In the Heat of the Sun (1994) — December 15, 2017
Somewhat autobiographical story of coming of age during the 1970s from Jiang Wen, based on Wang Shuo’s novel Wild Beast. It’s some kind of a middle ground between a couple of Edward Yang films: the textures of teenage gang life of A Brighter Summer Day with the romanticism of Mahjong, though it’s more singularly focused on one main character than either of those group portraits. The hero is a young hoodlum nicknamed Monkey, played by Xia Yu, who looks eerily exactly like what you’d imagine Jiang Wen looked like as a 15 year old. I think it’s the ears. The majority of the film takes place over a summer, narrated by Jiang himself, increasingly unreliably. Monkey and his buddies defend their turf against rival teens, while he becomes smitten with an older girl, Mi Lan (Ning Jing). Familiar beats are hit, enlivened by Jiang’s blown-out whites and dusty oranges, and singular focus on items in close-up, most obsessively Mi Lan’s calves, until the whole narrative structure fractures, memory suddenly turned unreliable. It’s not a stretch to find intimations of the Cultural Revolution here, but one needn’t go there: we lie to ourselves about our past all the time, with or without the help of the Red Guards.
Devils on the Doorstep (2000) — July 28, 2014
A World War II black comedy from director-star Jiang Wen. He plays a peasant who is given two Japanese prisoners by a mysterious stranger. He’s told to keep them alive for five days and interrogate them, then the stranger will return to pick them up. This sets off a moral dilemma in the community: what to do with the men, a Japanese soldier and his Chinese translator. This is only compounded when the five days pass and the stranger fails to return. The first half of the film is made up of the villagers’ various schemes to kill the prisoners, all of which fail either due to Jiang’s intervention (he doesn’t want to do it, for moral and superstitious reasons, yet he always seems to end up being the guy tasked with it) or seeming acts of the gods.
The second half of the film follows what happens when the Chinese decide to return the prisoners to the Japanese. I don’t want to give it away, but it is disturbing and darkly, darkly funny.
Neither as consciously arty as Jiang’s 2007 film The Sun Also Rises nor as gleefully a genre film as his 2010 Let the Bullets Fly (where Jiang plays a bandit named “Pockmarked Zhang” — there’s mention of a Chinese rebel here named “Pockmarked Li.” I hope they’re related), but rather a mix of the two. Jiang shoots up close in black and white, emphasizing his actors’ faces, or rather parts of their faces. The closeness of the camera captures the entrapment, the claustrophobia of the characters, both physically and morally: there’s no way out of the frame.
The Sun Also Rises (2007) — May 5, 2014
Four intertwined tales from the end of the Cultural Revolution from director-star Jiang Wen. More dream than logical narrative, the emphasis more on image and emotion, exactly the opposite of Hemingway, in fact. A mother buys a pair of shoes and seemingly goes insane: she begins talking to birds, climbing trees, digging holes, and generally confusing the hell out of her son, recently promoted to group leader of their rural collective. Anthony Wong as a teacher in Shanghai is lusted after by many women (included Joan Chen as an aggressively vivacious doctor), then accused of groping and chased by a mob. Jiang Wen and his wife move (are removed) to the collective from the first story, where Jiang teaches the local kids how to hunt and the wife has an affair with the crazy woman’s son. Finally, a flashback to 20 years earlier, where we see further connections amongst the characters.
The film opens with quick cuts, flashes of images of the mother’s dream that seem more like a movie trailer than the proper beginning of a film. It quickly settles in to a less hectic rhythm, but after throwing us off-kilter at the start, Jiang never really lets us settle down, omitting just enough narrative detail to keep us a little bit confused while packing the film with potent and spooky imagery: an empty suit of clothes floating down a river, two men facing off on a green bridge, the beautiful vastness of the Northern deserts, train tracks covered with flowers, a man waiting for his fiancee at “the end of the road,” a man walking happily through an open air cinema, a cabin in the woods, a hole in the ground, a hole in the roof, the sun rising but not quite sure if it should.
Let the Bullets Fly (2010) — May 14, 2015
Jiang Wen’s Miller’s Crossing.
Not sure if I caught this the first time around or not, but the musical theme to this is a screwball variation on the martial theme from Seven Samurai, which is entirely appropriate.