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.

The Guillotines: long-winded wuxia film groans under the weight of being all things to all people

Andrew Lau Wai-keung, “The Guillotines” (2012)

An overly fussy and long-winded film on brotherhood and loyalty, and how changes beyond a society’s control affect individual people and test their values, “The Guillotines” starts out as a fun action-packed wuxia ballet but ends up all earnest and preachy about the proper relationship between government and the people it rules. Not surprisingly as this is a joint Hong Kong /Mainland Chinese production, the film conveys a conservative message about how people really should be loyal to their legitimate rulers, no matter that they have every right to be suspicious about the elites’ shifting intentions and powers. A major problem with the film is that it tries to be all things to all people so it packs in a tragic romance, a bunch of soul brothers, double-crossing galore, blurred boundaries between goodies and baddies, loads of schmaltz, blood and gore, cute kids and, above all, a despotic Emperor figure who presides over this complex world like a capricious god.

In the film’s opening scenes, a group of fleeing rebel peasants called the Herders, led by a charismatic messiah figure Wolf (Xiaoming Huang), is ambushed and picked off one by one down to Wolf by a secret government squad of assassins called the Guillotines. Led by Nala Leng (Ethan Juan), this group was formed by the old Qing Emperor Yongzheng on the birth of his son Qianlong, using children born on the same day as Qianlong. The youngsters grow up learning only to fight and never learn any other skills such as reading and writing; they are groomed to be assassins to do the Imperial government’s dirty business such as hunting out potential trouble-makers and killing them by chucking deadly knife-edged frisbees that clamp around the victims’ necks, sprout long blades and spikes, and decapitate them in the bloodiest way possible on screen. Furthermore, when the old Emperor dies and Qianlong ascends to power, the new boss orders the Guillotines to obliterate all political opposition to him, which troubles them all. On orders from above, the Guillotines toss Wolf into prison; Leng visits him and Wolf tells him of a vision of his (Wolf’s) death that involves Leng as perpetrator. Later Wolf escapes custody in over-blown fashion and takes a female Guillotine assassin, Musen (Yuchun Li), with him as hostage. For their failure to keep Wolf under guard, the Guillotines are ordered to find him and bring him back, and to rescue Musen. The Guillotines ride off with the Emperor’s personal guard Haidu (Shawn Yue), childhood friend of Leng, in tow.

It doesn’t take long for the Guillotines to locate their quarry in mountainous country where they discover Wolf has built up a thriving farming community where everyone lives equally and works hard, bringing in abundant produce and sharing everything they have. While the Guillotines grapple with their consciences over obeying the Emperor’s orders and leaving the people in peace, Haidu soon reveals through his words and actions the real reason he has accompanied them: unbeknownst to them, Qianlong has ordered Haidu to kill them all once they have flushed out and got rid of Wolf and his Herders. Seems that the new boy is enamoured of modern Western technology like military cannon and rifles, and prefers to use these instead of employing special elite forces to play Frisbee Ne Plus Ultra. As the assassins themselves are picked off, Leng is torn among competing loyalties to his squad, Haidu and Qianlong. In the meantime, while the assassins are being chased by Haidu’s forces, Musen learns about Wolf’s background and personal mission, repents of her past deeds and decides to join Wolf’s community.

The character drama is well done and the good-looking young actors who play Leng, Haidu, Wolf, Musen and Qianlong do good work in fleshing out their characters and what drives them, and in expressing emotion, particularly sorrow, although I daresay a few tears here and there were painted on by special effects people where crying is called for. Huang in particular stamps Wolf’s role with authority and draws out the character’s Jesus-like charms well. The film makes clear though that Huang can be quite ruthless and for all the idyllic and peaceful nature of the community he creates, it does have the air of a strong personality cult. Juan and Haidu are also good as the close childhood friends who, due to the brainwashing they received as littlies, are forced by the scheming Qianlong to become bitter enemies.

Where the film falls flat is in the excessive bulking of slow motion scenes and fight scenes, constant flashbacks and repetitive motifs such as a dying character’s entire life flipping before his/her eyes. The music is overdone (it even includes a weepy love song sung by Yuchun Li off-screen) and the film, in trying to convey a sense of the epic that was Imperial China, overdoes the grandeur: if a plot element can be done to the max, director Lau seizes every opportunity to flog it to excess. Except, unfortunately, for the eponymous guillotining frisbees themselves which feature in just two fight scenes and those bunched up near the beginning of the film.

If we had just had the story, the characters, the mountain scenery, the culture of Emperor Qianlong’s time and the fight scenes, and all these trimmed down to what’s needed to push the narrative along and expound on the film’s themes of brotherhood, loyalty and the shifting nature of power and how it brainwashes and oppresses people, robbing them of their individuality and the freedom to run their own lives as they see fit, “The Guillotines” would have been a good and visually gorgeous historical drama with some elements of the Western movie genre. Carrying so much baggage to please the Chinese movie-going public though, the film ends up being very thin and I’d say many people in China watching the film would feel quite cheated.

Princess Iron Fan: first Asian full-length animated movie is an overstretched “short cartoon”

Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming, “Princess Iron Fan” / “Tian Shan Gong Zhu” (1941)

This retelling of a Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West” featuring the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his disciples Sun Wukong aka the Monkey King, Zhu Bajie who is part-human / part-pig and the not too-bright human Sha Wujing is historically valuable for being the first Asian full-length (over 40 minutes) animated movie to be released. It was also the third animated full-length movie released in the world after Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and Dave Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. The film also kick-started the Japanese animation movie industry after its export to Japan in 1942 blew away the natives there and prompted the Japanese navy to commission a home-made full-length animated movie (“Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors”) that came out in 1945. Made under very difficult conditions in Shanghai – China at the time was occupied by Japan, the Communists and Nationalists were fighting the Japanese military and the workshop where the film was made had been bombed in 1937 – “Princess Iron Fan” is impressive to watch with beautifully detailed backgrounds and very active and excitable characters. The film uses the rotoscoping animation technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement frame by frame: this technique saved a lot of money and renders the characters in the movie very life-like with  lively and shining eyes (of actual actors, I should add).

As the copyright has apparently expired, the film can be seen in one bloc on Youtube.com but without subtitles for non-Chinese speakers. The plot is straightforward: Xuanzong and his followers try to visit a town but their path is blocked by a fierce fire demon. To get rid of him, they need an iron fan from a beautiful goddess but she refuses to lend it to them. Monkey King and Zhu Bajie each try to get the fan off the sulky lady – Monkey King himself tries a neat trick in which he transforms into a tiny ladybug and gets himself swallowed by the goddess so he can kick around her stomach and cause aches and pains – but both followers discover she has tricked them by giving them dud fans that only fuel the flames. The three disciples also have to battle the goddess’s husband the Bull King and subdue him if they are to get hold of the real iron fan.

The plot unravels in a series of episodes and each is long – there’s a lengthy sub-plot in which a disguised Zhu Bajie tries to seduce a fox lady and then the goddess herself – so viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese stories or who can’t understand the Mandarin language spoken in the film may think each episode is independent of the others and wonder why it has to be there. The characters’ looks and movements appear influenced by old Walt Disney cartoons – the Monkey King has rubbery arms and legs and twirls at hyper-Mach speeds while flying through the air pursued by the fire demon or the Bull King – but there is a definite Chinese flavour and style in the backgrounds, reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings of landscapes and nature, drawn for the movie and most male human characters look very Chinese. The foxy lady looks Betty-Boopish with her huge eyes and elaborate hair-style.

The film aims to entertain as well as teach children about their myths and legends and there’s slapstick galore accompanied by constant music and descriptive sound effects that again show the Walt Disney influence. A house forced to bend with a storm puts out hands to stop its roof from flying away and a cat, clinging to the roof for dear life, sees all his fur rip off his body hair-strand by hair-strand.

The film has the feel of an extended cartoon short with three linked episodes of gags and action, one of which centres around Zhu Bajie, the others focussing on the Monkey King, and none of the characters having much personality development. There are breaks in continuity as well – how the Monkey King escapes out of the goddess’s stomach isn’t clear from the film – and some of the frames seem to wobble and the characters’ lines go watery as if the whole film had gone underwater. Given the conditions it was made under, “Princess Iron Fan” looks much better than expected and some special effects, especially the hot flames for the fire demon and a scene in which two characters move behind a semi-shuttered screen, are very well done. Scenes are milked for all they’re worth for humour and drama and fight scenes are very realistic. Western audiences may find the plot and theme of collective action being better than individual action dull and the film is probably of more value to Chinese and other Asian audiences familiar with tales of the Monkey King’s adventures.