|First, the movie that no one has yet seen: rebel Chinese director Zhang Yuan's Behind the Forbidden City (Dong1 gong1 xi1 gong1). This was promised to Tony Rayns in Vancouver, as well as to fests in Hawaii, Rotterdam, & Vienna. But the French producers abruptly pulled it from all of these because they thought they had a potentially huge hit on their hands. So they're saving it for Cannes, next May. Not a classy nor a particularly savvy move, perhaps, given Cannes' current lack of interest in Chinese cinema. Tony Rayns' preview of the movie was printed in Sight and Sound a couple of issues ago. Here's what he wrote in the Vancouver programme:
"...[it] will be the most ground-breaking film to emerge from China since _Yellow Earth_. A young gay man named A-Lan is arrested in a park toilet by a macho cop named Shi. Overnight, in the police station, A-Lan answers questions about his life, from his childhoood to the present, with a great deal of sexual candour...I don't expect it to be an easy or comforting film, but I don't expect to see anything more daring or moving this year."
What I did manage to see:
|The Emperor's Shadow
PRC, Hong Kong, 1996 director Zhou Xiaowen ; starring Ge You, Jiang Wen, Xu Qing; screenplay by Lu Wei; music: Zhao Jiping
A huge, sweeping, gorgeous, cast-of-thousands epic about the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang. The focus of the movie is actually quite precise, on the Qin Emperor (Jiang Wen) and his childhood friend turned famous musician Gao Jianli (played by Ge You). Brilliant performances by two of China's finest actors, in a psychological thriller set inside a historical melodrama. The large ceremonial scenes were thrilling to watch, the music by 5th generation house composer Zhao Jiping was stunning.
But the whole thing seemed a bit, well, stiff and intellectualized. In a real crisis year for Chinese filmmaking (the political climate is as restrictive as it's ever been since the early 1980's right now), you can almost feel Zhou Xiaowen carefully exploring the relationship between absolute, despotic power (the Emperor) and the free creation of art (the musician). The plot revolves around the Emperor's need to have Gao write him a "national anthem", and Gao's reluctance to put his great art in the service of power. Zhou outlines power's need to be completed, ratified, blessed by culture, and culture's ability to resist. Sophisticated stories, in a visually splendid package. I hope this has a chance of getting released internationally.
website: http://www.meiah.com/es/index.htm (better with Chinese-capable browser)
|Signal Left, Turn Right
(Da zuo deng xiang you zhuan)
PRC, 1996 director: Huang Jianxin ; starring: Niu Zhenhua, Ding Jiali, Qi Qiao, Ju Hao [I think]
A hilarious, scathingly satirical attack on contemporary Chinese society, that was made in front of and passed by the censors. Huang Jianxin always gets away with it. This time he shows a group of "students" at a military-run driving school on the outskirts of what might be Xian (there were lots of walls). The head of the school parrots party propaganda (in between fulminating against Japan, for old historical transgressions); among the students are a drug-addicted slacker, a new millionaire who can't resist bribing everyone in sight, and a journalist who isn't above placing a few favourable business stories for the right price. In between all of these is the hapless driving instructor, who tries to negotiate his way around all these repudiated and tainted ways of living. Rapid-fire jokes:a lighter, almost sitcom-fast tone. Huang gets away with it, maybe, by satirizing everyone from every possible point of view: the Communist police look hopelessly out of touch, the nouveaux-riches look hopelessly spiritually-polluted.
|Rainclouds over Wushan
(Wu shan yun yu)
PRC, 1995 director: Zhang Ming ; starring: Zhang Xianming, Zhong Ping, Wang Wenxiang, Xiu Zongdi
Beautiful, difficult, fragile, and surprising. I can't describe this movie very easily: the plot is too weird and unexpected. Its mix of beautiful photography and muted, unsettling tone are something that I haven't seen in a studio-produced mainland movie. Set in a Yangzi River Gorges town (that is due to be inundated by the new dam), a river signal operator, a hotel receptionist, and a very young cop become involved in a very serious, oddly funny drama with almost no dialogue. A bit like Tsai Ming Liang's Vive l'Amour, or He Jianjun's underground 1995 masterpiece 1995 Postman (You2chai1).
The PRC film officials have apparently withdrawn their favour: the director thought it prudent not to come to Vancouver, where he was expected. And the print came straight from Pusan, where the film had just won an award. Apparently, as long as this print circulates outside of the country, we can see the movie (but if it goes home, it will be withdrawn -- such are the delights of PRC art film distribution). RAINCLOUDS shared the Vancouver Festival's Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema.
PRC, 1996 director: Zhang Yuan ; starring Li Maojie, Fu Derong, Li Ji, Li Wei
We lost Behind the Forbidden City, but we did get one new Zhang Yuan movie. This was the most powerful and moving film I saw at the festival. A family, playing themselves in the film, copes with the father's patriarchal tyranny, alcoholism, and eventual madness. As Tony Rayns writes, Zhang Yuan "...daringly 'borrowed' the father from the hospital and asked the family to re-enact the episodes which led to [its] crisis." It's somewhere between a drama and a documentary, and works far better than it should.
I worried at first, but the film was exactly the opposite of exploitative. It cared so deeply for its characters: it was really about their dignity, and seemed to commit itself and its viewers to the urgency of the family's imperfect groping for connection and survival. I was so involved in the story that I didn't even worry about all the possible extra-textual "meanings" until the next day. Unlike, say, The Emperor's Shadow, which strained to communicate its "meaning", or Signal Left, which gleefully flaunted all of its mutually contradictory messages in our faces.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer