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?

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.

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.

Exiled: gangster movie about honour, loyalty and brotherhood celebrates life in the face of a chaotic and indifferent universe

Johnnie To, “Exiled” aka “Fong Juk” (2006)

Set in Macau territory just before its return by Portugal to China in 1998, this gangster film is a well-constructed and stylised work drawing on film noir and Westerns in its investigation of honour, loyalty, brotherhood and self-sacrifice. Gangster Wo (Nick Cheung), in exile for trying to kill Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has just settled in Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn child. On hearing that Wo has returned from overseas, Fay orders Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Suet Lam) to kill him but their efforts are thwarted by Wo’s pals Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung). After a brief fight in Wo’s new house, the four men reconcile with Wo: it turns out all five of them were childhood friends who grew up together and became hitmen together.

Hiding from Boss Fay who is furious that Wo is still alive, the five men take on an assignment to kill Fay’s rival Boss Keung but this fails spectacularly in two highly choregraphed series of bullet blasts. Wo is severely injured in both attacks and his friends rush him back home where he dies. Wo’s pals then flee and by happy accident pull off a gold heist at Buddha Mountain – a job they had rejected earlier in favour of killing Keung – and the foursome look set to retire from a life of criminality permanently. Unfortunately in the meantime Wo’s widow has embarked on her own form of vengeance against her husband’s friends by establishing contact with the brothel owner who gave them the assignment to kill Keung. Fay and Keung immediately take her and her child hostage and threaten to kill them both if Blaze, Fat, Tai and Cat don’t return. The quartet don’t even think twice that they’ve been set up – they know they must save Wo’s widow and son.

The film’s style is very artistic with carefully staged sets and action: even the neighbourhood where Wo lives is very picturesque though depopulated in the manner of a ghost-town in Western movies where everyone hides beneath the windows in saloons, saddlery shops and stables though here they’d be hiding behind doors of tea shops, video rental places and consumer electronics retailers. Unusual camera angles including bird’s-eye points of view and slanted viewpoints where people have to look down or look up are a feature as are also camera shots that emphasise shadows and drawn curtains in night-time scenes of suspense. Viewers are continually aware of the environment Blaze and his gangster pals move in, whether it is the lavish hotel with its internal balconies, the grim desert they flee to in a stolen car after Wo’s death or the semi-tropical greenery at Buddha Mountain where the men hijack the van carrying the gold bars. Of course the shoot-outs are carefully choreographed, often in slow-motion as if to mimic the highly theatrical sword-fights of Chinese historical dramas, but the artwork isn’t done to excess and the gunfights are over in a matter of minutes and look fairly realistic, at least until people get up and viewers realise the professional hitmen are either incompetent shots or deliberately avoided hitting certain folks like, you know, the main characters. The preceding stand-offs may be done to excess jokingly, with several camera shots of hands sliding soundlessly into holsters to pull out guns, particularly in the restaurant and underground clinic scenes.

The overall effect of To’s direction and the film’s theatrical style is to create a self-contained universe where self-interest and greed rule, and gangland networks are riven by shifts in loyalty and rivalry, and to survive in and make sense of such a world where anything and everything can happen, and luck determines whether one lives or dies, men must make and stick to their own code of ethics that emphasises blood-brother friendships and loyalties even though this can be used against them (as happens in “Exiled”) and may lead to their own downfall and death. Constant and unexpected plot twists stress the random and capricious nature of the universe in which people must find and give meaning to their rat-race lives; the whole film becomes a series of sketches with each sketch having consequences that set up the next sketch. Coin flips drive the point home rather too obviously; this viewer had the impression that the coin-flip results simply legitimise what the gangsters have decided to do anyway. A running gag with two cops emphasises the ineffectiveness and corruption of police in this world and the heist scene where Blaze and Co co-opt a guard shows how casually ordinary people can slip into a life of crime when the wider world is so suspicious and indifferent to the individual that a person can be judged a criminal just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One would expect with the emphasis on plot that characters will be cardboard stereotypes and the acting correspondingly bare-bones minimal and efficient. Even the clothes worn conform to gangster-movie stereotypes with Blaze wearing the obligatory sunshades and tan-coloured trenchcoat and his mates in black leather. With most of the cast the minimal acting is the case but Wong stands out as the world-weary and cynical tough-nut Blaze despite doing and saying very little that’s out of the ordinary for his character. Ho as Wo’s wife is the other main acting highlight – she has a silent scene to herself which is heartbreaking in its anger, sorrow and sense of wasted life – and her personal pursuit of Blaze and Co, while not well defined, is a subplot that parallels the quartet’s quest for justice for Wo. Like the men, the women in the “Exiled” universe must make their own way and secure their niche in life in whatever way they can, often by prostitution or by becoming gangsters’ molls: either way won’t necessarily provide long-term security and comfort but it’s often the best the women can do.

The musical soundtrack is a mix of urban blues, Spanish-style acoustic guitar melodies and plaintive harmonica tunes that link “Exiled” to its Italian spaghetti Western inspirations. Other sounds in the film such as the thud of dropped bullets are beefed up in volume to sustain suspense and tension; they may also be a referential joke on To’s part that recalls previous Hong Kong gunfight action flicks.

For all its references, influences and cardboard cut-out people inhabiting a familiar noir world of bureaucratic and police corruption and complacency, mafia communities that make huge demands on one’s loyalty but give little in return and individuals who try to come to grips with the chaos that abounds in this world, “Exiled” never feels like a stale stitch-up job and is actually very absorbing. Perhaps it’s because in spite of their circumstances, Blaze and his fellow gangsters live life to the full in the knowledge that the next five minutes may be their last. The reckless way in which they live their lives and throw caution to the winds doesn’t guarantee a long life expectancy but they do it with enthusiasm and child-like enjoyment. The film finds room for slapstick comedy that serves to defuse tension and which makes pertinent social comments about police conduct and definitions of masculinity. Perhaps surprisingly for a gangster movie filled with violence and bloody deaths, “Exiled” is a celebration of life.