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|57 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"My Bittersweet Taiwan" is yet another of an endlessly growing genre of
movies - the Chinese family saga, be it from the mainland, or Taiwan.
Basic plot description follows, with mild spoilers This particular film show the life of Awen, starting with his birth, in a traditional Chinese family in Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule. Growing up as a second-class citizen, with his family subject to intermittent harassment, Awen still manages to excel in his studies and make his way in the world, at least until the outbreak of World War II, when many of the native Taiwanese were forced to fight for the Japanese overlords. The return of Taiwan to the mainland, provides new opportunities, but its separation, in the wake of the nationalist defeat, after only a few years, ensures further heartache.
As you can imagine, there a moments of tenderness and melodrama, love and heartache, treated in a manner which is much more accessible to a Western audience than the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien, for example, and with no mention at all of the Feb 14 incident, or the KMT invasion either, for that matter. But these are not great oversights, since it is the story of one life, lived mostly during the time of the Japanese occupation, and in that respect, offers an interesting view of the situation, humane, and not over-politicised. It would have been nice to hear the Taiwanese speaking Hokkien, rather than Mandarin, but this is a small point, and I suppose some concessions had to be made for the intended audience.
The acting is universally good, and there are some lovely landscapes to admire, and historical details to observe. I'd recommend this film to anyone interested in Taiwan's earlier history, or this kind of family saga, with less art-house touches that many other similar Chinese films.
Passages is a difficult film to sum up easily. For such a quiet movie,
there was actually a fair bit happening, not so much in terms of plot,
but in how it frames certain questions, how it portrays parts of China.
The story centers around a couple of young students. They are unmarried, but apparently close enough to leave together for another town, looking for lingzhi mushrooms, which they intend to cultivate then sell at a profit. Without giving away too much of the slender plot, most of the movie has to do with their travels to another city, then home again. On the way, they deal with a number of regular people, but also some criminals and an oddball or two. Then when they return to their own town, they have some explaining to do to their families and school. Out of this emerges a number of questions: whether it is better to keep trying to get into university (and presumably a safe career thereafter) after years of unsuccessful attempts, or whether it might be better to strike out on one's own in a risky, but perhaps profitable, venture. I suppose this is a question many young Chinese face now.
Stylistically, 'Passages' is quite similar to the works of Jia Zhangke. It has that same sort of patient camera which is happy to let things happen before it without chasing the action about or indulging in close-ups. The often distant camera allows the viewer to see more than just the two central characters, and in a sense, the changing background is like a third character it is the broader situation the pair of students move through and deal with. The scenery is often bleak, even outside the urban areas, and there is nothing romantic about the Yangtse. Yet, the way it is photographed, it still appeals, by virtue of its unglamourised immediacy.
There is also a fair amount of humour, played in a deadpan fashion. Individual viewers may or may not appreciate it, depending on their tastes (and perhaps culture). The acting is natural and understated, suitable to the theme and style of the movie.
It is mainly to the fans of Jia Zhangke I'd recommend this film, and of course to the curious. Don't expect special effects, impossibly witty dialogue, or a hit soundtrack. It is a different kind of experience entirely, and a journey worth taking.
The studio was evidently making the film with a western audience in
mind. The story was from a western source (Maupassant) and it had a
European feel. Interestingly, when a letter in Chinese is shown to the
camera, it even fades into an English translation.
The actors were well chosen, and it was easy to distinguish between them (helped by cards introducing each major character).
As for scenery, there were attractive interiors of houses shown (the middle classes seemed to be doing pretty well then), a motor car or two and rickshaws. There were some interesting technical touches in it (night shots filmed in bright light, which became dark when a cigarette was being lit, or a torch was being shone), a fairly mobile camera in some places, and even a little section of stop-motion animation. The print was pretty good - not immaculate, but complete and quite watchable. No soundtrack at all though, which seems fairly standard practice for these films.
The plot is a moral fable, about the consequences of desiring beyond one's means, and is a little preachy by modern standards, but comparable to American films of the period.
Cageman might have been better titled Cagepeople, because it is all
about the occupants of a men's hostel in Hong Kong, who do indeed live
in cages - not all the time, of course, but they sleep and keep their
belongings inside them. The film doesn't concentrate on one particular
occupant, but shares its time evenly between 7-11, a ninety-nine year
old who sells all kinds of goods to his fellows from inside his cage,
which he hasn't left in twenty years. He also has an assistant,
nicknamed Sissy. Other tenants include a tinker, a very short fellow
called 'Monkey face', who also owns a monkey, a cook, a perpetually
drunk Taoist, and Mao, a young newcomer, recently released from prison.
The owner of the hostel is Fatty, who has a retarded son to help him
run the place. Almost the entire film takes place within the hostel,
and there is barely a female to be seen.
The motivating incident of the film is the announcement that the block in which the hostel is located is to be demolished by its owners, to make for a development. Issues of relocation and compensation arise among the tenants, and cause divisions. Two politicians also arrive on the scene, and compete in shaking hands for photos and making promises, though their own motives will not appear until later. The occasional presence of TV crews only complicates the situation. Plenty of social issues appear as the film goes on: the treatment of the poor, the disabled, and the addicted in Hong Kong, and the gap between the rich and the poor. Politicians, it seems, are the same everywhere. While offering no solutions (which can't be expected of a film), the movie nevertheless portrays humanely and sympathetically the underbelly of Hong Kong.
In a character-driven film such as this, acting is of prime importance. I had no trouble believing in any of these people - they looked and sounded like the roles they were playing, so that they quickly become real people, caught in a real situation, largely at the mercy of forces much stronger than themselves.
There is also an amount of humour in the film, as one would expect with such a range of characters. Of particular note is a discussion regarding the difference between a beggar and a homeless person. There is plenty of realistic dialogue, the kind one would expect to hear uttered by down-and-outs in the absence of females, and this seems to have earned the film a category III rating (which I thought only applied to sex and violence).
This film is quite a change of pace from the typical Hong Kong fare. It would appeal more to those interested in socially-aware movies rather than escapist entertainment. At 145 minutes, it is also quite long, though it doesn't drag. There is enough lively dialogue and intrigue to maintain interest.
I haven't seen very much hentai at all, but this title was recommended
to me as being tentacle-free and actually having a plot (a combination
which is harder to find in erotic anime than you'd think).
The story revolves around Master Gen, a Tenchi Muyo lookalike, who has gone to live with his grandma after the death of his mother. It isn't long before strange things start happening to him, but I won't spoil the surprises by saying more. The story unfolds at a regular pace with new information being revealed throughout. For an erotic anime, the plot is actually worthwhile, even if no opportunities are missed for 'interaction'.
One of the major drawcards for this OVA series was the quite 'artistic' nature of the production, with some very nice dream flashbacks in a red palette, an orchard of cherry blossoms, and music which added immensely to the enjoyment of this short series. The voice acting was also well done (in the Japanese at least), matching the character designs well.
I'd recommend this title to anyone interested in hentai, especially the curious beginner who isn't ready for tentacles and would perhaps like a bit of substance (it's not often you can say that you're watching hentai for the story). Fans of Tenchi Muyo might also get a kick out it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Seen in 2006, it's hard to appreciate just how progressive and utterly
'contemporary' this film was. The story on which it is based had just
been published, and the topic, unlike the escapist entertainment of
time, was a matter of immediate urgency. The village of silkworm
growers was, in effect, a microcosm of the nation, showing the
deleterious effects of imperialism, war, usury and their own
superstitions and doggedly conservative resistance to the tide of
The immediate background to the film is as follows: In the early thirties, the Jiangnan silk industry (in particular, in the counties of Zhejiang, Hangzhou, Hubei and Hunan) was in great danger. It had to compete with inflation, Japanese imports, competition from foreign fabrics, high interest rates and other market forces that could be manipulated by exploitative capitalists.
*** Plot summary with Spoilers Ahead ***
The film itself shows the family of Tong Bao in their efforts day and night, to keep silkworms. Tong Bao is a great believer in superstitions (such as judging a future harvest by the number of sprouting onion stalks) and a number of taboos. For instance, he prohibits his son from talking to a neighbour's daughter, called He Hua (Lotus Flower), because she is believed by the village to bring bad luck. In the season in question, Tong Bao borrows money at high interest in order to buy mulberry leaves for the silkworms. He envisages a bumper harvest. At the time of the cocoon harvest, war breaks out and silk production is at a standstill. He can't offload the cocoons and eventually must ship them a long way just to sell them at a loss.
*** Plot summary ends ***
This film was one of the first Leftist films to be produced. Though it bears elements of typical melodramas, at heart it was an enormous break from tradition. As such, it was quite a courageous experiment. (Incidentally, it didn't do very well at the box office when first released, but was highly praised by the Communist party when it came to power.) The film is sometimes almost documentary in style, like a Chinese Robert Flaherty, especially when it concentrates the camera on the details of silk production. At other times, the fluid camera movements recall the work of Murnau. As a mixture of genres, it's hard to say whether it is successful or not. Is it a documentary about the national condition that has been personalised through the lens of a single village or is it a socially-aware fiction? I think it succeeds more as the first. It's tone, even in spite of the dramatic aspects, is simple and unadorned. Through one story, that of an impoverished village, it thrusts forward that of China itself, impoverished and humiliated by foreign exploitation, military attack, and by its own superstitions and resistance to the modernisation of its industries.
Seeing it now, seventy years later, its historical import is obvious. 'Spring Silkworms' encapsulated so many of the problems plaguing Republican China and stands as a valuable historical document. As such, it retains an important humane aspect, firmly rooted in reality, an aspect long lost by the more propagandistic films that Chinese leftists produced later when further radicalised by a worsening national situation.
Additional note: Though listed here as having a 'mono' soundtrack, the film is in fact silent, with title cards. The DVD copy I viewed did have a musical track of no great merit.
National Customs was the last film that Ruan Lingyu made, and it is
dedicated to her memory. After her swansong in 'New Women', with its
real-life parallels, this film comes like an afterthought, more akin to
Xiao Wanyi (Small Toys) which, as it happens, also co-starred Li Lili.
These two actress play sisters, Zhang Tao and Zhang Lan, both graduates
from Middle School, who are considering what to do with their
education. They wind up continuing their education in Shanghai, where
Zhang Lan (Ruan Lingyu) pursues her studies in a Spartan fashion, while
her younger sister plays around and learns all about 'being modern',
which seems to consist of wearing makeup and alluring clothes, as well
as a freer approach to interaction between the sexes.
It is here that the theme of the 'New Life' movement pops up. This movement was initiated in 1934 by Chiang Kai-shek with the aim of returning China to Confucian social ethics by the rejection of Western-styled individualism and indulgence. As the film goes on, the 'modern' versus the 'traditional' society comes to be embodied in the disagreements between the sisters.
While ably supported by the rest of the cast (including several familiar faces from the Shanghai film industry), the stars of the show are Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili. They have been very well cast and use their talents appropriately.
The plot, while tending towards melodrama in the early stages, quickly turns to social issues which were of mounting importance for Republican China. In its attitudes, the film becomes an interesting time-capsule of the New Life era, and it is probably more important as a historical document than as simple entertainment.
The print used for the DVD I viewed wasn't in bad condition, but the transfer was quite blurred in places. Perhaps in the future a better version can be produced. But as with many films of that era, one must be glad that they have survived at all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As the title suggests, this title is basically a story about two women:
Marie and Ninni, who, at the start of the film, are both very pregnant,
looking forward to becoming mothers together.
** Slight spoiler alert **
Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. Ninni's baby is discovered - in a routine checkup - to have died in utero. Marie, in contrast, gives birth to a healthy young lad. Conflicting emotions torment both the sisters: joy and guilt, mourning and jealousy. Soon, Marie becomes suspicious of the attentions her sister is giving the child, and senses something sinister at work. As relationships frazzle, older family secrets bubble to the surface. If everything happens for a reason, can the death of a baby be a catalyst for a greater healing?
** Spoilers end **
Obviously, a film of this kind is not going to be easy going, though a fairly wide range of emotions are involved, and the ending is strangely uplifting. Marie and Ninni are both rounded, but frail, human beings. (It also helps that they are very well acted.) Their respective husbands - who are also given considerable screen time - support them as best they can, juggling their spouses' problems with work commitments. And Harry, the father of the title, tries his best to keep things together as issues from his own past surface.
Rather than a straight drama, a few thriller elements have been worked into the plot without the movie drifting over into simple thriller territory either. It is a balancing act that is well achieved by the director. The use of flashbacks and the representation of subjective reality is also well done, contributing to the total effect of the tale.
I must say that I watched this movie with little foreknowledge, and was pleasantly surprised. It took me to places I hadn't expected it to take me, and mixed genres in an interesting way. A couple of notches above standard family dramas, it is definitely worth a watch.
Fei Tian, or Accidental Legend quite surprised me. I had already seen
another film by the same director, Grandma and Her Ghosts, which was an
animated feature from Taiwan, and expected another Taiwanese film. This
movie is, however, set in the very dry, dusty hills of NW China, which
are the visual highlight of this film.
This is not to say that the story itself was not worthwhile. It was, in fact, an unusual mix of adventure, humour and social commentary, in which several strands of narrative are woven into a well-balanced hole that, while following some genre conventions, was not as predictable as it might have been.
The main threads of the plot have to do with children from a 'thief village', which consists of outcasts left behind after an assortment of insurrections and revolts (White Lotus cult, Heavenly Kingdom). The children of the village have well-honed thieving skills that are, in the story, employed by a Fagin-type character who leads a group of crippled beggars. The village is facing starvation, and its inhabitants are reduced to eating leaves, while the village elders try techniques and prayers for rain from the various cults they have sprung from, be they Buddhist or Christian. Miao Sanshun, a legendary Robin-hood like figure, seems to be their last hope, but he has not been heard from for ten years. Will he return, if he is still alive? Has he already returned? Another thread of the story involves the imperial exams, faked exam papers, corrupt officials, and the golden eyes of an official seal which have gone missing.
The characters are all well-painted, and the film takes its time drawing together the plot lines towards an inspired climax. It touches on a number of issues, such as social exclusion, corruption, the burden of identity, and the question of separating lies from truth, real from fake. At heart, however, the film is entertainment, not philosophy, and these questions spring naturally and unobtrusively from the narrative.
At over two hours, it does seem a little slow-paced at times, but the acting is fine, there is much good humour, and the natural setting is put to excellent use. If anything, the huge dry hills dwarf the human drama playing out on them, diminishing its importance 'in the grand scheme of things'. But these are 'the little people', the oppressed and marginalised, so perhaps this inhospitable landscape serves as a symbol too. In the end, it is no more inhospitable than 'decent' society itself, which wants to be protected from these outcasts, even while it constantly harasses and exploits them.
Diamond Hill is a film which seems to have been extremely over-looked,
though perhaps ripe for discovery by those looking to branch out from
Fruit Chan's independent films into similar territory.
Diamond Hill looks and feels like just such an indie film, which is not to say that it is amateurish. It is actually very well put together and superbly acted. But it has an experimental quality to it, an adventurousness that pushes the audience towards the unfamiliar, as if trying to see how much they might be willing to accept, plot-wise and stylistically.
The plot is not hard to follow, though much of it is conveyed through flashback. These flashbacks were shot on digital video, which gives them a unique feel, and also helps the watcher separate the past from the present (which is also a problem for the characters themselves, it seems). I don't wish to say much about the plot, because it is full of twists and revelations, but will limit myself to saying that coping with baggage from the past and dealing with relationships old and new seems to be the focus of proceedings.
The director, Pou-soi Cheang, employs a range of styles, varying from schmaltzy nostalgia to horror to (almost) slapstick humour. Yet it all coheres and makes sense, which is quite an achievement, especially for indie films.
I viewed this on VCD, which contained a far-from-perfect transfer (though thankfully the subtitles were quite legible), yet even these deficiencies didn't really undermine the film at all, and perhaps even contributed to the film's overall feel.
I'd recommend this film to anyone who likes Fruit Chan's films, or Chinese indie or low-budget films in general. It's well worth a look.
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