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Appetites for (Self) Destruction

Appetites for (Self) Destruction

That hootin' and hollerin' on the other side of the ocean is the Chinese moviegoer lambasting yet another wuxia pian. So how come Shanghai correspondent Chi Tung isn't so eager to chime in?

By Chi Tung

When it comes to the cineplex experience, China is about as unruly and unenjoyable as a sea of hagglers at, well, take your pick. I learned this through what I thought would be a perfectly harmless case of rubbernecking. I would be attending a public screening (the press one was sure to feature its own cast of determined sycophants) of Feng Xiaogang's nationally derided The Banquet, convinced that this was a social catastrophe not to be missed; catcalls and jeers were inevitable, maybe even an occasional bucket of popcorn pelted at the screen or a particularly smart-ass grad student devising creative, avant-garde ways to eviscerate the film's pretensions. And indeed, I was right. Chinese audiences did, for the most part, despise the film, and voiced their displeasure accordingly (though never by throwing things or cackling one-liners). But instead of reveling in their scorn, I found myself disgusted for even wanting to pile on in the first place.

Well, disgust is too strong a word. Disappointment maybe. Disappointment that the Chinese moviegoer is nowhere as near as savvy as he or she wants to be. Disappointment that I had to endure several members of the audience recite the entire story of Hamlet (from which The Banquet is loosely, and I mean loosely, adapted) in long, tedious, not-at-all-hushed monologues much less interesting than the ones in the actual play. And incorrectly too. Disappointment that while it's clear that the locals have had enough of glorified chopsocky, they won't offer much in the way of constructive criticism, instead zeroing in on Zhang Ziyi and her limitations as an actress, national icon, and woman. Of course, the establishment and the powers-to-be, rather than rules of decorum, are more to blame for this; by placing sanctions on any film with a smidgen of nudity, backward values, or tough, unflinching ideologies, they put the commoner at a distinct disadvantage. Why pony up the dough for an overproduced, underthought would-be blockbuster when you could find, well, just about anything else on the street? But while it would be easy to blame it all on systemic, institutional oversight, the Chinese aren't exactly faultless either. What chance do any Chinese auteurs (the short list reads: Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Feng Xiaogang) have when the people here are loading up on films like Superman Returns, or The Break-up, or Keanu Reeves' The Lake House?

The answer: slim to none, and Slim just walked out the door to cop some Korean soap operas. It's borderline self-destructive the way that the locals wait for the newest wuxia drivel to hit so that they can line up in droves -- and proceed to slam anything and everything about it, up to, and including actors who they've previously lauded as folk heroes. (I'm thinking of Ge You, who, until his role as Emperor Li in The Banquet, was China's favorite class clown; now, he's been downgraded to just clown.) Then, once the self-congratulatory bloviating subsides, they do it all over again. This should be obvious to anyone who's followed the state of mainstream Chinese cinema over the last few years: Zhang -- and his toadie Chen -- doesn't care what anyone in China thinks about his films. (And why should he, when the competition is conspicuously absent?) What he wants is for the international community to prick up its ears and hail him the ambassador of artsiness, of meaningful empty flourishes and balletic brutality. Of course, the Chinese government thinks that it's doing everyone a favor by pushing smaller, more acutely observed works aside to make room for these epics-masquerading-as-cultural-centerpieces. People here know better -- they just don't do a damn thing about it.

As for The Banquet itself, it's hardly worth racing to the snark buffet line for. Visually engrossing (of course), dramatically flippant (Feng seems to spend most of the film trying to decide whether to go for parody or seriouser-than-thou), and thematically cliched (you don't say: the desire for power drives everything in this world?), it possesses just enough stylistic gumption to vault it over Chen Kaige's The Promise, and at about even par with Zhang's House of Flying Daggers. The only thing more aggravating than singing the praises of a film which isn't all that good is slinging vitriol on one that is unremarkable at worst, intermittently accomplished at best. Well that, and trying to convince me that Zhou Xun is much more the actress, icon, and woman than Zhang Ziyi. Talk about unruly.  


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