinematic vision and in Detective Dee he makes the most of them. Whereas Tsui’s 1990s fantasy classics such as Green Snake featured charmingly unconvincing rubber prosthetics and matte paintings, Detective Dee has the advantage of a full slate of DFX, here outsourced to a well-known Korean effects house. Tsui utilizes this to full effect in realizing his lavishly imaginative vision, which includes transmogrifying faces, a herd of talking (and fighting) deer, characters convincingly immolating from the inside out, and a skyscraper-sized statue of a female bodhisattva.
At the same time Tsui doesn’t let the digital madness take precedence over plot or characterization. The film’s story is a clever and well-developed mystery, and Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bing Bing portray intriguing and complex characters. Tony Leung Kar-Fei is excellent as a revolutionary with a long grudge against the empress. In fine Hong Kong movie tradition, Li and Andy Lau court and spark as conflicted would-be lovers separated by duty and circumstance. As is his wont, Tsui also throws a bit of political commentary into the mix in his critique of the corruption of power.
Detective Dee won Best Director and Best Actress statues at the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards and represents a comeback of sorts for longtime auteur Tsui. Although it was financed by mainland Chinese money and performed in Mandarin, Detective Dee is still a Hong Kong movie through and through, and is an outstanding example of what might come from the integration of mainland and Hong Kong commercial cinema.
City of Life & Death
opens Fri. Sept. 23, 2011
Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema
601 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Landmark Embarcadero Cinema
One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
Landmark Shattuck Cinema
2230 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
Entry filed under: andy lau tak-wah, hong kong, movies, Uncategorized. Tags: andy lau tak-wah, carina lau ka-ling, city of life and death, detective dee and the mystery of the phantom flame, hong kong films, liu ye, movies, tsui hark.