Sunday 5 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison tracks down new Chinese cinema in the multiplexes WILD GOOSE LAKE (Yinan Diao), TWO TIGERS (Fei Li) and ONLY CLOUD KNOWS (Feng Xiaogang)


There’s something happening in Chinese movies that we don’t know about. China is opening 20,000 new cinemas a year, now filling in the distant rural areas which is supposed to create a wider, less sophisticated audience.

Hard to relate that to Nan Fang Che Zhan De Ju Hui/Wild Goose Lake the new Wuhan dialect movie from director Yi'nan Diao and stars Ge Hu & Lun-Mei Kwei who were responsible for the intriguing China noir Bai ri yan huo/Black Coal, Thin Ice. If anything Wild Goose Lake is more sophisticated - though not as involving, a crime piece mainly notable for an elaborate texture in saturated colour that we are not used to in Chinese films. The acknowledged influence of Wong Kar- wai is obvious and the work has also been compared to the Michael Mann thrillers. This one is actually closer to Odd Man Out or Thieves Like Us and not to its advantage.

We start as Ex-con Ge makes his way through the corridors of the hotel that the bike stealing gangs have taken over for their conference. In the basement garage an instructor is giving a master class, to largely male spectators, on battery theft - the
most valuable part of the machine. A turf war over who will get the prized pre-development streets breaks out with rapid edited close shots of gangsters grimacing as they struggle together. A zip gun shot rings out. This is a film of unexpected loud noises.

Ge becomes involved in the competition to decide the allocation and rides out at night on a LED light decked bike through road tunnels but a wire has been strung there which decapitates his associate. Ge survives but faces a road block where he shoots it out, not realising it is manned by police one of whom he kills.

At this point the shape of the film becomes clear. Ge has no prospect of escape (better in 21 Bridges) and his efforts are directed toward making sure that the thirty thousand dollars cop killer reward that has been posted for him goes to his epileptic ex-wife and their son.

A complicated flashback structure introduces Lun-Mei Kwei, the chain smoking not really pretty star of Black Ice at a nocturnal meeting, with his flashback explanation to her taking up the first section of the film. She has been sent by his associates who themselves have designs on the reward and are being tracked by police, at one stage conducting their investigation in light up shoes like the ones used by the line dancers that Lun-Mei Kwei briefly joins. The cops take a group photo with the body of a gang biker they have killed.

Kwei is one of the “Bathing Beauties”, the whores who hang around Wild Goose Lake to ply their trade, making it impossible for the cops to pick them from the other fun seekers - suspense from whether she is partnering with Ge in his efforts to keeps the reward money or acting as an agent for the gang bosses. She seeks out the wife, found inside a wardrobe at a furniture market, and it’s Kwei who keeps the appointment with Ge at the Rail Station concession. They have a make out after which she spits a mouthful of cum - is this a first?

Despite the amount of punishment Ge takes and his heavy-man skills, like stripping the automatic pistol at speed or stabbing an opponent with an umbrella which he opens inside him, he is totally up staged by Kwei. Her appearance in the white linen hat is one of the most striking images in a visuals dominated movie - arresting insets like a bullet in a dish, the light switch, close ups of zoo animals or the white hat floating in the lake. One meeting takes place in a store of distorting mirrors out of which they fail to get the full Lady From Shanghai impact.

The finale in the crowded slum courtyard, with curious residents and their block representative mixed in with the shoot-out, makes an addition to the grubby settings. The final audience show presentation, where the reward is handed over to a masked informer, resolves our speculation.

The film is uneven, less focused than Black Ice and it drags in places but its best scenes do register. 

It’s better value than Fei Li’s Liang zhi lao hu/Two Tigers  also recently shown here. In that one, business man You Ge, whose celebrity actor career extends back past Chen Kaige’s 1993 Ba wang bie ji/Farewell My Concubine, is kidnapped by comic Shan Quiao thumping him with a golf club and chaining him up in a derelict swimming pool. The abductor is hopeless, asking a mere million yuan, so You Ge has to take over and run the operation for him - OK it was funny in Ruthless People.

Unfortunately, they give up on this and the piece slides into an implausible buddy movie/Scrooge fable where the victim demands that his captor make three inquiries for him. Things are already off the rails in the first one where period costume movie star Wei Zhao (Shaolin Soccer)is having trouble bringing conviction to her film within the film character. After her meeting with Shan Quiao, recalling her failed pairing with the businessman, has given her a life experience to draw on, she aces the scene on a new attempt. Darned if I can see any improvement.

Another outing requires You Ge to pose as the chauffeur on a visit to his now blind former friend as part of an attempt to repair his failure there. This goes down when the friend blows off the attempt at check book generosity.

There’s some more but we’d dropped past my threshold of attention by then. This is a polished production with more of the new full contrast colour lab work and clearly talented players who are spinning their wheels. It takes a while to realise that the track’s full orchestration of “Frere Jacques” is actually celebrating its use as the Chinese “Two Tigers” Song. 

Which brings us to the big disappointment. A new film by Feng Xiaogang is an event. He’s both China’s biggest earning film maker and possibly their society’s most probing commentator. Pieces like Tangshan dadizhen/Aftershock (2010) and Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian/I Am Not Madam Bovary (2016) have real substance – think somewhere between Sidney Lumet and Cecil B. de Mille.

So pencil in hand I trooped out to Burwood for his current Zhi You Yun Zhi Dao/Only Cloud Knows. This is an ambitious contemporary romance set in New Zealand. It also pivots somewhat soggily on a piece of re-worded Western music, “You Belong to Me” no less.

It is a total change of pace for its director, a damp hankie account of the allegedly true life romance of an associate, set in scenic New Zealand.

In a tortuous flashback structure we see young Chinese couple Xuan Huang & Caiyu Yang buy an isolated rural property where only the cows can hear you scream and set up the district’s only Asian restaurant next to the 1874 Masonic Hall in picturesque little Otago town Clyde. They are joined by cheery local Lydia Peckham working long hours and facing the hazard of a local junky with a firearm under the jacket. A lost dog is added to the mix.

Only Cloud Knows’ most substantial theme, the contrast of their years of hard work and long hours with Peckham’s globetrotting gets buried here. Of course all this sweetness can’t last the film’s two hours plus and just when we think fire and funerals have brought matters to a close, the piece starts all over again with a giant flashback accounting for the pair’s courtship while boarding with veteran landlady Fan Xu (Railroad Tigers) recounted to a flask sucking charter boat captain out looking for the blue whales which are a motif in the production. The whales actually do register, hard to tell how much is CGI. 

It all does look great with wide, impeccably picturesque images from the cameraman of House of Flying Daggers and Shadow, foliage framing lush green fields, cloud banks shrouding the peaks next to the highway or the camera lifting to show the tall buildings of Auckland behind the leads. I’m sure it was greeted rapturously by the New Zealand Tourist authority. 

Unfortunately, as it works out, this one joins the rash of new movies made by foreigners working (largely) in English on their home turf, possibly with an eye on the opportunities presented by the new streaming services - Curtiz and Paris Song maybe but here the cast are clearly struggling to animate their lines under a director not working in his first language. The film is an hour shorter than The Irishman and seems twice that one’s length.

Peckham’s hard working friend is particularly strained in trying to register as spontaneous. Curiously some of the local bit players are more at ease - the kid who gives the couple the lovable dog or the whale boat captain.

Things are not helped by our mind set demanding from serious Chinese cinema and Feng Xiaogang in particular what message we are meant to be taking away from all this. Does it double as a cautionary tale about leaving the mother land? Is it a plea for overseas investment? Is it meant to be something innocuous after the stop start release troubles met by I Am Not Madam Bovary

We may never know it’s back story but the new film is the weakest entry in its director’s filmography, a considerable let down and something of a strain to sit through.

I wouldn’t want to go all Harvey Weinstein on their ass but it’s tempting to mentally construct a pacy seventy-minute film out of this slog. Start with the whale scene. Ditch the courting, the attempts at adventurous form (Xuan Huang driving past himself in his old car as a time shift or the spectator seen only in silhouette sympathising in the vet’s waiting room) along with Peckam, the dog, our hero’s flute playing and as much of the leads as can go and still leave something coherent.  

To tell the truth I don’t hold out all that much hope for my thinks version either. It's all rather sad.

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