The World: a slow and meandering narrative reveals a rich world of hope, pain and tragedy behind superficial capitalist glamour

Jia Zhangke, “The World” (2004)

In future years, this film, long and meandering though it is, may well be regarded as an early masterpiece in Jia Zhangke’s corpus of work. Set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a theme park which gives visitors a taste of the world’s most famous monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in miniature without ever having to leave Beijing, the film focuses on the lives of various fictional employees at the Park, most of whom have come from poor rural parts of China or elsewhere, and reveals them to be bleak and alienated, not only from the, uh, world outside the park but from one another as well. Superficially presenting as a snapshot documentary of the employees’ daily lives as they entertain visitors in dance shows or guide them around the park, the film comes to question the impact of capitalist ideology (with its emphasis on consumption of material items and experiences) and what that brings – the increase in wealth that enables people to travel overseas and have new experiences not possible in China, in turn enticing others to dream about travel and escape – and how new global economic, political and technological connections have paradoxically led to disconnection and alienation among young people in contemporary Chinese society.

The film appears to have no plot or at least nothing that resembles a conventional movie plot: it starts off with its heroine Tao (Zhao Tao), a talented dancer, charging through backstage rooms where fellow cast members are getting dressed or undressed or putting on or taking off make-up, and calling loudly for a band-aid. She never gets one and in this scene alone, one senses the film’s themes already falling into place: people apparently communicating over one another’s heads but the message never reaching anyone in particular and failing to be heard, much less responded to and acted upon; a continual search for connection that ends in failure; the frustration and anger that always seem to be simmering below the surface. The film follows Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard at the Park, and their tempestuous relationship. Tao is visited by an ex-boyfriend on his way to Mongolia and Taisheng seems rather jealous; from this moment on, the relationship increasingly frays, particularly after a friend of his asks him to drive a young woman called Qun to Taiyuan so she can deal with a brother with a gambling problem Taisheng becomes infatuated with Qun and after bringing her back to Beijing, starts paying her regular visits even though she tells him she has a husband in Paris and is trying to obtain a visa to visit the spouse.

There are various small sub-plots in the film, the most significant of which involve Tao striking up a friendship with a Russian woman Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) who works at the Park, though neither can speak the other’s language; and Taisheng’s childhood friend nicknamed Little Sister, who comes to Beijing looking for work and who is directed by Taisheng to a construction site. Anna eventually leaves the Park and takes up hostessing (and prostitution) to raise the money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, leaving Tao in tears; and Little Sister dies in a work accident that devastates Taisheng. Not long afterwards, Tao discovers Taisheng’s affair with Qun and she flees the Park to go house-sitting for two fellow employees who have recently married.

Through the various soap-opera dramas, we come to see how trapped Tao and Taisheng are in their low-paid and uninspiring jobs in which pretence is paramount, with no hope of escape to see and experience the places whose monuments are miniaturised into kitsch packages for tourists. The film’s title comes to be seen as ironic: “The World” holds out a promise of endless possibilities and opportunities but the main characters and their fellow travellers find themselves constrained by their work, the expectations put upon them by others, the obligations they carry, their inability or unwillingness to communicate how and what they really feel directly to one another (instead communicating via mobile phones) and ultimately by the passage of time. Hope dies away and there is only the endless repetition of work and fakeness. How Tao and Taisheng deal with the loss of hope and the death of their dreams and their relationship turns out to be shocking if not totally unexpected.

Small animated interludes stress the lack of direct connections characters have with one another and with their physical environment. Travel and the restlessness implied are a constant motif in the film: minor characters are always on their way to another place, another job or another goal while major characters are stuck in ruts partly of their own making. Buildings and other structures where the film plays out always look incomplete or makeshift, or their inner frameworks are on display. We see less of the glitzy Beijing and more of its industrial, polluted environment where people live out their lives either hoping for something better or lacking in hope.

Slow though it is, the pace has a purpose: viewers become fully immersed in the lives of Tao, Taisheng and their friends, colleagues and relatives, and so the pain and sorrows these people experience become all the more raw. The no-plot plot has its purpose as well: it demonstrates how hollow real life has become, even when dedicated to creating and maintaining a simulacrum of an idealised and superficial dream. The meandering narrative unexpectedly and ironically reveals a real and actually rich world behind a fake World.

The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.

 

Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story): taking audiences through the length and breadth of Chinese history

Ian Bremner, “Secret History (Season 14, Episode 4: The Great Wall of China – Hidden Story)” (2014)

The famous Great Wall of China is rightly one of the most awe-inspiring engineering feats in human history and this documentary valiantly tackles those aspects of the Wall’s own history that have inspired its construction and made it such an important megastructure. The documentary follows chronological order from the time the Wall was first begun over two thousand years ago, using that basic logical structure as a foundation to explore some of the more quirky characteristics of the Wall.

The documentary begins with the dimensions of the structure itself and, from following recent research, discovers that the Wall is made up of at least sixteen different walls plus other walls whose remains still lie underground. Altogether all these walls have a total length of 21,000 km which is much more than the distance between the North and South Poles! Naturally the question of why the Chinese went to so much trouble to build walls arise and the program diverts to an investigation of a nomadic horse-riding tribe, the Xiongnu, living in the Gobi and other realms north who during the first few hundred years of the first millennium CE harassed the Chinese empire at about the same time that Germanic and Hun barbarian tribes tormented the Roman Empire with raids and plundering. The Xiongnu’s cavalry tactics forced the Chinese to improve their defence capabilities by building a network of walls that acted as much as a communications network and a form of military offence against the nomads as it did as defence. Unfortunately nothing is said about how successful the Wall was in its myriad functions against the Xiongnu or what happened to these nomads.

A major attraction of the Wall is its longevity and here the most surprising aspect of the documentary is revealed: during the Ming period (1368 – 1644), when reconstructing the Wall became a major engineering priority, mortar made of sticky rice was used to help cement massive bricks. During this period, the Wall’s reconstruction stimulated brick-making on an industrial scale and encouraged hundreds if not thousands of craftsmen, workers and their families to migrate to northern and north-central China to work in kilns located near or on the Wall itself.

Finally the program considers the success of the Wall in its various functions (actual and expected) and finds a rather mixed record: it was not all that successful in repelling Genghis Khan and his mixed Mongol / Turkic forces in the 1200s, or the Manchus in the 1600s. Nevertheless the Wall continues to stand as a symbol of Chinese civilisation, ingenuity, determination, stability and invincibility.

Easy to follow thanks to Paul McGann’s narration, and with experts like William Lindesay, chemistry professor Bingjian Zhang and military historian Mike Loades on hand for more detailed explanations and enthusiastic demonstrations, the program provides interesting fodder at a steady clip and weaves its way through the Wall’s history, jumping from one topic to the next smoothly and skilfully. Animations help audiences appreciate the size and complexity of the Wall’s various meanderings across northern China.

Audiences are sure to ponder questions such as whether the Wall could have led to an industrial revolution in Ming-era China but this and other issues arising from the program’s narrative demand independent investigations in their own right. This documentary is aimed mainly at a family audience and school students learning Chinese history: what better way to understand some of the length and breadth of that history through its best-known engineering feat?

Red Sorghum: a celebration of life, its vitality and rebirth, and of the resilience and courage needed to bring back hope

Zhang Yimou, “Hong gao liang / Red Sorghum” (1987)

“Red Sorghum” marks the debut of Zhang Yimou as an important director in Chinese film and of actor Gong Li who would go on to make several films with Zhang (and become his lover as well). Set in northern China in the late 1930s, just ahead of and during the Japanese invasion of the country, the film has a fairy-tale quality while it also revels in the lusty and earthy Chinese peasant culture. Gong Li plays teenage bride Jiu’er sent by her poor parents to an elderly man suffering from leprosy who owns a winery. The girl is taken in a sedan, carried by several men, to the winery. The men sing bawdy songs to discomfit the girl but as they cross a field of sorghum, the wedding party is accosted by a bandit. One of the men (Jiang Wen) saves Jiu’er from being assaulted by killing the bandit and the wedding party manages to reach the winery with no more trouble. Later when Jiu’er returns to her parents temporarily and then takes leave of them permanently to go back to her husband, her rescuer jumps out of the sorghum field and drags her deep into the forest of sorghum where he apparently rapes her.

Jiu’er’s elderly husband is found dead with no heir so Jiu’er takes ownership of the winery. She inspires the workers to help her build up the winery into a successful enterprise. Jiu’er’s rescuer (he is never named) tries to claim her as his wife but she throws him out of her bedroom and the workers dump him into an empty vat. Later when the workers are celebrating the making of the first batch of sorghum wine since Jiu’er took over the running of the winery, the rescuer tries to spoil the party by urinating into the wine … but his action actually improves the taste of the wine. The improved wine becomes a major factor in the winery’s success over the next nine years.

The Imperial Japanese army invades the area and forces everyone living there to clear and destroy the sorghum fields so a road can be built. After the Japanese torture and kill a former winery worker Luohan (Teng Rujun), Jiu’er encourages her workers to avenge his death. They set up booby traps for the Japanese military convoy but not everything goes according to plan and Jiu’er and a woman servant end up being killed by the Japanese. The traps go off but end up killing nearly everyone and only Jiu’er’s rescuer and their young son survive.

The film is most notable for its cinematography and the lavish use of the colour red to symbolise vitality (whether in the peasants themselves or the hooch they brew), bloodshed and ultimately hope and defiance. The actual story-telling seems fragmented, skips over an entire period in which Jiu’er makes her business prosper, and gives no motivation or reason for Luohan leaving Jiu’er’s employ when he does or why he suddenly turns up near the winery nine years later, only to disappear again until he is caught by the Japanese. The relationship between Jiu’er and her rescuer may not be sufficiently defined enough for Western viewers who have to deduce from the looks she gives the rescuer that she is both attracted to and repelled by him.

Probably the weakest part of the film is at its end when all seems hopeless and lost, and nothing is said, yet we know from the voiceover narration in previous sections of the film that the survivors did carry on. Why at this point in the film does the unseen narrator remain silent? Why does he not take the opportunity to praise and commend Jiu’er for holding together and inspiring a small desert community after her elderly husband’s death?

While the brutal violence may come as a shock to many viewers, the film ultimately is a celebration of life in all its aspects and its rebirth, and of the patience, determination and resilience needed to turn desperation and despair into optimism and hope.

 

US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm: a sketchy report on the insidious effects of US military activity on a South Korean village and farming region

Yoichi Shimatsu, “US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm (Lens.tv Report: THAAD Deployment in South Korea)” (2017)

Structured as a news report rather than as a documentary, this item by investigative reporter (and former Japan Times Weekly editor) Yoichi Shimatsu focuses on the effects of an American missile base deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile defence system on an agricultural region centred around the village of Seongju in southeast South Korea. According to THAAD’s Wikipedia entry, the system is “designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach”. One presumes THAAD has been deployed in South Korea to protect that country from inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from North Korea.

Shimatsu and his cameraman travel to Seongju where he meets protesters who tell him they have been protesting against the missile base since July 2016 when it was established. A local person called Kang (who turns out to be a Buddhist monk) takes Shimatsu’s crew to Bodhidharma mountain, named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, where they survey the missile base and take photographs. Shimatsu identifies a Patriot launch vehicle, part of the Patriot system which targets low-flying intermediate-range missiles that the THAAD system does not target. To Shimatsu, the deployment of the Patriot system at the Seongju missile base suggests that the US intends to use the base as part of an offensive attack against North Korea, and possibly China and Russia, and is not intended solely to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear attack.

Shimatsu and Kang also discuss the strong electricity vibrations being generated in the missile base for the radar unit there and the effect of these vibrations through the mountains on the growth and development of the area’s fruits, vegetables and flowers. Shimatsu later interviews a young university student who tells him that flowers have stopped growing and that produce has dwindled since the missile base was established.

Not much background context is provided in this 12-minute video and viewers need to do their own research on why and how Seongju came to host the missile base – the luxury golf resort at the missile base was the conduit by which the US military obtained access to the real estate at Bodhidharma Mountain and converted it into a military site – under the auspices of former South Korean President Park Geunhye, daughter of the notorious dictator president Park Chunghee (1961 – 1979) who was impeached in early 2017 for corruption linked to her aide Choi Soonsil. There is scanty explanation on how the strong electricity and electromagnetic vibrations from the missile base could be affecting vegetation and people’s health, and if the video had been a bit longer and its budget bigger, an animation or diagram explaining the possible origin of the vibrations and how they are linked to the activities at the base could have been useful.

The most useful aspect of the report is as a wake-up call to communities around the world contemplating hosting military bases for the US, and the consequences these may have for the communities, their economies and their natural environments.

Raise the Red Lantern: criticising the abuse of power by those tasked with upholding tradition

Zhang Yimou, “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991)

This is a beautiful film of minimal, even severe and classic simplicity, that lets the cruelty and jealous passions of a patriarchal system speak for themselves. Songlian (Gong Li), a beautiful and educated teenage girl must drop out of university after her tea merchant father dies and marry a wealthy landowner in northern China as his fourth wife. She goes to live with him and his other wives in his labyrinthine mansion complex. There, she must conform to the various laborious customs and traditions whose original meaning may have long been forgotten. She must contend with servants who may be well-meaning but surly and jealous of her apparent good fortune, in particular the maid Yan’er (Kong Lin) who is assigned to her as her personal maid. She also has to defer to her husband’s first wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), an elderly woman long past child-bearing age; second wife Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), seemingly friendly and obliging; and third wife Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer, who is upset at being usurped by a younger and more attractive bride and who might scheme at getting rid of Songlian. Over time though Songlian discovers who is the real back-stabber among the wives, and what her maid may be up to. Unfortunately Songlian’s isolation from the outside world, her frustration with the fruitlessness of her new life and the restrictions imposed by the family’s traditions and customs, and her attempts to compete with the other wives lead her to make one mistake after another, and the train of devastating events that follow as a result take their toll on her psychologically so that she is left deranged.

The story is straightforward and predictable – once Songlian discovers the House of Death and a pair of women’s slippers inside, we know already it will be used as the site of execution: the question is, who will die? – and might be boring for some viewers. None of the characters is at all attractive – all the wives compete for the master’s attention in often petty and immature ways (quite typical of harems) – and the women who seem most intimidating and threatening to Songlian tragically end up dying as a result of Songlian’s thoughtlessness, scheming and childish behaviour crossed with the dead weight of family tradition. The master himself comes across as ineffectual for the most part and one wonders whether the real rulers of this particular roost are the servants themselves, obedient to the letter of tradition rather than its spirit. No wonder the Chinese government did not like this film when it was first released: instead of the master actively throwing his weight around, the servants (analogous to government bureaucrats) apply custom (the law) in a way that is robotic and insensitive to the context it is being used in.

The film gains its power by obeying the classic “show, don’t tell” method of revealing its plot, and through it criticising the abuse of power. Much colourful symbolism is used, often achieving comic effects but also becoming repetitive and deadening. The constant raising and lowering of lanterns become cliched and that in itself reveals how custom and tradition in themselves can have deleterious effects on people’s lives. Through characters like Yan’er and Meishan, the film comments on how dreams of a better life or a former life express how women cope with an oppressive social system through escapism and, through those characters’ experiences, how such hope can be turned on them and ultimately kill them.

The architecture of the mansion and the music of the period in which the film is set (early 1920s) are significant characters in their own right: the mansion turns out to be a prison and the music reveals the yearnings and hidden passions of women wanting a better life than what they are forced to have. It seem ironic that the one woman who is finally set free through her own pride from the patriarchy portrayed in “Raise the Red Lantern” is a poor illiterate woman and not a wealthy educated one.

Hero: a smug film that twists Chinese history and delivers a deplorable message

Zhang Yimou, “Hero” (2002)

If one needs proof that a visually gorgeous film with a good cast can ultimately be undone and wasted by a demoralising and ugly plot and theme, Chinese director Zhang’s “Hero” is it. That the film was tailor-made for Western audiences featuring a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong actors is even more of an insult to both the Chinese (for distorting the history on which the film is based) and Westerners who might assume that Chinese people passively prefer stability and corruption over change and good government. What’s really puzzling is why someone of Zhang’s stature as a director saw fit to make this film.

The film’s story takes place during a period in China’s history well over 2,000 years ago when the King of the Qin state has been brutally conquering and uniting competing neighbouring kingdoms and is on the verge of becoming China’s first emperor. The King has recently – and only just – survived being assassinated by three sword-fighters known as Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. A prefect known as Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s court and claims to have fought and killed these assassins. His tale is told in flashback. The King (Chen Daoming) counters Nameless’s story by proffering his version in which Nameless had staged his fights with the three assassins who volunteer to die so that Nameless can bring the swords of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) to the monarch as “proof” of their deaths. This forces Nameless to admit the truth, that he has a special ability to inflict apparent death without touching vital organs and used this to “kill” Snow in front of the Qin army. Before leaving for the capital for his meeting with the King with the two assassins’ swords, Nameless is shown two characters written by Broken Sword in the sand which together explain why Sword, when he had the opportunity, decided not to kill the King.

The film proceeds at a good clip until it divides into its three sub-plots – each differentiated by a dominant colour (red, blue, green) – whereupon it bogs down in soapie weepiness as the lovers Sword and Snow dispute over which of them should fight Nameless and “die”, and whether vengeance on the King for having despoiled their own country of Zhao is the right thing to do. Sword’s decision not to kill the King on the basis that a peaceful, unified state is better than constantly warring ones and that, for all his brutality, ruthlessness and paranoia, the King of Qin must be the best man to achieve that peace, has an effect on Nameless when his moment comes to attack the King.

The morality of the decisions Sword and Nameless make is very dubious to say the least. Is the unification of China, and with it the achievement of peace and stability, really worth the severe suppression of difference and dissent? Should genocide of an entire nation and its culture, language and history be the necessary sacrifice to achieve unity and peace? Is there no other alternative to passive resignation and allowing a brutal ruler to run roughshod over vassal states as he sees fit? If the film is serious about its theme, then it leaves a very sour taste in this viewer’s mouth. The political implications of such a theme for Chinese and Westerners alike are immense: can a utilitarian approach to politics, achieving what most people desire only at the cost of the lives of a minority, be acceptable?

The film’s insinuation that the King of Qin is pressured by his court and army to execute Nameless is even worse propaganda, suggesting that Chinese people essentially are bloodthirsty thugs who do not know mercy and compassion, and that the King wouldn’t have been the tyrant and despot he was if he’d not been subjected to so much pressure by vengeful mobs.

Apart from the smug and inhumane message, the film suffers from weak character development and an over-emphasis on computer-enhanced martial arts ballet. An excellent acting cast is wasted as are also the cinematography and slick special effects.

2046: glossy soap opera with little profound to say about love and loneliness

Wong Kar Wai “2046” (2004)

If ever a film could be considered typical “art house” with an emphasis on visual candy, music substituting for emotion and colour for mood, and a story-line that appears to promise much but ends up saying very little, then Wong Kar Wai’s “2046” would be that film. It looks stunning and the camera lavishes a great deal of attention on period detail to evoke nostalgia for a (mostly romanticised) past. The actual events of the period in question – most of the movie is set in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore during a significant period in the history of the Chinese-speaking people in the mid to late 1960s (hey everyone, look, the Cultural Revolution was taking place in China) – take a distant backseat to the concerns of the film’s main character, an unemployed journalist and writer of seedy pulp fiction Chow Mowan (Tony Leung), who spends most of his time on screen chasing women of dubious virtue. An unhappy affair with a lady called Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung in a tiny role) sets our man Chow adrift searching for love and comfort with a series of lovely ladies beginning with high-class call girl Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), his landlord’s daughter and aspiring writer Jingwen (Faye Wong) and a professional gambler (Gong Li) who also happens to be called Su Lizhen. Already I think we can see where this film is going. The only problem is Chow is unwilling to commit himself fully to any of these women, stunning beauties though they are, and the result is heartbreak, lots of brooding and unhappy expressions all around. At the end of the day, Chow is as lonely as ever with only his memories to keep him company and his various loves go their separate ways.

Chow’s love affairs provide much material for a science fiction novel he is writing in which a fantastic train carries its main character (Takuya Kimura) on a never-ending journey to reclaim his memories, so that he can go forward into a new life, and during which journey he meets android stewardesses who are Chow’s women projected into the train-riding future to find true love. The only problem is that having given their hearts to Chow, the androids are unable to love. The story of the novel is intertwined with the episodes of Chow’s most significant romances, those with Bai Ling, the landlord’s daughter and the second Su Lizhen, though the film hints at other romances Chow has had which have turned out to be just as desultory and futile.

The plot is very flimsy and the characters are weakly developed, with only Zhang and Wong’s characters deserving of much sympathy from the audience as the two women try to find emotional fulfillment. Zhang gives the impression of working hard in her role while the rest of the cast sleepwalk their way through their respective parts. If the film works it is mainly because the stories are more or less threaded together along with the sci-fi subplot so that there is a constant transition between the subplot and the stories as a group. Indeed the subplot is the sole element that holds the entire narrative although the psychological outlet it provides for Chow to dump his problems is a dead end.

Though the film has been much lauded (by Western film critics) as a languid and exotic Oriental piece with gorgeous images and faces, a distinct style and haunting ambience, it really is not much more than a very glossy soap opera with nothing much to say about the nature of love and loneliness. The most viewers come away with is a platitude about finding true love at the right time and the right place but this is about as profound as the message gets. There is nothing about true love being something people might have to work at if it is to be recognised. The main character learns no real lessons from his experiences or from the novel he writes and publishes, and at the end of the film, all that can be said for him is that he will continue drifting along in life collecting more unsatisfactory affairs.

“2046” took up two hours of my time that I’ll never be able to claim back.

Clean: a tale of caution and redemption lacking in spark and realism

Olivier Assayas, “Clean” (2004)

Rare are the movies in which two main characters happen to be father and his daughter-in-law yet just this month I’ve already seen two: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” which stars the French director’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a washed-up cable TV music show host whose musician husband dies from a drug overdose. The commercial music media blames Wang for giving her husband the drugs he used to kill himself and Wang herself spends time in prison for drug possession. After her release, Wang tries holding down a number of dreary jobs without success while also attempting to reconcile with her young son who is in the care of his grandparents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Rosemary herself is dying and Albrecht does not know if he can cope as sole custodian once Rosemary is gone. After many setbacks and personal crises, a glimmer of hope appears for Emily with a possible career as a singer beckoning in San Francisco and Albrecht throwing his support behind her.

The movie is a conventional treatment of a drug addict struggling to pick up the pieces of her life together after a major tragedy and trying to reform and fit into a world she doesn’t really care for. The movie dallies between portraying a character who must face up to responsibility for her life and her son, who must negotiate life’s tough paths without a man on whom she leaned for support, on the one hand and on the other a message about finding something you love to do and which allows you to develop your talents and let you fly. Cheung delivers a fine and moving performance as Wang with all her flaws and brittle personality: a woman who has been self-indulgent perhaps for too long and who is learning the hard way about having to compromise her individuality in a world that cares as little for her as she does for it. Nolte gives just as fine a performance as Albrecht who empathises with Wang and is willing to give her another chance when all her friends in the music business distrust her and withdraw support at the last moment. Wang finally learns who her real ally is.

It should be said also that just as Wang starts changing her attitude and habits, Albrecht also undergoes a change in his attitude towards his daughter-in-law when he discovers his wife is terminally ill. His willingness to change helps Wang to grasp an opportunity to advance in a new career related to music. Some viewers may object that Wang might be returning to an environment where she will once again be exposed to drugs or to the stresses that encouraged or pushed her into drug addiction. However the music Wang performs in the film’s final scenes seems as far away from the new-wave / post-punk music scene that Wang and her musician husband had favoured originally as the dead-end retail jobs Wang had pursued earlier in the film.

Apart from the two leads’ performances, the film lacks spark and is over-earnest in its character study of an ex-junkie trying to rebuild her life. The pace is very glacial and the style is very flat. Not personally knowing any drug addicts or ex-addicts, I cannot comment on how realistic the film is but it seems rather peculiar for the main character not to be in rehabilitation or seeing a social worker or counsellor while weaning herself off drugs. Cheung looks rather too healthy most of the time and for her to run to familiar friends and places where she and her husband got involved in the drug scene in the first place would seem rather counter-productive. Perhaps the movie’s script-writers were imagining Wang as an Asian version of Marianne Faithfull or Nico; they’d have been better off perhaps talking to ordinary ex-junkies who eventually made good and basing Wang’s character and story on their stories.

Confession of Pain: glossy tale of vengeance long-planned with an implausible plot

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, “Confession of Pain” (2006)

Ain’t no bad time like Chinese New Year for a police officer to come home one night and find his girlfriend has just topped herself but that’s exactly what happens to Detective Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) while on duty arresting a bunch of hoodlums in his apartment. Grief-stricken, he leaves the force and becomes a private detective, indulging his sadness in drink. Former buddy Hei (Tony Leung) and his wife Susan (Xu Jinglei) try to snap Bong out of his sorrows and give him a reason for living by enlisting him to investigate the brutal murder of Hei’s filthy rich father-in-law Chow. Hoping that the work will assuage the loss he feels, Bong agrees to help Hei and quickly finds the murder has the characteristics of a revenge killing that has taken years to plan and execute. During the course of the investigation, strange things happen to Hei and Susan, culminating in a mysterious gas explosion at home that severely injures Susan and sends her into a coma from which she might not recover.

The plot turns out to be ridiculous beyond words and one wonders why Hei would hire Bong to investigate if he knew that Bong is just too good at chasing leads and finding his man. One might think also that there should be various obstacles put in Bong’s way so as to lead him away from the killer/s, several of whom are mysteriously done away with lest Bong arrests them and forces them to confess. The movie pulls off its closed-loop plot through the work Takeshi and Leung do in their good cop / bad cop routine: both actors are restrained in their emotional expression and reveal quite deep feelings and conflicting motivations beneath impassive countenances. Leung especially maintains a poker face throughout the film even when Susan rejects him. Their respective roles don’t give them much to do other than run around a lot but the actors do their job efficiently. The rest of the cast also have very little to do and a sub-plot that revolves around Bong and a new girlfriend (Shu Qi) isn’t substantial enough to counterbalance the main plot other than to suggest that life must be lived if one is to find meaning and a reason to go on living.

The film’s style is low-key minimal and glossy with many moody shots of Hong Kong at night and most parts of the plot taking place in expensive and fashionably furnished interiors. There are a few scenes lasting several minute each in which there is no dialogue, just action, and the camera lovingly focuses on the city’s urban landscapes, revealing the metropolis’s energy and hinting at hidden and desperate secrets beneath the shiny glittering surface. Editing can be sharp and there is quite good use of special effects and black-and-white filming to show flashbacks in time when Hei was a young boy witnessing the murders of his parents and sister. Bong also “relives” the scene in which Hei’s father-in-laws dies in gruesome black-and-white detail. Graphic depictions of violence are par for the course in HK action thriller films.

There is an overall theme of loss (of loved ones, of identity) and how characters cope with that: some come to terms with it and find their way back to living life in full, others must construct new identities to cope, still others dwell on their loss and try to avenge lost loved ones – with disastrous results. The city of Hong Kong is also portrayed as dealing with loss of some kind: loss of a past identity and adjusting to a new one as a part of China; loss of an older, perhaps more human way of life and its replacement by a cold, shiny corporate culture in which gleaming style is a thin veneer for dark secrets.

The packaging may be beautiful to look at and the cast and crew do what they can but the bulk of the film is an implausible soap opera affair and no amount of lacquered sheen can hide that.