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Chinese film reels for Year of the Dragon

One notable aspect of the Chinese Spring Festival events in Scotland in 2012 was a focus on film, with Ricefield's 'Takeaway China' film festival in Glasgow and Take One Action's 'China on the Move' events at the Edinburgh Filmhouse. In addition, the SCA Edinburgh branch hosted a talk on Chinese cinema in February. This article brings together reports on these three events.

A brief history of humour (and gloom) in Chinese cinema

by Website Editor, 24 February 2012

This was the title of the talk by Dr Julian Ward, Senior Lecturer in Chinese in the Asian Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh, to the SCA Edinburgh branch on 14 February. As he noted in his introduction, "for many the stereotypical film made in mainland China depicts the harshness of life for the ordinary Chinese people, either in the unchanging countryside where the peasants are mired in poverty or in the rapidly changing cities where both locals and migrant workers are ripe for exploitation by greedy employers - however, all is not doom and gloom”. His talk explored how humour has been used at different periods of Chinese cinematic history.

Dr Ward began with Labourer's Love (1922), the earliest complete extant Chinese film, written and directed by Zhang Shichuan and Zheng Zhengqiu respectively. The hero is a doctor who wishes to marry a fruit seller, but cannot afford to do so. In the scene we were shown, the hero tampers with the stairs leading from a gambling den in order to injure departing gamblers and thus generate business for himself.

As a silent movie, the film has to rely on primarily visual gags and slapstick humour to get its message across, as well as a few bilingual English/Chinese inter-titles. Even with later “talkies”, this is a common theme in many of the films Dr Ward discussed. He agreed it is possible that visual humour may have attractions in a Chinese context as a way to make film more accessible to the whole population of the PRC, many of whom do not speak Mandarin as their first language.

In the era between the establishment of the PRC in 1949 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, almost all Chinese films were on what might be called “serious” topics, in support of various political campaigns and on “issues” and “messages” that the Communist Party wished to stress. In addition, there were many films extolling the Party's successes in conflict with the Japanese (1937-45), the Nationalists (1945-49) and the West in Korea (1950-53), with stereotypical characters such as the “piggy faced Japanese”, the “stupid Nationalist collaborator” and the “brave Communist fighter”. So there was not a lot of room for humour in this period. A rare exception noted by Dr Ward was Before the New Director Arrives (1956), directed by Lu Ban, a satirical movie made around the 'Hundred Flowers' period when mild criticism was allowed.

In more recent times, some non-political Chinese films have used humour as a way to get messages across. For example, The Bungling Troop (1990), a film about egg selling in the early days of economic reform in Xi'an, includes many scenes of slapstick and wordplay. Spicy Love Soup (1997), directed by Zhang Zheng, was a romantic comedy involving a number of couples and their assignations, and Big Shot's Funeral (2001), directed by Feng Xiaogang, is a satire on consumerism in modern day China, unusually with a Western star, Donald Sutherland. However, as Dr Ward noted, the comedy in these films, while being understandable to a Chinese audience, generally does not “translate” for Western cinema-goers – he noted very poor ratings on the 'Rotten Tomatoes' film review website for these films.

However, one film that used humour, in a satirical sense, very successfully was Devil's on the Doorstep (2000), a black comedy directed by Jiang Wen. This is set at the end of the 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, tells the story of a Chinese villager who is forced by a mysterious figure to take custody of two prisoners, one a Japanese officer and the other a Chinese interpreter. Fearing both the mystery man and the Japanese, the village falls into a dilemma over what to do with the two prisoners. In one classic scene, Jiang Wen subverts the stereotype of the plucky Chinese peasant by having the villagers conduct a completely pointless and ignorant interrogation of the prisoners. This film was – perhaps not surprisingly – not shown in China, and also attracted criticism in Japan, but it won several awards in the West, and has a 90% approval rating on 'Rotten Tomatoes'.

All in all, it was a very interesting and amusing presentation, by a speaker with both deep knowledge and great enthusiasm for his subject.

Reflections on Ricefield’s ‘Takeaway China’ film festival

by Barry Moore, SCA Glasgow Branch Chairman, 24 February 2012

'Takeaway China' is a celebration of Chinese film, photography and culture, running from 20 January to 14 April 2012, the start coinciding with the beginning of the Chinese festivities. This is the second year it has been run by the Ricefield Chinese Arts and Cultural Centre. Between 23 January and 6 February, thirteen films were shown across three venues in Glasgow. The photographic festival begins on 3 March.

I was able to see five of the 'Takeaway China' films, and while the films could be broadly characterised according to Dr Ward's comment in the previous article, they also revealed some of the sinister and undesirable elements of the social upheavals that occurred in China in the second half of the twentieth century. I understand that although several of the films have won accolades at international film festivals, some are not allowed to be shown in China.

Fengming : A Chinese Memoir (directed by Wang Bing, 2007)

This film lasts for three hours and is completely taken up by an elderly Chinese lady talking to the camera about her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, as well as those of her dead husband. To quote from Andrew Chan’s web review, “at the height of Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign, during which intellectuals were advised to contribute their opinions and let ‘a hundred schools of thought contend’, her husband wrote an essay criticising the corruption of bureaucracy, which led to the couple being branded as rightists. A long period of darkness ensued, separating the family, and transporting the woman from one state of persecution to another in China’s labour camp system”.

Fengming articulates her story eloquently, calmly and with little emotion although she has suffered horribly. She is clearly eager to communicate her experiences. Probably a major reason for this film being made is that she has written a book My life in 1957, but unfortunately this is not available in English. For an understanding of the fortitude of a maligned person, this film is recommended.

Though I am gone (directed by Hu Jie, 2007)

This film tells the story of an elderly teacher recounting the death of his wife, also a teacher, who forty years before was battered to death by students during the Cultural Revolution. The sadness and apathy of the distressed man is interspersed with apparent newsreel footage taken at the time, showing mass demonstrations and Mao Zedong encouraging young students to be fierce and destructive and not to accept the authority of their teachers. Tragically the elderly man has retained the torn and dirty clothing and bloody bandages from his wife’s body, which he unravels for the viewer to see, once again reliving the torment caused by his wife’s untimely death. Though I am gone is a film of historical interest, but not for the squeamish.

Fujian Blue (directed by Shuoming Wang, 2007)

At the time of watching this film I found it confusing as it seemed to be showing two themes in parallel. However on reading a web article, the picture became clearer as it was actually recounting two stories ! The film is composed of two separate but linked tales entitled ‘The Neon Lights’ and ‘At Home at Sea’, and touches on a number of controversial topics including juvenile delinquency, human trafficking and drug use.

The first tale is about a gang of youths who blackmail lonely housewives who have started affairs while their husbands are working away from home. The second tale also takes place in Fujian province, across the water from Taiwan, and is linked to the first tale as one gang member has fled to a small offshore island and is in hiding after stabbing someone. It is a colourful film, much shot in bright sunlight and with lovely views of the province and of the river but also many shots of youths driving motor bikes around, seemingly somewhat aimlessly. 'Fujian Blue' would probably benefit from being viewed for a second time after a head clearing walk around the block !

The Old Donkey (directed by Li Ruijun, 2010)

This film certainly fits Dr Ward's earlier comment, as It shows the back breaking arduous life of an elderly peasant, whose land is under threat of being stolen by a heartless industrialist and unscrupulous local party official. However the elderly man has a loving and supportive daughter who willingly assists him, and his neighbours are friends who also come to his aid. He has wonderful and loyal support from his donkey, which he tends carefully.

Although the working conditions shown are brutal and fighting the encroaching desert also takes its toll on him physically, the film is not without humour. Some elderly neighbours get into tussles while trying to fend off the industrialist bully boys, others drain the oil from the bully boy’s vehicles, while another rams handfuls of moist soil into the exhaust pipes of their cars. All these scenes provoked a ripple of laughter from the audience. Towards the end of the film the old man is overcome and his less than thoughtful sons appear and squabble over their inheritance, while the dutiful and diligent daughter is overlooked and ignored. The Old Donkey is a film that encapsulates the farmer versus industrialist conflict, but which also says much about the disharmony that can arise amongst family members.

When the Bough Breaks (directed by Ji Dan, 2011)

This film shows atrociously squalid living conditions in a shack where a family with a dictatorial father eke out their living by collecting and dealing in various types of scrap. Endless family arguments are heard about the merits of trying to improve their lot through education, but they are continually handicapped by their poverty. The teenage children persistently bicker amongst themselves over trivial matters.

However together with their mother, the children unite when their father starts his stupid rants and shouting, and they are seen laughing behind his back, although fearful of being caught doing so as this would very likely induce beatings. Their life is a constant struggle for which the inadequate husband blames his wife. In reality it is his own inadequacies that are a major cause of their predicament, although he does not realise it. If you enjoy listening to others arguing this film is for you, but please appreciate it is not ‘The Archers’ !

From this small sample of films this was an educational film festival. I am saying this partly as it was for my own benefit, but also because there were several Chinese students in the audiences who should have gained insights into their country's past that they might not have been able to see at home. It is often said that an understanding of history is important in helping to prevent it being repeated. I believe that the Ricefield’s 'TakeAway China' Film Festival has contributed to this worthy aim.

Development and debate with Take One Action 'China on the Move' film series

by Website Editor, 24 February 2012

Take One Action Film Festival, an Edinburgh-based charity using film to raise awareness of international development issues, aired a short series of Chinese films in its 'China on the Move' event at the Filmhouse in late January. These were well-attended, and each film was also followed by a short panel discussion about the issues raised.

Last Train Home (2009, directed by Lixin Fan)

This documentary film draws us into the fractured lives of a real family caught up in the annual return home by migrant workers at Spring Festival, and focusses on the impact of separation of parents and their children. The parents work in Guangdong and live in Sichuan, and at the start of the film, in 2006, their teenage daughter and younger son live on the farm with their grandmother. Initially, all seems well. However, it soon becomes clear that the daughter resents her mother and father, and she drops out of school and travels south to work herself.

This challenge to their authority goes down badly with her parents, especially her rather overbearing mother, and leads to further acrimony, finally exploding into an unexpectedly violent confrontation over a Spring Festival dinner. Eventually, the parents decide that the mother should go back to Sichuan to encourage the daughter to return to school. Apparently, since the film was made, they remain somewhat estranged – as of 2011, the daughter is a student in Beijing and the father only still works in the factory.

The film was especially interesting as a documentation of the 'Chunyun' migration, notably in spring 2008 when severe weather disrupts the journey for hundreds of thousands – the scenes of near-chaos at Guangzhou railway station were particularly dramatic.

The post-film panel focussed on the rather poor conditions where the parents were working, and the hukou system that restricts the rights of migrant workers in urban areas, not least in educating their children. It's probably fair to say that, since the film was made, things have moved on to some extent for both issues, reflecting the rapid rate of social change in modern China.

Apart together (2010, directed by Wang Quan'an)

This is a tale of bittersweet romance, as former lovers separated by China's civil war in 1949 are re-united after some 50 years in modern day Shanghai – the man returns from Taiwan to meet his past sweetheart, now happily married with children by both him and her new husband. The Taiwanese gentleman attempts to get her to return with him, initially supported (slightly bizarrely) by her husband, although it doesn't quite work out in the end. There is a parallel plotline involving one of the grandchildren and her boyfriend who wants to go to the USA.

Some in the audience saw all this as an allegory for reconciliation between Taiwan and mainland China, and this dominated the post-film discussions, although that was perhaps stretching it too far. Ignoring that aspect, it was an attractive and enjoyable film, with some humour, such as the scene in which the husband and wife attempt to obtain a divorce certificate from an official, in fact discovering they were not actually legally married and must do so before getting the divorce. Also of interest was the removal of the family from their old home, in an area of central Shanghai that was being redeveloped, to a new high-rise building on the outskirts, with – it seems – similar results in terms of the dislocation of families and neighbours that we saw in Scotland during the clearance of the central slums in our major cities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Manufactured landscapes (2006, directed by Jennifer Baichwal)

Although not strictly speaking a Chinese film, but rather a film that was, partially, about China, this follows photographer Edward Burtynsky on a journey through some of its vast industrialised areas. The images of mass manufacturing, resource mining, environmental damage and recycling of the west's electronics equipment were certainly dramatic, technically magnificent and somewhat thought-provoking.

However, I found it somewhat inconclusive, and hardly showing us anything we did not already know. Burtynsky claimed to be presenting his images without any moral implications, but this seems to be impossible. The fact he was clearly setting up some of the photographs (such as the vast crowd of workers outside their factory, or the man with his donkey walking through a town that was being dismantled for the Three Gorges project), rather than capturing spontaneous images, also seemed, at least to me, to undermine his premise – the term “manufactured images” came to mind ! All in all, this was the most disappointing of the three films I watched.