Chinese Cinema Digest:
2006 “top ten” Chinese language films (and some others)
Listmaking is really a curious exercise. What's a "top" film? why always 10? why not 11, or 5, if it's not a particularly brilliant year?
"Top" for whom? what is a list supposed to do? stake out exclusive "canon" territory, like a modern day Andrew Sarris? Or participate in a collective version of the same? If that's the case, it's as much an exercise in exclusion as it is in praise: after all, lists of 10 are at least as much about ruling some (kinds of) films out as they are about gathering films in.
What does it mean for a westerner to draw up a list of "best Chinese (language) films"? Is this some sort of contemporary hold-over from the gatekeeping mode of orientalist culture policing, a throwback to the days not too long ago when a few (mostly) white (almost exclusively) male critics set themselves up as arbiters of what Asian works of art and culture could pass through to the western eyes?
Drawing up a top ten film list is an activity that exists in a context. Mine is my struggle this year coming up with a top ten list for the Indiewire (née Village Voice) poll, for which only films commercially released in the US in 2006 were eligible. With these kind of restrictions, an ostensibly alternative , oppositional impulse in anti-canonical subversion (the Village Voice's initial impulse for organizing these exercises) slips inevitably sideways right back into a locally -- and hence commercially -- restricted straightjacket.
Please take this particular exercise, then, as a tiny and marginal form of mini-resistance to all the monolithically mainstream (or, its twin, self-consciously and nominally alternative) listmaking going on far from "the centre". Or take Beijing as a temporary kind of centre (I happen to live there right now) of Chinese language filmmaking that's flourishing in Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Dongbei, Hunan, Yunnan, Taipei, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Tokyo, and elsewhere. Decentring is one way of avoiding canons, shunning orientalizing framings, rejecting rule-enforcing aesthetics.
So, in the interests of multiple off-centres, I offer this as one of what I hope are many off centre top/middle/bottom 2s,10s, and 20s lists. The more off centre, the less "authoritative". All for the good. The key is to be open to as many voices and points of view as possible: a counterpoint of emphases and discoveries and celebrations, rather than a media-enforced harmony of taste and discrimination (in both senses of the term).
I've tried below to draw up a list of the Chinese language films (from, variously, the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia) that I saw in 2006 that impressed me the most. I've only included films that had public screenings this year, either in a commercial run or in a film festival. Aside from recent Hong Kong films, which are difficult to see here in Beijing unless one settles for a Mandarin dub without English subtitles (which I'm not willing to put up with), I think I've seen a decently representative swath of what I've been looking for. Of course there are gaps. I've carefully left out some new films completed in 2006 that I hope to encounter or present (through my work with film festivals) in theatres in 2007. And I look forward to hearing from you about films I've missed, so far.
- Shelly
1. Still Life (Sanxia haoren), d. Jia Zhangke (PRC)
Still Life is Jia's most important and beautiful film since Platform (Zhantai, 2000), one of the three most radically beautiful films I've seen in 2006, along with Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century. Still Life's companion piece Dong poses the question: of the two, which is the real documentary and which is the fiction film?
2. Love Conquers All, d. Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia)
An eerily beautiful, unforgettably unsettling post-feminist drama from Malaysia's most promising young director.
3. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan), d. Tsai Ming-liang (Taiwan)
Tsai's utterly singular polysexual world expands to embrace love: a radical move for him. The final shot gives the wildly overused adjective "transcendent" tangible meaning.
4. Dong, d. Jia Zhangke (PRC) (documentary)
(see 1. above)
5. Betelnut (Binglang), d. Yang Heng (PRC)
The most promising debut film from the mainland this year. Pace Variety, there's lots of juice yet remaining in the fixed camera, long take emotionally minimalist style.
6. Little Red Flowers (Kanshanqu hen mei), d. Zhang Yuan (PRC)
Zhang's best film in ten years: vibrant, entertaining & naughtily piquant: Zéro de conduite staged in a Cultural Revolution kindergarten.
7. Exiled (Fang zhu), d. Johnnie To (HK)
Johnnie To back in form, hits a perfect balance of stylistic brio, political allusion, and dramatic snap: pure cinema that's also both art and entertainment. Or rather confounds the boundaries between the two.
8. Do Over (Yi nian zhi chu), d. Cheng Yu-chieh (Taiwan)
A dazzling feature debut by Cheng, who mashes up genre conventions with a breathless style-essay that pleasantly scrambles your eyes.
9. Summer Palace (Yiheyuan), d. Lou Ye (PRC)
Lyric poetry, rather than "well-behaved" narrative cinema;  signally courageous; not without structural problems, but when it sings, it soars.
10. Mona Lisa (Mengna Lisha), d. Li Ying (PRC) (documentary)
Another boundary-blurring film, eating away at the rigid distinctions between the real and the fictive. This emotionally overwhelming tale of an implausibly reunion of a broken family makes up a genre: documentary melodrama.
Other noteworthy Chinese films of 2006 (in alphabetical order):
The Bimo Records (Bimo ji), d. Yang Rui (PRC) (documentary)
Bliss (Fusheng), d. Sheng Zhimin (PRC)
Blue Cha-cha (Shen hai), d. Cheng Wen-tang (Taiwan)
Crazy Stone (Fengkuang de shitou), d. Ning Hao (PRC)
Fearless (Huo Yuanjia), d. Ronny Yu (PRC / HK)
Isabella, d. Pang Ho-cheung (HK)
Loach is Fish Too (Niqiu ye shi yu), d. Zhang Yazhou (PRC)
One Foot Off The Ground (Ji quan bu ning), d. Chen Daming (PRC)
Ming Ming, d. Susie Au (HK)
Trouble Makers (Guangrong de fennu), d. Cao Baoping (PRC)
and some films from other places:
(namely Portugal, Thailand, South Korean, Mail, USA, Spain, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan, Canada, and Austria... 13 seems like a nice number, so here are thirteen of my favourite films from this year)
1. Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa, Portugal
2. Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand
3. Woman on the Beach, Hong Sang-soo, South Korea
4. The Host, Bong Joon-ho, South Korea
5. Bamako, Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali/France
6. In Between Days, So Yong Kim, USA/Canada/South Korea
7. Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola, USA
8. Honor de Cavalleria, Albert Serra, Spain
9. Kinshasa Palace, Zeka Laplaine, Congo
10. Hana, Hirozaku Kore-eda, Japan
11. Congorama, Philippe Falardeau, Canada
12. Slumming, Michael Glawogger, Austria
13. Monkey Warfare, Reginald Harkema, Canada
Shelly Kraicer
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