Something seems to be happening with Chinese films right now. To start with there were three of them, all the work of notable directors, running in George St. at the same time.
Qi men dun jia/The Thousand Faces of Dunjia has taken a pounding from the American critics who couldn’t follow it any better than I could, though they had the press books, which count as cheat sheets in this game.
In the opening scenes I was mentally putting ticks against great visual style, costume and setting, pace, endearing characters and button pressing connections to the great Hong Kong Wu Xia films that writer-producer Tsui Hark and action choreographer become director Yuen Wo-ping registered with thirty years back. It is allegedly spun-off a nice same name 1982 Yuen Wo Ping film (called The Miracle Fighters/Drunken Rat Mutants of Shaolin 2) about fighting a bat sorcerer, a subject more relevant to our current concerns of course.
We are set up in Ancient China’s Kaifeng City where new constable Arif Rahman Lee bluffs the local police force with a fake demonstration of strength. Alarmed, they send him off with bogus old China Wanted Posters (one of which is for a dog) and that’s the last we see of his trickster side or his comic partner, which is all right because we then get stuck into the attack of a monster CGI goldfish which our hero and the abruptly appearing glamorous Ni Ni chase into a brothel. This give a chance for lustful Ada Yan Liu to reveal she is not what she seems - disturbingly. There’s some derivations from the Men in Black films here.
While we are still trying to follow all this, the plot proper, which has minimal connection with it, emerges. Ni Ni is one of the Wuyin clan who struggle to protect mankind from the application of cosmic "Qimen" and "Dunjia" in the hands of monster aliens who have summoned the leaders of hostile clans to operate the Destroyer of Worlds device, while second brother Da Peng has rescued the winsome and unworldly Dongyu Zhou from the cellar where she was imprisoned, noting the tattoo which identifies her as the awaited Messiah. She also of course is not what she seems. Got all that?
Some of the material is entertaining - fighting the hostile clan member who is off put when his ability to shower the opposition with spinning gold rings is neutralised - and some of it is botched like the wave of earth worms carpeting the town. The clan guys battle the leads and their six (count ‘em) sidekicks while the space aliens fight a benign giant Phoenix. That makes is sound more coherent than it is and it soon gets to be time to check your watch, which is a pity because all the elements of a fun strip cartoon mythological joke adventure film keep surfacing.
They are threatening a sequel - well maybe.
It’s already spiraled away but we still have Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat/Yao Mao Zhuan, to which Australia seems to be getting first whack in the world. There’s zip in the way of overseas English language coverage. Kaige (Yellow Earth, Farewell my Concubine) was the most talented of the So-called Fifth Generation directors who got world attention in the eighties. His 1987 Hai zi wang/King of the Children was pretty much their best product and any of his uneven later work still deserves serious attention.
In another spot in ancient China, shaven headed exorcist Kûkai/Shôta Sometani is summoned to the bed of the dying emperor who is cursed by a demon cat. He is joined by dismissed court poet Huang Zuan (also in Feng Xiaogang’s Youth) in conducting an investigation which has them witness (considerable set piece) an enchantment caused by the cat on which Shôta slams the paper screen door leaving the animal’s monstrous shadow falling, before he ends the mayhem by pinching the shoulder nerve of one of the possessed court mandolin players whose music drives the madness.
Shôta tells his new associate that he is (surprise) not what he seems, being instead a shaman sent to study Chinese Tantric practices. In the street they witness a peddler grow an instant melon vine on his portable trellis and share the fruit out among the dazzled crowd and Shôta explains that it is an illusion with only one melon real, at which point the slice they are holding turns into a giant, bloody fish head and back, momentarily destroying his composure.
This sequence, in which the digital effects work is unspectacular, is actually one of the most interesting uses of the new technology. The concept of illusion expertly visualised here looks as if it is going to be the heart of a substantial film. Unfortunately, no such luck.
Legend of the Demon Cat does offer some of the most striking visual environments yet - a ball where shape shifters and courtiers mix among the lit-from-inside decors for one. However, unlike Thousand Faces of Dunjia, this one is at pains to put forward a plot that turns out to be consistent, at least in the film’s magical terms, after a long explanatory flashback involving events from years before and the death of idealised Concubine Yuki Zhang (Mermaid) at the demand of a power hungry military. This accounts for all the mystery elements but it kills the tempo. The piece goes on too long and the characters don’t really involve.
Chen Kaige remains one of the smartest of the Chinese film makers. I got a nice interview out of him for King of the Children but it was only after he explained it that I was able to understand it’s - er - inscrutable elements. Watching Legend of the Demon Cat, I kept on wondering whether it also has some kind of allegorical message.
The piece kept on reminding me of Ringo Lam’s 1994 ultra violence costume adventure Huo shao hong lian si/Burning Paradise/Burning of the Red Lotus Temple which was also a film where a dedicatedly realistic film maker ventured into the historical-mythological. Both movies are superior but they have the feeling that their makers’ vision has become denatured. It will be interesting to see if the new production finds a market, particularly where it, like Dunjia, has to get by without its 3D presentation, which must have been exceptional.
Pick of the batch not surprisingly, is the new and much awaited Fang Xiaogang Fang hua/Youth, already another big hit for its director on its home turf and apparently attracting the odd full house here. It doesn’t disappoint.
First image is a wall covering portrait of a beaming Chairman Mao, a clue to the ambivalence which will be the driving element of the film. Huang Xuan again is admired by all, a member of the Red Army Arts unit’s dance troop who fits the revolutionary ideal so well that he is nicknamed after one of their legends. He is offered the path of a party dignitary but instead opts to continue with the troop and he’s the one who collects from the station young recruited-in-the-regions dancer Miao Miao, acceptable because she has denounced her father who is imprisoned in a re-education camp, and taken the name of her step dad.
Miao Miao does one quite skilful routine before they spin her out of the defocused background so that a more agile player can whirl back in wearing her outfit and doing the difficult moves. Huang Xuan is injured and thus excused becoming their propsman, relating to his carpenter father’s old trade.
They are part of the Unit performing the all-consuming Exemplary Subject ballets that largely replaced conventional entertainment’s in Seventies China - the material hilariously burlesqued in Jean Yanne’s 1974 Les chinois à Paris and more gently referenced in Tsui Hark’s 2014 Zhì qu weihu shan/The Battle of Tiger Mountain. The troop are doing “Women Soldiers of the Grasslands” of which the excerpts we see are recognisably the run and strike heroic tableau pose style - which they manage to make seem imposing.
The scene where the company crowd round a smuggled Teresa Teng recording from Taiwan shows a crack in the rigid conformism and curiously parallels the playing of the "Moonlight Serenade" record in In this Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, Japan, 2017) .
Intriguingly, the company is part of the PLA and run on military lines. Choreographer Yan Su operates like a drill sergeant. They parade even in the rain, live in barracks and wear their stage uniforms, which sets up one of the films main plot dynamics.
Miao Miao’s uniform won’t be ready till a new shipment arrives so she makes off with the outfit of one of her roommates to take a photo to send home and the action is revealed when the photographer puts a copy in his window. The girls debate denouncing her for a “Moral Defect” which would disqualify her from the unit but, while they spare her this, she is always on the outer - body odor, the owner of a blouse padded with kitchen sponges found on the clothes line? She doesn’t fit with privileged fellow troop members like accordionist Li Xiaofeng or dancer Yang Caiyu.
The outfit is run on a strictly no romance basis which creates the expected tensions. Though Miao Miao fancies Huang Xuan, his desires centre on Yang Caiyu who immediately denounces him for breach of revolutionary discipline when he moves on her.
Miao Miao has also fallen from grace, reluctant to go on when lead dancer Sui Yuan is injured and, with the war with Vietnam breaking out, both are allocated to military duties. The film’s pay off comes here when they find themselves actually performing the duties they had represented on stage. The military bugler, also the motif in Feng Xiaogang’s 2007 Ji jie hao/Assembly is a particularly resonant piece of imagery. It is re-capped in the final montage.
The film’s constantly moving camera style comes into its own in a breathtaking ambush apparently staged without edits - a far more complex and impressive piece of film making than we saw in the Johnnie To one take, one scene thriller.
Comes the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, the death of Mao and the fall of the Gang of Four and the Chinese scene changes forever.
A years later reunion finds the marriage to now Capitalist roader Li Xiaofeng empty and the girls bitchily showing Huang Xuan a photo of the no longer slim Miaoa Miao inadvertently promoting their re-union - a scene in the old barracks with a broken wooden sword on the floor and the discovery of the torn photo.
This also gives us a very Feng Xioagang sub-plot with the corrupt local Security Office trying to exploit the one-armed war veteran. A happy ending has apparently been shorn to pick up the pace.
We are getting this one without its Imax trimmings and with ten minutes missing but Youth remains one of the most fascinating films of the moment.
These three new productions suggest a further raising of standards. What is certain is that Mainland Chinese films are getting better. Feng Xiaogang is a better director than Zhang Yimou who was better than Xie Jin. I still remember the SBS presenter desperately trying to make a case for their run of Xie’s 1964 soggy propagandist Wutai jiemei /Two Stage Sisters.
Some people won’t buy new Chinese Cinema at any price, seeing them as PLA propaganda. They don’t seem to have similar reservations about Iranian movies but that’s something for someone’s doctoral thesis rather than discussion here. Fang Xiaogang’s paramount position in the Chinese entertainment industry gives his work the authority of an official statement and appears to attract government interference. The films strike me as a better handle on the new China than media coverage or official policy announcements but only time will show that.
The Chinese government is now putting in place a system of tax incentives for theatres who build up returns on local products and the most profitable times of year are reserved for them. However, the authorities are still faced with a galling fact. Despite the scale of their effort, they can’t make world audiences, or apparently even the domestic one, prefer the much filmed Monkey King and his Chinese peers to Batman and Kung Fu Panda. They can’t even work up enthusiasm on the scale that greeted shirtless Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
This is not all that far from the story of Australian film production, only in China it’s being played out in an arena which actually matters.
|Huang Xuan, Feng Xiaogang, Miao Miao introduce Youth at a Beijing screening (ph: China Daily)|