New Power Generation: Jia Zhangke and Lunar New Year films 2019

March 3, 2019 at 4:14 am Leave a comment

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Jiang hu, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

This has been an interesting few weeks in Chinese-language cinema screenings here in the Bay. This is due in part to the recent Lunar New Year/Spring Festival holiday in China and related territories, during which a whole slew of new movies were released to capitalize on the extended vacays of most people during that time. Because of the glut in product and the large Chinese-speaking population in the Bay Area, a select few of those releases made it across the Pacific to San Francisco movie houses. Coupled with an extended series of films by one of China’s premier arthouse directors, this meant that I managed to catch many Sinophone films in the month of February.

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Cameos, Missbehavior, 2019

I started my Lunar New Year viewings with Pang Ho-Cheung’s Missbehavior, one of two Hong Kong films that made it to San Francisco in February. (Sadly, I missed the other one, Felix Chong’s action thriller Integrity, due to scheduling conflicts). Pang is Hong Kong’s 21st century bad-boy auteur who’s racked up a number of well-received hits including Isabella, Vulgaria, Aberdeen, and his Love In A Puff series that stars Miriam Cheung and Shawn Yue. Miss Behavior is a low-budget quickie that carries on in the best tradition of New Year’s films, with a big cast with many famous people making cameos, a lighthearted comic tone, and a lowbrow sensibility including an extended sequence of the glamorous Dada Chen discussing her bowel movements. Though it’s not one of Pang’s deepest or most thoughtful films (the setup involves a group of friends frantically trying to locate a bottle of breast milk) the narrative  is actually very well-constructed and it moves along at a good clip, briskly shuffling its many characters in and out and climaxing with a free-for-all in a big ol’ shopping mall after hours.

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Spectacular, The Wandering Earth, 2019

On the other end of the production-values spectrum is China’s very first foray into the big-budget science fiction genre, The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo). Based on a short story by well-known Chinese author Liu Cixin, the movie is a big, spectacular piece of moviemaking that rivals anything that Hollywood has put out lately. Although there are no aliens, the film does include huge vistas of spinning planets, individuals at peril in space and planetside, spaceships and other hardware exploding, random science-babble, and other markers of every sci-fi movie of recent vintage. The production design is also on point, portraying an Earth of the near future as dark, chaotic, and polluted (not unlike modern-day Beijing).

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Collectivism, The Wandering Earth, 2019

But at heart it’s a Chinese production, emphasizing collectivism over individuality and the importance of very long-range goals. Also of note is the absence of almost any US presence to speak of—in China’s futuristic vision everyone speaks Mandarin, Russian, French or Japanese, and most of the planetside action takes place in China or other Asian countries. A massive box office hit in China, the film grossed more than US$300 million in its first weekend of release and has gone on to an impressive haul of more than US$650 million worldwide in just under four weeks.

And on a different tip entirely was the Jia Zhangke series at SFMOMA and BAM/PFA that included Jia himself in person at two of the screenings (a delayed plane flight prevented him making a scheduled third appearance at a show earlier in the series). The series included every one of Jia’s feature films (documentaries and narratives both), as well as films by other directors that have had some direct influence on his work.

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Underbelly, Unknown Pleasures, 2002

Some of the pairings worked really well together such as the double-bill including Jia’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys From Fengkuei (1983), both of which looked at aimless young people wandering through life. Jia’s film explores the seamy side of China, with Jia using the under-construction highway between Datong & Beijing as a visual metaphor for the rough underbelly of China’s economic miracle. A prequel of sorts to Jia’s latest film, Ash Is Purest White (2018), it follows an emo pretty boy in love triangle with the chanteuse Qiao Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, a low-rent loan shark mobster.

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Ennui, The Boys From Fengkuei, 1983

In contrast, Hou’s film is quiet and still compared to the barely restrained chaos of Jia’s movie. As opposed to the undercurrent of grinding industrial cacophony in Unknown Pleasures, the sound of lapping waves is an aural backdrop to most of the action in a small seaside town where group of young dudes hang out and try to find meaning in their lives. They eventually end up in Kaohshiung, the closest city to their tiny coastal burg, where more ennui and confusion awaits.

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Rivers and lakes, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

Other film matchups at SFMOMA were more loosely connected—for instance, according to the programmers Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) was paired with 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2009) for the sole reason that both films are about cities. Similarly, the programmers grouped I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010), Spring In A Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948), and Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), three wildly disparate movies, because they are all set in Shanghai. But the smart pairing of Johnny To’s Election (2005) and Jia’s Ash Is Purest White cleverly focused on the jiang hu, the criminal underworld in both Hong Kong and China.

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Chinatown new wave, Chan Is Missing, 1982

The series also matched up Jia films with non-Asian movies, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Jia’s Xiao Wu (a show that Jia introduced himself at SFMOMA). And props for including Chinese American director Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982), which evokes the nouvelle vague by way of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I’m happy that I was able to squeeze in a bunch of screenings in the mini-hiatus from editing my film, Love Boat: Taiwan, because the next four weeks or so will be solely dedicated to finishing up the movie for its world premiere in early May. More info soon on this, but please go here if you want to find out about Love Boat: Taiwan and how you can support it .

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Ash Is Purest White opens theatrically on March 15 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and on March 22 at AMC Mercado in Santa Clara, CNMK Fremont 8 in East Bay, and CNMK Milpitas 20 in San Jose.

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Entry filed under: ash is purest white, chan is missing, jia zhangke, missbehavior, The Boys From Fengkuei, the wandering earth, unknown pleasures. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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