The Foolish Bird 笨鳥 (2017)

China

Director: Huang Ji 黃驥, Otsuka Ryuji 大塚龍治

Studio: Coolie Film Corporation 庫里  Yellow-Green Pi 龍驥映畫

Language: Hunanese 湘語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 118 minutes

Recommended. This style of film isn’t for everyone, and is not the rarity of 15 years ago. That said, this kind of story from a female perspective by a woman director sadly still is. Just remember it’s raw and it’s grim.


This is part one of our Taipei Film Festival 2017 coverage! Over the next 2 weeks, we’ll be reviewing the best in Chinese-language cinema from the festival.


Lin Sen 林森, played by non-professional actress Yao Honggui 姚紅貴, lives in an unremarkable town in Hunan Province. Her mother is frequently away trying to deal with her faltering businesses, and Lin remains in her hometown with her grandparents. She faces the same mundane challenges as many in her position: the pressure to do well at school, bullying and a lack of privacy at home. The only person she seems to enjoy spending time with is her friend Mei Zi 梅子, and the two of them spend hours hanging around in internet cafes like most of their peers. Yao has secretly been stealing confiscated phones from school, and her and Mei decide to sell them to boys, replete with nude selfies discovered on some of the phones.

Having sold a phone to one boy, the two go to get their hair done to celebrate. Afterwards, the owner of the hairdressers invites the girls for drinks, promising to take some photos of the girls to hang in his new store. The two drink until they are passed out, and Yao awakes the next morning to find she is alone, and she cannot get in contact with Mei.

Some time passes, and there is still no word from Mei. Yao’s mother comes home, needing to borrow some money for the business. She spends some time with Lin, who is suffering from stomach pains. After examining her daughter, she realises she has an STD, but does not talk to her about it. Suddenly one day, Lin receives a message from Mei, asking for some money. However, Lin has started dating the local police chief’s son, and tells her she’ll deal with it later.

Soon after, Mei is dead, having committed suicide by jumping from a local pagoda. At her funeral, Lin discovers photos relating to STDs in Mei’s phone’s memory card. Having previously thought she may be pregnant, she suddenly understands what has happened — they have been raped by the hairdresser’s owner, who has an STD.

However, her confrontation with him goes nowhere, as he brushes off her accusations, and chases her away. Lin has nowhere to go, and her relationship with the police chief’s son is too distant, filled with brief and worrying sexual encounters — he forces her to perform oral sex and she implores him to rape her, if he’s man enough.

There’s no happy endings, as she’s caught and punished for the stolen phones. The only resolution comes from the police — they have found a murderer and rapist who’s been on the loose throughout. It’s the boy they sold the first phone to.


This is a film which will not comes as much of a surprise to many who have kept up with the latest generation of independent Chinese film makers. This kind of hyper-realistic, slow-paced film has been something of a calling card for a generation that was inspired by the works of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke賈樟柯.

However, directors Huang Ji and Otsuka Ryuji (a husband and wife team) have certainly brought their own flourishes to this particular story. This is the second of what is planned to be a trilogy of films following life in smalltown Hunan Province, with both starring local girl Yao Honggui.

From the moment the film opens with a rather grotesque shot of Lin stuffing fish bladders, it is clear that this is a film which is not here to make you feel comfortable. Everything about the film feels not quite right, an eeriness that is present on the gloomy architecture, the incessant rain and mist and the ever present phones and internet cafes, which represent an escape for all these young people.

There is a lot to dissect, and for some, the film may not provide any answers at all.

But, in our view, it does much of what director Huang has stated she wanted to achieve. She successfully shines a spotlight on the real issue of sexual assault, and an inability to talk about sexual relationships openly in today’s China. Despite progress, and many years of stated equality, China remains a deeply patriarchal society.

It’s also refreshing to have that expressed via a female director, and it shows in the way that Huang chooses to shoot a number of scenes.

The film’s title refers to a Chinese proverb 笨鳥先飛,  which literally means the stupid bird’s fly first, and is traditionally used to mean that those with less ability need to start first. For this film, however, the director commented that she wanted to focus on how foolish decisions at that age can often lead to tragedy at that age. So it is likely to be a play on the phrase.

We will certainly be keeping an eye on her future work, and will try to secure a copy of the first part in this meant-to-be trilogy, Egg and Stone for review.

You can watch the trailer below:

Street Angel 馬路天使 (1937)

China

Director: Yuan Muzhi 袁牧之

Studio: Mingxing 明星

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama / Comedy

Running Time: 91 minutes

Recommended. Perhaps the pinnacle of 1930s Shanghai’s leftist movement.


 

The leftist cinema of 1930s Shanghai is not for the faint of heart. Not for nothing did this cinema become termed as “hard cinema” — juxtaposed against the supposed “soft cinema” that focused more on the lifestyles of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan residents. Such films focused on the problems in society, and the great disparity between the haves and have-nots; inevitably these are not happy tales. Consequently, regardless of their individual merits, these movies can sometimes feel very similar.

And, on the surface, Street Angel is no different. The protagonists are impoverished and their lives are made miserable by those with money and power. One of them’s a prostitute, and the story does not have a happy ending. Additionally, it’s set in Shanghai.

Yet Street Angel manages to fulfil the tropes of the time without feeling stale. It comes as little surprise to us that it was very popular at the time of its release. By utilising classic melodrama with well-timed comedy, and even musical interludes (replete with sing-along lyrics), the film never drags, and uses all of these techniques to get its message across.

Two sisters, Xiao Hong 小紅 and Xiao Yun 小雲, are cruelly treated by their adopted parents, with Xiao Yun forced into prostitution to provide money for their gambling mother, and Xiao Hong singing for clients in their tea house. When a wealthy man offers to buy Xiao Hong, the sisters enlist a local street musician Xiao Chen 小陳 to help Xiao Hong run away. However, it’s soon clear that despite her escape, there is little that can be done to help improve her and her sister’s situation — ultimately ending in tragedy.

Director Yuan Muzhi does a fantastic job of showing the audience the contrast between the caring and colourful protagonists, especially Xiao Chen and his group of often-comical friends, and the coldness of Shanghai’s elite.

In one memorable scene, Xiao Chen and his friend go to a lawyer’s to try and resolve Xiao Hong’s situation. However, they do not get the chance to finish as the lawyer tells them his rates before telling them to reconsider.

The sister’s adoptive parents meanwhile, whilst not members of the elite, are shown to be members of callous middle-class, desperate for money — through gambling, or selling their daughters.

Yuan uses the city of Shanghai itself to great effect, bookending the film with shots of Shanghai’s grand colonial buildings, and using the opening montage to juxtapose the neon lights of 1930s Shanghai with the narrow streets and poverty of the city.

Street Angel was one of the final leftist films released in 1930s Shanghai. Full-scale war with Japan would break out later that year, and film production dropped dramatically. But, this remains one of the highlights of the era, and is highly recommended.

 

Blood on Wolf Mountain 狼山喋血記 (1936)

China

Director: Fei Mu 費穆

Studio: Lianhua 聯華

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 70 minutes

Not Recommended. Although it’s worth a watch for those interested in its background.


 

For the second part of our look into the 1930s Golden Age, we have another Lianhua production, this time in glorious sound!

The 1930s were a time of upheaval in cinemas all over the globe, as sound was steadily introduced and film production switched to this method. By 1936, just two years after The Goddess was filmed, the majority of films produced were talkies.

The context of Blood on Wolf Mountain is perhaps more interesting than the content of the film, and it’s certainly hard to talk about as a stand alone film.

The plot is simple. A village is terrorised by regular incursions from a local pack of wolves — with the villagers torn between not provoking the wolves and taking action. The “don’t be hasty” line is peddled by the village leader (in what is a suitably cowardly performance by the actor who’s name I unfortunately have been unable to verify), whilst the urge to action is led by Xiao Yu 小魚 (played by star-of-the-era  Li Lili 黎莉莉). Xiao Yu ultimately succeeds in rousing the entire village to successfully defeat the wolves, after her father is killed by them.

As a film, Blood on Wolf Mountain does not hold up nearly as well as others from this era, when viewed from a modern perspective. The film contains numerous action scenes, including the climactic battle with the wolves, and there was simply no convincing way to film such scenes at the time. As such, it utilises a number of extremely fast cuts to gloss over the clearly fake action. Many of the actors would not have had much experience outside of silent films, and there are a number of slapstick performances that don’t really suit the tone of the film.

In context, however, the film gains a new life.

It is widely considered an allegory for the attitudes within China to the ever-growing spread of Japanese imperialism. Though the Second Sino-Japanese War would not break out until 1937, Japanese encroachment into China had been ongoing for many years, including the ceding of Taiwan following the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, and the annexation of Manchuria following the Mukden Incident in 1931.

It’s not hard to see. The ineffective leaders, urging restraint and to avoid provocation, easily draw comparisons with the Kuomintang-led government at the time, which intentionally tried to avoid war (albeit to give it time to modernise its armed forces). Meanwhile we have the passionate youth, who cannot stand living in fear, uniting to drive away the wolves.

This also placed the film firmly in the leftist cinema of the time, which focused on the struggles of the ordinary citizen against figures of authority in society. Of note, the film starred Jiang Qing 江青 in a supporting role (under her stage name Lan Ping 藍蘋). Jiang is none other than the infamous Madame Mao, Mao Zedong’s 毛澤東 fourth wife and one of the key members of the Gang of Four who helped orchestrate the Cultural Revolution. She is pictured in the picture at the top, on the right.

At the outbreak of war in 1937, she would flee Shanghai for the Yan’nan base of the Chinese Communist Party. During the Cultural Revolution, her co-star Li Lili was denounced and suffered horrific abuse on the orders of Jiang. Her husband died as a result. Jiang did not forget those who were more successful than her.

 

Although, in this blog’s opinion, this film cannot hold a candle to some of director Fei Mu’s other work, it nonetheless remains a fascinating piece of history, capturing the circumstances of the time.

There is a version of this on YouTube which is linked below for those interested. There are no subtitles, Chinese or English.

The upload is in no way affiliated to this blog, all copyright belongs to the rights holders.

The Goddess 神女 (1934)

China

Director: Wu Yonggang 吳永剛

Studio: Lianhua 聯華

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Silent / Drama

Running Time: 75 minutes

Recommended.  If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a great way to start.


 

Released during what can be considered the first boom in the Chinese cinema industry, the 1930s, The Goddess is perhaps the most famous film of the era, and certainly the most accessible, having had numerous Western releases.

The film is thematically typical of the so-called leftist cinema of the era — that of the struggle of ordinary citizens against an unjust and corrupt society. It’s a product of the Shanghai studio system, with all the major cinematic productions of that era emanating from the Lianhua 聯華, Mingxing 明星 and Tianyi 天一 film companies.

Familiar though its themes may be, The Goddess remains a powerful piece of cinema even today.

The film revolves around a woman working as a prostitute in order to provide for her son. Early on, she evades a police sweep by hiding in a man’s room, only for him to suggest she stays the night as payment. As it turns out, this man is a local gambler, who takes control of her life, despite her attempts to escape.

Throughout, her son is her solace, who she is determined to put through school so he does not suffer as she has. Unfortunately, word spreads around the school about her circumstances, and letters are sent to the school principal demanding he take action.

The principal, however, is moved when he goes to visit the woman to determine the truth of the matter. Seeing her devotion to improving her son’s life, he decides against expelling her son. His decision is not accepted by the rest of the school’s staff, however, and he resigns — unable to prevent the expulsion.

Realising that she cannot build a good life for her son where she is, she decides it’s best for them move. However, she discovers the money she’s been hiding away has been stolen by the gambler.

Furious, she confronts him at a gambling den, where he admits to having taken, and spent, the money. With his back turned, she strikes him over the head with a nearby bottle, killing him.

The film ends with her sentenced to jail for 12 years, and her son in an orphanage. The principal, who had been the one of the few in the film to treat her and her son with any humanity, comes by to let her know that he will look after her son. She tells him to tell her son she is dead, rather than let him know the shame of her life.

Although, like many of its contemporaries, the film leans heavily on the melodramatic mode, it is driven by the performance of actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉.

Ruan was one of the stars of 1930s Shanghai and her own life also ended in tragedy. Aged just 24, she committed suicide after a period of intense speculation regarding her private life. Though under different circumstances, perhaps she could relate all too well with the The Goddess in her inability to escape the judgement of those around her.

Despite its age, and mode, The Goddess remains an eminently watchable film — one who’s lessons are (sadly) just as relevant almost 100 years later — and an important piece of Chinese cinematic history.