The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful 血觀音 (2017)

Taiwan

Director: Gilles Yang 楊雅喆

Studio: CMC 中環,  Atom 原子, Kaohsiung People* 高雄人, CS Productions 喆雪

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語, Cantonese 粵語, Japanese 日語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 112 minutes

Recommended.


The Tang family appear to be  a perfect trio. Mrs Tang 棠夫人, Tang Ning 棠寧 and Tang Zhen 棠真 attend parties in faultless matching outfits and mingle with high society.

The three of them seemingly work as a team to advance the family interests: Mrs Tang, the matriarch; Tang Ning, the seductress; and Tang Zhen, the innocent angel.

Together they have positioned the family amongst legislators and bank managers, at the very top of Taiwanese society.

But, in private, the family is breaking apart.

Tang Ning cannot sleep at night. Drugs, men, alcohol — nothing seems to satiate her.

Tang Zhen is an obedient and filial daughter — and yet she spies on her best friend and sister, and sings to herself about her loneliness.

And Mrs Tang has her own plans.

One day, Tang Zhen’s best friend Lin Pianpian 林翩翩 is almost killed when the rest of her family are brutally massacred.

The police suspect Pianpian’s boyfriend, stable boy Marco 王金山, who was seen running away from the house that evening.

But why is Tang Zhen harbouring him? And what kind of dealings did the Tang’s have with the Lin family?


The undeniable success story of this year’s Golden Horse Awards, The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful is a film that thrills on many levels.  Writing the plot summary was a challenge, because we did not want to give away any of the multiple twists.

Although less overtly based on Taiwan’s history than director Gilles Yang’s last film, 2012’s GF*BF 女朋友。男朋友, it nonetheless maintains that film’s social commentary and world building through its references to real events.

Where GF*BF is very much a film about the end of martial law and democratisation, The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful is about what came next in the 1990s. Much of the drama revolves around the illegal sale of land, a topic that was (and occasionally remains) extremely controversial. The story of a whole family being murdered by an aboriginal (like Marco) who had their ID card taken away is famous in Taiwan. Then there’s the political corruption (another 1990s topic) and gangsters.

It might sound surprising that all of this can fit into a film without being obtrusive.

That it does is a testament to the filmmakers, and actors. We will start with the actors, specifically the 3 leads: Kara Wai 惠英紅 as Mrs Tang, Vicky Chen 文淇 as Tang Zhen and Wu Kexi 吳可熙 as Tang Ning. The former two won the Best Actress prizes at the Golden Horse Festival, but in our eyes all three put forth absolutely wonderful performances. If nothing else, we would recommend The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful on the basis of their performances alone.

However, there is plenty else to admire. The atmosphere that Yang creates is aided by some excellent set and costume design. When attempting to evoke a certain time and place, small details such as these are crucial. The manner in which the narrative unfolds is also incredibly clever. This is a film that rewards careful viewers, and although it more than holds up under a single viewing, it is a film that we found even better the second time around.

The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful rounds out what has been a very strong year for Taiwanese movies. It is this reviewer’s film of the year, and with only a few weeks left of 2017, is likely to stay that way.

If you get the chance to see it, take it.

*we were unable to find an official English name for 高雄人. If the company has an official name, please let us know and we will use it.

The Golden Horse Awards 2017 第54屆金馬獎

The evening of November 25th saw the 54th edition of the Golden Horse Awards, the longest-running awards for Chinese-language cinema, hosted in Taipei.

Here are a few of our observations from the evening, as well as the award winners.

Taiwanese films win big

It’s been a few years since Taiwanese films have had such a successful outing. Although recent years have seen co-productions such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin 刺客聶隱娘 do well, fully made-in-Taiwan productions have rarely won the big prizes. That’s not a surprise, considering the growth in both the volume and budget  of films coming from the mainland.

Not this year.

Taiwanese productions took home Best Film, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Best Supporting Actor, as well as a host of other awards.

The biggest winner was undoubtedly The Bold, the Corrupt, and The Beautiful 血觀音, the latest from director Yang Ya-che  楊雅喆, which took home four of the 8 categories it was nominated in.

The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯 also had great success, including Best New Director and adapted screenplay.

And Bamboo Chen 陳竹昇 was rewarded for a fantastic year with the Best Supporting Actor award for his incredible portrayal of a transgender aboriginal in Alifu the Prince/ss 阿莉芙.

Female directors on top

In Hollywood, it remains a topic of some discussion how few female directors are recognised at the highest level. So it was certainly good to see that three of the 5 nominees for Best Director at the Golden Horse Awards were women, and that a woman took home the top prize. Something special guest Jessica Chastain noted on Twitter:

Of course, awards should be judged on merit, but there’s no doubting  the quality of films and freshness of perspective female directors can make when given the opportunities.

Winners

Best Film – The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful 血觀音

Best Director – Vivian Qu 文晏 (Angels Wear White 嘉年華)

Best Original Screenplay – Zhou Ziyang 周子陽 (Old Beast 老獸)

Best Adapted Screenplay – Huang Hsin-yao 黃信堯 (The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯)

Best Actor – Tu Men 涂門 (Old Beast 老獸)

Best Actress – Kara Wai 惠英紅 (The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful 血觀音)

Best Supporting Actor – Bamboo Chen 陳竹昇 (Alifu the Prince/ss 阿莉芙)

Best Supporting Actress – Vicky Chen 文淇 (The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful 血觀音)

Best Documentary – Inmates 囚

Best Animation – Have a Nice Day 大世界

Best Short Film – Babes’ Not Alone 亮亮與噴子

Best Animated Short – Losing Sight of a Longed Place 暗房夜空

Best Cinematography – Nakashima Nagao 中島長雄 (The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯)

Best Visual Effects – Johnny Lin 林哲民, Perry Kain, Thomas Reppen (See You Tomorrow 擺渡人)

Best Art Direction – Alfred Yau 邱偉明 (See You Tomorrow 擺渡人)

Best Makeup and Costume Design – William Chang 張叔平, Cheung Siu Hong 張兆康 (See You Tomorrow 擺渡人)

Best Action Choreography – Sang Lin 桑林 (Brother of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield 繡春刀 II 修羅戰場)

Best Original Score – Lin Sheng-xiang (The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯)

Best Original Song – To Have or Not to Have (The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯)

Best Film Editing – Jean Tsien 錢孝貞, Bob Lee 李博 (Plastic China 塑膠王國)

Best Sound Effects – Tu Duu-chih 杜篤之, Wu Shu-yao 吳書瑤, Tu Chun-tang 杜均堂 (Mon Mon Mon Monsters! 報告老師! 怪怪怪怪物!)

Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year – Hu Ding-yi 胡定一

Lifetime Award – Hsu Feng 徐楓

Best New Director – Huang Hsin-yao 黃信堯 (The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯)

Best New Performer – Rima Zeidan 瑞瑪席丹 (Missing Johnny 強尼 凱克)

Audience Choice – The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful 血觀音

 

 

 

 

 

The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (2017)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  劉偉強

Studio: China Film Group 中國電影集團, Bona Film Group 保利博納, August First 八一 et al.

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: War/History

Running Time: 133 minutes

Not Recommended.


Shanghai, 1926. The First United Front between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) comes to a crushing end. With the aid of Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 orders many of the leaders of the CPC to be killed or arrested, solidifying his position as China’s most powerful leader, and weakening rival factions within the KMT.

However, Chiang’s purge did not include all of the CPC’s leaders, and has angered many within his own party.

Inspired by the words of a little known representative from Hunan, Mao Zedong 毛澤東, several recent KMT defectors and CPC veterans unite under the charismatic leadership of Shanghai survivor Zhou Enlai 周恩來 and veteran Zhu De 朱德 to stage an uprising in Nanchang.

But the the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek are not going to let them go without a fight….


We were not eager to watch The Founding of an Army. The couple of friends who had watched it in Chinese cinemas had given less than stellar reviews; something that is backed up by critic reviews you will find online. And, they were right. This is a bad movie. However, it does make for an interesting discussion piece on Chinese cinema, and particularly state-led projects.

The third and final part of the trilogy of The Founding of films (alongside 2009’s The Founding of a Republic and 2011’s The Founding of a Party), this year’s effort brings a conclusion to this cinematic celebration of the foundations of modern China: the state, the party and, finally, the army.

This reviewer was living in China for the release of the first instalment, and can recall it creating a fair amount of buzz (and not just in government-led media). It had an all-star cast, a literal who’s who of Chinese cinema, even if stars such as Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi only had the briefest of cameos. The film itself was forgettable and unsurprisingly hardly an accurate retelling of events; however, it spoke to the wealth of talent available when the best from throughout the Chinese-speaking world came together.

Fast forward two instalments and it’s fair to say the hype has died down. The Founding of an Army is bereft of the star power the first two instalments had, instead mixing a few old faces with a number of up-and-coming idols.  While I can understand the logic behind such a decision, trying to lure in the younger crowd who make up the majority of cinema goers, it’s fair to say it did not have the desired effect.

Audience reaction to the film was so bad, that comments on China’s main film website (think IMDB), Douban, were shut down. That’s for those who actually went to see the film, which, despite only competing with other domestic films performed abysmally at the box office, losing out to the patriotic action of Wolf Warrior 2. It even had official complaints made against it by relatives of the revolutionary heroes it aims to depict, who took umbrage at the use of pretty boy idols and total disregard of facts.

To be fair to The Founding of an Army, it’s hardly unusual for cinema to do away with facts in the name of a good story. Unfortunately it never really seems to find one.

We here at The Chinese Cinema Blog obviously have a great interest in China’s history, it’s politics etc. But even for us, the whirlwind of characters that are introduced is disorientating. From Zhou Enlai, to Mao, to Chiang, to He Long, back to Zhou, to Zhu De, this film jumps around constantly and without mercy, but in doing so it takes many compelling stories and makes each one utterly limp. This leaves little room for actors or director to work with, resulting in cut and paste stereotypes of everyone involved. Even the action scenes, presumably the strength of a war film, suffer from a lack of focus.

As such, we cannot recommend this film to anyone who wants to be entertained, or to watch a good piece of cinema.

All is not lost, however. If you are interested in how the CPC wants to project its own history, and in turn, China’s history, The Founding of an Army is an interesting study. The events upon which it is based were mostly a series of ever worsening defeats for the party’s fledgling armed forces, but watching this film gives you an idea of how such events have been transformed into a victory in the national narrative. So, despite its seeming lack of cinematic value, there’s still might be something to learn amongst the wreckage.

Translation of an interview with The Foolish Bird director Huang Ji

The Foolish Bird was one of our favourite films from 2017. We recently came across a very interesting interview with the film’s director Huang Ji on YouTube, in which the director discusses the film and her motivations in making it. It really does provide a fascinating insight into the process and motivations of this talented woman. Below is our translation:

I’m Huang Ji, and I’m the director of the ‘The Foolish Bird’. It’s a film about a 17-year-old left-behind girl. We took the film to Berlin [film festival], where we won a judge’s award.

Because I myself grew up as a left-behind child, by making these films [about left behind children], I’ve slowly been able to heal myself.

From the beginning, I never had a normal life together with my parents. I spent the time with my grandparents.

My mother, when she was away working, she didn’t return home for eight years. When she would occasionally come and visit, she would frequently have bought clothes for me that I’d already grown too big for.

In middle school and high school, I would date lots of different guys, because I thought that if I was with them, they would care about me.

At that time, I had one boyfriend I really liked. The first time that we had sex, he said to me ‘why didn’t you bleed?’ and then he just left, leaving me in that room.

Now at that time I really felt very very hurt, because that really was my first time.

So, this extremely unjust situation with that old boyfriend, this kind of relationship, we [her and husband Ryuji Otsuka] took it and put it on display in ‘The Foolish Bird’.

I really must thank my husband, he really pushed me to go and meet with my old boyfriend.

When we met, I asked him ‘why did you treat me like that?’

His answer was not what I expected. He said that, back then, all of his friends would treat their girlfriends that way.

Really, all it needs is for men and women to be together, and it’s possible there will be this kind of sexual repression.

For people who’ve been similarly hurt, they all will think that this was there fault. Lots of girls, they will tell me honestly, that when it comes to sex they’ve had a lot of pain.

After [hearing such stories], I just felt that I should take my story and tell it, film it. Because, now I have my own child.

She too is going through the process of growing up, and naturally one day she too will be start being interested in her sexuality.

So, when that time comes, how best to say to her? This is also one of the main topics of ‘The Foolish Bird’.

Because my film is all shot in my hometown in Hunan. It’s just a small town.

The result is that at a very very remote middle school, we discovered her [lead actress Yao Honggui]. The first time that I came into contact with her, I thought that her face looked particularly beautiful.

I’m just like a big sister to her, and sometimes like a mother.

For example, sometimes we’ll even talk about self-care [masturbating]!

At first [when talking about the role], I just asked her what kind of boy she likes, just talking like good friends. So that when she acts, she will feel that this character is one that we both created.

Because, the actors we use are all very professional, but we use this kind of small scale company method to shoot our films.

My grandfather plays a grandfather, the actor who plays the teacher was my high school teacher, and now Honggui’s teacher. All the girls who bully the main character, they are also students at that school.

If I didn’t make movies, I’d maybe be carrying a lot of weight on my shoulders. But, as I went through the process of making movies and lifting this weight off my shoulders, other people gave me so much more courage and strength.

Just like one time, after a screening had finished, a member of the audience came over and said ‘this is the first time I’ve watched a film and cried’. He said it’s not because he’d been the victim, but because ‘The Foolish Bird’ was one of our favourite films from 2017. Read our translation of a fascinating interview with director Huang Ji, as she reveals her motivations and process in making the film.he’d been the perpetrator. But he said when he’d finished watching the film, he decided he had to say sorry to her [his victim].

So, I really need to thank cinema. Even though I’m not rich, I can take the hardship.

Translation by The Chinese Cinema Blog

All credit to 一条 YIT for the interview, which you can  watch below.

 

 

The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯 (2017)

Taiwan

Director: Huang Hsin-yao 黃信堯

Studio: Mandarin Vision 華文,Cream Production 甜蜜生活

Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語

Genre: Dark Comedy

Running Time: 104 minutes

Recommended.


Kevin 黃啟文 is an artist. His work has made him a local celebrity. He spends his time with politicians, police chiefs…and beautiful women. When he’s not working on his latest commission, a giant (headless) statue of Buddha for an important festival, he’s driving the streets in his Mercedes Benz — usually with a beautiful younger woman.

Kevin’s gateman is Pickle 菜埔, a quiet man who lives where he works, and looks after his ailing mother. He and his friend Belly Button 肚財, a quiet man who collects rubbish to sell for recycling, often sit, eat, and drink tea whilst Kevin is out.

One day, when Belly Button comes round, he finds that Pickle’s TV set doesn’t work. Bored, he suggests looking at the dash-cam footage from Kevin’s Mercedes. They soon discover a window into Kevin’s private world, of young women and secret rendezvous.

The next morning, everyone arrives to see Kevin has worked through the night to affix the Buddha’s giant head. And the ornament on his Mercedes has been knocked out of place…


The Great Buddha+ is a film that we have been waiting to see ever since it swept the awards at this years Taipei Film Festival. From various articles about the film, we knew that it was a distinctly Taiwanese film; and, we can now confirm that is absolutely the case.

Overflowing with cultural references which will make the film much more fulfilling for those who are familiar with life on the island, especially its more rural, southern areas. Factional local politics (replete with dirty dealings), the lives of Taiwan’s numerous recyling collectors, and powerful religious organisations are all on display. In a particularly amusing scene, Belly and Pickle are taken by a friend to visit a temple to cleanse their souls of evil spirits. The god of this temple? Chiang Kai-shek (not someone that most Taiwanese would consider as the ideal man for the job, though there genuinely are a few such temples). Then there’s the device upon which the film builds its narrative, the dash-cam cameras.

Dash cams are not something that we would frequently see before moving to Asia. Something that was perhaps reserved for people with lots of money. However, in many Asian countries, they are an essential part of driving culture. This review is not the place to get into the intricacies of why that is, but suffice to say that it is completely unremarkable for someone to have a dash cam in Taiwan.

What the dash cam allows is for director Huang to use one of the most interesting narrative structures from a movie this year, and one that also plays a role in the films fairly unique aesthetic.

Via the dash-cam footage, we are intermittently brought into a world of full colour in Kevin’s car. Though often devoid of visible characters, we hear (and occasionally see) many of the plots most important developments through this window.

The Great Buddha+ is director Huang’s first full-length narrative feature (he previously made a short film, Buddha 大佛, from which this film was developed), but he has a rich background in documentary film making. This has transferred to his narrative films, in two ways. Firstly, in his choice to focus on many of the forgotten people that one can find in Taiwan. Belly Button represents the ubiquitous recycling collectors, who can be found in every neighbourhood collecting various items to sell on to recycling firms for small change. As he travels, he encounters many who society seems to have forgotten, including Pickle, who has for years lived in the same leaky hut where he works. Secondly, Huang chooses to place himself in the role of narrator for the story. A bold move in your first feature film, but because of Huang’s experience, he is very comfortable in the role.  It could easily be a disaster when seeking to maintain audience engagement, but Huang always manages to keep you engaged with his narrative style.

Anchored by solid performances around the board, and a story which will genuinely make you laugh, and cry, The Great Buddha+ is absolutely the must-see Taiwanese film of 2017.

Turn Around 老師,你會不會回來?(2017)

Taiwan

Director: Chen Dapu  陳大璞

Studio: Fengshang International 風尚國際

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: True Story

Running Time: 108 minutes

Recommended.


In Taiwan’s rural Nantou County, a trainee teacher, Wang Zhengzhong 王政忠, is placed at a remote school for evaluation. Despite being a Nantou native, Wang nonetheless finds the poor facilities and unruly students difficult to deal with. Unable to secure a transfer elsewhere, Wang tries many different teaching methods in order to improve his teacher evaluation, including forming a Chinese orchestra. Gradually, he wins over his students, but also draws the ire of his colleague, Xiao Lun 小倫, who chides him for having selfish motives.

Time passes, and Wang leaves the school to undergo compulsory military service on the island of Kinmen. On September 21st, 1999, a devastating earthquake strikes Nantou County, claiming thousands of lives and leaving many more homeless. Wang is released from his service in order to check on his family, but also takes the opportunity to visit his old workplace. What he finds are chaotic ruins. The town and school completely destroyed, students and teachers living in makeshift camps — some gone forever.

Among these ruins, a student tearfully asks Wang, “Teacher, will you come back?”

Faced with the desperate faces of those around him, Wang determines that he must stay and help. But, amongst the rubble and broken families, can he do anything to rebuild what was lost?


Based on the book of the same title Turn Around is a film that knows what it’s trying to be. It would have been easy for the film to drift into trying to be a disaster film, rather than focusing on the relationship between Wang and his students. A massive earthquake such as that show in the film can tempt to show hundreds of buildings collapsing and lengthy rescue efforts, but instead director Chen chooses to keep such scenes short (although perhaps due to budgetary constraints). This gives the audience more time to appreciate the nuances of the teacher-student relationship; something that naturally builds up over a long period of time.

It’s this which helps carry the film for someone, such as myself, who did not live through the experience of the 921 earthquake, and who also did not go through the Taiwanese school system — two factors that will certainly help the film to connect with domestic audiences.

The two leads, Jay Shih 是元介 as Wang and Hsia Yu-chiao 夏于喬 as Xiao Lun, give steady performances, but its the array of characters that make up the students which keep the film entertaining with their fun-albeit-typical school antics.

The tragic aftermath of the earthquake strikes the correct tone, never overplaying its hand but remaining moving enough to bring tears to our eyes on more than one occasion.

Although it’s hard to think of any one thing that Turn Around does spectacularly well, it’s equally a film that does the things it needs to do at a good level. For those who grew up in Taiwan during the time, it’s probably going to be a better experience. But, its story of rebuilding from tragedy and the way a teacher can lift their pupils beyond what they thought possible, are global.

Pigeon Tango 盜命師 (2017)

Taiwan

Director: Li Qiyuan 李啟源

Studio: Chi & Company

Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語

Genre: Thriller

Running Time: 107 minutes

Recommended. Good performances and interesting characters are always a solid combination.


In Southern Taiwan, Barbie 金芭比 eeks out an existence pole dancing on Taiwan’s infamous electric flower cars. Her abusive, drunkard boyfriend races pigeons, until one day his prize pigeon Tango goes missing. Enraged that he’ll be unable to pay his debts, he dies in a fatal car accident while Barbie is working.

At the scene of the crash, Barbie is approached by a mysterious man, who offers to buy her deceased boyfriend’s organs. Faced with being hounded by the loan sharks her boyfriend borrowed from, she reluctantly agrees. This is how she meets the quiet Malacca, who performs the operation.

Elsewhere, local gang leader Ronin  肉仁 hopes for a kidney donor for his ailing sister. But her blood type is rare, and the only match found — an autistic girl in his church — is not a relative and so cannot undergo a live transplant according to Taiwanese law.

Then he’s approached by veteran detective Yang Kaiming 陽開明, who has been searching for Malacca for many years. He has a plan to catch him, but who are they willing to sacrifice to get what they want?


We have to admit, when we saw the poster we weren’t optimistic about this film. We had in mind some low-budget horror tropes, but Pigeon Tango does a very good job of confounding those expectations. Indeed, despite the ominous look of the poster, the gore shown in the trailer below is the sum total in the film. The organ selling is but one part of the story, and arguably not even the main one. Thus we have a film who’s Chinese title 盜命師, Life Robber, is far removed from its English title Pigeon Tango, which refers very literally to the pigeon Barbie inherits from her deceased boyfriend.

Using animals as plot devices and metaphors is not unfamiliar territory for director Li, whose previous film, 2011’s Blowfish 河豚, used the titular fish in much the same way. In this case, Barbie’s pigeon is the link between her and Ronin, who happens to run the local pigeon racing club. We thought it worked well enough as a thread to link their stories together. One scene — where Malacca ends up feeding the boyfriend’s ashen remains to the pigeon by mistake — drew plenty of laughter, and was a very good example of the way the director used comedy sparingly to break up the long segments of tension building. It’s likely Li had a deeper meaning behind his decision to use pigeons in this film, but we’re not entirely clear what that might have been.

Despite the pigeon being effective in tying Barbie and Ronin’s stories together, overall the film still suffers from a narrative that is a little too large for its run time. There are a lot of interesting stories presented to us: Barbie, Ronin, Malacca, Detective Yang and Miu 貓丫are all characters that we were interested to know more about. Unfortunately, we are mostly just left guessing at details and motivations. At one point near the end, a rather large explanatory monologue is given by Yang, presumably as the director felt that the story was not clear enough. Whilst we had guessed at most of what was revealed from previous scenes, the fact it was needed at all is not a positive.

With that said, to craft a film with many interesting characters is something to be respected, even if they ultimately fall short of what they could be. This is aided by universally strong performances from the cast, with special mention to Hsiang Hsi 喜翔 as Ronin and Annie Chen 陳庭妮 as Barbie.

This is Li’s best work to date, and another good film to add to what is a growing list of quality releases coming from Taiwan in 2017.

Small Talk 日常對話 (2016)

Taiwan

Director: Huang Hui-chen 黃惠偵

Studio: Small Talk Productions

Language: Taiwanese 台語,Mandarin 國語

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 88 minutes

Recommended. A fantastic, emotional look into a mother and daughter’s relationship, revealed over a series of dialogues between the two.


Huang has always felt as though there’s a wall between herself and her mother. When she was young, she and her sister didn’t go to school, instead they helped their mother in her job as a priestess. At night, her mother would go out to meet friends, leaving her two children.

Now Huang has her own daughter, but her mother still lives with her. Things have changed little. Aside from the time she takes to cook, Huang’s mother still spends most of her time out with her friends.

In a documentary shot over more than a decade, Huang decides to find out the reasons behind the distance between them. But the truth will also force her to confront her own childhood memories, and her mother’s role in them.


Small Talk is a film which surprised us. Although it premiered last year to very favourable reviews, we had not taken the time to find out what the film was about, never having had the chance for one reason or another to see the film. However, by the time the opportunity to see the film came along, we had certainly had heard enough praise to know we should seize the chance.

The documentary can be split into two parts. The majority are the scenes shot following the birth of director Huang’s daughter, but there is also a large amount of material shot dating back to 1998, documenting many small moments of family life. According to the director, she had been recording this story for many years, but it was only after the birth of her daughter that she finally decided she had to put it all together to show the world.

It is a story that reaches into the very fundamental aspects of the human experience: love, family ties, societal expectations, and the depth that trauma can scar someone’s life.

Many of the documentary’s revelations about the lives of Huang and her mother take place at a table in her apartment, in a direct conversation between the two women. This incredibly private setting serves to emphasise the nature of this story, which in turn, can make it ever harder to watch some of the most emotional scenes. Yet they reveal such a remarkable story that you will do so.

Such a story cannot be properly served by a our words, but we will give a brief summary. Huang’s mother is gay, though she grew up in a time when there was not an acceptable life choice. She had two children with Huang’s father, in a loveless arranged marriage. He would gamble, drink and abuse her, and we later find out in one of the documentary’s most harrowing scenes, Huang. Her mother admits that if she ever had the choice, she’d have never gotten married and never had children. And yet, behind it all there it’s clear she does deeply love her children. But a lifetime of hiding, of bearing the “shame” of being beaten, and living a life branded a “deviant” have clearly worn deeply.

Although many families may not have a story quite as dramatic as Huang’s own, to us that is not the point of the film. It is rare, in any family, for people to truly peel back the layers behind the way we treat each other. Truly, every life is full of heartbreak and regrets. Imagine yourself sitting down with someone you love, and examining your relationship. What would you find?

Wolf Warrior 2 戰狼2 (2017)

China

Director: Wu Jing 吳京

Studio: Beijing Dengfeng 北京登峰 etc.

Language: Mandarin 普通話, English

Genre: Action

Running Time: 123 minutes

Not Recommended. If you really love action, there’s something here for you despite the aggressive nationalism. If you like a story, or a plot, or acting, please look elsewhere.


Former member of the Chinese special forces, Leng Feng 冷鋒, has moved to Africa following his dismissal from the armed forces. He lives a directionless life, hoping to somehow track down the kidnappers of his lover, Long Xiaoyun 龍小雲. Suddenly, he is caught up in an armed uprising, which threatens the lives of many Chinese nationals who are trapped and unable to be evacuated. With the Chinese military unable to intervene due to UN regulations, Feng sets off on a daring solo rescue mission.

Along the way, he runs into new friends — including the beautiful Dr. Rachel Prescott Smith — and adversaries. The rebels have hired a western mercenary group who are hell bent on destruction, and have a connection with Feng’s past.

Having contracted a deadly virus during the rescue of Dr. Smith, Feng faces a race against time to try and evacuate the remaining Chinese citizens from a Chinese-owned factory. But, facing overwhelming firepower, and an incurable disease, all looks lost. Luckily, Dr. Smith trials an untested vaccine on Feng, allowing them to face the oncoming assault together with their few remaining allies.

Will they be able to hold on? Will the Chinese military intervene? And, what is this mysterious connection between Feng and the mercenary group which hounds them?


Few films this year have got the Western media talking more than Wu Jing’s sequel to 2015’s relatively anonymous Wolf Warrior 戰狼. Once again Wu Jing both directs and stars, and what’s on offer remains the standard action film fair of the first effort. So, what is it that has suddenly sparked a flurry of interest in the film outside of China? Well, there’s the fact that it’s smashed box office records for a Chinese-made film; it continues to climb the all-time lists as well. However, most of the column inches in English-language media have focused on the film’s decidedly nationalist tone.

A lot of coverage has particularly focused on one of the film’s taglines: “If you offend my Chinese people, no matter the distance, you must be killed” 犯我中華者,雖遠必誅. This is certainly an alarming sounding line, although one that has been adapted from a famous historical saying (Traditional Chinese), but equally it’s a tagline to a ridiculous action movie, and was used for the previous movie as well. Truthfully, this movie is merely another part of a long narrative of increasing nationalism in the PRC, though it has gained pace under the leadership of current President Xi Jinping 習近平.

In our view, the film’s nationalism is perhaps a little more brazen than the majority of modern Hollywood’s output. In one (unintentionally amusing) scene, Dr. Smith says they should seek aid from the American embassy, only to find they are closed and thus her only way to contact them is through Twitter, a not-so-subtle dig at the banned-in-China platform. There are constant references to China’s great relationship with Africa, and of course China’s military is on full display.

With that said, despite its lack of subtlety, it is not really any worse than generations of action films that have come out of the USA. It reminded me of last year’s London Has Fallen (a terrible film). So, it is somewhat disingenuous for anyone who tries to sell this film as being fundamentally more nationalistic in content than things that have come before. It is often a trapping of the genre, with its focus on military might.

In fact, it’s refreshing on some level to see a high budget action film like this produced outside of Hollywood. Though Chinese action films are not unusual, with a long history of martial arts films, this kind of solo military hero is rarely anything but an American on the big screen. And, Wu makes a good hero. He’s clearly got the physique and the moves for the role, which has no doubt helped sell the movie at home.

We are less convinced by his ability as a director. The action scenes are sometimes well done, but often hampered by a directorial style that leans heavily on fast cuts. The result is far too confusing, with it often being unclear who is doing what, or even what exactly they are doing. Of course action films are meant to be fast paced, but when the scenes have a bit more room to breath, the results are much more effective; there’s stuff in here for action aficionados to enjoy.

We could ignore the nationalism and enjoy the film for its action scenes if it had a plot to bring us in. Unfortunately, Wolf Warrior 2 has one of the worst plots ever. Almost nothing is explained, and characters are as shallow as could be. No doubt those who’ve watched the first instalment will get more out of it, though given their relative success it’s highly likely most of the audience have not seen the first film.

It’s impossible to give a fair judgement on anyone’s acting ability because the script is a joke, full of terrible one liners and plot exposition. The numerous Caucasian actors give hilariously hammy performances, presumably on the basis of the script. This makes it very hard to understand why they are so murderous; something which is never explained.

The positives that the film puts forward in portraying an Asian action hero are completely undone by the stereotypical and dismissive portrayal of Africa. Although the film clearly tries to talk up China’s relationship with the continent, it manages to fall into every single stereotype in the book. War torn and ravaged by rebellion? Check. In need of saving by a benevolent foreign power? Check. Dancing round a fire? Check. Living in camps and infected by an unknown deadly virus? Check check check. All of these sins have been committed by others many times before, but it’s sad to see a film that is clearly trying to say that China does things differently in Africa demonstrate it does nothing differently.

Wolf Warrior 2 is a film which doesn’t deserve to be as popular as it is. Its record breaking success may make many wonder if Chinese cinema goers are completely devoid of taste. But, most media outlets have failed to mention some important facts. Firstly, the Chinese authorities have delayed a number of big Hollywood films to allow Wolf Warrior 2 and The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (made to celebrate the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th anniversary) a free run at the summer box office. These include Spiderman: Home Coming and Dunkirk. The Founding of an Army is a CCP-sponsored history film, and has been utterly rejected by cinema goers. Thus, the choice for the millions of audience looking to escape the summer heat is actually not much of a choice at all. Secondly, clearly the film’s themes and positive portrayal of China are going to play well to a domestic audience. Finally, stupid action films are almost always solid performers at the box office. See: Transformers.

For us though, Wu Jing should stick to playing the hero. His work as a director is much less appealing than his action man credentials.

The Man Who Has A Camera 持攝影機的男人 (1933)

China / Taiwan

Director: Liu Na’ou 劉吶鷗

Studio: N/A

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Japanese 日文

Genre: Silent / Travel

Running Time: 30 minutes

Recommended.


Although the most famous works of early Chinese cinema come from the so-called leftist films of the 1930s, a number of which have been covered on this blog e.g. Street Angel 馬路天使, it’s important when looking at the historiography of Chinese cinema to remember that it was mostly formalised during the initial years of Communist rule post-1949. One of these notable works is The History of the Development of Chinese Cinema 中國電影發展史 by Cheng Jihua 程季華.

Cheng’s analysis of pre-war Shanghai cinema puts great emphasis on the differences between leftist “hard” films, and reactionary pro-KMT/colonialist “soft” films. The hard/soft nomenclature had in fact been used previously, but Cheng’s work was the first time that these terms came to mean that “hard” films were serious political works whilst “soft” films were inherently tainted by impure ideologies and thus, less worthy pieces of art.

Subsequently, a large-scale abandonment of these films as serious viewing took place, until the 1990s, when those works that survived began to be reexamined by both domestic and international scholars. In the late 1990s, The Man Who Has A Camera was discovered in an attic by relatives of Liu Na’ou — famous not just for his own directorial work in Shanghai, but his critical essays and literature as a member of the cosmopolitan class.

Liu was truly a product of this particular moment in history. Born into a southern Taiwanese family during its time as a Japanese colony, Liu would go on to spend several years studying in Japan itself, before relocating to Shanghai in 1926. Thus, Liu was exposed to a great number of cultural influences that would influence his own world view and aesthetic.

The Man Who Has A Camera is clearly not a film that was intended for public audiences, being partially a study of Liu’s family and friends, mixed in with various scenes from travels around China, Taiwan and Japan. But its 30 minutes are a glimpse into the much-criticised world of elite, cosmopolitan, Shanghai.

Despite not featuring on film at all, the influence of the Shanghai lifestyle can be seen throughout. Comprising sections filmed in Tainan, Taiwan; Tokyo, Japan; Guangdong, China; and Mukden in then-Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (modern day Shenyang in Liaoning Province), Liu’s camera frequently focuses on his glamorous companions, or on a bustling mechanised cityscape. He travels by road, by boat and by air, interacting with people across cultural boundaries (notably finding a gurning foreigner in Guangdong). This is interspersed with more traditional street scenes, including an extended parade replete with lion dancers in Tainan, or a tranquil walk through the Japanese countryside. The calm, stillness, and simplicity of the scenes with his family in Tainan — an elderly woman, young children with their parents puzzled at this new kind of photography — is starkly contrasted with a military parade by Nationalist forces in Guangdong.

To watch The Man Who Has A Camera is to be taken to a world where the concept of national identities has been blurred into a cosmopolitan whole.  A private film, and as such one that has been made in order to convey emotions and memories of a time that we cannot truly understand. But, it still tells us much about Liu as a man and his style. Bearing many of the hallmarks of his preferred style of filmmaking, it has a wonderful kineticism on display in its numerous travel and street scenes.

Liu’s life was cut short in 1940 following his assassination in Shanghai, a fate he shared with friend and fellow author/filmmaker Mu Shiying 穆時英, apparently for collaboration with the Japanese. The life and times he portrayed in his work were but a brief snapshot in history, but they remain somewhat of an enigma, buried as they are under the politically unappealing headings of ‘collaborationist’ and ‘reactionary’.

There is no doubt, however, that The Man Who Has A Camera stands as an important record of that time, and the unique identity of those such as Liu who straddled cultures in 1930s Shanghai.