The advent of the new S*** W*** release means that no other big Hollywood movies are opening this weekend, which has an added hidden bonus for fans of Asian cinema. Although most US multiplexes have booked the return of Han, Leia, and Chewie, theaters still need to fill out their calendar to give the illusion of choice for moviegoers. Aside from a few holdovers from past weeks and some other counterprogramming hoping to catch the overflow of those not fortunate enough to have gotten advance tix to SW, there are three big Asian movie spectacles opening up this weekend in San Francisco.
Included among those are two huge Bollywood blockbusters featuring some of the biggest stars in India. Dilwale includes the legendary jodi of the baadshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, and Kajol, the violet-eyed movie queen who has starred with him in several giant hits over the years. Dilwale purports to be a romance/action film and the trailer includes longing glances, exploding cars, automatic weapons, slapstick masala humor, and pretty European scenery, so it will either find a huge audience in South Asia and beyond or fall completely flat at the box office. SRK has a massive fanbase and a lot of goodwill banked over the years so despite the film’s apparent formulaicness I’m betting that the former rather than the latter will occur.
Going head to head against Dilwale in India and here in North America is Bajirao Mastani, another lavish spectacle starring New Gen superstars Ranveer Singh (Lootera; Gunday), Deepika Padukone (Chennai Express; Tamasha), and Priyanka Chopra (Dil Dhadakne Do; Mary Kom). The latest historical epic from quirky visionary Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Saawariya; Devdas), Bajirao Mastani follows the story of the famous Maratha general Peshwa Bajirao and his two romantic interests, a warrior princess (Padukone) and Bajirao’s loyal wife (Chopra). As with all Bhansali films the art direction is completely gorgeous and over the top, this time utilizing a beige and sandstone palette accented by deep, saturated reds and greens. Real-life lovers Singh and Padukone were brilliant together in Bhansali’s 2013 Romeo and Juliet epic Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela and hopefully Bajirao Mastani recaptures some of their intense chemistry. Chopra is one of Bollywood’s best actresses, with presence, gravity, and beauty, and she’s also been making inroads in Hollywood lately, most recently as the star of the ABC action series Quantico.
Rounding out the clutch of Asian film spectacles opening this weekend is Mojin: The Lost Legend, another big-budget CGI spectacle from mainland China’s movie mill. This one is full of A-list Chinese stars including Chen Kun, Huang Bo, Shu Qi, and Angelababy, with an appearance by young Hong Kong actress Cherry Ngan (The Way We Dance) as a Japanese schoolgirl assassin. The storyline follows a pair of down-and-out adventurers, Hu Bayi (Chen Kun) and Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo), former tomb raiders and treasure hunters who end up scraping by on the streets of New York City Chinatown in 1986. Somehow they are enlisted to rob a tomb they’d disastrously encountered twenty years prior, and the movie follows their exploits as they travel to Mongolia to find their fate. Shirley (Shu Qi) goes along for the ride based on poorly sketched and gratuitous romantic subplot with Hu.
Director Wu Ershan (Painted Skin: The Resurrection) continues his patented ADHD style of filmmaking, as the disjointed plot jumps back and forth in time from China to Mongolia to New York City. The film intersperses large swaths of nonsensical exposition with lackluster fighting and action scenes loaded with egregious CGI. The cast gamely attempts to inject some energy into the witless proceedings, with the usually excellent Huang Bo in particular trying to enliven things with scenery-chewing and profanity, but the film remains a paper-thin excuse for a string of not-very-spooky tomb-based action scenes and strangely juxtaposed set pieces. I actually enjoyed the maniacal weirdness of Wu Ershan’s first feature, The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman (2010) but here the scenario falls pretty flat, as the effects overwhelm the story and characterizations.
My favorite part of the movie is the flashback to the Cultural Revolution that includes clueless Red Guards giddily singing CCP propaganda songs and foolishly deriding ghosts and spirits for being counterrevolutionary, but this sequence of political irreverence is short-lived. The rest of the movie relies on a turgid plot and lack of characterization that is sorely lacking in wit or originality.
So if you’re not feeling The Force this week, these are a few options for cinematic spectacle instead. Catch ’em while you can.
UPDATE: Saw both Dilwale and Bajirao Mastani last week. Dilwale: not good. A few brief incandescent moments of SRK-Kajol magic surrounded by many long passages of utterly boring masala crap. I love SRK but this is a shyte movie.
Bajirao Mastani, on the other hand, is utterly enthralling. From its very first moment I was completely hooked. Top-notch art direction, costumes, songs, and performances, with Ranveer Singh bringing the swagga as Peshwa Bajirao, matched in fierceness and intensity by Deepika Padukone as his warrior princess lover. Priyanka Chopra as the third leg of the love triangle is strong and steady. The film is almost too gorgeous in its warm beige and red color palette, with crazy detailed costumes and the best pearl and jewel earrings on men that I’ve ever seen. The songs and choreography don’t stop, with old-school dance sequences featuring a cast of dozens in moving in fluid unison. A complete delight for the eyes and ears, with a passionate love story at its core. Highly recommended.
opens Dec. 18, 2015
Dilwale, dir. Rohit Shetty
Bajirao Mastani, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
AMC Van Ness 14, San Francisco
San Francisco will see an abundance of riches this weekend in invigorating Asian and Asian American films. The inaugural International Southeast Asian Film Festival (I-SEA) opens this Friday, Nov. 20 and runs through Nov. 22 at Artists Television Access in the Mission District and at New People Cinema in Japantown. And on Sun. Nov. 22 the San Francisco Cinematheque is hosting China Now: Independent Visions, a three-part series at the Victoria Theater, the Center for Asian American Media, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Notable in the China Now program is Ai Weiwei’s feature length documentary Ping’An Yueqing, which investigates governmental malfeasance in the controversial 2010 death of Zhejiang province land-rights activist Qian Yunhui, who was run over by a truck after years of speaking out against the local government’s confiscation of villagers’ property without compensation. Part thriller, part procedural, the documentary utilizes interviews of concerned parties, reenactments, surveillance videos, and media reports to look at the human cost of globalization and development and the political suppression of dissent in China.
Also worthwhile is the series’ closing program, which includes three animated films and a feature documentary/narrative hybrid. Zhong Su’s 3-D animated shor Perfect Congugal Bliss packs a plethora of visual signifiers into its five-minute running time. Astronauts, insects, soup dumplings, moon cakes, demolished buildings, instant noodle packages, and statues of the Buddha float across the scrolling filmic landscape, suggesting the temporal transience of China’s changing cultural landscape. Zhang Yipin’s How includes some beautiful ink-on-glass animation that illustrates a young girl’s thoughts on life in a high-rise building. Ding Shiwei’s Double Act combines a percussive score to with evocative black-and-white visual elements including wilted flowers, bodies in transparent coffins, anonymous figures in suits and ties, and headless statues to make an unsettling statement about life under a restrictive regime. Following these shorts is Yumen, Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and JP Sniadecki’s experimental fiction/documentary set in the western Gansu province city of Yumen, which throughout its history has experienced a series of booms and busts including a surge after the discovery of oil nearby in the 1930s. The filmmakers, who shot on 16mm, travel through Yumen’s empty buildings and desolate landscapes and stage performances, poetry reading, dance and other curious events in the mostly-abandoned city, creating a strange elegy to the wasteland of China’s recent history of industrialization and modernization.
Included in the International Southeast Asian (I-SEA) film festival is Masahiro Sugano’s Cambodian Son, a loosely structured, jazzy documentary that follows Kosal Khiev, a Cambodian American poet and spoken word artist now living in Cambodia. Khiev belongs to the Khmer-in-exile community in Phnom Penh—like his fellow exiles he was deported from the US after serving a prison sentence for a felony conviction. The film looks at the circumstances leading to Khiev’s deportation as well as those of several other Khmer exiles, recounting the hard-knock life of many Cambodian refugees in the US. Cambodian Son makes use of several of Khiev’s spoken word performances as it recounts his struggle to recover from imprisonment and to adapt to life in exile. The film is an unsentimental look at one person’s attempt to reimagine his existence after trauma and loss.
The I-SEA festival opens on Fri. Nov. 20 with Ways of Seeing, a live interactive presentation curated by Ina Adele Ray and co-presented by Stephen Gong that includes family home movies, moving and still images from the French colonial era, Hollywood films, and declassified CIA propaganda. Also on the I-SEA program is Arthur Dong’s feature documentary, The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, which explores the life and death of the Cambodian doctor made famous after winning an Oscar for his starring role in The Killing Fields, the Roland Jaffe film that explored the 1970s Khmer Rouge atrocities and genocide in Cambodia.
November 22, 2015
2961 16th Street (at Mission)
San Francisco CA 94103
Nov. 20-22, 2015
Artists Television Access and New People Cinema
San Francisco CA
This year’s Hong Kong Cinema series sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society hosts a strong group of work that includes several of the past year’s box office hits from the former Crown Colony. The series opens on Nov. 14 with a 3-D version of Johnnie To’s recent musical extravaganza Office, starring Chow Yun-Fat, Sylvia Chang, Eason Chan, and Tang Wei, which sets the foibles of Hong Kong office workers to music (full review here). Also on the docket is the caper comedy Two Thumbs Up (full review here), the action/martial arts extravaganza SPL 2: A Time For Consequences, and Monster Hunt, the animated film that’s currently the highest grossing movie of all time in China.
The festival also includes Little Big Master, which was a huge hit in Hong Kong earlier this year and which reflects a more local flavor than Monster Hunt or SPL 2. Little Big Master (based on the real-life story of Lillian Lui) takes a soft-focus look at the state of educational equity in Hong Kong. After a particularly aggravating encounter with stressed-out kid and his driven parents, Lui Wai-hung resigns as the head of a fancy Hong Kong private school. Upon hearing about the plight of a tiny school on the outskirts of Hong Kong, Lui ends up taking a teaching job there despite the position’s minuscule salary and the school’s uncertain future. With a total enrollment of six, the school is destined to be closed if it can’t get more students, but Lui perseveres in her attempts to keep the school going.
Hong Kong diva Miriam Yeung is outstanding as teacher Lui, gradually shedding both her cynicism and her smartly tailored wardrobe in favor of a renewed belief in the world and a pair comfortable shoes and khakis as she becomes closer to her students and the plights of their families. The kids in the movie are nicely non-cloying and have a great rapport with Yeung. Louis Koo plays Lui’s helpful and supportive husband and an array of famous Hong Kong performers including Richard Ng, Philip Keung Ho-Man, and Anna Ng appear as family members of the kids from the school. Notably, this is one of the few Hong Kong movies that I can recall that depicts the South Asian population of the city and one of the only ones (the other being Tactical Unit: Partners) to show that population as more than window dressing (I’m looking at you, ChungKing Express). The film isn’t afraid of the emotionalism of the story but it manages its teariness without devolving into melodrama. It also subtly critiques the class and ethnic divisions in Hong Kong without preachiness or polemics.
Also included in the festival is To The Fore, Dante Lam’s latest masculinist exercise. The film follows a group of competitive bicycle racers, intertwining bromance, love triangles, innocence lost, and personal and professional strife. Eddie Peng plays Ming, a cocky and ambitious racer whose rivalry with teammates Ji-won (Choi Si-won), and Tian (Shawn Dou) forms the basis of the drama. While the bike racing scenes are outstanding and make great use of pretty scenery in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, the rest of the film is somewhat underdeveloped, lacking the intensity of Lam’s best work (including his crime films The Stool Pigeon and The Beast Stalker, and his MMA film Unbeatable) despite lots of sweating and emoting. Still, the three male leads (there’s one female featured player who acts mostly as an accessory to the plot) are quite handsome and the movie is a pleasant and painless way to pass the time. Curiously, To The Fore is Hong Kong’s submission for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscar sweepstakes, which it doesn’t quite warrant. Maybe someone is hoping for a repeat of the surprise success of Breaking Away all those years ago–
Nov. 14-18, 2015
3290 Sacramento Street
San Francisco CA
So the first time I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s new and much-lauded film The Assassin, which opened this past week across North America, I had just finished a grueling day of teaching, meetings, grant-writing, and other tiring teacherly stuff. I was looking forward to seeing the movie after the huge buzz it gotten after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where Hou won the Best Director award for the film. But when I saw the movie I found myself distinctly underwhelmed, and I found myself shifting in my seat and fighting to stay awake throughout the screening.
Since the movie had gotten such overwhelmingly good notices at Cannes I thought that I should give it a second chance so I watched it again, this time when I was alert and well-rested. Alas, I must be more of a philistine than I thought because once again I found myself nodding off in the middle of the movie and checking the time to gauge how much more I would have to endure.
So what gives? Have I been watching too many Korean gangster movies and Hong Kong action films? Have my tastes become completely crass and commercial? Have I become I so immune to the sensibilities of the finest in world cinema that I can no longer appreciate a great film when it comes along? I’ve sat through and enjoyed more than one multi-hour Lav Diaz extravaganza, I relished Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, and I loved the Mizoguchi retrospective I saw last year, so I know about slow cinema. And I’ve seen and liked past Hou films such as City of Sadness, Flowers of Shanghai, and Millenium Mambo. As an art school survivor I also cut my teeth on experimental film, from Stan Brakhage to Deborah Stratman and beyond, so I know from alternative cinema. So why didn’t The Assassin rock my world?
In some ways The Assassin is one big ol’ experimental narrative, albeit a very high-budget and elaborate one. Like many experimental filmmakers, in The Assassin Hou eschews conventional cinematic language—many of the takes in the film begin or end with thirty or forty seconds of stasis, as characters stand around gazing pensively or fiddling with hair accessories. At times Hou’s camera lingers on a gorgeous stand of trees reflected in a shimmering lake, while at other times it focuses on a goat’s asshole, each image as lovingly framed and lit as the other. Characters monologue at one another, revealing key plot points and explaining intricate court intrigue with theatrical gestures and vocalizations. The costumes are beautiful and ornate, with elaborate facial hair and up-do’s to match. These quirks demonstrate Hou’s intent in deconstructing filmic conventions and shaking up the way we see, or as he notes in a recent interview, his interest in “let(ting) the film go further, always further.” At the same time Hou works within the framework of a familiar genre, the wuxia (loosely translated as martial arts or swordplay) film, to which the viewer brings a certain set of expectations. This is especially true of Western viewers who only know martial arts from a limited type of genre film and who don’t have the knowledge of classical or popular wuxia stories in literature or folklore. So folks who go see The Assassin hoping to see a kick-ass kung fu flick (or even something more thoughtful like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) are most likely bound to be disappointed.
I applaud Hou’s audacity in exploding the audience’s expectations but at the same time I was curiously unmoved by the film and found it fairly impenetrable. Sure, it’s pretty to look at but it’s not a huge magnitude more beautiful than, say, your average commercial movie from South Korea, which have pretty much set the standard for cinematic gorgeousness these days. Somehow all of the experimentation in form, combined with miniscule character development and a very slow and deliberate pacing, muffles any visceral effect beyond the film’s immediate visual beauty. That beauty, while laudable, wasn’t enough to sustain my attention for the film’s running time and even after two viewings I remained for the most part unengaged. Still, the film shows much more intelligence and creative curiosity than pretty much all of Hollywood’s output from the past year put together, so if you go into The Assassin with your expectations suspended you may come out of it enlightened in more ways than one.
opens Oct. 23
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Landmark Clay in San Francisco
Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley
Landmark Guild in Palo Alto
Camera 3 in San Jose
Two one-act plays based on a couple short stories by Filipino American author and Bay Area native Lysley Tenorio are currently up at the American Conservatory Theater’s swanky new black box theater in the old Strand movie house in the mid-Market district. As we hopped off of BART and walked a half block up to the theater I felt like I was in a real city, one with functional public transit and a lively street life, instead of the rapidly sanitizing tech-bro haven that San Francisco is becoming. But I digress–
Both of the one-acts that comprise Monstress are set in the Bay Area, though both are historical pieces. Veteran scribe Philip Kan Gotanda penned the first play, Remember The I-Hotel, and Sean San Jose, former performing arts director of Intersection for the Arts, wrote the second, Presenting . . . the Monstress! Gotanda’s piece begins with a short segment set during the infamous 1977 eviction night at the International Hotel, which all Asian Americanists know was the last bastion of the former ten-block Manilatown just next to downtown San Francisco and abutting Chinatown. Two elderly Filipino tenants, Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) and Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) prepare to vacate the single-room apartments that have been their homes for more than forty years. As the two shave and dress, they remember their youth in San Francisco back in the 1930s when Fortunado first arrived from the Stockton asparagus fields as a young man and met Vicente at a taxi-dancing joint. The play follows the trajectory of their friendship as they become friends, work together as bellhops at a fancy Nob Hill hotel, and pursue romance and the American dream. Along the way they meet up with a Midwestern girl named Althea (Kelsey Venter) and, as they run up against the harsh and brutal realities of racism, learn the limits of their freedoms in a pre-civil rights U.S.
As always Gotanda has a keen ear for dialog and for the small gestures that create a fully fleshed out character. Vicente and Fortunado’s roles are delineated through their playful banter with each other, the way that Vicente swaggers and shadow-boxes across the stage, and the mournful longing embodied in Fortunado’s glances at his best friend. Though the narrative sticks fairly closely to Tenorio’s original short story, in bringing it to the stage Gotanda enhances some of its small details. For instance, story has a throwaway line about Wisconsonite Althea and Vicente sharing butter and olive sandwiches with one one of their nights out. Gotanda expands this to a short but humorously telling exchange that illustrates the cultural differences between the Filipino characters and the American-born girl.
The sound design of the play is very evocative, anchored by several Tagalog pop songs crooned by a torch singer (Melody Butiu) that punctuate and enhance the dramatic action. Key among those songs is the classic love ballad Da Hil Sayo, which is also included in Curtis Choy’s documentary, The Fall of the I-Hotel. The play also opens and closes with a sound clip from Choy’s film as the voice of one of the activists protesting the I-Hotel eviction warns demonstrators that the police are on the way to the hotel. Gotanda and director Carey Perloff thus link the play’s action to the legendary acts of resistance from the I-Hotel demonstrations, bringing to life the struggles and injustices faced by the first generation manongs who made their home in the I-Hotel. The set of Remember The I-Hotel includes a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows behind which significant action occurs, and the audience is thus reminded of the historical events that took place in 1977 just beyond the walls and down the street from the Strand.
Remember the I-Hotel is a sublime and moving piece of work that, with the expansion of a few dance numbers or songs, could easily become a full-length play. The lead performers are excellent, with Vicente and Fortunado convincingly aging from young and sprightly twenty-year olds to elderly men in their seventies. Lydia Tanji’s 1930s costume design is right on the money, from the sharp tailoring of Vicente’s suits to the flower-print dresses worn by the female characters.
The same cast also appears in the second one-act of the evening, with playwright Sean San Jose taking a lead role. Presenting . . . the Monstress! follows the tale of a low-budget Filipino movie director named Crackers Rosario and his leading lady, Reva Gogo, who specialize in no-budget monster movies. Somehow the pair end up in San Mateo CA collaborating with an Ed Woodian director from the U.S. named Gaz Gazman who has a similar interest in creating cinematic schlock.
Set in the 1970s, Monstress features even more impressive costuming by Lydia Tanji including a powder blue leisure suit, neon green floral shirt and matching lime slacks, and suede platform shoes. The tone of this play is much lighter and more comical than Gotanda’s, with a pair of wisecracking queer Filipino commentators narrating the action. Melody Butiu anchors the play as the wide-eyed Reva who is simultaneously dazzled by and wary of the glamour of low-budget moviemaking in the U.S. Yet despite its wacky flashiness the play ends like I-Hotel with a wistful sense of longing and loneliness and as such the two one-acts complement each other nicely. Both are excellent interpretations of Tenorio’s evocative source material and both are great examples of the talent in the Bay Area Asian American literary and theater arts scenes.
Andy Lau’s latest mainland China vehicle, Saving Mr. Wu, released in the U.S. this weekend with not a lot of fanfare. As far as I can tell it’s the first stateside release from United Entertainment Partners, one of China’s big distribution entities. As noted in the Hollywood Reporter in June 2015, “UEP touts itself as the number-one movie distribution network in China, with the company claiming it covers 90 percent of major cinemas in the country.” That same article noted that longtime Sony executive Steve Bruno joined UEP in June to lead its North America division, which will bring Chinese films to the U.S. and Hollywood films to China. Saving Mr. Wu is its maiden voyage into the North American movie market.
Saving Mr. Wu is a fast-paced, hard-boiled piece of crime filmmaking, with director Ding Sheng, who also serves as witer and editor, moving things along at a rapid clip. The pacing is similar in many ways to classic Hong Kong crime films, with very quick edits and terse dialog interspersed with bursts of action. The film’s cinematography is also evocative, depicting a mostly nighttime 21st century Beijing full of wide boulevards, high-rises buildings, and sleek automobiles.
The film is based on the real-life 2004 kidnapping of well-known Chinese television actor Wu Ruofu (who plays a supporting character in the film), with Andy Lau in the title role. Andy basically plays a fictionalized version of himself, and as such he’s very good at it. Unlike his recent role in Lost and Love, where he played a farmer, here he doesn’t have to hide his preternatural good looks, the fine tailoring of his clothes, or his $500 haircut, which is totally fine. Andy’s real life superstardom also makes the reverence some of the kidnappers exhibit towards him seem genuine, and when he croons a song to comfort his fellow kidnappee, a mournful sad sack who exists mostly to be the kidnappers’ punching bag, the rendition is heartfelt and understated. Wang Qinyuan is also effective as the kidnapping mastermind Zhang, a sneaky sociopath who dreams of a big heist that will lift him out of his petty criminalism. Liu Ye plays against his usual saintly and righteous type (one of his roles was playing a young Mao Zedong in the 2011 propaganda extravaganza Founding of a Party) and manages a bit of swagger as the lead cop on the case. Also excellent is Lam Suet as Mr. Wu’s trusted friend from Wu’s days in the military. Lam makes the most of his considerable bulk and his legacy of menace from many Hong Kong gangster roles to evoke a hard-ass, no-bullshit attitude.
Interestingly enough, unlike many movies that have to run the gauntlet of the PRC’s SAPPRFT censorship boards, the film gestures towards social critique. When Mr. Wu asks Zhang why he leads a life of crime, Zhang replies that the system in China is stacked toward the rich and powerful and that because of cronyism, ordinary joes like himself never have a fighting chance. Later in the film Mr. Wu acknowledges that he owes a lot of his success to luck and good fortune, rather than simply hard work and talent. The film also suggests that such a brazen kidnapping, which takes place in the middle of a crowded nighttime street in Beijing, wouldn’t have been possible in Hong Kong, where there’s a more evident respect for the rule of law.
The film is a bit dense in the details, flashing back and forth across several different time frames, and at time director Ding seems unsure of the strength of his storytelling, most clearly seen in his reliance on unnecessary title cards to identify the many characters big and small who zip rapidly across the screen. But the movie as a whole is well-made, sleek, and tense, with a gritty, realistic feel. Like last year’s excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice, Saving Mr. Wu is another notable addition to the roster of recent film noirs coming out of the PRC.
Saving Mr. Wu
directed by Ding Sheng
Century Daly City
and other locations throughout North America
In an interesting coincidence, two famous Chinese-language film directors have films opening in the U.S. this weekend, but their respective movies might puzzle the casual viewer expecting a certain type of cinematic output from each director. But on closer inspection both movies are in some ways throwbacks to early periods of each director’s filmmaking careers.
Starting with Hero (2002) and continuing through House of Flying Daggers (2002), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and The Flowers Of War (2011), Zhang Yimou for the most part in the 21st century made a series of glossy commercial films that have been successful marketed in the West, and he capped off this run of box-office hits by overseeing the much-lauded opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So viewers who only started following Zhang’s career in the 21st century might think that his oeuvre is all about wire-fu, movie stars, a hypersaturated color palette, and an affinity for spectacle. But Zhang started out in the 1980s as one of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors who were noted for their realistic styles and politically astute commentary. Often depicting the ordinary lives of peasants in China’s rural countryside and usually starring Gong Li, Zhang’s first several features were poetic ruminations on the effects on everyday people of various types of systematic repression. These movies, including Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju, made Zhang the darling of the arthouse film festival set, so it was a bit of a surprise when he busted out with a string of martial-arts fantasies at the turn of the 21st century. But those later films were pretty big at the box office and thus many folks only know Zhang as a director of big-budget spectacles, so it might seem like a surprise that Zhang’s latest film, Coming Home, includes neither martial arts nor brightly colored costumes and sets. Astute observers, however, will realize that the movie actually harkens back to Zhang’s earlier Fifth Generation output from the 1980s and 90s.
Coming Home is a family drama set during and just after the Cultural Revolution in China and is based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by popular Chinese author Yan Geling (whose novella 13 Flowers of Nanjing was the basis of Zhang’s recent film The Flowers of War). The movie opens as former professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) surreptitiously arrives back at his town after escaping from a re-education camp. His devoted wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) attempts to meet him but is thwarted by the Chinese secret police and Lu is sent back to prison. Lu and Feng’s teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina, resents her dad’s outlaw status since it’s messing with her career plans to play the lead soldier/dancer in the school play, which Zhang drolly depicts as leftist musical featuring dancers en pointe who are wielding rifles in the service of the revolution. Cut to several years later, after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-70s. Lu again returns home but Feng has become addled from either a blow to the head, PTSD, early-onset Alzheimer’s, or a combination of all three, and thus doesn’t recognize him. The film then follows Lu’s attempts to reconcile with the amnesiac Feng.
Coming Home’s muted mis en scene at first seems a million miles away from the brightly colored, glossy sheen of Zhang’s martial arts movies but the film’s meticulous art direction, featuring scuffed walls, dull brick and wooden buildings, and threadbare wool coats and trousers, reflects Zhang’s careful attention to period detail and authenticity. The usually glamorous Gong Li tones down her customary high-wattage gorgeousness to play the dowdy teacher Feng, but in her performance she seems to have acting awards in mind, as she weeps piteously over Lu’s absence, then affects a glassy-eyed dolor to simulate mental confusion. (In fact, Gong was nominated for the first time for Best Actress for Taiwan’s 2014 Golden Horse award but lost out to Chen Shiang-chyi. In glorious diva fashion Gong subsequently pitched a fit, calling the Golden Horse unprofessional and vowing never to attend again.)
Although Gong is a bit off, Chen Daoming right on the money as the long-suffering Lu. His world-weary eyes and sorrowful demeanor speak volumes about Lu’s personal traumas and his experience becomes a metaphor for the human cost of China’s various social and political upheavals. Through Chen’s sensitive and understated performance the film becomes an allegory about the erasure of memory and the amnesia of the Cultural Revolution. In this way the movie hearkens back to director Zhang’s earlier films that focused on political and cultural critique, which preceded his more recent, more commercial output. Zhang also recently released another film set during the Cultural Revolution, Under The Hawthorne Tree, but his next project is the blockbuster Andy Lau-Matt Damon China/US-coproduction action fantasy The Great Wall. So he’s nothing if not versatile—
Also releasing in North America this weekend is the latest from Johnnie To, Office. Like Zhang’s movie, Office at first may seem like an anomaly in its director’s catalog but in fact the film, which is a musical comedy, has a lot in common with To’s past work. Though To is best known in the West for hardboiled crime movies like The Mission, Election, Exiled, and his last film, Drug War, he’s got a much more varied back-catalog than that. To got his start directing at Hong Kong’s television studio TVB and there he directed everything from romances to comedies to martial arts historicals, including the famous period drama The Yang Family Saga. His prolific filmmaking output includes the fantasy action films The Heroic Trio and The Executioners, the comedy farces The Eighth Happiness and The Fun, The Luck, The Tycoon, and Stephen Chow vehicles Justice, My Foot and The Mad Monk. Although his crime films have won him much love among Asian film fanpeople, To’s most commercially successful movies have been romcoms such as Needing You and Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 1 & 2.
So it’s not as far-fetched as it might initially seem to be that Office is a musical, with all of its leads (except Chow Yun-Fat) singing at least one song in the film. The movie is a typical workplace drama infused with cogent commentary about the crisis of capitalism, The storyline follows two young acolytes at their first days on the job at Jones & Sun, a seemingly innocuous Hong Kong cosmetics company that’s actually in the throes of backstabbing and backroom deals. President Ho (Chow Yun-Fat) has a wife in a coma and Chinese investors knocking at his company’s door, while CEO Cheung Wai (Sylvia Chang) struggles to keep the company’s profits up and its products relevant. Salesman Wong Dawai (Eason Chan) is climbing the corporate ladder and is not averse to using personal relationships, including ones with CEO Cheung as well as fellow office drone Sophie (Tang Wei), in order to advance. Youngsters Kat (Tien Hsin) and Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) round out the ensemble.
But despite a stellar cast who admirably perform both acting and singing duties (with Cantopop superstar Eason Chan being the best and Tang Wei the worst among the vocalists), the real star of the show is the astounding art direction and set design by acclaimed veteran William Chang Suk Ping, who has won renown as the production and/or costume designer for innumerable classic Hong Kong films including In The Mood For Love, The Grandmaster, and Dragon Inn. Office was shot completely on a soundstage, with some outdoor scenes simulated via green screen, and Chang’s beautiful, stylized set dictates the mood of the film. Comprised mostly of brightly colored bars and rails, the set resembles a massive, skeletal architectural cage that encloses the action and the characters and lends a hermetically sealed, slightly claustrophobic feel to the film. The artificial staginess of the movie, with its simulated spaces and multiple levels of activity, recalls a Broadway musical more than a movie musical, with the set dominated by a huge, slowly revolving clockface. No pretense of realism is made in the film’s use of space, color, and structural elements, which adds to the knowing fakery of the movie’s design.
Despite To being the titular director, the film displays the strong influence of Sylvia Chang, who wrote and produced the film as well as playing the lead as CEO Cheung Wai, and who has an impressive resume as the director of films such as Tempting Heart (1999), 20 30 40 (2004), and Murmurs of the Heart (2014). Chang’s hand is clearly evident in the narrative’s complex personal relationships and its focus on the collateral damage of corporate machinations. To’s romcom background also comes the fore as the movie’s love hexangle recalls the similarly structured romantic entanglement in his 2014 movie Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 2.
The weakest element of the movie’s musical conceit is its curious lack of interesting choreography. Despite taking place on a boldly designed stage set that cries out for equally bold movement through and across it, the movement during the musical numbers is surprisingly limited. The action during the songs in Office consists of mostly of synchronized head nods and a few characters walking in rhythm together. Office could stand to take a few lessons from Bollywood musicals, whose song and dance numbers fill every inch of the frame with dynamic, kinetic movement.
But all in all, the movie is a fascinating beast that promises to be brilliant up on the big screen. After first seeing in via online screener with tiny white subtitles I’m looking forward to watching it again in a movie theater where it belongs, and so should everyone, in my humble opinion.
dir. Zhang Yimou
opens Fri. Sept. 18
dir. Johnnie To
opens Fri. Sept, 18, 2015