Posts Tagged ‘taiwanese indie’

Hou Hsiao-Hsien | Three Early films | MUBI

Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of contemporary cinema’s most dynamic and esteemed auteurs, and a leading light of Taiwanese cinema and its New Wave movement.

It’s surprising that his pre New Wave debut CUTE GIRL/Lovable You (Jiushi liuliu de ta (1980) is a raucously upbeat romantic musical comedy of the ‘golden age’ of Mandarin cinema in Taiwan. This first film is light years away from the director’s complex and poetic portrayals of Taiwanese social history that would first emerge with The Boys from Fengkuei (1983).

Although Hou Hsiao-hsien tries to play down his early films – CUTE GIRL (1980) *** is evidence of his talent for clever comic timing and situational comedy, as well as the more serious fare that would follow later. The romcom was a commercial vehicle for two leading stars of the 1980s: Feng Fei-fei (who has since died) and Kenny Bee, who was the main character in this first part of the trilogy that continued with Cheerful Wind/Feng er ti ta cai (1981) and The Green, Green Grass of Home/Zai in hepan quincao qing (1983).

So boy (Bee) meets girl (Fei-fei) with profuse musical accompaniment and a nod to Taiwan’s economic boom – although technology is still confusing and mobiles have only just really arrived. Themes of modern life in Taipei contrast with the traditional rural idyll and come into play when a young surveyor is practically forced by his parents to marry the daughter of a rich industrialist in the schematic but amusing plot line. The social context is familiar, but the serenity and sumptuous widescreen cinematography is absent, along with the slightly melancholy tone of his later work.

THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS OF HOME (1981) *** is the third part of the Kenny Bee trilogy and continues in a formulaic romantic/musical comedy vein, with a considerably more auteurist feel already emerging along with some impressive extended takes and naturalistic, improvisational performances from impressive child newcomers.

Bee arrives in the country village as a substitute teacher and soon becomes part of a community where adults are often more childish than their pupils. Ironically, Bee succeeds in offering some lessons in conservation to these ‘back to nature’ types, as they make their emotional way into adulthood. Sadly, the young female schoolgirl characters hardly get a look in, but this is an interesting prelude to his masterpieces that would follow.

THE BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983)**** His first work as an auteur (rather than a commercial director ) is a coming of age story set in an idyllic fishing village in the Penghu Islands where a group of boys are waiting to be called up for the army. The harsh realities of city life soon bite in a cautionary tale that sees three of the youngsters leaving for the large port of Kaohsiung, where their fate awaits and reality finally comes home. Slightly darker in tone but with some gentle humour, Hsiao hsien stresses the importance of a good education and a proper start in life in this poetic and at times sentimental rites of passage drama. MT






China Craft| What to see this Winter | Film | Dance | Art | from China

London plays host to some of the most exciting Chinese art, dance and cinema, both from mainland China, and its edgy sister Taiwan. Here’s a selection of the best offerings for the Winter season. The common thread throughout is master-craftmanshp: a mind-numbing attention to detail that is intoxicatingly beautiful and unique in its creativity and inventiveness

IMG_3323AI WEI WEI until 13 December 2015 | RA London W1

Major artist and cultural phenomenon Ai Weiwei is known for his powerful, provocative and visionary works and is now one of China’s most influential artists and drawing international attention to the Chinese government’s limitations on individual freedom.

Ai became widely known in Britain after his sunflower seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010 but the RA is now showcasing the first major exhibition in the UK, bridging over two decades of an extraordinary career highlighting Weiwei’s formal attention to detail and to realism, and the calculated whimsy of his creative vision.

Among his newest works are a number of large-scale installations, as well as works in mixed media from marble and steel to tea and glass. With typical boldness, the chosen works explore a multitude of challenging themes, drawing on his own experience to comment on creative freedom, censorship and human rights, as well as examining contemporary Chinese art and society. What emerges here is not only meticulous and mind-numbing attention to detail – Wei Wei’a art also require a dedicated troupe of highly skilled artisans in its painstaking execution. The centrepiece of utter brilliance is a series of limited addition chrysanthemums: delicately rendering in ice-blue, snow-white and shell pink. The refined exquisiteness of these ethereal baubles justifies their price tag of £14,000 per piece.

CHINA NATIONAL OPERA | SADLERS WELLS Theatre | until 22 November 2015

《杨门女将》朱虹饰穆桂英 copyThe hot ticket of the decade is CHINA PEKING OPERAs visit to the UK this November – The Peking Opera is a unique art form that requires the highest level of performing skill; demanding  lifelong dedication to practising its artistry. In this dance and musical extravaganza, each performer trains from a very tender age at opera school before being an apprentice and learning from the masters. With  spectacular costumes, face painting make-up and stunning stage craft, Peking Opera represents the essence of tradition Chinese values – achievements come through sweat and tears and resistance to material temptation. If there is an identity and unifying force for Chinese nationals, whether from the mainland, Taiwan or Hong Kong; it is the Peking Opera.

In FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (ticket details) Zhu Hong gives a unique performance as the lover of the Overlord of Chu, Xiang Yu, who is fighting to save the Qin Dynasty. Floating like an exotic flower, her role culminates in a magnificent sword dance that leaves her as composed as a water lily on a tranquil pond. This combination of controlled emotion and highly complex choreography, echoing Wuxia epics such as The Grandmaster and House of Flying Daggers, is what makes this spectacular an unforgettable experience.

The troupe also perform WARRIOR WOMEN OF YANG, a story set during the Song Dynasty (960AD-1279AD) when the Emperor of Mercy, General Yang Zongbao, leads the Song army against the Western Xia and is victorious thanks to his fierce and loyal female soldiers.

In the climate of a largely westernised China, there are still artists who are passionate about the traditional form of Chinese artistic heritage and devote their lives to preserving the century old form of art. It is a dream kept alive by the National Peking Opera Company who continue to pursuit their dream of keeping this ancient Chinese art form alive and sharing its beauty and stagecraft with the world.

Differing only slightly in costume and makeup, all traditional opera forms, including Peking opera, are, strictly speaking, “regional,” in that each is based on the music and dialect of a specific area. Peking opera assumed its present form about two hundred years ago in Beijing, then the capital of the Qing Dynasty, it is usually regarded as a national art form combining singing, dancing and martial arts. Peking opera is the most representative of all Chinese traditional dramatic art forms.

《杨门女将》探谷-4 copyThe music of Peking opera is mainly orchestral music and percussion instruments provide a strongly rhythmical accompaniment. The main percussion instruments are gongs and drums of various sizes and shapes. There are also clappers made of hardwood or bamboo. The main stringed instrument is jinghu (Beijing fiddle), supported by erhu (second fiddle). Plucked stringed instruments include yueqin (moonshaped mandolin), pipa (four-stringed lute) and xianzi (three-stringed lute). Occasionally, suona horn and Chinese flute are also used. The orchestra is led by a drummer, who uses bamboo sticks to create very powerful sounds — sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes strong and exciting, sometimes faint and sentimental — and bring out the emotions of the characters in coordination with the acting of the performers.

The vocal part of Peking opera is both spoken and sung. Spoken dialogue is divided into yunbai (recitative) and jingbai (Beijing colloquial speech), the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. The vocal music consists mainly of erhuang (adapted from folk tunes of Anhui and Hubei) and xipi (from Shaanxi tunes). In addition, Peking opera assimilates the tunes of the much older kunqu opera of the south and some folk arias popular in the north.

The character roles in Peking opera are finely and strictly differentiated into fixed types. Female roles are generally known as dan and male roles as sheng, but male clowns are known as chou. A chou, depicted by a patch of white on the face, is a humorous character. Male characters who are frank and open-minded but rough or those who are crafty and dangerous are known as jing or hualian (painted faces). Peking opera roles are further classified according to the age and personality of the characters. Each different role type has a style and rules of its own. What makes this “opera” unique, is this exotic combination of movement, dance, singing and music that makes it feel literally ‘out of this world’.


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Peking opera and its stylistic devices have appeared in many Chinese films. It often was used to signify a unique “Chineseness” in contrast to sense of culture being presented in Japanese films. Fei Mu, a director of the pre-Communist era, used Peking opera in a number of plays, sometimes within “Westernized”, realistic plots. King Hu, a later Chinese film director, used many of the formal norms of Peking opera in his films, such as the parallelism between music, voice, and gesture. In the 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, by Chen Kaige, Peking opera serves as the object of pursuit for the protagonists and a backdrop for their romance. Chen returned to the subject again in 2008 with the Mei Lanfang biopic FOREVER ENTHRALLED. Peking opera is also featured in Peking Opera Blues by Tsui Hark.

Three_Times_9 copyHou Hsiao-Hsien’s sumptuous films epitomise Chinese cinematic artistry and attention to detail. Fabulously meticulous both in execution and narrative, his award-winning dramas are amongst the most beautiful ever committed to celluloid. Born in Mei County, Guangdong province (China) in 1947, Hou and his family fled the Chinese Civil War to Taiwan the following year where he studied at the National Taiwan Academy of the Arts.

Internationally Hou is known for his austere and aesthetically rigorous dramas dealing with the upheavals of Taiwanese (and occasionally larger Chinese) history of the past century seen through the experience of individuals or small groups of characters. A City of Sadness (1989), features a family caught in conflict between the local Taiwanese and the newly arrived Chinese Nationalist government after the Second World War. Groundbreaking for tackling the controversial February 28 Incident and ensuing White Terror, the film became a major critical and commercial success, winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1989, making it the first Taiwanese film to win the top prize at the oldest international film festival in the World.

hou1 copy copyHis narratives are elliptical and his style marked by extreme long takes with minimal camera movement but intricate choreography of actors and space within the frame. Hou uses extensive improvisation to arrive at the final shape of his scenes and the low-key, naturalistic acting of his performers. Famous for his rigorous austerity, a close collaboration with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin since the 1990s has brought a sensual beauty to his to his imagery and this is at its most sublime in his most recent Wuxia outing THE ASSASSIN, which won him Best Director at Cannes this year (2015). Since the 1980s, Chu Tien-Wen has been his writing partner notably on Three Times (2005), The Assassin (2015) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998).  He has also cast revered puppeteer Li Tian-lu as an actor in several outings, including The Puppetmaster (1993), based on Li’s life.





Dragon Inn (1967) | Dual format Blu-ray DVD

Writer|Director: King Hu

Chun Shih, Lingfeng Shangguan, Chien Tsao, Feng Hsu

111min  | Wuxia Adventure | Taiwan

This cult classic action masterpiece, that finally comes to dual format blu-ray this Autumn, is the dazzling daddy of all the martial arts adventures combining as it does some magnificent set pieces and some of the most startling and gracefully performed action sequences ever committed to film, embodying the exotic essence of Taiwanese Wuxia and establishing the genre’s archetypes such as the Eunuch and The Swordswoman.

Director King Hu, was born in Beijing but left China for Hong King in 1949 where started his film career during the fifties, first as an actor and then as a writer and director. In 1967 he started his own studio in Taiwan where DRAGON INN was film and later selected, along with A Touch of Zen, as one of the 10 Best Chinese Motion Pictures of all time. It was later remade by Tsui Hark who cast Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love) and Tony Ka Fai Leung in the leads.

After the violent death of General Yu at the hands of his political rival Tsaio, the Emperors’s first eunuch, his two children flee to the western border where Tsaio’s secret police lie in wait to ambush them at the remote Dragon Gate Inn. But grandmaster Hsaio (Chun Shih) turns up at the inn to meet the owner Wu Ning, who emerges as one of the general’s lieutenants, and who has summoned Hsaio to help the children escape, aided and abetted by a brother and sister team of highly skilled martial-artists.

There is a rich painterly quality to this visually sumptuous affair that is both beguiling and gripping with its tense and elegantly-staged action sequences enhanced by a teasingly atmospheric original score by Award-winning composer Lan-Ping Chow (Come Drink With Me). The quality of the acting is also unusually sensitive and subtle for an action adventure outing and Hui-Ying Hua’s widescreen photography absolutely breath-taking. MT



Salute! Sun Yat-Sen | Meeting Dr Sun (2014)

Dir.: Yee Chih-yen

Cast: Zhan Huai-ting, Matthew Wei, Cheng Wei-teng, Gina Chien-Na Lee

Taiwan 2014, 90 min  Drama

Meeting Dr. Sun is writer/director Yee Chih-yen’s first film in 12 twelve years, following Blue Gate Crossing which featured some of the same characters as his latest film. On the face of it Meeting Dr. Sun appears to be a surrealistic teen comedy but the real themes run much deeper. Two rival high school gangs are attempting to steal a statue of the founder of Modern China and use the money to pay off their outstanding school fees.

Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) was the founder of the Chinese Republic in 1912. He was soon deposed as president by warlords, but later returned to politics and formed a coalition between his Kuomintang (KMT) party and the Chinese Communist Party in 1923. He is one of the few politicians admired by mainland China and Taiwan. Along with Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek, he was one of the most important figures in China from 1900 to 1976. Father of modern China (now Taiwan) espoused “Three Principles” – Nationalism, Democracy and Socialism which he developed whilst in exile in the UK.

Lefty (Huai-ting) is the gangling leader of a group of four students who have fallen behind with their school fees. He comes up with the plan to steal the massive stature of Dr. Sun which is stored away in the corner of the school. The group buys cheap masks so as not be recognised by the schools security cameras. But at the last minute Lefty finds a notebook outlining a plan to steal the statue in the same way he had planned. When Lefty meets Sky (Wei), the leader of the rival group, they compare notes on who is the least flush of the two. Sky than uses Lefty’s generosity to steal the statue with his four friends, but Lefty’s group appears just in time, wearing the same masks. This turns out to be helpful for both groups, since they need eight people to move the heavy statue. The delay alerts the caretaker and his girlfriend (Lee) who are suddenly surrounded by eight scarily masked men who chase them into a class room. Turning the situation to his advantage, the caretaker persuades his girl friend to make love, since “they may not survive the night”, as Lefty and Sky are the left fighting it out for the possession of the statue.

DOP Chen Tai-pu cinematography of the dark school and Taipei by night are highly imaginative, Meeting Dr. Sun plays out like a choreographed ballet performed in different shades of grey. What might seem like a prank, turns out to be a real fight for survival and the gang’s solidarity in the end is a metaphor for the student strike of March 2014 in Taipei. Dr. Sun’s statue represents the need for a social and democratic solution in Taiwan as well as in China. Meeting Dr. Sun is aesthetically a unique experience and when coupled with the political subtext, not easily accessible for European audiences, it becomes even more admirable. AS



Stray Dogs (2013) ****

p5512 copyDirector: Ming-liang Tsai

Cast: Shiang-chiyi Chen, Kang-sheng Lee, Yi Cheng Lee,

138min  Drama


Taiwan’s building boom is displacing and disenfranchising the inhabitants of Taipei, who scratch around to make ends meet, according to Tsai Ming Liang’s drama which divided the critics at its Venice premiere. It went on to win the GRAND JURY PRIZE. Some hail it as a masterpiece of social realism – each frame a lingering study of formal mastery playing out in an extended series of static images of despair and poverty that go to make up this non-narrative study of a poor family eking out an existence on the margins of the capital.

The opening scene – that lasts for nearly four minutes – is of a woman languidly brushing her hair as she sits on the edge of a bed in a room where two children lie sleeping. This is their home and the walls are dripping with floodwater from recent downpours. As the film continues its 138 minute running time, some of these shots of stillness will last for up to ten minutes. Another depicts their father, a human signpost who works on a busy intersection advertising property developments, holds up his placard against the dismal drizzle of another Godforsaken day. What emerges is a tragedy: a dysfunctional father unable to offer his family anything but suffering in this detrimental environment where their only nourishment appears to come from cabbages.

A critics’ film – STRAY DOGS will certainly appeal to the most ardent arthouse devotees of long, lingering shots and close-up footage but, be warned, it is a drama that requires perseverance, and the only message of hope that you can take away is that of the resilience of children, adapting to such a life and making up the next generation. MT


Exit (2015) |

Director: Hsiang Chienn

Cast: Ming Hwa Bai, Shiang-chyi Chen, Ming-hsiang Tung, Chen-Ling Wen

90min  Taiwanese   Drama

The menopause is a topic that rarely figures in modern drama. Certainly not a positive time in most most women’s lives – in the West it is viewed with a range of emotions ranging from mild pity to downright derogation. But in the Far East, where older people command respect and often admiration, the emotionally effects of the menopause are often milder both physically and mentally suggesting that positive societal attitudes can alleviate symptoms.

And there is something admirable about Hsiang Chienn’s gentle and sensitive handling of this theme that affects its central character Ling (a subtle and measured performance by Chen) a Taiwanese woman in her forties who is clearly suffering the effects brought on by this change of life .

Having just lost her job in a garment factory, Ling is preoccupied with the future, anxious for her mother-in-law in hospital and dealing with a troublesome and distant teenage daughter. Her husband is working abroad and never returns her calls so she appears to be isolated and lacking in any emotional support. Hsiang Chienn shows insight and understanding of her character’s anxiety. Though there are occasional longueurs and the classic Taiwanese static shots where Ling moves in and out of the frame, the narrative maintains a manageable pace, allowing us time out for contemplation.

In the same hospital ward lies Chang, a young man who has undergone eye surgery and in incredible pain. His suffering seems to suffuse the drama with added poignancy as Ling develops a strange and attachment to him and she starts to day-dream of romantic scenarios as she intimately tends Chang, possibly excited by his vulnerable and semi-naked, blindfolded state. Gradually she becomes more excited about her visits to the hospital as a unorthodox intimacy develops with this mysterious young stranger with beautiful feet.

With it soft-lensing and delicate aesthetic EXIT is a daintily-crafted piece with shades of Wong Ka Wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, the voyeuristic camera lingers on well-composed shots, drifting around, often out of focus. Summer Lei’s tango score ramps up the erotic expectancy surrounding the couple and soon Ling is undressing him to gently give him a bed bath, her touch increasing positive healing in them both, showing how physical re-connection can be therapeutic and emotionally affecting, even if the outcome is ultimately frustrating. A graceful and appealing drama. MT




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