Posts tagged ‘chinese films’
Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse’s latest vehicle, Cook Up A Storm (CUAS) opens in North America in very very limited release this weekend. As both an Asian film scholar and a CNBLUE fanperson (the film co-stars CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa) I had a keen interest in this movie so I made a special effort to see it while it was still playing theatrically near me, thought that involved a 45-minute drive to Cupertino.
The plot is simple: Developers sponsor Paul Ahn (Jung Yonghwa), a French-trained Michelin-starred chef, in opening Stellar, a fancy-ass restaurant directly opposite Seven, a local joint run by Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) that features down-home Chinese dishes. Of course conflict ensues between the Western-trained Paul and the self-taught traditionalist Sky. Adding to the mix is Sky’s angst over his messed-up relationship with his dad Mountain (the majestic Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Paul’s girlfriend/assistant (Michelle Bai Bing).
CUAS is paced like a Hong Kong movie, which means in and out in ninety minutes, and in this case this feels really fast. I used to really love the fevered pace of Hong Kong cinema but now that I’ve gotten used to the more leisurely running times of two-hour Korean and Chinese films, or the epic three-hour slogs from Bollywood, this seems almost too rapid.
Because of the bang-bang pace of the film things feel like they’re being told in shorthand, with character development and relationships rapidly sketched out. You almost have to be psychic to realize that Paul is dating Mayo, which is indicated in a few incredibly brief shots of them holding hands and some lingering glances (apparently the steamier scenes between them ended up on the cutting room floor). The relationship between Sky and his dad fares slightly better, but only because as one of the film’s main conflicts it gets a fair amount of screen time.
The showdowns between Sky and Paul are likewise quite rapid, with the most effective one taking place in Paul’s gorgeously appointed high-tech restaurant kitchen. Here the characters are allowed to play off of each other a bit more and the scenario has a chance to breathe a bit, unlike some of the rapid-fire sequences that take place elsewhere in the film. It helps that Nic Tse and Yonghwa have a good onscreen rapport, with Yonghwa in particular doing a great job fleshing out his character with a minimum of dialog.
In some ways the film seems to struggle between wanting to be an out-and-out Hong Kong movie and needing to court the huge PRC market. Aspects of the film that hearken back to Hong Kong films of yore include the wacky costuming of some of the supporting characters, including a pair of dudes with dyed yellow fringes and the oversized glasses and frizzy hair on Tiffany Tang, as well as a subtext about gentrication and the loss of local culture to Western capital. But some key characters are underdeveloped, including Bai Bing’s Mayo, who needs to be more overtly sinister than she actually ends up being. Here a bit more of Hong Kong cinema’s over-the-top aesthetic might have served better, as Mayo is flat and one-dimensional instead of truly venal or vicious.
Anthony Wong’s Mountain Ko is similarly underwritten but King Anthony makes it work by sheer dint of his monumental acting skilz. Likewise veteran Chinese actor Ge You makes a good impression, though his part is also only briefly defined. The two old hands have a great throwaway moment in a pool hall where they clearly delineate their competitive brotherhood through just a few subtle gestures, which goes to show how acting chops can elevate a movie beyond superficiality. Alas, these moments are hard to find in the rest of the movie.
Still, as a food-porn movie the film does a good job. The food photography is quite beautiful and in particular the scenes where we follow both Paul and Sky creating their signature dishes are a lot of fun to watch. This may be due to the fact that Nic Tse is a foodie chef in real life and he prepped most of the food himself, so he seems to have a true appreciation for the way that cooking actually works. Yonghwa also acquits himself well in the cooking sequences since he looks like he knows his way around all of the high-tech gear that Paul uses. I especially enjoyed watching Paul create a fancy foie gras dish that illuminated the process as well as the product. At one point Paul adds a bit of sorbet onto the top of a dish and we see him warming the spoon slightly in order to get the frozen scoop to release cleanly, a small detail that nonetheless adds an interesting touch of realism to the proceedings.
Nic Tse wears the same grimy plaid shirt and greasy bandana through most of the film, telegraphing Sky’s realness and street cred. In contrast, Yonghwa’s flawless face and impeccable chef’s uniform add to the impression of the all-around slickness of Stellar. Yonghwa is confident and believable as a high-end chef in a fancy upscale restaurant–he knows he’s good and he’s not afraid to show it. As the leader of CNBLUE Yonghwa has a lot of swagger and he brings that swag to his portrayal of Paul, though not so much that he becomes obnoxious or overbearing. More significantly, as Paul gradually comes to appreciate the joys of Sky’s simpler cooking aesthetic, Yonghwa communicates this transformation through subtle facial expressions and physical gestures. Even though Yonghwa speaks no Chinese he succeeds in imparting Paul’s intentions non-verbally, effectively playing off of his co-stars despite the language barrier.
The whole thing is very beautiful and fun to experience but ultimately a bit superficial. I wonder if a slightly less frenetic pace might have aided the film’s exposition, but director Raymond Yip, a Hong Kong movie stalwart, seems to want to breeze through as many plot points as possible in the film’s ninety-minute running time. The result is a fun romp that could have benefitted from slowing down and adding a few more details and more character development to the proceedings. Still, it’s a good-natured and pleasant timepass. To use a sports metaphor for a food movie, the film didn’t knock it out of the park, but it didn’t strike out either.
NOTE: Originally meant for release in China during the Spring Festival/Lunar New Year holiday, CUAS was pushed back a couple weeks to avoid direct competition with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (JTTW2), Kung Fu Yoga, and a slew of other films that came out during that time. This was smart in some ways because JTTW2 has become one of the highest grossing films of all time in China, but it also means that CUAS didn’t have the no-Hollywood movies ban protecting it, in which China keeps Western films out of theaters during Spring Festival in order make room for local productions. As a result CUAS directly faced the release of the slick Hollywood production xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which features popular Chinese stars Kris Wu and Donnie Yen. Because of this, as well as so-so word of mouth and the fact that most Chinese were back at work and not going to movies once the film came out, box office for CUAS in China was thus reduced somewhat. Nonetheless CUAS managed to break the RMB100 million mark and its gross in China now stands at around RMB114 million, or around USD16 million. But unfortunately the production costs of the film were around USD34 million, so unless it does phenomenally well in other territories the film won’t make back its original budget.
Despite its cringeful pre-release marketing campaign I went into seeing The Great Wall with a semi-open mind. Zhang Yimou has directed some good films during his career and I was curious to see what he could do with US$150 million dollars. But right off the bat it was clear that despite being co-produced by one of the biggest production companies in China, Wanda Dalien (along with US-based Legendary Pictures), set in ancient China, and featuring a boatload of Chinese movie stars, this was going to be all about the white dude. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I am a bit fatigued by the continuation of the white savior trope, wherein white guys rescue the benighted yellow people once again.
The film starts with a trio of European mercenaries fleeing across the Gobi desert, including Matt Damon as a character named William who speaks with a slight Irish accent, another guy who is Spanish, played by Chilean American actor Pedro Pascal, and a third guy who dies pretty quickly. Right away we know it’s going to focus on the surviving European dudes because Hollywood, and sure enough the story is told almost completely from their point of view.
The movie is seductive because it is so slick and beautifully packaged and is palatable and easy to watch. It’s seemingly respectful of Chinese culture—there are no evil Asiatic villains and several of the Chinese characters are noble and heroic, if incredibly clichéd. The film presents Chinese culture as refined and aesthetic, which is clearly meant to appeal to PRC audiences. But the narrative exists only to center the white heterosexual male perspective, so it’s no surprise that the screenplay is of course written by a white dude. Although it may seem like there are a whole lot of Chinese people in the movie they in fact are mostly window dressing who exist mainly as props for the white protags. The film actually posits that there are no archers in the entire elite Chinese regiment that’s been training for sixty years who are as good as the white dude. There’s also the highly questionable plot point that China didn’t have any magnets in their possession until white people brought them. This is especially insulting considering that the Chinese were the first to document the use of magnets and magnetism around 1088 AD. I mean, wtf?
The premise that a woman could be a general in ancient China is also a male fantasy of inclusion and equality that conveniently ignores the historic patriarchy and paternalism inside and outside of China that would have made this impossible. Mulan is a believable legend because it acknowledges that a woman could only be accepted in battle if she dressed like a man.The Great Wall presents females as accepted in the military hierarchy, even to the point of one of them becoming the supreme leader of the troops. While I’m all for strong female characters, the erasure of the historical oppression of women denies the suffering women have experienced in the patriarchy. Ultimately, General Lin, the female commander in The Great Wall, is a guilt sop that pretends a history of fairness and equality that didn’t exist. I suppose I should be grateful that the chaste and muted attraction between William and Lin is unconsummated or I would have run screaming from the theater.
Everything in the film is an excuse to get Matt Damon more screen time and it’s especially frustrating to see some of the biggest stars in China in what amounts to extended cameos. If you blink you would miss Lin Genxing, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, and more. In fact, seeing how ferocious Eddie Peng is in his three minutes onscreen made yearn for him, not Matt Damon, to be the protagonist of the film. Andy Lau and Jing Tian are the only Chinese actors with more than a handful of lines in the film and only the hot Asian babe in the shiny breastplate gets to have any notable character development.
Even the scary monsters that provide the main threat in the narrative are only partially baked, looking like a cross between orcs, dinosaurs, and the nasty creature from Alien. All in all, the movie is a confused mess of that fails to resolve in any satisfying way.The Great Wall is another fail from Hollywood (with an assist from Wanda Dalien, which has been trying to break into the US market for a while). Thank god CAAMfest is coming up next month to give us some movies about real Asian/Americans from our perspective, instead of the usual white-dude-centric nonsense perpetuated by this film.
UPDATE: Looks like THE GREAT WALL tanked at the box office in the US, and may also be taking down the entire US-China coproduction industry with it. Can’t say that I’m sorry. In fact I’m very not sorry at all.
The Spring Festival (aka Lunar New Year) holiday just passed in China and as a result some of the biggest films of the year have been released in the past two weeks. Jackie Chan’s newest, Kung Fu Yoga, which reteams him with director Stanley Tong (Rumble In The Bronx; Police Story 3 & 4) for the first time in many years, opened during Spring Festival, as did comedian Wang Baoqiang’s directorial debut, Buddies in India, and the two films earned US$44 million and US$38.5 respectively in the opening weekend of the holiday. But the box office champ from that period, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (aka JTTW2) dwarfed those figures, bringing in $85 million and setting a record in China for a local film’s first day grosses by earning $52.5 million. Directed by Tsui Hark from a script by Stephen Chow, JTTW2 also opened with a day-and-date release in North America.
Although its take in the US was much smaller, grossing only $605,049 in it first week of release, JTTW2 averaged a respectable $9,000 per screen, which put it in the top five in that ranking (I Am Not Your Negro was number one). So Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark still have some pull in the Chinese American market, a niche that is still being mined by distributors such as China Lion, Wellgo, and Magnum Films, which handled JTTW2.
Some reviewers have panned the film but as evidenced by its record-breaking box office the Chinese filmgoing populace disagreed, and I also quite enjoyed its funhouse ride. The sequel to Stephen Chow’s 2013 blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, this one follows the further adventures of Monk Tang as he travels with Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, and his bestial buddies Pigsy and Sandy. A crazed romp through the CGI-enhanced mind of Tsui Hark, JTTW2 works just fine if you free yourself of any expectations and let the film’s madness sweep over you.
For example, Director Tsui throws in a dash of Indiaphilia in the film’s brief intro set in a tiny city on the subcontinent as well as snippets of what sounds like a remix of the soundtrack to his 1993 classic Green Snake on the audio track. He also confounds expectations by including several white people as extras in the imaginary Indian city as well as in the kingdom of Biqiu, a clever mindtwister that exemplifies Tsui’s sideways-thinking moviemaking.
Whereas the last installment in the rival Journey To The West franchise, The Monkey King, was cheaply designed and instantly forgettable, in JTTW2 the art direction by Yoshihito Akatsuka is gorgeous and goes on for miles. Among the jaw-dropping images cramming the film frame are huge floating paper-mache creatures, a man-fish shapeshifter who spends a large part of the film in his pescatorean manifestation, and elaborate, multi-textured set designs that recall the best of Hieronymus Bosch. Female characters take on a particularly hallucinogenic appearance, with elaborate coifs, fancy eyebrows, and visages that morph from the beautiful to the grotesque in a flash as when several femme fatales suddenly become huge arachnid demons.
I really liked Lin Gengxin’s take on the Monkey King, who he plays with a gangsta swagger instead of the customary simian tics. Ex-EXO member Kris Wu is fine as Monk Tang but his characterization is missing the guileless sweetness that Wen Zhang brought to the role in the previous film. The ne plus ultra evil female villain (played by Yao Chen) harkens back to Carina Lau’s formidable take as the Empress in Hark’s Detective Dee series but without Lau’s majestic imperiousness. Jelly Lin (who debuted in Stephen Chow’s 2016 blockbuster The Mermaid) as Monk Tang’s love interest Felicity is pretty and charming, but when juxtaposed with Shu Qi’s much more feisty character from the last film she seems as filmy and slight as her gauzy costume.
Tsui does a great job using IMAX 3D to immerse the viewer in the film’s universe. I’m the kind of person who went to see Inception twice just to see the stereoscopic teardrops floating through space, so I’m a sucker for the overloaded visual experience that JTTW2 delivers in spades. But if you’re hoping for character development, a coherent narrative, or emotionally connected interpersonal relationships you’re probably shopping at the wrong store. Still, it’s a lot more fun that most Hollywood CGI fests due to Tsui Hark’s unique and vivid cinematic imagination. If you’re looking for a couple hours of maniacal visual stimulation leavened with Stephen Chow’s twisted sense of humor then JTTW2 is your movie.
CAAMfest 2016 finished up last Sunday, but not before hosting the legendary Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung, screening her newest film A Tale of Three Cities, as well as her classic 1999 epic historical The Soong Sisters. I was lucky enough to sit down to talk with Mabel and her husband and filmmaking partner Alex Law (who directed Echoes of the Rainbow, among other excellent Hong Kong new wave films). Although Cheung and Law worked with mainland China film production entities back in the nineties when they made The Soong Sisters, in the decade and a half since then the Chinese-language film market has completely changed. I talked to them a bit about their experiences creating A Tale of Three Cities as a Hong Kong-China co-production, their thoughts on the constant migration of the Chinese people, and the intricacies of dealing with the Chinese censorship board, among other topics.
BEYOND ASIAPHILIA: So I know you’re here for your new movie. Maybe you should talk a little bit about how you found the story and why were you interested in it?
MABEL CHEUNG: Well, It started as a documentary more than ten years ago. That’s the time when Jackie Chan suspected that he’s not his father’s son. And so he asked his father, and his father said “Well, I’m growing old so maybe I’ll tell you the story before I die. Otherwise it will be buried,” and so Jackie Chan had to go back to Australia, because his father works in the American Embassy there. So he asked us, “Would you be interested in coming along? To listen to the story? I’ll pay for everything,” he said (laughs). So he said, “Just make a family video. It’s not supposed to be a documentary.” So we went because it was the Chinese New Year holiday and it will be nice to spend the holiday with Jackie Chan.
So we went and listened to the story. But we didn’t expect that it was going to come out to be so dramatic.
Alex Law: Because at that time everybody in Hong Kong thought that Jackie Chan’s father was a chef because he’s pretty well known for his cooking. He likes to cook for his friends and (Jackie Chan’s) mother was like a household maid working for the American Embassy in Hong Kong. But suddenly it turned out his father was a spy and his mother was an opium smuggler (laughs)! It was so surprising!
BA: So the people who raised him were not his parents, or did they just have two different lives?
MC: They were his parents but they have different lives in China. They were each married to a different spouse. And each had two children from the previous husband and wife. And then they got married to each other eventually in Hong Kong, and Jackie Chan was the only child they had. Because of the war, you know, the spouses died
BA: I know that the film is set in China. Is it also in Hong Kong? A lot of your past movies were about people who are separated from their homeland who have to travel elsewhere. Is this also similar to that? Does this film also have an immigrant story?
MC/AL: Yeah, actually it’s an immigrant story except that it happens during wartime. They escape from Anhui to Shanghai and then to Hong Kong after 1949 when the communists took over. So it’s also a story of immigration. But then this always happens in Hong Kong. You know, Hong Kong is a place for all the immigrants. And then we immigrated elsewhere for different reasons.
MC: This happens all over and over, in Chinese history. In San Francisco they have a lot of illegal immigrants in the 19th century for railroad builders and gold-diggers, and then during the Qing dynasty in 1911 during Sun Yat-Sen’s time everybody escaped from China, then in 1949 the exodus, and then the Cultural Revolution, another exodus, and then in Hong Kong before 1997 everybody tried to immigrate as well.
AL: It’s a little like a merry-go-round, actually. People like to escape and then come back.
MC: And then they also emigrate to Shanghai and Beijing and the other way around.
BA: So from Hong Kong back to–
MC: And now they are starting to emigrate to Taiwan.
AL: They seem to be tightening and tightening censorship and suddenly people disappear–
BA: In Hong Kong?
AL: Yes. Little things like that scare people.
BA: Are these mostly people of who are wealthy or middle class? Or do the working class escape also?
MC: No working class. In the past, of course, it is the working class during the Qing dynasty but now I think it’s people with money.
AL: Middle-upper class–
MC: They think of the future.
BA: Because they can’t afford to leave without money. So then the working classes are stuck.
MC: We made this film for my parent’s generation because they all escaped–like Jackie Chan’s parents, they escaped from China to Hong Kong in the 1950s. And then we were born in Hong Kong. Their generation of people built modern Hong Kong. They have to start to build a home from zero and with no money, and they left everything behind in China. I think that people who could escape to Hong Kong at that time must be the best and the strongest.
BA: Is that the general consensus that the strongest came?
MC: I think so. If you look at Jackie Chan’s father, he’s very strong and very charismatic and you know that he can fight and shoot people, he can kill, and you know he’s a survivor.
BA: What about the ones who go to the US?
MC: I think so too. I mean people who survive. Of course the weaker ones would die or run away–
MC: Can they survive the poverty? The people who can survive and have families must be the strongest.
AL: A friend of mine told me that every time there’s a war— take for example, the second world war–he said that people who finally survive the concentration camps live the longest. They had long, long lives because they were so tough–they are the toughest people.
BA: What about the people who stayed in China?
MC: I think they survive all the different revolutions or whatever, the movements, so they are very I strong. Look at China now, there are very strong people.
BA: That’s pretty interesting if you think of all of this different migration going on through history.
MC: And now Europe. The same thing goes on, which is a more less the same at the ending of my film. People escape as they smuggle themselves on a fishing boat, and a lot of people are crammed at the bottom and a lot of people die even before they reached their destination.
BA: So why do you think you’re attracted to these kind stories?
MC: Because I want to make a film about my parent’s generation. I think I owe that generation a story. I didn’t have time to, for my mother. I didn’t listen to her story and then she died ten, eleven years ago. And at that time we already knew Jackie Chan’s father because we had made that documentary with him. And then we become friends afterwards. We drink and have dinner and we have a good time, and so he told us more stories about his lifetime.
MC: Jackie Chan’s mother passed away right after we finished the documentary.
BA: So was she able to see it?
AL: No, she was suffering from very serious Alzheimer’s and she could not quite know who’s who.
MC: Except Jackie Chan.
AL: Yeah, she would look at her son and she would smile a little bit. She looked at everybody else like, “Who are you? Who are you?”
BA: So this is the first co-production you’ve worked on with China?
MC: Not really. The Soong Sisters is also a co-production. It was at the beginning of co-production, before 1997.
AL: It was before the kind of co-production we have now. Because back then Hong Kong had all the money, all the people. So all the Hong Kong filmmakers would go to China to look for a studio to co-produce with and Hong Kong would provide all the money, the people, the creative people–
MC: And the boss. (laughs)
AL: And China would provide the location, the equipment, the props–
BA: Because the Chinese film industry wasn’t as big at that time–
AL: No, it wasn’t.
MC: And they didn’t have the money.
AL: Or the expertise.
MC: But now it’s definitely changed around.
AL: Yeah, now it’s the other way around.
BA: How has that affected the filmmaking process?
MC: Well, the censorship system is more or less a thing, except that now the Chinese production company controls everything so you have to report to them. Before, we had to report to the Hong Kong film company.
BA: Is there difference between what they expect?
MC: Actually, our film companies are very good and so we initiate the stories. They read the script and they liked it, so they didn’t interfere too much. And so we have the same creative freedom as we had before with The Soong Sisters. Even with casting and everything. We have the casting before and we submitted the scripts to the production company so they knew exactly what would happen. The cast, and the crew, everything we have already put together.
BA: So you put a package together? But then what when it goes to the Chinese censors?
MC: This is even better than The Soong Sisters. Back then the censors cut eighteen minutes from The Soong Sisters but this one they didn’t even cut anything. Just one or two places where I think the writing was wrong on the posters. Otherwise they didn’t touch the film.
BA: So then it was pretty smooth for you.
AL: It was much better than we thought or we feared.
BA: Had you heard that there would be problems? Or issues with co-production?
MC: Because of The Soong Sisters experience we were quite worried about the censorship.
BA: Because they cut so much before? But now you send the script out before you start shooting, right? To the SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television)?
MC: That was okay too. Because now I think it’s not so centralized. They allow the local government to decide. And the local government is usually friends with the film company. So sometimes for local productions they don’t even read the script. For local filmmakers, I think. Not for us–they have to read our script.
BA: Because you’re from Hong Kong?
BA: Because I know that one of the things that I think some people worry about is that Hong Kong directors have to change scripts or the things that writings about because they’re working with Chinese censors.
MC: It’s not the censors but the production company. If you’re not a strong creative person and you are a director for hire, the production company will give you a script and you do it according to their wishes. But then there are also directors who submit their script to the production company and then they have creative freedom, if the production company accepts the scripts as they are.
BA: Are there projects that you that you wanted to work on but you’re not able to do in China yet?
MC: Not really. Maybe because we can’t find investors mainly! (laughs)
AL: First of all, we more or less know what projects will pass or what will not pass.
BA: So you know ahead of time. You don’t submit into something that is not going to get approved.
AL: Yes, there are some taboos that they will never, never let you film, like too political, no ghost stories–
BA: That’s pretty curious to us in the US about the ghost stories. Why is that?
MC: They think maybe it will lead people to superstitions.
AL: It’s very funny. They will say, okay you cannot have a ghost in your movie but you can have a yao. Yao, meaning like a genie–let’s say an animal that turns into a genie. If you talk about a wolf that turns into human being, that is a yao, or a snake that turns into a very seductive woman, that is a yao. So you can have yao but you cannot have a ghost.
MC: I don’t really understand why, though. Yao can also turn people to superstitions.
AL: Yeah, for me yao is almost like a ghost because it does supernatural things.
MC: Maybe they think that a person cannot turn into a ghost.
BA: So it can be an animal turning into a person but not a person turning into a ghost.
MC: Because an animal turning into something is incredible. But the person turning into a ghost, people may believe it, maybe. I don’t know (laughs), I don’t know.
BA: Maybe you just don’t do it.
AL: Right. Nobody can quite understand that, but that’s what they say. No ghost. (laughs)
BA: Anything else? No politics right?
AL: No, no politics.
MC: No religious things–taboo.
BA: No religion? Nothing religious at all? Like even Buddhism?
MC: Better not!
MC: I don’t know. I mean it’s different from time to time.
BA: No drug dealing?
MC: Drug dealing? Yes sometimes— drug dealing is allowed
BA: But you have to be punished right? (laughs) Oh! No gangsters!
MC: At the end, the police cannot be a bad person.
AL: It’s a little bit like in the 80s in Malaysia. They have similar censorship and so it was very funny because every time you have a bad cop, at the end in the movie you always see the bad cop’s twin brother coming in. It was like, “That was not me, that was my twin brother who was actually a gangster.”
MC: A bad cop must get killed or something. He must die at the end
BA: The police have to die if they’re bad?
AL: If he is a bad cop, he has to die!
BA: In Malaysia–so it’s same thing in China now?
MC: I think so. You remember the film Infernal Affairs.
BA: That’s right, they made a China version.
MC: A China version where Andy Lau died in the end!
AL: So funny! Another way to get around the system is that you always see the bad cop suddenly snaps awake and says, ”Oh! What a bad dream!”
MC: Yeah, if it is a dream then you can even have a ghost.
AL: I think so! I haven’t tried that. But as long as you have the bad cop waking up and saying, “I shouldn’t have done that, not even in my dream
BA: I remember there was a movie a couple of years ago where there were ghosts. Then it turned out to be a drug trip–
MC: Ah, like that person is crazy or something–
MC: Do you think the audience knows that there are restrictions?
MC: Oh, they know. They think it’s really a laugh!
BA: What was the last time you made a film in Hong Kong? Was it Echoes Of The Rainbow? Do you still want to make films in Hong Kong that are only financed in Hong Kong?
MC: We never consciously say that we want to make films only in Hong Kong or in China or wherever because if you look at the films we produced, wherever it is suitable to make a film or wherever we have interesting topics or a good cast, we’ll make a film. At the beginning of our careers we made a film in New York, An Autumn’s Tale.
BA: I love that movie.
MC: And then we made a film in China, Eight Taels of Gold, which was before everybody did. Because that person went back to China, so we shot in China. So it’s a necessity of the location. I think as filmmakers we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to making films only in Hong Kong or China. I think we should widen our horizons and make films wherever there’s an interesting topic.
BA: Have you seen the film Ten Years?
MC: Not yet, but it is a big controversy in China.
AL: I think it was getting more and more popular in Hong Kong and then suddenly the cinema chain cut it because it was too popular.
MC: They got pressured from China.
BA: How does that affect the filmmaking community when you find out something like that?
MC: I think the film director’s guild gave it a special jury award.
BA: I think it’s nominated for Best Picture also?
BA: That’s a very local film, right? Do you think that there is still an audience for very local films like that in Hong Kong?
MC: The box office is very good! I haven’t watched the film yet but it’s about ten years from now and the things that will happen to Hong Kong. The young people especially were very interested, and that reflects their fear and their concern about the future of Hong Kong.
BA: Do you think more films like that will be made and shown?
MC: For as long as they can make money then (laughs).
AL: There are still more other organizations, some people, who are you know worried about the future of Hong Kong, and then every now and then you would see these producers with the visions who will say okay you do it. Ten Years I think was produced by a religious organization in Hong Kong.
MC: They paid for it, but it was very cheap to make.
AL: It was done by five new directors on a shoestring budget.
BA: But then how did it get distributed? How do people find out?
MC: It was only shown in one cinema that’s for special films, independent films like that. So people heard about it and more and more people. Only it is shown in one cinema but I heard it’s full the a whole day, and so people heard about it and so more people lined up for the tickets and so it got bigger and bigger.
BA: And it spread to other theaters?
BA: And then it stopped.
MC: Right, and then it stopped.
BA: So that reflects a lot going on politically in Hong Kong as well, like the localization movement. How is that affecting people making movies in Hong Kong? Is it separate, the idea about politics and filmmaking? This one seems to b very close to that, but how about commercial filmmaking in Hong Kong?
MC: But in Hong Kong we don’t have the censorship problem so we can make any film. I think people will make any films they like while they can. You don’t know when the censorship system will come.
BA: Do you know if that’s making people make more of these kinds of movies right now because they can?
MC: I don’t know, actually. After Ten Years—
AL: People get more cautious?
MC: I don’t know about the commercial film companies—they would not dare to invest anymore in films like that but then of course there are independent filmmakers that who can make films like that in a very low budgets, or with volunteers.
BA: Does it seem like independent films get an audience in Hong Kong?
MC: It is not getting more and more popular–
AL: Ten Years was a minor hit and then it got bigger and bigger, when suddenly it was cut off from the cinemas
MC: Cut off because of the cinema owners, I think.
AL: Not because of the box office but because the owners or the distributors got worried.
MC: Because they also have business in China. So I think China can control people by the economy, with the business.
BA: So it doesn’t have to be threatening?
MC: No. They don’t even have to say anything. (laughs) That’s what they do with the rest of the world, too. Everybody who wants to do business with China has to kowtow, right? Even the queen has to get an invite (laughs).
BA: China is very powerful now, business-wise, but it’s unstable in a lot of ways.
MC: The economy is going down again.
AL: It never been stable, actually. In the past 100 years, China has never been stable. Although financially they are getting bigger and bigger. And even the film market is now number two in the world next to America. They say that in two to three years it will surpass the USA.
BA: Is that for mostly Chinese language-films that are locally produced in China?
MC: Yeah, I think the best-selling films. The Chinese films have surpassed the Hollywood films.
BA: Like the Chow Sing-Chi film (The Mermaid) is huge–
MC: But then of course the Chinese government controls the release of Western films. They will not get the “golden time” (note: these are the times during the year such as the Spring Holiday when Western films are prohibited from screening in China).
AL: Sometimes when it (a Hollywood film) gets too big and too popular, they say stop, and then suddenly it disappears also!
BA: So how does that affect you all as filmmakers?
AL: It gets more difficult to get a producer to finance your film. Because they are worried and they only invest in films that they believe will make money.
MC: Yeah, the comedies and action films, they are safe.
BA: If you want to make something like this last film, for instance, that is less like an action film it’s harder to find financing?
MC: It’s always difficult to find investors for our films. For A Tale of Three Cities we spent about ten years trying to find an investor because it’s not a kind of mainstream thing and they don’t want to risk, you know.
There was one film company that expressed interest, and then we went into production. That was five years ago and we have the casting ready and everything. But then they calculated the budget and said it’s too high. Because it’s a film where people escape from one place to another we wanted to shoot in the actual locations–so from Anhui to Shanghai to Hong Kong and the big exodus and the illegal immigration and all the people and it’s is really expensive. They backed out because they think the budget is too high and they do not want to risk. Then we waited for another two years for Nansun Shi, who is a very good producer. She found us the money and so we started again.
MC: Because Echoes Of The Rainbow is a low budget film it is easier and you get government sponsorship in Hong Kong but A Tale of Three Cities cost us like–
AL: 70 million–in American dollars that’s how much–a hundred? No, hmmm.
MC: It’s in renmenbi—70 million.
BA: So then Echoes was how much approximately?
MC: In Hong Kong dollars. It’s only–
AL: 12 million? 1 million USD
BA: But Echoes was very popular. It made back its money?
MC: Yes, yes.
BA: And won awards? But not anything like the Chow Sing-Chi movie.
BA: And that’s what they want right?
MC: With the investors, money is the first thing, you know. If they are not sure they will not invest. There are so many people who want to make movies.
BA: They all have these movie theaters now they have to fill, right?
MC: Oh, there are lots of films being made in the China. And maybe no more than half make it to cinemas.
AL: And maybe even less than that. The majority of Chinese movies don’t get shown theatrically and there’s so many films that you’ve never heard of.
BA: What did they do with them?
MC: They put them on the internet. Now the internet pays quite good money.
BA: But you want to make movies to be shown in theaters?
MC: Sometimes now people open the movies at the same time on the internet and also in the cinema.
BA: So then, do you think of yourself as a Hong Kong filmmaker? Or a Chinese filmmaker? Or just a filmmaker?
AL: I would say just a filmmaker
BA: But maybe twenty years ago you would say Hong Kong filmmaker?
MC: Or basically a Hong Kong filmmaker who wants to be a filmmaker everywhere (laughs).
BA: I know some people make European co-productions—
MC: No, no.
BA: Then you have to find somebody French to be in your movie
BA: What do you think you’d like to do next? Do you have a project you’re working on? Or many projects probably?
MC: Yeah, we have ten scripts written already but we’re trying to get investors.
AL: Waiting for the producer–
MC: Actually every one of our film has problems with investors (laughs). So we’re used to it.
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
Just got back into town and am diving into the thick of things at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, now running through May 7. I’m leaving town again on Sunday so I’m cramming as many screenings into the next five days as I can manage. Luckily there are plenty of great films to see. I’m hoping to make it to the Viggo Mortenson vehicle Jauja, by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso and featuring Viggo in a role that’s tailor-made for him as a Danish military engineer caught up in unrest in 19th-century Patagonia. Viggo he gets to acts in two of his native tongues, Danish and Spanish, and the film is a magical-realist version of the historical events it depicts.
Also on the docket is the 3-D version of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s child-abduction drama Dearest, and City of Gold, the documentary about Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles food critic and mensch Jonathan Gold. If I were in town next week I’d surely go see the South Korean thriller A Hard Day but I’m hopeful that it will make it to a theatrical release stateside sometime soon. SFIFF also plays host to Jenni Olsen’s newest feature-length experimental documentary/essay film The Royal Road, which looks at butch longing and unrequited love against the backdrop of El Camino Real, the historic king’s road that stretches nearly the length of California. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s independent feature Court also screens this week, taking a character-based, neo-realist look at the absurdities of the Mumbai judicial system and its surrounding social and cultural milieu, with results that are about as anti-Bollywood as you can get.
One of my favorite films from last year, director Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, has one more screening this week at the festival and it’s definitely a don’t-miss movie. From the very start, with shots of random body parts mixed in among train cars of coal shipping throughout the frozen northern regions of China, the film puts a distinctive spin on the classic noir structure. The film follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a less-than-scrupulous cop, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the mysterious disappearances and murders of various hapless men, all of whom eventually seem to be tied to a classic black-widow character, played by the amazing Taiwanese actress Guey Lun-Mei.
Looping back and forth in time and place, with bursts of intense and unexpected violence, the movie effortlessly transfers the noir genre to the China’s bleak and wintry industrial north, making great use of the icy landscape and the characters’ corresponding desperation and hopelessness. Both Liao and Guey won acting awards (at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards respectively) for their performances in this film and they embody the moral messiness and ambiguity of the best noir characters. As in all great noirs, everyone is complicit and no one is innocent, and the most innocuous situation, whether in a beauty parlor or at an ice skating rink, can suddenly change into a deadly trap.
So although I’m missing the big galas and parties at the beginning and end of the fest I’m still catching the meat of the event this week. As always the festival is a chance to see some of the best recent global cinema on the big screen.
through May 7, 2015
Classic Chinese pop music, known as Cantopop or Mandopop depending on the dialect, is a bit of an acquired taste. It’s all smooth edges and soft sounds, designed to soothe and comfort, as opposed to, say, the techno-hip hop flavors of Kpop. It’s no surprise that Western imports like Air Supply, kings of the power ballad, are hugely popular in China and Hong Kong. There are of course exceptions to this, including the hard-rocking Cantopop kings Beyond, but the top of the charts in Hong Kong as well as on the mainland have since the 1980s been dominated by sleek pop balladeers such as Jacky Cheung, Faye Wong, and Andy Lau.
The cinematic equivalent of Canto/Mandopop would be Back In Time, (aka Fleet of Time), which recently played here in the U.S. as a day and date release with China. The film was number one at the box office in China before being bumped off the top spot by Jiang Wen’s Gone With The Bullets. Like a lot of Chinese pop music, Back In Time is competently crafted and pleasant to experience, but soft and cloying, without a lot of rough edges.
A slick weepy with attractive leads in Eddie Peng (most recently seen kicking ass in The Rise of the Legend and Unbeaten, among other manly roles) and Nini (chief flower in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War), Back In Time is unabashedly nostalgic as it traces the relationships of a group of friends from their high school days to adulthood. The main narrative follows the reminiscences of businessman Chen Xun (Peng) as he recalls his chaste adolescent romance with the Fang Hui (Nini), a transfer student to his secondary school. Although the two promise everlasting devotion, for the sake of narrative tension their romance hits the skids. Will they kiss and make up or will they forever be lost to one another? The film’s gauzy, soft-focus shots of billowing curtains, rain-slicked streets, snowy landscapes, and characters literally crying in their beer heighten the overall sentimentality of the proceedings.
The movie is also fairly apolitical, despite spanning a period of great change in Chinese history (roughly 1999 to the present day). Although China went through a lot during that time, almost none of this is present in the film (except a reference to Beijing’s winning bid to be the site of the 2008 Olympics). Instead the film focuses on its youthful love story, which strips the narrative of most of its historical context and content. Compared to Taiwan’s similarly structured Girlfriend/Boyfriend (2012), which actively incorporated student political demonstrations into its story, Back In Time only briefly touches on events that occurred during its timeline. The rest of the film takes place in a historical vacuum, with the passage of time primarily reflected in the changing hairstyles and cell phones of the protagonists (with wigs worn with varying degrees of success, including Eddie Peng’s ill-fitting late-90s mop and Nini’s curiously changing hair lengths).
Lead by the pretty leading pair played by Peng and Nini, the film’s cast is winning and earnest, though in the earlier parts of the movie some of the performers look way too old to be high school students. There are also a few confusing plot developments such as a hissy fit at an outdoor restaurant that escalates without explanation into a knock-down brawl, but none of them as contrived or annoying as those found in the Nicholas Tse/Gao Yuan Yuan romantic drama stinker, But Always. But Back In Time, though by no means racy, also deals fairly frankly with sexuality, a change from many similar melodramas of its ilk that’s worth a few points in my book. At times the overwrought emotionality of the movie just barely avoids self-parody and isn’t helped by the swelling violins and tinkly piano on the soundtrack. But it’s a watchable timepass, especially if you’re in the mood for a deeply emo cinematic experience.
With Back In Time, distributor China Lion continues to hit its stride. Unlike the typical Asian genre fare of gangster, martial arts, and wuxia films usually distributed in the U.S. and aimed at Western sensibilities, CL’s most recent releases aim straight for the Chinese expat community. Its last five titles released in 2014—Back In Time, Women Who Flirt, Love On A Cloud, Breakup Buddies, and But Always—are romantic dramas or comedies and feature performers popular in China but mostly unknown in the U.S. even among Asian film aficionados, with the exception of Nicholas Tse and possibly Zhou Xun. These movies also differ from the output of international arthouse favorites like Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige and are solidly middlebrow and commercial, created to entertain and not to startle, and have found an audience in the U.S. Deadline.com notes, “China Lion has had success with romantic dramas imported from Chinese-speaking regions in the past. They handled Beijing Love Story ($428K cume) in February and other past titles include Love ($309K cume) and Love In The Buff ($256K cume).”
Back In Time (as well as the CL releases that immediately preceded and follow it, Pang Ho-Cheung’s Women Who Flirt and the Angelababy vehicle Love On A Cloud) demonstrates that China Lion has figured out a winning formula that works for its Chinese expat niche audience. Though many of these films may not be appealing to the typical Asian-film fanboy in the U.S., to Chinese audiences away from home they’re just like listening to the latest Jacky Cheung CD—they’re a soothingly familiar entertainment experience.