I lived and studied in China for four months in 2004 and returned to China for two weeks in 2006, but I have not been back there since; it has been more than four years now and I am aching to go back (I hope to go in 2014 to re-trace my steps of ten years before; that would be cool!). I was probably at the height of my command of Mandarin (普通话) in 2005 after having returned from Yunnan Normal University (云南师范大学) in Kunming and having enrolled at the Middlebury College Chinese Language School.
On the roof-top terrace of a restaurant in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, in 2004. I lived with the restauranteur's family for a week in this charming Naxi village. This photo was taken by my friend Gladys, a tourist from Northeast China, who I had met at the restaurant earlier in the day or just the day before. She said I looked like "Jesus." :)
It is true that the hair around my face has never been so large!
Alas, my command of the language has slipped so much since those days. But in a few weeks I conclude my Hawaiian language lessons and will return to studying Chinese. Studying Hawaiian has been an incredible journey for me, and I could not be more pleased with the results of my most recent research on Hawaiian guano workers and my use of Hawaiian-language sources to tell these men's unique stories. This experience has, for the first time, really proved to me the importance of learning foreign languages for narrating history - something I have never tried to do with Chinese or any other language before now.
I prepare to spend much of this summer re-learning Chinese, especially working on my reading comprehension skills, in preparation for a foreign language translation exam in the fall. And so my mind naturally turns to Chinese film, too, for these films are great study tools for learning the language, as well as fascinating windows into Chinese history.
Mainland (PRC) Cinema
What I intend to do here is just to briefly review some of my favorite Chinese films, nearly all of which come from the mainland (People's Republic of China) from the most recent two or three decades. As for Chinese film before the 1980s, I know next to nothing. As for films from Taiwan, I know next to nothing. And while I do know that Hong Kong has been a center of great filmmaking for a long time, I am yet quite unfamiliar with the cinema that has come out of that region (now part of the PRC since Britain gave the colony up in 1997).
My introduction to Chinese film took place largely during my four months in Kunming at Yunnan Normal as I took part in a program run by the U.S.-based School for International Training. We watched many films in Kunming that at one time were actually banned in China, and although many of these films are now available to the masses in the PRC - including in pirated versions streaming online - I am nevertheless thankful for the crash-course the we got at the time in radical Chinese cinema.
Or, at least these films were once considered radical. I still think they are. The ones I remember most are the films by Zhang Yimou. From the early 1990s: Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994). Of Raise the Red Lantern, I scarcely remember the story - it has been over six years since I saw it - except that I remember it concerned the oppression of women - multiple wives of a wealthy man. What I remember best is the cinematography - Zhang is a master of color and form: the redness of the lanterns, the gray of the compound where they live. Zhang tells stories by painting pictures, and he reminds us of the true possibilities of the cinematic art - that a story can (or should) be told through the artful interplay of color and sound, not just through dialogue. (The musical score in this and other Zhang films is just amazing!). Of To Live, I remember it follows the story of a man through much of the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976). Actually, I think it even continues beyond the end of the Cultural Revolution into the late 1970s(?). What struck me the most about the story was how this man and his family constantly had to stay on their toes and keep shifting their approach to the state as Mao took the nation on a roller-coaster ride - a ride also artfully told in part two of the three-part documentary series China: A Century of Revolution.
At Middlebury in 2005 I remember seeing other films by Zhang (actually, I can't remember if I saw these in Kunming or in Vermont): The Road Home (1999), Happy Times (2000), Hero (2002). Happy Times, a touching comedy, was an enjoyable film, but not "epic" as I had come to expect from Zhang. And as it turns out, circa 2000 seemed to mark a real turning point for Zhang in his career. His next film, 2002's Hero, seemed to come from a completely different playbook than anything Zhang had attempted in the 1990s. His earlier films were almost always set in the twentieth-century and dealt with interpersonal conflicts set within the context of social and political change. But Hero takes us over two millennia back in time to the end of the Warring States period on the brink of the founding of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). Zhang's beautiful cinematography - his use of color and form in framing artful compositions - plus what I think is one of the best movie soundtracks of any film in the past decade, by composer Tan Dun, make the film visually and aurally stunning and captivating, and the story is fine, too. But I think that the best storytelling about the Qin dynasty period is actually Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin (1998). Indeed, I suppose that Zhang was influenced both by the dip into ancient history by Chen in The Emperor and definitely by the break-through success of Ang Lee's 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to make his own movie about martial arts.
Now, a few nights ago I watched The Road Home (1999) again. It is about a young village woman and the city-educated schoolteacher who comes to her village and becomes the object of her affection. The film is set in the 1950s in the get-go of the communist era. Their small-town love is really all the story of this movie is about. There is also a sub-story that serves as bookends to the 1950s drama: it is about the same woman in the late 1990s after her schoolteacher-husband dies and her persistence that he receives a traditional funeral. The beauty of the film, however, is the interior section set in the 1950s. The cinematography is Zhang Yimou at his best. He truly makes a star out of young Zhang Ziyi, who would later become such a famous actress. There are a lot of slow-motion shots; the color is fat, lush, and vibrate; the soundtrack is monotonous, but that's what makes it so captivating: the lover's theme played on an erhu - sometimes on a dizi - returns again and again and again and our hearts ache too as we watch the young girl wait for her paramour to return from his "political troubles" in the city.
This is a not a trailer per se, but a compilation of some of the richest images and tunes from The Road Home. It gives you a good sense of the pacing and style of the film:
Since receiving netflix as a gift, I have also seen Zhang's 1992 The Story of Qiu Ju (understated, but beautiful as ever, as is Gong Li), and Not One Less (1999). I did not know what to make of Not One Less at first; then I learned that the film was shot on location in the actual rural schoolhouse that the film depicts. Not only that, but all the actors in the film, including the young schoolteacher and all the kids, were actual local kids! Everyone in the film was "acting" out Zhang's vision, but in essence they were also acting out their own story: the story of their small town in the late 1990s and their incredibly sub-standard educational apparatus. There are such poignant scenes in the film that still dart through my mind: when the young teacher (she's just a young teenage girl) makes all the schoolkids go with her to some brickyard to stack bricks in hope of making some money (so that she can afford to travel to the city to find a missing student?). They don't really know what they are doing, but they just mess around with the bricks until the brickyard supervisor finds them and scolds them for messing everything up (a commentary on capitalism/wage labor?). Or when she takes the kids into a small shop because they are all dehydrated (from moving bricks) but she can only afford one coca-cola and so they all have to take little sips and share the one can among all. She eventually does go into the big city to find that missing student, and those scenes of her and the student living on the streets without shelter or food are so moving, not least because they capture what in the 1990s - and still today - was such an important trend in Chinese history: the rural to urban migration which probably constitutes the world's largest ongoing migration at the moment. (Many rural Chinese end up jobless and homeless once they make it to the big city; this was a trend I myself witnessed in Kunming when I was there in 2004.) A great documentary film about this trend is Last Train Home (2009).
Everything Zhang has made since Hero in 2002, in my opinion, has been pretty shallow. Many have accused him of selling out to the government. For example, he was intimately involved in designing the 2008 Olympic ceremony for the state, as many of his critics tirelessly point out. I don't blame him for switching up his style, but nothing will ever match the excellence he produced between Ju Dou (1990) and Not One Less/The Road Home (1999). (I haven't said anything yet about Ju Dou. Actually, it was my favorite Chinese film for many years after returning from Kunming. I'm not sure if it Zhang Yimou at his peak, but it is an incredibly beautiful movie [as always]: great color, composition, great use of sound, and in this one, too, great character development and storytelling. I think that this film really showcases Gong Li at her best.)
Now, there are other great mainland Chinese film directors other than Zhang Yimou! I just think his work from the 1990s is by far the best! I already mentioned Chen Kaige's The Emperor and the Assassin. The movie begins with awesome shots of chariots traveling across the barren land, and the rest of the movie really does wonders in terms of showing us life in the third century BCE before China was unified. It also was an early vehicle for one of my favorite Chinese actresses, Zhou Xun, who plays a blind girl whose entire family is murdered and then kills herself. Another well-received movie of Chen's is Together (2002) about a child violinist. I saw the film in 2005 but hardly remember it now. However, Chen is most famous for one of the great Chinese films of all time: Farewell My Concubine (1993). I believe I saw the film for the first time in Kunming, and like many others, I can hardly remember it today (which I guess isn't a good sign). But I do remember that it portrayed the communist-era, but also introduced viewers like myself to the traditional art of jingju, or Beijing opera. I really want to see it again to revive my memory. Finally, Chen's debut movie, Yellow Earth (1984), with a cinematographic debut also by Zhang Yimou, is widely considered one of the great Chinese films of all time - perhaps even more so than Farewell my Concubine. I watched the whole thing in chunks on youtube a few days ago. All I can say is that, even by 1984, Zhang definitely had his "look" down in terms of cinematography. The movie speaks wonders about the young branch of film students (Chen, Zhang, etc.) who came out in less than a decade after Mao's death (1976) and the end of the Cultural Revolution, whereas for many decades before that all films in the mainland were basically connected in some way with the state's propaganda apparatus. I also love Yellow Earth because it honestly portrays the promises of communism for women's rights, at least how it looked to many Chinese in the late 1930s.
Watch the first four or five minutes of the opening of The Emperor and the Assassin to see the great war scene with horse-drawn chariots that I love so much:
Other great films? Wu Tianming's The King of Masks (1996) is great storytelling. It deals with issues of gender, specifically whether or not a young girl is as valuable to the aging street performer (the king of masks) as a son would be. He, of course, overcomes his sexism and embraces the girl. It is a multiple-kleenex movie! Huo Jianqi's Postmen in the Mountains (1999), which I saw at Middlebury in 2005, I really like because it tells a story of rural China. Its depiction of local peoples and villages in Hunan Province reminded me a lot of what I myself saw in Yunnan.
Another great director of the past decade is Lou Ye. His rise to fame was with the 2000 film Suzhou River, which I saw in 2004 or 2005, but again I can hardly remember it now. It showed the gritty side of modern China. And it was a break-out role for Zhou Xun. Lou's Summer Palace (2006), however, is one of the greatest Chinese films I have ever seen. Not all would agree with me on this, but for me, this is a masterpiece. I'm sort of surprised I liked it so much - but the film moved me to tears and chills so many times. It tells the story of an unhappy, lonely, confused college student in Beijing during the late 1980s in the days leading up to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989. That's the first half of the film. Then the second half takes us through the 1990s to the turn of the twenty-first century. We see a girl who had a million and one things to rebel against in the 1980s slowly turn into apathetic mush in the decade following China's crackdown on students. Some of her friends leave for Germany where they imagine they'll have more freedoms, but they seem unhappy there, too. The film is noted for containing enormous amounts of graphic sexual scenes, which is true, but these served as important windows into the girl's life, into what bothered her or what was important to her. I love the bar scenes where we see 1980s China thrown full-throttle into globalization after decades of repression, with European and American music and fashion defining the opportunities the young woman and her friends imagine for themselves and their nation. All this is crushed in June 1989, of course. And the rest of this very long, slow-paced, quiet movie is just sadness as we know that the optimism of pre-June 1989 can never be recovered. Best movie about 1989 hands-down.
I must also say that another one of the best Chinese films of the past decade is Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002) based on the director's own semi-autobiographical memoir of the same name. It tells the story of two very smart, educated boys who are sent out into the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. There they teach a little Chinese seamstress (Zhou Xun) about the French writer Balzac. It is a simple story, but speaks to the power of learning and knowledge, and arts and literature, and the value of foreign influences, all during a period when the PRC had closed China off to foreign thought, culture and influence. The point might be made a bit heavy-handedly, but I found the storytelling beautiful overall.
I have tried to get into the films of Wang Xiaoshuai, such as So Close to Paradise (1998) about some shady deal gone awry...two guys have to find this Vietnamese night-club singer about something...(I gave up part-way through!). His Beijing Bicycle (2001) I saw at some point within the past five years, and I remember it being at least better than So Close. I have also had a lot of trouble getting into Jia Zhangke's films, such as Platform (2000), which was just too subtle and slow for me! I am interested in seeing his more recent Still Life (2006) about a family from a village along the Yangzi River that will be flooded by the Three-Gorges Dam. I recently saw an amazing documentary about the same subject: Up the Yangtze (2007) which I recommend to anyone interested in learning more about social and economic issues in modern China.
In the past year or so I've also seen Blind Shaft (2003) (about the ruthlessness of unemployment, labor exploitation, and other nasty effects of capitalism in modern China), Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) (about efforts to stop the poaching of wild animals in Tibet; it's a fictional account, but concerns a true problem. Great for an environmental history course, especially after reading Karl Jacoby's Crimes Against Nature), and Tuya's Marriage (2007) (about a Mongolian woman in modern China - in Nei Menggu [Chinese-controlled Mongolia]; really nice flick). Now, in the past five years, the number of films coming out of China has increased so rapidly, it is impossible to keep up with them. Huge blockbuster films like John Woo's Red Cliff (2008-2009) have made China's film industry into a true rising giant, and I fear this spells the end for the art-house days of the 1990s. (Of course, banned filmmakers like Lou Ye, and other Chinese overseas directors will continue to make good art-house films.) (As for Woo's Red Cliff, I turned it off after 10 minutes; too much ridiculous violence!)
Well, I'm sure I've left out many worthy films. And I know I've left out many unworthy films! For those unfamiliar with Chinese cinema, I hope this post encourages you to check out some of these great films. I myself am reminded that I need to review many of these films, as clearly I have forgotten what many of them are about!! And for those who are connoisseurs of Chinese cinema, I am sure I have given ample evidence here to showcase my true ignorance on the matter, and I would appreciate all your criticisms of my judgements and/or interpretations!!!