Notes on Filmspotting’s Contemporary Chinese Cinema Marathon

Notes on Filmspotting’s Contemporary Chinese Cinema Marathon

A few weeks ago, Adam and Josh at the Filmspotting podcast invited me to help curate a selection of 2010s Chinese-language movies for them to talk about on their show. I was more than happy to help, as I’ve been a fan of the show for almost 15 years now. In fact I think I first proposed a marathon like this to Adam sometime around 2008. Filmspotting, and their marathons specifically, helped get me back into watching and writing about movies after I’d spent five years post-college mostly obsessed with baseball, and the show and its message board are where I met a bunch of great friends and colleagues, including Seema Pai, Jhon Hernandez, and Melissa Tamminga, who helped get me into podcasting in the first place and who all have helped with Seattle Screen Scene over the years. I can only hope this marathon proves similarly inspiring for new critics and Chinese cinema fans.

Along with the marathon, Adam asked me to send along a short email about each of the films, in answer to the question “Of all the Chinese language films of the decade, why this?” What follows are the emails I sent them, not exactly short, but hopefully helpful. You can listen to their discussions here: Let the Bullets Fly, The Midnight After, Our Time Will Come, and Ash is Purest White.

Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen, 2010)

First off, let me just say how glad I am that you guys are doing this marathon. This is but a small sampling of the many great films that have come out of the interdependent but in important ways distinct film industries of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and I hope this marathon can spur at least a few of your listeners into exploring more fully what I believe has been one of the most exciting, adventurous, innovative, and entertaining cinemas in the world for the past decade, if not the past 50 years or more. In particular, this marathon necessarily excludes important work from filmmakers like Stephen Chow, Johnnie To, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sylvia Chang, and Tsai Ming-liang, most of which you’ve covered at one time or another, along with younger directors like Bi Gan, Pang Ho-cheung, Soi Cheang, and many more. So I hope you’ll take this not as a “Top 4 Chinese Films of the 2010s “ marathon, but rather an “Introduction to Contemporary Chinese-Language Cinema”.

Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly is the obvious starting point for a number of reasons, not least being the presence of a familiar star in Chow Yun-fat, famous for his 80s and 90s “heroic bloodshed” movies with John Woo and Ringo Lam, while its indebtedness to Spaghetti Westerns and the films of Akira Kurosawa, specifically Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, make it at least somewhat familiar ground for North American cinephiles. The setting is Republican Era China, the period between the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the beginning of outright war with Japan in 1937. It was a particularly lawless time in China, with various warlords and criminal gangs operating beyond the jurisdiction of the official and generally corrupt government, increasingly coalescing into a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and Mao’s Communists, which would only be resolved after World War II.

Jiang Wen began as an actor: he starred in Zhang Yimou’s first film, Red Sorghum, in 1987. He directed his first film in 1994, In the Heat of the Sun, a memoir about growing up during the Cultural Revolution that is very much in the vein of films by Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, though with a distinctly more sardonic twist. His second film, Devils on the Doorstep, a black comedy set during World War II, won the Grand Prix at Cannes, while his third, The Sun Also Rises is a series of bizarre interconnected stories set during the Cultural Revolution. So the fact that Let the Bullets Fly is basically a straight-up genre film is a bit surprising, as was the fact that it turned out to be a huge hit.

In the 2000s, Chinese commercial cinema was just beginning to grow, after years of neglect following the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Jia Zhangke found audiences at international film festivals, but rarely at home. That all changed in the 2010s, and the nation’s movie theatre industry expanded rapidly, flooded by imported talent from Hong Kong and Taiwan, attracted by the vast sums of wealth available to be invested in film thanks to the nation’s rapidly booming economy. Let the Bullets Fly wasn’t the first successful blend of Chinese money and Hong Kong style, but it was one of the biggest, smashing Mainland box office records.

Jiang has remained as iconoclastic as ever. His two follow-up films, both set during the Republican Era (2014’s Gone with the Bullets and 2018’s Hidden Man) were not nearly as successful: while Let the Bullets Fly has long been available to stream in the US (and it even got a very small US theatrical release), neither of these others has yet appeared in North America (you can order them on DVD though, and they’re quite good). And of course, he joined Hong Kong star Donnie Yen in the cast of Rogue One.

In a review of Hidden Man earlier this year, I wrote this about Jiang Wen, I think it summarizes why I think he’s one of the essential filmmakers of the 2010s:

“20th Century Chinese history is, for Jiang Wen, a chronicle of corruption, stupidity, cruelty, viciousness, and betrayal by everyone and against everyone. But it’s also a place of mystery and wonder and silliness, where justice and honor and true belief are possible, but extremely rare and deeply buried. His gleefully anachronistic, chaotic period pieces understand our shattered history in a way the more literal-minded cinema of his peers [in contemporary Chinese cinema] never can.”

The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 2014)

I don’t know if The Midnight After makes sense outside of the specific context of Hong Kong in 2014. It’s a film that not only resists explanation, it actively resists the idea that explanations are even possible. An adaptation of an unfinished serialized web-novel by an entity known only as PIZZA, it’s about a group of people on a late night minibus who travel through a tunnel and find themselves, apparently, maybe, as the last people on Earth. Their search for explanation leads them through a variety of adventures that ultimately lead nowhere, freely intermingling the comic with the horrific, as their society-in-miniature completely breaks down any time they try to create some kind of order or rationality. For me at least, nothing explains what it feels like to be alive in the latter half of the 2010s than this.

This was Fruit Chan’s return to feature filmmaking after many years mostly making short films (one of which, Dumplings, from the pan-Asian omnibus horror film Three Extremes (co-directed with Park Chan-wook and Miike Takashi) was ultimately expanded into a feature in 2004). But he’s best known for a series of highly independent and low-budget features he made in the immediate wake of the 1997 Handover, when Hong Kong was transferred from British control to Mainland China. Freely mixing horror and gangster genre tropes with realist portrayals of Hong Kong’s poorest people, Chan’s late 90s-early 2000s films, especially Made in Hong Kong and The Longest Summer, remain some of the greatest films of the post-Handover period.

The Midnight After grows out of the anxiety Hong Kongers have at the impending takeover by the Mainland (along with more general concerns: the SARS epidemic, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, etc). Per the terms of the Handover, Hong Kong was granted 50 years in which their political institutions would more or less remain intact, while still under the nominal control of the People’s Republic (known as the “One Country, Two Systems” policy). Only in 2046 will China resume full control of Hong Kong (that’s why Wong Kar-wai chose that year for his film of the same name). I’m by necessity simplifying this greatly, but in 2014, rather than allowing Hong Kongers freedom of choice in who they would elect to various offices, the PRC pre-selected who would be allowed to run. This sparked lengthy and dramatic protests across Hong Kong, dubbed the Umbrella Movement for the protestors' use of umbrellas as a defense against pepper spray attacks by the police. The protests were ultimately quashed, though their spirit has returned this year, with clashes between police and protestors occurring seemingly every day for the past several months.

I first saw The Midnight After in May of 2014, and quite liked its quirky weirdness and bold refusal to actually answer any of the questions it raises. It features some of my favorite Hong Kong actors: Lam Suet (the bus driver), a former movie set crew member (props, lighting, script supervision) who became a featured player in films by Stephen Chow (he’s the sidekick in Kung Fu Hustle) and most importantly Johnnie To, who has cast him in almost all of his films for the past 20 years; Kara Hui (the crazy woman who believes in aliens) who was a kung fu movie star in the late 70s and early 80s, most notable for her work with Lau Kar-leung in movies like My Young Auntie; and Simon Yam (the older guy with the amazing hair), who is simply one of the best and most versatile actors in movies today, starring in John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, Ringo Lam’s Full Contact, and many Johnnie To films (PTU, Exiled, Sparrow, the Election movies, etc).

But the second time I saw it was in a sold out theatre in Vancouver, in an auditorium filled with Chinese and Chinese-Canadian people, at the very same time the Umbrella protests were going on. The atmosphere was electric, the audience completely in tune with the movie for every one of its tonal twists and turns, the anxiety in the film palpable. I don’t know how that can’t color my reaction to the movie, so I don’t know if anyone else loves it as much as I do. But even if not, I still think its an essential part of this marathon, if only to demonstrate the ways in which Hong Kong cinema still, 20 years after it all but collapsed following the Handover, can push the boundaries of popular cinema in unexpected directions.

Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)

Compared to the last two films in the marathon, Our Time Will Come is downright conventional. A World War II spy movie that should be instantly recognizable to a broad audience, with a few special touches that hint at why Ann Hui is such a terrific director.

Along with Tsui Hark, Hui is the leading figure of the Hong Kong New Wave, a group of young directors, most of whom had studied in Europe or America (Hui has a Master’s in comparative literature and her thesis was on Alain Robbe-Grillet), who moved from TV into filmmaking in the late 1970s and early 80s. Less flashy than Tsui or other New Wave directors like Patrick Tam, Hui has nonetheless worked in a variety of genres over the years: a trilogy of films about Vietnamese refugees that provided key early roles for Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau; kung fu and crime movies; and above all melodramas centered around women. Our Time Will Come is the third film she’s made about women during the Anti-Japanese War, including 1984’s Eileen Chang adaptation Love in a Fallen City and Our Time’s immediate predecessor, The Golden Era, a Reds-style biopic about author Xiao Hong.

Our Time Will Come is indicative of the increasing interconnections between Hong Kong and the Mainland Chinese film industry. Its major stars come from all over the Chinese speaking world: Zhou Xun, who plays the schoolteacher turned spy, is from the Mainland, as is Jessie Li, one of the young agents; Eddie Peng, the dashing commando, and Wallace Huo, the spy inside Japanese headquarters, are from Taiwan, though Peng grew up as well in Canada; and Deanie Ip, who plays Zhou’s mother, is from Hong Kong, where she has been an acclaimed actress and singer since the 1980s and has long been an outspoken supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

Pressures both economic and political have had a devastating effect on the Hong Kong film industry over the past 20 years. The vastness of the Mainland market, and at the same time the decline in local box office revenue, have driven almost every Hong Kong filmmaker to make it their primary market, which means necessarily compromising the Mainland’s various and often opaque censorship regimes. Our Time Will Come, a movie about leftist guerrillas fighting against the occupying Japanese, might have been a patriotic bit of propaganda in lesser hands, and certainly that is how it was received by Mainland censors. But, the politics are kept just vague enough that one could take it just as easily as a metaphor for resistance to the Mainland as a celebration of its ruling party. And even still, Hui deflates all the triumph out of her scenario, instead focusing on the work of war, on the men and (mostly) women who did all the dirty work of resistance, and the terrible prices they paid for it.

For me, Our Time Will Come is genre filmmaking at its very best: a wise and suspenseful thriller, with terrific performances and a message that resonates around the world. If it were an American or even a European film, it would have been an art house hit and a serious Oscar contender. But as it is, it barely got a release in the US.

Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, 2018)

I’ve spent much of the past year obsessing over Ash is Purest White, and Jia Zhangke in general. So I’m curious what you guys will think of it, and folks in your audience who are new to Jia. I think it’s a pretty accessible work: a story told in three parts about two people who are ultimately unreconcilable. But it’s a film that becomes more fascinating the more you dig into it, packed as it is with details and allusions to Jia’s previous work, as well as Chinese-language films in general and the history of China in the 21st Century. I can try to unpack a little bit of it here, but I don’t think any of this context is really necessary to “understand” the film.

Jia is the preeminent filmmaker of the 6th Generation of Chinese directors. The 5th Generation was the group that followed the Cultural Revolution, directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige who came to prominence in the 80s and early 90s. The 6th Generation came around in the 90s and 00s, post-Tiananmen, who were known for working independently, outside the state censorship system (and thus their films were technically banned on the Mainland, though they were distributed widely in bootleg form). Where the 5th Generation were known for lavishly costumed historical epics (Farewell My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern, etc), the 6th made gritty films shot on cheap film and early digital video, realist movies set in the present or the recent past, often in the minimalist style of Taiwanese directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang.

Jia’s earliest films are in this mode: grungy movies about contemporary misfits in Xiao Wu and Unknown Pleasures, and the minimalist epic Platform, about a music and dance troupe as it transitions from the end of the Cultural Revolution through the 1980s. After The World and Still Life, ambitious features that brought Jia significant international success, he spent several years away from fiction films, making a series of documentaries. He returned to fiction in 2013 with A Touch of Sin, which melded true life stories of violence in modern China with tropes from wuxia film and literature. His 2015 Mountains May Depart is in three parts, set in three different time periods, in which the fate of three people parallels the transformations of China over the same time period.

Ash is Purest White is a culmination of all of Jia’s previous work. It borrows the three-part structure of Mountains and the connection to wuxia of A Touch of Sin. Its middle section is largely a recreation of Still Life: same location, same costume for the lead character, but different plot. Its character names even come from Unknown Pleasures, though they don’t appear to actually be the same people (in both Still Life and Ash, for example, Zhao Tao searches for a man named Guo Bin, which was the name of Zhao’s boyfriend’s best friend in Unknown Pleasures). Ash actually begins with leftover footage from Unknown Pleasures (the grainy stuff on the bus, before the cut to the drone shot over the city). And the concert footage in the middle intercuts a contemporary Zhao Tao in the audience singing along to a performance captured during the Still Life shoot more than a decade ago.

Ash is centered on a couple played by Zhao Tao (Jia’s wife: she’s starred in most of his films since Platform) and Liao Fan (he played one of the supporting bandits in Let the Bullets Fly). In the first part, they are successful gangsters, living the disco and mahjong parlour and illegally carrying a gun life idealized in 80s movies. In fact, at one point we even see Liao and his buddies watching just such a movie. But here’s the thing: the music we hear is Sally Yeh’s theme to John Woo’s The Killer, arguably the greatest of all Heroic Bloodshed films; but the movie they’re watching isn’t The Killer, it’s Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, a cheap and pretty poor knockoff of Woo’s work. There’s a disconnect between how Liao sees himself (the Sally Yeh song) and what he really is (a Taylor Wong movie).

Zhao is similarly tied to a musical theme: she’s introduced with the song right away, instantly recognizable from its pounding drum beat (which we’ll hear several more times at key points in the film). The song is the Wong Fei-hung theme, maybe the most famous song in Chinese film, as there have been literally hundreds of films about Wong, from important serials made in the 50s and 60s, to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master movies, to Jet Li and Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series. Wong is the ultimate kung fu folk hero, a kind of Confucian Robin Hood type who represents all the ideals of honor, loyalty, and virtue to which genre film heroes aspire. As Ash plays out, we’ll see that where Liao continually compromises his values for the sake of expediency, or economic success, Zhao alone sticks to the old ways. The literal translation of the film’s title is “Children of the Jianghu”, jianghu being the in-between world on the margins of society where wuxia heroes live and work. Liao is a counterfeit wuxia hero, Zhao is the real deal.

There’s a ton more to say about Ash is Purest White: about Zhao’s performance, about aliens, about trains, about animal documentaries and ballroom dancing. It’s a movie that only gets bigger the more I look at it. And I suppose that’s what I hope you guys and your listeners find with Chinese cinema through this marathon. I’ve spent the better part of seven years lost in it, with no end in sight.