Notes Towards a Voting Guide for Chinese Language Film in the 2022 Sight & Sound Poll
It’s Sight & Sound Poll season, that time once a decade when the venerable British film magazine polls critics and filmmakers from around the world to create a list of the Great Films of All-Time. Last time around, the poll made headlines when Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo replaced longtime favorite Citizen Kane in the top spot. And as the electorate continues to grow, and get younger and less white, this year’s poll should be as unpredictable as ever. Especially considering the significantly greater array of options this time around, as streaming, multi-region DVD and BluRay players, and the torrent underground have made more movies from more eras and more nations accessible to more people in more places than ever before. The greater availability plus the wider voting pool means that a consensus should be harder than ever to reach. Where once an Ozu or Kurosawa could be assured that only a handful of their films, ones most frequently revived in big city rep houses or written about in influential journal essays, would receive a significant amount of votes, establishing Tokyo Story and Seven Samurai as the Consensus Pick for those filmmakers and thus encouraging their fans to vote for that one, even if it was not quite their favorite, now pretty much every extant Ozu or Kurosawa film is a couple of clicks away from any laptop, and more and more critics are finding their more esoteric or less renowned work to be superior. Will votes for, say An Autumn Afternoon or Red Beard, lower the chances that any one Ozu or Kurosawa makes it back into the Top 10? Or will the breakdown in consensus apply more evenly across all the old favorites, merely depressing the percentages needed to rank highly (last time around a film only needed to make 7.5% of the 846 ballots to reach the Top Ten)? It would seem to benefit popular filmmakers for which there is one single agreed upon favorite, but then again, Hitchcock (who has made as many potential favorites as any filmmaker ever has) topped the last poll, so maybe it doesn’t matter. We’ll find out in a few weeks I suppose.
With that in mind, I want to make a few For Your Consideration suggestions for any poll voters out there as regards Chinese Language Film. Last time around three made it into the Top 100: Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, and Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and Yi yi. So we’ll start there.
In the Mood for Love would appear to be most likely to move into the Top 10, and the recent touring retrospective and Criterion boxset release would seem to boost Wong’s chances, even if he hasn’t released a feature since 2013. In the Mood is probably still Wong’s most popular film worldwide, and while it’s not one of my favorites, it’s hard to see the ones I love more (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, or even 2046) gathering enough support to damage its chances. It was the highest ranking 21st Century film last time around, just ahead of Mulholland Dr. and there’s a good chance Lynch will be subject to more vote-splitting this time around than Wong.
A Brighter Summer Day may see a consensus gather around it, as it was only available on a murky illegal rip at the time of the last poll and has since been restored and released widely. It and Yi yi were essentially tied in 2012, separated by only two votes. At the time, Yi yi was the only widely available Yang: theatrical release in the US plus a Criterion edition. But since 2012, almost every one of his films has been restored and distributed, with only A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong still to come (and reportedly in the works). I do wonder if Taipei Story or especially The Terrorizers have a chance to siphon votes away from the other two, or if the split votes last time coalesce around one or the other, leading to a Top 50 placement for Yang.
A City of Sadness was the highest ranking Hou Hsiao-hsien film in 2012, at 117th, with Flowers of Shanghai and The Puppetmaster tying for 235th place with seven votes each. Sadness remains widely unavailable, while The Puppetmaster still is only represented by the old cropped DVD version. However, a substantial retrospective tour of Hou’s films has travelled the world since the last poll, giving many voters the chance to see those films and others in theatres. A number of Hou’s films have been restored, including The Time to Live, The Time to Die and Dust in the Wind, both of which placed in the Top Ten of the Golden Horse Film Festival’s list of the 100 Greatest Chinese Language Films (a poll which Sadness won). Sadness’s continued unavailability may add to its mystique, or the fact that Flowers has received the Criterion treatment could lead to a consensus forming around it. It’s also possible that an influx of younger voters may shift the Hou votes toward Millennium Mambo, which seems to have a much more substantial following among critics who began their careers this century.
Spring in a Small Town finished 127th in 2012, with only three votes from critics with non-Chinese surnames (former VIFF programmers Tony Rayns and Shelly Kraicer, along with S&S editor Philip Dodd). Fei Mu’s 1948 film has long been considered the crowning achievement of Shanghai Cinema, and continues to be deeply influential on later generations of Chinese filmmakers. I’m not sure if its profile is any higher now in the West than it was in 2012, as it (along with the rest of the Shanghai Cinema) has yet to receive any kind of deluxe home video release here. But it should.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn famously got a vote from its own director, Tsai Ming-liang, in the Directors Poll, and it has a good chance to lock in the spot as the consensus Tsai this year. It did only receive two votes in 2012’s Critics Poll however, the same number as The River and Vive L’amour. I’d bet Goodbye, Dragon Inn picks up a handful of new votes and moves into the 100-200 range, with a shot at the Top 100.
A Touch of Zen was the consensus King Hu choice in 2012, receiving nine votes while none of his other films got a single vote in the Critics Poll. I expect that to change this year, as one of the great boons of the past decade has been the restoration and wide release, both in theatres and on video, of Hu’s several masterpieces of the 60s and 70s. Dragon Gate Inn and Legend of the Mountain will likely each receive a smattering of votes this time, while Zen should move into the Top 100. It also has a shot at becoming the consensus “martial arts film” in the poll, in the way that The Searchers and Singin’ in the Rain have become the default answers for the Western and musical genres. It’s only real competition is probably Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which has the drawback of being specifically an homage to Hu’s masterpiece, or Ashes of Time, which has the misfortune of being a Wong Kar-wai film that is not In the Mood for Love.
Dirty Ho was, as far as I can tell, the only Lau Kar-leung film to receive a vote in the 2012 Critics Poll (from Roger Garcia, director of the Hong Kong Film Festival). Lau’s reputation has only grown in the past decade, as another ten years have passed since Celestial Pictures made so many Shaw Brothers classics widely available in their proper forms. I would expect The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter to get some votes in 2012, though probably not enough to get Lau into the Top 500. I would expect Chang Cheh to fare even worse, as I can’t find a single vote for one of his films in 2012.
Platform was the top Jia Zhangke film in 2012, finishing 323rd with five votes, while Unknown Pleasures, The World, and Still Life each received two. Ten years later, we don’t appear any closer to reaching a consensus on Jia, with his new fiction films (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart, and Ash is Purest White) proving divisive among fans of his early work as well as the wider critical community. I do think Platform has the most potential as a consensus choice, but it will probably require a high profile release in the West and another ten years to get Jia into the Top 100.
Boat People and Rouge have gotten the Criterion treatment this year, part of their thankfully ever-expanding line-up of Hong Kong classics. I expect them to be the highest ranked films from Ann Hui and Stanley Kwan, respectively, though Kwan’s Centre Stage may pick up a vote or two as well. The releases probably came too late for them to get more than couple votes, unfortunately. I don’t believe either Hui or Kwan got any 2012 votes.
Peking Opera Blues, somewhat surprisingly, didn’t receive any 2012 votes. Nor did Shanghai Blues, Dangerous Encounters-First Kind, Green Snake, The Blade, Time and Tide, or Once Upon a Time in China. The only vote for a Tsui Hark film I can find is the Siskel Film Center’s Barbara Scharres’s vote for Once Upon a Time in China II. I expect that to change in 2022, with Green Snake potentially racking up a small handful of votes.
Police Story got two votes in 2012, and remains Jackie Chan’s best shot at ranking in the Top 500. Sadly, no one voted for Wheels on Meals, Pedicab Driver, Eastern Condors, The Prodigal Son, or any other Sammo Hung film I could find. Among John Woo’s trio of Chow Yun-fat classics, only The Killer (two votes) and Hard-Boiled (one) got votes, while Chow's Ringo Lam films (City on Fire, Full Contact) were blanked along with Woo's A Better Tomorrow. The fact that the rights-holders for these Woo and Lam films seem to have a stranglehold on them means that it’ll likely be at least another decade before they make any headway in the Poll.
Finally, Throw Down should be an interesting case. It received no votes in 2012. In fact, the only Johnnie To vote I can find is a single one for Exiled (by the Hungarian critic Dávid Klág). He will most likely get some more votes this go-around, with Sparrow likely to lead the way, along with Romancing in Thin Air, Drug War, and Throw Down. The latter of course gets the Criterion bump (and the Eureka bump, keeping in mind that this is a British film magazine’s poll). But we’re still a long way from a consensus Johnnie To pick. For what it’s worth, I would vote for Running on Karma.