Archive for April, 2012
Opening this weekend in the U.S., Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale has bloody battles, fierce beheadings, brave sacrifice, facial tattoos, evil Japanese, and everything else you could ask for in an action movie. It’s another example of the huge growth of the commercial Taiwanese film industry which, as I’ve noted before, is a long way from the arthouse days of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Seediq Bale (which translates as “true man” or “real person”) is the most expensive Taiwanese production ever, and it’s also one of last year’s most popular films in Taiwan and Hong Kong (it just came out in China this week). It was originally released in a four-and-a-half-hour, two-part version in Asia—here in the U.S. we get the trimmed-down festival edit that only runs 2.5 hours. The shorter version seems to hit most of the significant plot points and moves along at a brisk pace, especially once the fighting starts.
Interestingly enough, the film is directed by Wei Te-shing, who also directed the sentimental and cheesy rom-com Cape No. 7, which featured a curiously nostalgic view of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. In Seediq Bale Wei corrects Cape No. 7’s soft-focus representation of the occupation, as the Japanese are portrayed as fascistic aggressors who deserve to become machete-fodder for the vengeful Seediq.
Seediq Bale is based on the Wushe Incident, a real-life event during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan when in 1930 some few hundreds of indigenous Seediq tribespeople rose up against the colonizers. The fighting lasted almost two months, during which the Seediq, despite the Japanese troops’ superior numbers and firepower, killed more than one thousand Japanese soldiers and undermined the Japanese operations in the Wushe region.
The film starts out with the Seediq blissfully hunting boar, chanting and dancing, and squabbling amongst themselves about who has the most swag. Their little jungle paradise, however, is soon disrupted by the arrival of the conquering Japanese, who won the island of Taiwan from the Chinese in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Not unlike the fate of the Native Americans after the arrival of the Europeans, the Seediq are subjugated by the maurading Japanese, with their hunting curtailed and their jungle homelands cut down. After a couple decades of the Japanese usurption of their culture and territory, Seediq chief Mouna Rudo decides to take matters into his own hands and plans with his clan to kill the Japanese squatting his land and to retake control of the jungles.
Director Wei makes great use of the gorgeous terrain, with his gliding camerawork following the fleet-footed Seediq racing barefoot through Taiwan’s jungles. He also contrasts the bland and unimaginative, uniformed Japanese with the wild and wooly, improvisational Seediq, who used their familiarity with the landscape to corner and ambush their befuddled foes. Clearly espousing the tenets of guerilla warfare, one Seediq says, “You have to think like the wind–it’s invisible.”
There’s no denying the sheer pleasure in watching a persecuted minority rise up to utterly decimate its oppressors, and to see the Seediq outwit the Japanese and literally cut them down to size is an unholy joy. Yet the film avoids becoming a good native/bad invader polemic by also showing the intratribal strife among the Seediq—not all of the tribal chiefs wholeheartedly supported Mouna Rodu’s quixotic rebellion and some of them actively oppose it, taking revenge for old slights by siding with the Japanese against Mouna’s clan.
The film is both a liberation story and cautionary tale, demonstrating both the need to fight back against the oppressor as well as the great cost of the struggle for sovereignty. A long and emotionally intense passage shows a group of Seediq women, who are as dangerous as the men, sacrificing themselves for their tribe by committing mass suicide. There’s also an interesting subplot about the cultural conflicts of two of the Seediq who have assimilated as low-ranking policemen in the Japanese occupying forces.
Movie idol Masanobu Ando is fierce and gorgeous as per usual as a Japanese soldier who befriends some of the Seediq, but the film’s real star is first-time actor Lin Ching Tai as the scary-good Mouna Rudo. Lin is charismatic and convincing as the badass leader of the Mehebu tribe who decides to stand up to the abusive Japanese invaders, rallying his troops with declamations about the blood sacrifice that will enable them to earn the facial tats they’ll need to enter the afterlife’s fertile hunting grounds.
Also aces is the adolescent Lin Yuan-Jie as Pawan, a young Seediq warrior in the making who earns his tribal tattoos by wielding a mean machine gun. Other Seediq parts are filled by various Taiwanese pop stars with real-life aboriginal blood, including Vivian Hsu, Landy Wen, and Umin Boya. The inclusion of these celebrities is a shrewd move on the part of Wei, as it increases box office appeal while at the same time pointing out the previously overlooked indigenous heritage of some of Taiwan’s most popular singers and actors.
The film’s message is that it’s better to die a brave death as a free man than to capitulate to the colonizer, even against impossible odds. Passionate, violent, and entertaining as hell, the movie is a glorious tribute to its downtrodden protagonists who fight back against colonization and extermination in order to preserve their cultural beliefs.
NOTE: Apparently the success of Seediq Bale in Taiwan (it won Best Picture at this year’s Golden Horse Awards) has spurred an upsurge of interest in indigenous Taiwanese culture, including the building of Seediq Bale Park in Taipei that recreates one of the film’s locations. There tourists can see props from the movie and purchase memorabilia, although, unlike in the movie, the streets are probably not strewn with headless corpses.
Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, showing this week at the San Francisco International Film Festival, looks at the Cambodian film industry in the 1960s and 70s before the Khmer Rouge, and underscores the power of collective memory in the face of great trauma and oppression. Focusing on moviemaking in particular and Cambodian pop culture in general Golden Slumbers is an ethereal dream of a film, with people listening to old music, looking at film fragments, and reminiscing about people long dead. The movie is a testament to the power of using artmaking and storytelling to overcome great emotional and psychological scars.
The documentary starts with a sustained shot from the back of a moving vehicle as it travels down a road in modern-day Cambodia. This simple image conveys the long journey the Cambodian people have gone through as they’ve passed from the happy years of the 1960s and 70s through the national nightmare of the reign of the Khmer Rouge and back again from that great upheaval. Although Pol Pot’s genocidal regime was overthrown in 1979 the damage from that time period still lingers in Cambodia’s collective memory. Cambodia’s commercial film industry produced upwards of 400 films in the decade or so preceding the Khmer Rouge yet fewer than a dozen films now exist. Movies were deemed corrupt and most film prints were destroyed, with film directors and movie stars targeted and purged by the regime during its four-year reign. Golden Slumbers documents the traces of the once-thriving industry through ephemera including film stills and posters, fragments of soundtracks, and most significantly, interviews with the few surviving members of the Cambodian film world of the time.
One director managed to escape to France where he lived for nearly two decades before returning to Cambodia. Another happened to be among the 180 out of 1000 from his village to survive the Khmer Rouge massacres, although his wife and several children were among those killed. Another actress also fled to France, where she keeps a wall of photographs, postcards, and other mementos from lost Cambodian films. She notes, “If I remember the pictures, it’s like they’re still alive.” Her statement as well as others throughout Golden Slumbers suggests that keeping alive the memories of those martyred can vanquish the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge and that the key to defeating and outlasting those crimes is through human remembrance and a refusal to give up on the hopes and dreams of the people.
At one point the film visits a former movie palace that has become an indoor favela, housing over 100 families who squat the building. The residents there also have vivid memories of the films that they saw before the Khmer Rouge and can easily recall their plots and storylines. It’s as if the movies become symbols of happier times before the great national trauma of the war, taking on the status of myths or fairytales. At another point in the film one man sadly notes that he can’t remember the faces of his lost family members, yet he clearly recalls the faces of the actors from the films.
The film ends with footage from some of the lost Cambodian films projected on a brick wall in one of the repurposed movie houses. Current residents watch the footage in thoughtful silence as the images flicker on the segmented wall. The lines of the bricks fragment the pictures but they remain clear and focused, suggesting their resiliency despite their near-destruction. Cambodian movies thus become the immutable repositories of the country’s memory and mythology, preserving its vital stories even after the Khmer Rouge’s violent attempts to rewrite and obliterate them.
By illustrating the important place these lost movies hold in the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people, diretor Chou shows how the films have become a means of resisting brutality and persecution. Golden Slumbers is an elegaic tribute to a country and a culture that has survived despite near annihilation.
Other notable films in the festival by Asian/American directors include Johnny To’s Life Without Principle, which delves into the questionable morality of Hong Kong’s world of commerce; Wu Xia, Peter Chan’s detective/swordplay/martial arts movie starring the lovely and eminently watchable Takeshi Kaneshiro; Hong Sang Soo’s The Day He Arrives, another odd meditation on life, film, and neurosis; and Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, Ramona Diaz’s glorious and energetic real-life fable about Arnel Pineda, the Filipino singer from the shantytowns of Manila who became the lead vocalist for the classic rock band Journey.
For tickets and information go here.
Now playing in San Francisco is Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, which was the number one film at the local box office when I was in Hong Kong last month. The film’s popularity was just rewarded at the Hong Kong Film Awards, where it won Best Picture Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay statues, adding to a slew of other accolades from the Golden Horse Awards, the Hong Kong Film Society, the Venice Film Festival, and many more. It’s an outstanding film that deserves all of the attention it’s been getting, and it represents director Hui at her best.
The film follows the relationship between domestic servant Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) and Roger (Andy Lau), her long-time employer. Ah Tao has worked for Roger’s family for three generations over several decades, caring for the children, cooking, and cleaning. Roger, a successful screenwriter, lives with Ah Tao in his family’s flat in Hong Kong after the rest of his family has migrated to the U.S. After Ah Tao suffers a stroke she decides to retire and Roger helps her to move to an old folks’ home in a former bank, with the elderly residents living in the former cubicles.
Hui’s sure directorial hand crafts what might have been an overwrought tearjerker into a film with emotionally honest core. Shooting digitally in modest locations Hui simply captures the quotidian life of her protagonists, which allows the complexities of their relationship to shine through. Without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama she manages to evoke a deeply emotional response, demonstrating the value of directorial restraint over bombast.
Andy Lau is quite good, although the movie takes pains to downplay his movie-star gorgeousness. At one point he’s mistaken for a repairman and another time a cabbie, but his perfect jawline and aquiline nose belie those conceits. As evidenced by her collection of Best Actress awards, Deanie Ip as Ah Tao is also outstanding. She also dresses down, with a plain-Jane haircut and dowdy cotton shirt and trousers disguising her glamour. Lau and Ip’s chemistry is excellent and believable and results in several truly affecting moments.
Anthony Wong, in red nail polish and a dramatically fluffy scarf, is amusing as the landlord of the rest home and Chapman To makes a brief cameo as a dentist. The denizens of the old-folks home are played by a who’s who of senior Hong Kong actors including Paul Chun, Helena Law Lan and many others.
The movie comments on the formation of families outside of traditional family structures. Both Roger and Ah Tao’s relationship and the bonds Ah Tao forms with the senior home residents replicate family and stress that kinship is not the exclusive domain of blood ties. This is emphasized by the neglectful relationship between one of the residents and her absent son, as well as another woman whose family abandoned her to assisted living in the senior home.
The film also makes some interesting points about class divisions. Although Roger and Ah Tao are clearly very fond of each other they remain distanced as master and servant. Ah Tao continually insists on staying in her place as a servant, refusing money from her former employer and only reluctantly joining a family picture. Her room in the family flat apparently doubles as the laundry room.
Hui’s naturalistic filmmaking style is in full force, with the film’s mis-en-scene seamlessly meshing with my real-life afternoon walk through Wanchai. Seeing it in Hong Kong the film also took on more meaning for me, since in many middle and upper class families there domestic servants are the norm. Hui’s film does an excellent job dissecting the complexities of the master-servant relationship and filtering them through the realities of human emotion.
At the Hong Kong International Film Festival I saw another Ann Hui movie, My Way, which is a 20-minute piece in Beautiful, a four-part omnibus sponsored by the HKIFF, and which just went live on youku.com today (it’s already had more than 1 million hits and has spawned a great debate about transgendered people in the comments section). Like A Simple Life, My Way focuses on ordinary people going through dramatic changes. In a case of extreme anti-typecasting, Francis Ng plays a transgendered woman on the eve of sex-reassignment surgery. His past roles in hypermasculine crime flicks like The Mission and Exiled dramatically underscore the intertwined nature of gender identity and confounds expectations of clear-cut gender roles—if Francis Ng can convincingly portray a man who wants to become a woman, then that kernal of femaleness must lie within every male.
Since Ng’s character is a man dressed as a woman, it’s fine that his sleek black silk dress, stockings and pumps don’t quite disguise his muscular arms and broad shoulders. Francis more than compensates for his still-male physicality by his female gestures and expressions, embodying the duality of his pre-op transsexual character–he’s completely convincing in his gender-switching role.
The short film captures an impressive range of emotions in its brief running time, in no small part due to Francis’ intense and vulnerable rendition of a person trying to cope with difficult decisions. Jade Leung is also excellent as his bitter and estranged wife coming to grips with her husband’s transformation. A small but significant character, Ng and Leung’s adolescent son, has a particularly poignant and moving moment. After his father’s surgery, the son receives a text message announcing the operation’s success. Hui shows both the wife and son’s reactions—the wife weeps, while the son quietly accepts the news.
Like A Simple Life, the film also looks at the formation of familial ties outside of the bonds of blood kin, with Ng’s character supported by a circle of other transgendered women who are more caring than her supposed family members. As with many Hui films, there are no clear villains or heroes, just regular people dealing with stressful circumstances as best they can. Sweet and moving, this film captures the pain and joy of a difficult situation. Francis Ng is fearless in his vulnerable rendering of a fragile yet strong character who must make the difficult decision to break from societal expectations in order to find personal happiness.
Here’s the link to My Way in its entirety on youku.com.
A Simple Life now playing:
Iranian director Jafar Pahahi has been under house arrest for more than a year now awaiting the outcome of latest appeal of his 2010 conviction of conspiring to overthrow Iran’s Islamic Republic. His latest effort, This Is Not A Film is a documentary of what he describes as “two idle filmmakers,” Panahi and fellow Iranian director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, attempting to make sense out of a nonsensical situation. Filmed mostly inside Panahi’s Tehran apartment over the course of a day and evening, the movie is an interesting metaphor for the likely state of Panahi’s frustrated creative mind right now.
The movie follows Panahi as he eat breakfast and kibitzes with his lawyer on the phone about the possible results of his legal appeal. It then continues with a visit from Mirtahmasb who films Panahi as he describes the scenario for his most recently script, lately rejected by the Iranian censorship board. Panahi and Mirtahmasb begin to block out the film on Panahi’s living room rug, but the process abruptly ends and the documentary goes on several tangents. Somehow Panahi ends up filming Mirtahmasb on his cell phone camera while Mirtahmasb is filming him, in circumspect defiance of the regime’s ban on Panahi making films. The film ends with Panahi interviewing an art student/garbage collector/deliveryman on his trash-collecting rounds as they discuss the difficulties of creating work under the current regime’s oppressive eye.
Attesting to Panahi’s status as one of Iran’s leading directors, we see him in his comfortable flat casually name-checking various members of the Iranian filmmaking pantheon such as Rakhshān (Bani-E’temād) and Khambozia (Partovi). Yet he also seems quite at ease chatting with the art student/garbageman and doesn’t seem to mind riding in an elevator with a smelly trashcan.
This Is Not A Film has the same watchful intelligence as Panahi’s narrative films (The Circle; Offside; Crimson Gold), and as with those films, this one possesses a sharp critique of the Iranian power structure. Several times Panahi mentions his unwillingness to solicit public support from his fellow Iranian filmmakers due to the risks from the government their aid may cause them and Mirtahmasb at one point asks Panahi to take a picture of him as evidence in case the government retaliates against him for helping out Panahi. Throughout the documentary an uneasy undercurrent of repression flavors the goings-on, adding a furtive guardedness to the proceedings.
Panahi maintains a keen eye for metaphor–he paces fitfully in his apartment, only able to connect to the outside world through remote devices like the cell phone or through TV news, or at a distance, by watching the city’s daily life at a remove on his balcony. The storyline of Panahi’s rejected script involves a young woman attempting to escape the house that her family has locked her in, which of course echoes Panahi’s own real-life house arrest. Tellingly, the recounting of this story and others in the documentary are interrupted and unfinished, adding to the film’s mood of incompleteness and frustration.
Panahi also makes good use of the spectacle of Fireworks Wednesday, the boisterous celebration of Persian New Year. The film ends with Panahi viewing from afar a bonfire just outside the gates of his apartment building as his visitor warns him not to be seen holding a camera or “they will see you.” As he lingers in his doorway he clearly longs to join the celebration, yet his wariness that “they” will censure him constrains him.
This small moment is an excellent representation of the invisible restrictions on Panahi’s freedom and the way in which the Iranian regime holds him captive, as well as the means by which he attempts to subvert that captivity. The doublespeak of This Is Not A Film’s title echoes that subversion, as Panahi tries to find a workaround to his confinement without pushing the regime too far. It’s a delicate, frustrating balance and one Panahi captures pretty effectively in this film. His creative life hangs in the balance and, like the interrupted stories throughout, if the Iranian government prevails, it may never reach its full completeness.
This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Iran 2011), dir. Jafar Panahi
opens April 6
SF Film Society Cinema
1746 Post Street
San Francisco CA
go here for tickets and information