A Gong (Grandpa): a journey of grief, accepting death and finding hope

Ellis Ka-yin Chan, Tena van der Galovic, Zozo Jhen, Yen-chen Liu, Marine Varguy, “A Gong (Grandpa)” (2018)

A tale of a small Taiwanese boy attending his grandfather’s funeral with his parents, performing little rituals he has no clue about, becomes a journey exploring intense grief, the closeness of ties between two generations, reincarnation and the hope it encompasses, and the continuity of life. The animation may look cartoony (it was hand-drawn with oil pastels) and a bit two-dimensional but this is to emphasise the film’s focus on the child and his point of view. Dialogue is pared back almost to the point where the film could be considered a silent film.

The film cleverly portrays the boy’s growing confusion and concern over the death of his grandfather and the strange rituals the adults follow (and urge him to follow as well) during the funeral to see off the old fellow, clad in his motorcycle outfit in the open coffin. The child’s unease reaches breakdown point when at night he hears the distant roar of a motorcycle and he races outside the house in pitch darkness to chase a dim red light. When the light disappears and the child comes to a fork in the road, he is in complete despair at having lost his grandfather forever. At this point, something unexpected happens: a puppy with a very familiar shape and expression on its face appears.

Taiwanese funeral customs and the spectacle they involve – not to mention their overwhelming nature to small children who may be perturbed by emotional adults, the solemn chanting of Buddhist monks, the burning smell of incense, and more besides – are showcased to good effect here. Viewers may be more impressed though with the boy’s grief and gradual acceptance of his poppy’s death, and the old man’s final gift to the child to offer him hope and comfort.

The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Ne Zha: noisy overblown blockbuster film with a message about changing one’s destiny

Jiaozi, “Ne Zha” (2019)

A loud, noisy and overblown blockbuster animation fantasy made to please most people, this film is loosely based on a legend about the birth of a divine hero in Chinese folk religion. Essentially the film portrays the origin story of Ne Zha, the son of Li Jing, a military commander in charge of a fortress at Chentang Pass, and Lady Yin. Before his birth, Ne Zha was supposed to receive the essence of the Spirit Pearl, created as one half of a Heavenly Pearl given by the Lord of Heaven; the other half, known as the Demon Pearl, would be used to create elsewhere a demon whose life-span will be only three years, during which period the demon brings havoc and destruction to humanity, and after which the evil being is destroyed by lightning. (Talk about having your life already mapped out for you before you’re born!) Evil forces however conspire to dupe the Taoist immortal Taiyi Zhenren, portrayed in the film as a drunken fatso with little self-control, in order to steal the Spirit Pearl from him and infuse the Demon Pearl into Lady Yin’s unborn child. The result is that Ne Zha is born with the spirit and hot-headed temperament of a demon and ends up being hated and persecuted by the village folk living around the fortress. Li Jing, Lady Yin and Taiyi Zhenren, grieving that the boy will only live three years, resolve to train him so that he may be able to control his demonic nature and powers (which keep the village’s construction and waste recycling industries extremely busy) and perhaps use them for good.

In the meantime, the Spirit Pearl is used by Taiyi Zhenren’s rival Shen Gongbao to infuse its essence into the son of the Dragon King, imprisoned along with his fellow dragons deep in the ocean and yearning to escape and reimpose their rule on Earth. The son, Ao Bing, later meets Ne Zha during a tussle with a sea demon who nearly kills Ao Bing. Ne Zha saves Ao Bing’s life and the two boys, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, become friends.

The film plays very hard and fast with the characters and plot of the original legend, setting the cast and the story in a template of goodies-versus-baddies and the story itself being fairly simple and easy to follow so it has to be padded out with a nearly endless series of fights involving as many explosions, impossible feats of magic that break the laws of physics, and martial arts derring-do, all performed at insane ear-shattering levels of noise. The characters look as if they’re straight out of a Disney or Pixar film and are for the most part very one-dimensional. There is little to indicate that both Ne Zha and Ao Bing experience much inner conflict wrestling with their essential natures and vowing to overcome or change what Fate decreed for them. Li Jing and Lady Yin are little more than father and mother stereotypes and Taiyi Zhenren plays his buffoon role for cheap laughs.

The film’s message that one does not need to accept one’s destiny and nature as given and can change for the better is strong throughout the film. There are also other messages about how discrimination and prejudice can persuade victims to be resentful and vengeful, and how simple acts of kindness can help people change for the better. Above all, viewers not familiar with traditional Chinese culture can see an emphasis on balance and harmony: the water nature of Ao Bing (dragons being essentially water creatures in Chinese mythology) balances the fiery nature of Ne Zha in their encounters; and this emphasis is also at the heart of Ne Zha’s training to be a well-rounded human, Ne Zha having to learn to balance his demon nature with self-control, awareness of his powers, and using knowledge and thinking to deploy his powers to protect, defend and save others less powerful than he.

The best part of the film is its backgrounds and special effects. What a pity though that the cast of characters, the story-line and the pyrotechnics fail to do the technical design justice.

Chan is Missing: a missing-person mystery dives into exploring a community and the immigrant experience

Wayne Wang, “Chan is Missing” (1982)

Would-be taxicab owner / driver Jo (Wood Moy) needs to purchase a licence enabling him to drive a taxi so he contacts a friend, Chan Hong, to pass on $4,000 to take to the relevant licensing authority. However Chan and the money disappear so together with his nephew Steve (Marc Hayashi), Jo travels around the Chinese community in San Francisco looking for and inquiring about Chan. What most viewers might imagine should be fairly straightforward turns into a veritable odyssey for Jo and Steve as each person they speak to about Chan has a very different opinion about the elusive man as to his personality and motivations, and a very complex and contradictory portrait of Chan develops. During the two men’s search for Chan, viewers learn a great deal about the nature of the Chinese-American community and the political tensions within it, the dilemma of the immigrant experience in a strange land, and the stereotypes and filters through which most Americans view Chinese-American people and their culture. As one character reminds Jo, Chinese people have lived in the United States since the mid-19th century yet however much they try to integrate into American society and be accepted, if most Americans do not accept them, then that is because America does not want to accept them.

Shot in black-and-white, this cheap and cheerful film partakes quite liberally from the classic film noir genre – in particular, the uncle-and-nephew sleuthing tag-team and Jo’s voice-over narration recall the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s – 50s in which the Chinese-Hawaiian detective occasionally ropes in his eldest son to help solve crimes. Jo and Steve visit a fair few eccentric characters in their quest, including a restaurant cook wearing a “Samurai Night Fever” T-shirt who is tired of cooking sweet-and-sour pork several times a day every day; Chan’s wife and wise-cracking daughter; Chan’s migration sponsor; people at a Filipino seniors’ community centre; an unseen Chinese immigrant apartment dweller who can’t stand other Chinese people; and George the English-language teacher who discusses local Chinese-American politics with Jo. A sub-plot revolving around whether Chan was involved in a flag-waving dispute over whether the Taiwanese flag or the flag of the People’s Republic of China should be used during a Chinese New Year parade, and which resulted in a fight and a man’s death develops and adds comic frisson to the film: later in the film, Jo discovers a gun and is frightened that Chan may have killed the man. At critical points in the film when a character talks about Chan to Jo, loud music blares out which blurs the conversation and adds to the mystery of Chan and his motivations.

The search for an elusive character who may not actually exist leads into an exploration of the diversity, individuality and eccentricity of a community that has long been viewed through filters and stereotypes encouraged by the news media and Hollywood culture. Jo and Steve’s quest ultimately becomes a quest for identity and connection with the culture and country of their ancestors, a country neither of them has visited. A number of film noir elements are brought in for comic effect in the film’s second half: long shadows in Chan Hong’s hotel room (enhanced by the monochromatic film); suspenseful, almost shrill and hysterical music; shots of Chinatown itself from behind the wheel of a car; and even a gangster moll in the form of Chan Hong’s girlfriend. The sequence in which Jo fears he is being followed by another car is an affectionate send-up of the Charlie Chan films which partly inspired this film.

Wood Moy as the ageing world-weary taxicab driver carries the whole film capably on his shoulders but Hayashi is just as effective as his impatient nephew and the cast generally acquit themselves well in a film where it looks as if improvisation in the story-line is the major feature and the narrative meanders at will depending on whom director Wayne Wang was able to rope into participating in the film.

It seems that absence does make the heart fonder, for a transplanted Chinese culture that is slowly disappearing as its generations age and pass on.

Forward, Comrades! – an animated short on the downfall of the Soviet Union

Wang Liyin, “Forward, Comrades!” (2013)

This animated Chinese short, made by a student at the Beijing Film Academy, focuses on the twilight days of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a young girl. She lives with her parents in a shabby wooden bungalow and spends her days playing with toy construction bricks and talking to her pets while her schoolteacher mother is at work. The pets are a cat called Comrade Vladimir (as in Vladimir Lenin), a chicken called Comrade Felix (as in Felix Dzerzhinsky) and a duck called Comrade Beriya (as in Lavrenty Beria). The animals aren’t always well behaved: one day Comrade Beriya is naughty and the unnamed girl punishes him for “crimes” against socialism, while giving the instructions for a final knock-out blow against capitalist enemies to Comrade Felix.

One day a Russian-language TV broadcast informs viewers of a coup carried out by reactionary forces against the Soviet Union and from then on, things change dramatically for the girl and her pets. Comrades Vladimir and Felix die, Comrade Beriya is despatched by the girl’s mother to a restaurant, and the toy construction bricks and other belongings of the girl are also sold off. The family moves into an apartment block in a grey city, and the girl is given new American toys – various dolls and Disney character soft toys – to play with. On overhearing her mother discussing fashions and cosmetics with other adults, the child decides to run away back to her old home. At that very moment, there is a nuclear explosion in the sky and the girl is transported back to a world where her pets are very much alive and have formed a tank regiment.

The animation is quite crude and the story is very selective in its history. An entire episode of Soviet history, in which the Soviet Union transforms itself into an industrial power twice over (in the 1930s and then after the Second World War) under Joseph Stalin, followed by a long period of stagnation and corrupt rule under a series of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-allied politicians from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, is skipped over in the cartoon’s portrayal of the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. The girl’s decision to break away from her parents represents China’s decision to strike out on its own socialist path – though in reality, this involved zigzagging through the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and later leader Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of economic flexibility combining elements of capitalism and socialism, to the current situation in which China is now wealthy enough to bring economic development to its more impoverished regions and to Third World countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

There are some interesting ideas about how capitalism can influence people to conform to labels and categories. On the whole though, the film shows a very sketchy and poor understanding of Soviet and Chinese history. It’s mainly of interest to people curious about the current state of Chinese animated film.

The Hole: an ultimately unsatisfying film about isolation, alienation and yearning for connection

Tsai Ming-liang, “The Hole / Dong” (1998)

Its theme of yearning for connection and hope in a dystopian urban environment of the near future, where an extraordinary social crisis has led to extreme government action that isolates and alienates individuals, is rather too obvious so “The Hole” opts for an idiosyncratic presentation combining elements of moody post-apocalyptic science fiction, nostalgic musical fantasy that pays homage to 1950s Hong Kong singer Grace Chang and a minimalist plot relying heavily on the talents of its two main actors Yang Kuei-mei (as the Woman) and Lee Kang-sheng (as the Man) to supply the action, the dancing, the skimpy dialogue, the emotion and the comedy. While the slow plot may disappoint viewers and skirts quite close to boredom, its very minimalism may provoke a lot of discussion as to whether “The Hole” can be regarded as a depressive dystopian picture, a satire on modern society where everyone at once wants to be alone yet secretly yearns for connection or a bizarre musical comedy escapade.

Around the year 2000, Taiwan is hit by a mystery viral plague spread by cockroaches that apparently causes people to behave like cockroaches and eventually drives them insane and kills them. The government evacuates healthy people to quarantine camps but some choose to stay in the city and are corralled into apartment blocks. In one such apartment block live two unnamed people, the Man who occupies one flat and the Woman who lives in the flat below his. Constant pouring rain causes problems in the block: a plumber enters the Man’s flat to find the cause of a leak and digs out a hole in the Man’s living room floor. He leaves the hole there without apparently making a future date to return to fix it. The Woman, trying to cope with water leaking from various points throughout her flat, is unimpressed with the hole appearing in her ceiling. The hole becomes the catalyst for the characters to make contact with each other by assuming various roles: initially it is the avenue by which they become aware of each other, leading to fantasies of connection and possible romance (as demonstrated in the musical numbers); it is also the source of their frustration with each other, as the plumber fails to return to finish his job and the noises that the Man makes upstairs annoy the Woman; the hole becomes the means by which the Man becomes aware of the Woman being potentially infected by the virus; and in its last manifestation it is a beacon of hope and optimism.

The pace is slow with little happening until the last few moments so much viewer attention is directed to the isolating and isolated dank and dark concrete-jungle environment in which the characters live. The Man runs a food store that receives incredibly few customers save for an elderly gent whose favourite brands no longer exist and the Woman spends all her time mopping her floor, ripping wet wallpaper off her walls and eating instant noodles: how totally atomised their lives must be when all they can look forward to each day is emptiness and silence! The cinematography relies on long take after long take that emphasises the characters’ total isolation and alienation. Even the bright and colourful musical numbers, fantasy though they are, with agile male dancers in tuxedoes and a trio of back-up doo-wop girl singers, take place in the apartment block’s elevator, stairways and gangways, and in one flat, as though to suggest that, no matter how dreary people’s lives may be, they can still take refuge in their imaginations and that refuge may be closer to reality than they realise.

While there’s much to commend the film, its central characters remain flat due to the slow and sparse narrative, which permits little character development. The resolution to the characters’ problems seems overburdened with visual allusion (even though viewers can see it coming from a mile away) and ends in a sentimental music number. This is the kind of slightly experimental art film that you see once but no more than that. The film’s examination of the human condition comes across as rather superficial, a bit stereotyped and ultimately unsatisfying. Passively accepting a government restriction that forces the film’s characters to endure isolated lives without meaning or hope of change, renewal or freedom, and to retreat instead into an endlessly repeating fantasy world, seems to be the film’s main message; if rebellion occurs, it is only by accidental chance.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

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?