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Our readers in the Bay Area who enjoyed learning about the new Kang Youwei docu-drama Datong: The Great Society earlier this week have an upcoming opportunity to see the movie, which will be screened at UC Berkeley on December 13. Filmmaker Evans Chan will be on hand for a Q&A after the film.

We’d also like to call readers’ attention to another interview Chan did about the film, which was posted at China Heritage Quarterly. Trailer, as well as a couple of still photos Chan provided to us, available below.

By Peter Zarrow

I would like to alert China Beat readers to a new film, Datong: The Great Society [Chinese title: 大同:康有為在瑞典]. This docu-drama tells the story of Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and to a great extent that of his second daughter Kang Tongbi (aka Kang Tung Pih, 1887-1969).

I found the film a powerful and affecting evocation of a philosopher’s life, and found myself challenged to consider what we make of the past and what it makes of us. The film-maker, Evans Chan, calls Datong: The Great Society a “docu-drama,” since it is based on verifiable records, period photos, and vintage footage—as well as interviews with scholars—all woven into a tapestry of theatricalization involving dance and re-enacted scenes by the Hong Kong actors Liu Kai Chi (as Kang) and Lindzay Chan (as Tongbi). The film also features the well-known and very-much-living actress/choreographer Chiang Ching as the narrator who “plays” herself (more on which below).

The Hong Kong-New York filmmaker Evans Chan 陳耀成 here tackles themes central to modern China, ranging from reform/revolution to sexuality, gender and ethnic relations, and he also tells a transnational story with Kang’s exile in Sweden at the center. Evans Chan is also a cultural critic, playwright and the translator/editor of three books by Susan Sontag in Chinese.

Datong: The Great Society, currently playing in the former British colony, will become the inaugural film to receive the Movie of the Year Award to be presented by Southern Metropolitan Daily (南方都市報) as part of its Humane Life Awards (生活大獎).

After seeing a preview of The Great Society in Taipei, I asked Evans Chan if he would answer some of my questions, and this is an edited version of our email dialogue. The complete version of this interview along with other information about the film may be found at Evans’ website: Evanschan.com.

*  *  *

PZ: How did you come to think of working on Kang—and his time in Sweden in particular?

EC: The immediate—Swedish—angle of this film was a result of my stumbling upon the newly published Chinese edition of Kang Youwei’s Swedish Journals in Hong Kong in 2007, eighty years after his death. Annotated and edited by Goran Malmqvist, Sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy, this edition came out almost 40 years after its Swedish edition. But it rang a bell, since I had come across a quirky reference to Kang’s owning a Swedish isle in Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (1991).

However, I’d been unwittingly approaching Kang, and aware of a film project possibility. Before encountering the Swedish Journals, I’d been researching a book about ethno (Han-centric) nationalism and Chinese cinema—about what I called Han Chinese cinema’s “trans-ethnic/-racial” representation of minorities, including Tibetans and Manchus—which led me to Zhu Shilin’s Sorrows of the Forbidden City (清宮秘史, aka The Secret History of the Qing Court, 1948), the first important film made by a Han Chinese director about the Qing/Manchu court set during the Hundred Days’ Reform. Kang was, of course, a key player in that momentous event. However, Zhu Shilin’s film recasts the conflict as a familial melodrama involving the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu’s favorite consort, Zhen Fei. In The Great Society, I’ve excerpted Sorrows extensively, at times having Liu Kai Chi, who plays Kang, acting against the projected film. You can say it’s my way of “remaking” Sorrows of the Forbidden City.

I also feel quite strongly that Kang’s historical role deserves a reconsideration in light of contemporary scholarship and postmodern politics. Kang isn’t as accessible as other modern figures mainly because he stood at the tipping point of Chinese modernity. If both Kang and Liang Qichao are considered the inaugurators of Chinese modernity, Kang was the last major intellectual of the classical millennia, while Liang was the first one blazing his way into the vernacular present. Since the shift turned out to be almost as major a shift as from Latin to the vernacular in Europe, Liang and the notable figures who followed him are more of a presence in Chinese modernity than Kang. Liang has been considered a figure who has “outshone” his master, no doubt partly due to this significant cultural/linguistic shift, even though Liang, “the ultimate fox” in your words, once lamented that he was not as an original thinker as his master.

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By Amanda Shuman

Last Friday, former Time Out: Beijing film editor Simon Fowler introduced his book 101 Essential Chinese Movies (Earnshaw Books, 2010) and some of his favorite Chinese movies at the Bookworm International Literary Festival. Fowler, who admits he has an unhealthy obsession for watching obscure old Chinese films, spoke about the difficulties in making choices for the book, which covers mainland China cinema but not those of Taiwan or Hong Kong. Fowler states in the introduction that “so much has already been written” about Taiwan and Hong Kong that most people imagine “Chinese” cinema they often think of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The emphasis in his work, however, is on movies that have influenced the cinematic history of mainland China.

After viewing a clip from the internationally-acclaimed Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬 Bawang bie ji, 1993), Fowler highlighted the difficulties in writing a book that covers “essential” Chinese cinema. How does one account for films that are more popular abroad than in China and vice versa? Although he feels he never truly solved this problem, for the purposes of the book he chose movies that he feels best illustrate cinematic history at a particular moment in time. For example, This Life of Mine (我这一辈子 Wo zhe yi beizi, 1950), based on the novel by Lao She, serves as a prime example of China cinema’s investment in strong (specific) political messages during the early PRC period. The film harbors a deep contrast between the hardships of “old Beijing” society and the optimistic belief that things would get better with the arrival of the Communists. Additionally, as Fowler notes in his book, political tides often heavily influenced Maoist period cinema, such when director and lead actor Shi Hui was labeled a rightist in 1957 and subsequently committed suicide.

Fowler led the audience through several other movies that he considers to define particular cinematic moments in time, including the brilliant camera work behind Xie Jin’s Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (女篮5号 Nü lan 5 hao, 1957) (” ‘Finally!’ I thought, ‘someone who knows how to use a camera!’ “) and the advent of a distinctive animation-style under the Wan brothers. Lastly, he highlighted what he considers some of the best modern Beijing movies, including Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车 Shi qi sui de dan che, 2001) and Lost in Beijing (苹果 Pingguo, 2007). Fowler argued that Beijing Bicycle serves as the quintessential Beijing movie not only due to its highly believable plot (a power struggle between the high school boy from Beijing and the rural migrant) but also because of the numerous bicycle scenes set in hutongs. Fowler pointedly asked, “why would any movie in Beijing include a car chase scene?”

With all of this talk about films, one might wonder how Fowler had access to so many old movies. In the Q&A, Fowler listed some of his favorite places to acquire movies in Beijing (the area south of the Jishuitan subway station) as well as outside of China (the YesAsia website).

In fact, finding copies of old mainland Chinese movies has probably never been easier. Unless you’re looking for movies pre-1922 (all of which, according to Fowler, burned or were destroyed at some point and no longer exist), internet and high-quality DVD or VCD copies of post-1922 films can be obtained in several ways. Gone are the days when you needed to wait days or weeks to order from Interlibrary Loan, travel to the film archives in Beijing, or scour knock-off DVD stores asking numerous people whether or not they have a copy of Xie Jin’s《舞台姐妹》 (“Two Stage Sisters”) or something more obscure like 《两个小足球队》(“Two Small Soccer/Football Teams”) .

Many films are now accessible for free on tudou.com and youku.com, but if you’re looking for a more reliable copy or ad-free viewing, several companies have begun releasing old movies on high-quality DVDs. Companies like Boying and Beauty Media sell copies of many older movies. Beauty Media even has a subdivision that specializes in producing films with English subtitles (called “Follow Me Chinese”). (Although the quality of English subtitles varies, they are more than suitable for teaching purposes.) Many DVDs can easily be purchased at large bookstores in mainland China, such as the main Wangfujing bookstore or the Xidan book building in Beijing, both of which hold an especially good collection of movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The China Film Museum also has a good collection and helpful staff in its bookstore. (Located near the airport in Beijing, the film museum currently has no entrance fee but states online that it requires a reservation in advance. When I visited, however, the museum had so few visitors that the reservation policy was ignored.) The price ranges from 10 to 30 RMB per DVD.

If you’re in mainland China for 3 days or longer, the best place to buy DVDs of old movies is not necessarily a bookstore. If you know exactly what you want, there are several ways to order old films online. Both amazon.cn and taobao.com have plenty of movies in stock and can get them to you very quickly. In fact, Amazon offers a cash-on-delivery method that does not require providing any bank or credit card information online. (You will need to provide a phone number and address, however, so that the deliveryman can find you!) Like the DVDs themselves, shipping and delivery fees remain quite low on the mainland, often just a few RMB for the total order. In just a few days, without ever venturing to the DVD shop, one could feasibly own a whole collection of 1960s movies for less than the cost of 2-3 DVDs in the U.S.

Finally, a very important resource for finding materials related to a film is the popular auction website kongfz.com. As recently reported here on China Beat, kongfz.com might be complicated to navigate for the novice (mostly in setting up payment methods!), but I have easily located copies of movie scripts, picture books, billboard posters, and other paraphernalia related to films available for low-cost purchase.

Amanda Shuman is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz currently living in Beijing. Her research includes sports and politics in China in the post-1949 period.

By Ken Kwan Ming Hao

In his new film I Wish I Knew, a documentary on Shanghai, Jia Zhangke recreates once again, after a detour of sorts with Useless and 24 City, that wonderful tension between the biographical and the historical, the primal impetus of his art, that had made Platform, The World, and Still Life, his best films, so memorable. Jia is different from all other well-known mainland Chinese directors, be they of the 5th or 6th generation — his is a singular sensibility that is aware of but not chained to the social-political, which to him are meaningful only to the extent that they are constraints to be transcended and transformed. In an environment of habitual politicization and cognitive rigidity, the sensibility espoused in Jia’s films is liberating.

Jia’s best films are insistently about the articulation of “space” amid seemingly insurmountable constraints. In these films, Jia strives to engender a state of serene dynamism in which the sublime is possible. The space that Jia aims for is interior, although the exterior is also incorporated in the articulation, reflecting a central element of Chinese aesthetics. The overwhelming politics in Platform, the naked material greed in The World, and the blatant hubris in Still Life are not simply scorned and despised; instead they are “dissipated” in the expanse of unencumbered imaginative flights. The flowing rhythm of the scene in The World in which the lady boss and the main male character contemporaneously step into a little slow dancing; the compact tension of the scene in Platform in which the protagonist unhesitatingly closes the door of the beat-up taxi van taking away his girlfriend for good; and the elegant fluidity of the scene in Still Life in which a teenage girl dreamily roller skates on a rooftop with the Yangtze River in the background are just a few examples of transcendence and transformation in Jia’s films.

The subject of his latest film is a city, Shanghai, of branded images, a stubborn case of monosemy (having a rigidly defined nature). Yet the Shanghai Jia represents on screen is polysemic (having multiple meanings that reflect different assumptions and perspectives) and nuanced, not monosemic and clichéd. It is a Shanghai seen from the vantage point of remembrance, not because of nostalgia but for perspective. Nabokov said in one of his novels, Ada, that “reality is always a form of memory, even at the moment of its perception.” Through the commentaries and recollections of a number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly shaped by Shanghai, Jia gives the city the depth and breadth it deserves.

As the English title of the film, I Wish I Knew, implies, Jia’s Shanghai is elusive and mercurial, yet tangible, symbolized by the angst-ridden flâneur character played by Zhao Tao. By opting for the fluidity of remembrance, Jia not only connects present-day Shanghai with its past but also makes the city a much more dynamic trope for aesthetic articulation. There is a segment in I Wish I Knew on the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s trip to China in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution to make the film Chung Kuo — Cina. The Shanghai part of his filming was coordinated by a young cultural cadre of the city. In Jia’s film we see the cadre, now a much older man, in a traditional tea house near the Yu Yuan Garden recounting, with rich details and reflexive introspection, his interaction with the Italian director, as well as the relentless political struggle sessions that entailed at the same tea house. These struggle sessions resulted from the Chinese government’s “disappointment” and displeasure with Antonioni’s depiction of China — even though he had been invited by the Chinese government, Premier Zhou Enlai specifically, to make the documentary. Chung Kuo was shown for the first time in China only in 2004. In his filmic recounting of the event, Jia’s articulation is mainly on the interplay between the biographical (the cadre’s personal experiences), the political (the Cultural Revolution), and the spatial (the tea house), seamlessly switching between the present and the past. What Jia has wrought here is a filmic manifestation of the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy, where a fluid fusion of form and movement, reflective of the self, is of the essence. This is filmmaking at its most arresting, documentary or otherwise.

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In his review of Andrew Walder’s Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement, John Gittings discusses the July 1966 murder of Bian Zhongyun, deputy principal of the Beijing Normal Girls’ High School. Gittings mentions that Bian’s story has been told in a moving documentary that features interviews with her husband, who shares photographs that he took at the time of her death. The entire movie, Wo sui siqu (我虽死去 Though I Am Gone), is available on YouTube; below, we’ve embedded the first section of the film (in Mandarin with English subtitles).

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