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"The Way We Are" tells the story of a hardworking, widowed, single mother (Mrs. Cheung) and her teenage son (Ka-on) living in the troubled housing estate of Tinshuiwai, a suburb regularly featured in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Hee Ching Paw,
Cheuk Man Au
When viewed from afar, "Life Show" does well at probing problems (the socioeconomic chasm between rich and poor, the displacement brought on by "progress" of those who were in its way, the improved since Communism (yes, you read that correctly) but still relatively low position of women in society, and the desperate situation of rural workers who come into China's big cities) central to the "New China's" meteoric rise from destitute poverty to semi-prosperity. It also accurately shows the power of "guanxi" (personal connections and favor-trading) in Chinese society, played out in Shuang Yang's ploy to win a dispute over the ownership of an apartment by matching one of her female employees to marry the manager of the Records Bureau's presumably autistic son. Considering its low budget and the fact that most of this film was shot on a set, the visuals were impressive, displaying both the drabness of modern China and its unique, semi-perverse beauty, occasionally discoverable within its endless expanse of hastily constructed buildings, concrete, and smog. I particularly enjoyed the scenes shot in the cable car over the Yangzi River that distinguish the film as taking place in Chongqing, as opposed to China's innumerable other metropolises, and communicate both the visual richness and blandness simultaneously present in nearly every Chinese urban area.
This film far surpasses many of its Chinese peers in both TV and film in its attempt to "tell the truth." Many present-day Chinese productions showcase a lifestyle of gated communities, spotless skyscrapers, luxury cars, and American consumption patterns, a lifestyle that all but the top 1% of the top 1% of Chinese people can only imagine because they have seen it on TV or pirated DVDs. To its credit, "Life Show" largely avoids this fantasy world. Perhaps due to an adherence to the novel that spawned the film, "Life Show" deals with its central issues (see above) in an ostensibly honest fashion. Unfortunately, when you get down to the actual details, this film begins to fall apart. Despite the effort apparently made by the set designers towards realism, certain things, such as the food stand and Shuang Yang's apartment, are multiple times too big, and too clean-looking beyond all believability. However, the lack of realism in the details of this film seems mainly a consequence of casting Tao Hong as Shuang Yang (the female lead). Although Tao Hong is one of my favorite Chinese actresses because of an elusive quality she has (I haven't quite figured it out yet) that somehow makes her stand out from other Chinese actresses, I feel she was poorly suited to this role because she could not / did not perform a transformation similar to that of Charlize Theron in "Monster", namely that of discarding the bulk of her charm to play a character well beneath her in social status and grace. Judging by the dialogue and Shuang Yang's occupation, selling duck necks as street food, Shuang Yang should have been played as the very definition of "su" (a Chinese word roughly meaning "the opposite of elegant" with a semi-derogatory connotation halfway between "the masses" and "poor white trash"), as her lack of education and refinement is mentioned numerous times, especially in her conversations with Zhuo (the male lead). Having lived in China for two years, I have come into contact with hundreds of street vendors and small restaurant proprietors and seen thousands more on my walks through the streets. These types of eating establishments without exception are dirty places, with some even bordering on squalid, and their proprietors generally appear friendly but weathered, street-smart and not often bathed. Yes, we are told numerous times that Shuang Yang has "benshi" (the kind of talent that makes one successful), but that simply does not equal the grace and beauty that Tao Hong cannot dispose herself of in playing this role. Shuang Yang's face and nails should be dirtier, her hands should be roughened up, and her hair shouldn't be colored. She shouldn't be dining at a 20th floor luxury restaurant teaching her employee girl how to eat pizza with a knife and fork (since Chinese not of high social status typically do not know how to use a knife and fork). We should see the filthy water in which Shuang Yang dips the rag she uses to wipe the counter. While she is on the job, Shuang Yang should spit, as Chinese of lower social status commonly do. Can you even imagine Tao Hong spitting? I would laugh! Even that would probably be graceful. Ultimately, Tao Hong is far too attractive for the character she is playing. Food stand proprietors in China just don't look like her. EVER! (nor do 40-year-old Floridian prostitutes look like Charlize Theron w/o the age-producing makeup and the fat suit).
I cannot entirely blame Tao Hong for her performance in this movie or definitively call it poor acting on her part, mostly because I suspect she was just working with the set design and direction she was given (and what woman would want to look unattractive?). I understand nearly that every film includes some "dressing up" of its subjects to add interest, or for other reasons. However, I just wish everybody involved in the production of this film would have placed more value on closely emulating the style and substance of those whose plight they were trying to portray. This film could have been powerful, but in its over-elegance, ironically settles for the film equivalent of "su". (******6/10)
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