Posts Tagged ‘Chinese film’

Present. Perfect (2019) ***

Dir: Zhu Shengze. USA/Hong Kong. 2019. 124mins

Live-streaming in China is big business. The severely disabled, wheelchair-ridden and low-paid have finally found a nifty way of making an extra yuan. Sharing their everyday lives on the internet brings them an income as well as garnering support and emotional inter-dependence. It works both ways as the streams establish a mutually beneficial connection.

Present.Perfect makes for compelling viewing – up to a point. It’s a strong premise but the execution is flawed.  What initially seems intriguing to watch eventually becomes tedious. And by the end the doc does its worthy subject matter a disservice, playing out as a laborious and repetitive slog, without any kind of narrative or real explanation. Zhu Shengze made the film from more than 800 hours of filmed footage taken from an output of 12 ‘anchors’ (sharers of their footage) over a period of 10 months. Tighter editing would have made the film more pithy and enjoyable. What we do learn is that 2016 was apparently “Year Zero” for live streaming – and now the industry has expanded exponentially. In 2017, over 422 million Chinese shared streamed films on the internet. But it’s not all doom and gloom, content-wise.

The segments from each showroom are often overlong, and the content can be extremely dull, made more so by the black and white camerawork. Do we really want to watch a woman’s gruelling trip down the road – wheel-chair bound, while she stares pitifully into the camera? Or a physically challenged guy do his washing? And then there’s a man showing his wounds bleeding, clearly he’s into self-harm. But clearly these Chinese audiences do, and they’re prepared to pay for it, finding comfort in these banal everyday lives fraught with trauma (Eastenders, anyone?). Besides the obvious need for recognition, fostered by all types of social media, there is the loneliness and alienation out there, and the streamers have tapped into this rich vein of income, benefiting in more ways than one from the comfort-seeking connection with others. Our hearts go out to the ‘anchors’ but most of us don’t need to experience their pain to understand their suffering. despite their cheerful perseverance. But that’s not the point. For those who become invested in their daily struggle to survive, the film tells a valuable story. One of mutual support, and even entertainment. Distances in China are vast and many peoplelive alone in remote locations miles away from any form of social contact. These ‘anchors’ are actually their keeping them on the straight and narrow, emotionally at least.  

Other anchors have used the streaming device as a way to drum up business. A case in point is a farmer keen on branding his particular form of labour as ‘agritainment’. There is a bored crane driver, who invites us to visit him way up in his cab that towers above a vast building site. Another, a woman, is tooling away at making men’s underpants. She shares the trials and tribulations of her love life with all her followers, as she peddles away at her gruelling work. The more you watch the stories the more you understand how compulsive the experience becomes in providing a vital support system for those reaching out from the desperation of their own lives. In the end, the banal almost becomes beautiful; providing comfort and consistency: we need never be alone. MT



An Elephant Sitting Still | Da Xiang Xi Di Er Zuo (2018)

Dir.: Hu Bo; Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuang, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi, Ling Zhenghui, Zhnag Xialong; China 2018, 230 min.

Written, directed and edited by the Chinese director Hu Bo, his award-winning debut is an immersive masterpiece and also his  last film: he committed suicide at the age of just 29, just before the end of shooting.

The action takes place during a single suspenseful day, from dawn to dusk, where the train to the Northern Chinese city of Manzhouli is about to depart. The only noticeable feature in this miserable backwater is an elephant, who, according to rumour, simply sits and watches the world go by.

The symbolic creature draws all sort of people from the surrounding villages: There is young Wei (Yuang), abused by his venal father who father lost his job for taking bribes. Wei’s friend Li (Zhenghui) is accused by Yu (Xiaolong) of stealing his mobile ‘phone. But Li protests his innocence, and Wei defends him. At school, Yu corners the two boys on a staircase and Wei is seriously injured after a scuffle.

This is a community on its knees and at each other’s throats, forced into crime and misdemeanour by harsh economic circumstances. The sins of the parents are meted out on their kids. Wei is in love with Huang (Yuwen) but her troubled mother has projected her own fears onto the young woman causing problems for them both, and Huang to cheat on Wei with the vice-dean of the school whose luxury apartment seems to exist in a parallel universe to the rest of city.

Their secret relationship has been outed by Li, whose phone images of Huang and the teacher, have now gone viral on the internet. The teacher throws Huang out of his flat, blaming her for jeopardising his career. At home Huang is hassled by the teacher’s wife who accuses her of ruining her marriage. And so it goes on, a series of interconnected stories of misery, mistrust and pain all gracefully crafted. A poetic epilogue sees Wang, his granddaughter, Huang and Wei at the station: their train to Manzhouli has been cancelled, forcing them to take several replacement buses to their destination.

Unfolding like one of Balzac’s novels from La Condition Humaine, Hu Bo keeps the narrative going, always finding new angles, plot lines and twists. Everything is elegantly elliptical as the main protagonists meet again and again under new circumstances, completely out of their control. They are always in motion, the city providing a beguiling backdrop to their rat-like existence. In their alienated indolence the young become victims of their elders, who prove poor role models.

Chao Fan’s camera pans relentlessness over the sordidness of it all, tracking the protagonists through the minefield of misdemeanours, like a prowling beast. Even Bela Tarr, always on the lookout for a backdrop of utter desolation, would be impressed by the machinations of Elephant; and there are shades of the Hungarian director’s Werckmeister Harmonies in the the lack of substantial interplay between these characters who glide through the swamp of the city without finding an identity: nothing sticks to them, as they drowning in the quagmire. Fan’s delicately rendered camerawork leaves a great deal to the imagination: the background often distorted in a filmic milkyway. And most impressive of all, we never notice the substantial running time: Hu Bo invites us to live with these characters, and we become part of their world.

A monumental undertaking, to be remembered as a part of film history and with utter regret for being Hu Bo’s sole feature output. A team of China’s FIRST Film Festival, who co-funded Elephant, finished the saga of despair and alienation the way Hu Bo had envisaged it. Elephant won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival (Forum section) along with a string of awards at Festivals all over the world including The Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, Asia’s equivalent to the Oscars. The copyright of An Elephant Sitting Still is now with his parents. AS


New Chinese Cinema | Pingyao International Film Festival | Year Zero 2017

PYIFF2017-founderJiaZhangke-SittingInPlatformArenaEastern Promise was lavishly delivered this year at the inaugural PINGYAO CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (PYIFF) offering audiences from all over the world a chance to enjoy the latest in Chinese independent cinema for 10 days (28 October-4 November). The indie film festival is the brainchild of filmmaker and producer Jia Zhangke who grew up in Fenyang, near the festival’s setting in the UNESCO World Heritage walled town of Pingyao (in the province of Shanxi) – a four-hour bullet train journey south west of Beijing.- was determined that one day he would raise the region’s profile from one of coal-mining to a cradle of Chinese creativity.

PYIFF also offered local Chinese cinephiles their first opportunity to sample a prodigious Jean Pierre Melville retrospective in their own homeland. The competition also paid homage, with its awards, named after Roberto Rossellini, and the Chinese director Fei Mu, and showed a selection of the latest releases including Vivian Qu’s Venice Biennale 2017 standout ANGELS WEAR WHITE and Xiaogang Feng’s rousing epic YOUTH that recently played at Toronto Film Festival 2017.

PingyaoIFF-founderJiaZhangke&directorMarcoMuellerVenice Film Festival’s long-time artistic director Marco Mueller masterminded an eclectic programme where two strands in particular showcased the talents of emerging Chinese filmmakers – the soi-disant ‘tiger’s and ‘dragons’ (also honouring Ang Lee). The CROUCHING TIGERS section offered the opportunity to see debut or second films from new directors. The HIDDEN DRAGONS gave a platform to genre fare and a NEW GENERATION series showcased mostly Chinese indie fare. Chinese cinema has had a rough ride in its homeland in the past due to the deemed unsuitability for general release of some of its titles – perhaps Xi Jingping will see fit to loosen the silk strings that restrict the autonomy of independent cinema, while standing by the communist tenet to promote  China’s cultural creativity: an uneasy paradox. The original dates of the festival were delayed by the 19th Communist Party Conference. While there is a desire to promote culture, the programmers were also forced to ban several South Korean titles due to a contretemps between Beijing and Seoul. Festival opener YOUTH had initially caused problems due to its ‘controversial’ depiction of the 1979 Sino-Vietnemese war. While press attempting to take photos during the opening gala were threatened by a fierce-looking security guards bearing truncheons (most Chinese continued to film the proceeding oblivious – in the spirit of Tiananmen Square), Chinese law also states that accredited journalists are entitled to complimentary lodging and subsistence – so none of us went hungry at lunchtime as we tucked into delicious bento boxes prepared by the chefs of Jia Jhangke’s ‘Mountains May Depart’ Restaurant which is located in a new arts centre which is gradually being developed on the site of a former industrial zone.

PYIFF2017-OpeningCeremony-actressZhaoTaoThe good news is that mainstream Chinese film production is thriving abundantly with around 700 films being made each year so PYIFF is a healthy move in the right direction, thanks to Jia Zhangke and Marco Muller, a ‘foreigner’ who enjoys a close and charismatic relationship with the Chinese. And their efforts to encourage young filmmakers have certainly paid off. But Zhangke is not resting on his laurels: filming for his title ASH IS PUREST WHITE (Jiang hu er nv) a violent noughties-set love story is already underway, his talented wife Tao Zhao (right, at the PYIFF opening ceremony) takes the leading role. MT








Ash (2017) | Pingyao International Film Festival | Year Zero

Director: Li Xiaofeng | Cast: Luo Jin, Xin Peng, Nie Yuan, Jiang Peiyao, Huang Jue, Yang Yiwei, Sun Hao,

Director and co-writer Li Xiaofeng improves on his thoughtful but flawed debut Nezha with this sinuous and sumptuously cinematic modern morality thriller the explores through a fractured narrative the simple premise: a choice of redemption or recidivism for two young killers.

Elegant and intriguing, ASH has echoes of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin in its reflection on good and evil in contemporary China where a young detective Chen Weikun (Nie Yuan), is tasked with investigating the brutal murder of an ordinary  man Ma Xudong (Yang Yiwei), in a local cinema. He draws a blank with the victim’s family but pursues a shady suspect who is seen loitering in the shadows. Flipping toward a decade, we then meet surgeon Wang Dong (Luo Jin),who is celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife, Xuan Hui (Jiang Peiyao) and it soon emerges that the two men are strangely linked. The tension mounts as the mist gradually clears on the fulll story involving a long-standing pact forged between Xu and Wang after their crimes which continue to haunt them, as Chen doggedly probes the past.

With its universal theme, cast of subtly instinctual newcomers whose personalities contrast to great effect, and pristine technical craftmanship from Dutch DoP Joewi Verhoeven, ASH makes for an absorbing and provocative watch. Simon John Fisher Turner’s atmospheric score creates just the right mood for this first class, if overlong Chinese thriller. MT




1st Pingyao International Film Festival 2017 | Oct 28 – Nov 4 2017

PYIFF-FestivalAmbassador-actressFanBingBingThe First Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival (PYIFF) will take place in the Ancient World Heritage city from 28 October until 4 November 2017.

The project is the brainchild of award-winning filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart), Marco Müller is artistic director and award-winning actress Fan BingBing (I Am Not Madame Bovary) its Ambassador. PYIFF will be held amid the magnificent Ming Dynasty site of Pingyao from October 28 – November 4, with a brand new festival Complex, incorporating a 1500-seat open-air arena, showcasing this arthouse extravaganza.

Fan Bingbing is one of China’s best loved actresses and took part in the the jury at the 70th Cannes International Film Festival this May. Jia Zhangke’s hope is to create an industry meeting place in Pingyao ‘dynamising the Landscape of Cinema’ with the creative input of new and established Chinese filmmakers; international auteurs; programmers; producers and investors. The main Jury will consist of: Feng Xiaogang, Johnnie To, Walter Salles, Aleksandr Sokurov, Olivier Père, Anurag Kashyap, James Schamus, Roger Garcia, Alexander Rodnyansky and Tony Cao.


This year’s retrospective will tribute the Centennial of Jean-Pierre Melville, the “Father of the French New Wave” with 10 recently restored Melville classics, including: The Red Circle, Le Samourai, A Cop and Army of Shadows. Melville’s films have been an enriching influence on Chinese cinema over the years, particularly for John Woo, Johnnie To and Ann Hui. Besides screening the restored version of most Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, the festival will also include two Chinese language films deeply influenced by his work. The symposium will provide a forum for well-known directors, researchers and filmmakers to discuss and examine their own cinema in relations to Melville’s output. Rémy Grumbach, nephew of Jean-Pierre Melville and co-founder of the Melville Foundation will be there to take part. PYIFF will also hold an exhibition of Melville trailers, posters and film stills in the festival’s main site Pingyao Festival Palace.

The festival’s comprises 6 strands: “Crouching Tiger” (section for new directors), “Hidden Dragon” (special focus on genre film), “Galas”, “New Generation China”, “Best of Fest” and “Retrospective/Tributes”. The “Retrospective & Tributes” section will screen classics to pay tribute to filmmakers who have contributed to the international film industry.



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