The Postmodern Eyes of Chinese Cinema

The Postmodern Eyes of Chinese Cinema

A panorama of experiences from across the "three Chinas" makes the latest edition of the UCLA Film and TV Archive's Chinese film series another success. APA reviews five LA premieres and one long-awaited, unqualified masterpiece.

By APA Staff

Still Life (2006)
Our Ten Years (2007)

dir: Jia Zhang-ke

I want to call Still Life and Our Ten Years "high concept" art films, since they can be pitched (to both investors and audiences) in less than a sentence. These two in particular combine a brand-name auteur with major current events: Still Life is Jia + Three Gorges Dam; Our Ten Years is Jia + the tenth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. I say this not to diminish the artistic integrity of these films -- they are as cinematically rigorous as any previous Jia film. But despite how easily each film could have fallen into the obvious sentimentality frequently attached to each event (think of the countless films and documentaries that have dealt with each), Jia doesn't allow the event to overwhelm the narrative content. Still Life focuses not on the immediate effects of displacement, but on reattachment; it is a film that contains hope and magic, while never sacrificing its critical edge. The first shot of the film, a classic Jia opening, perfectly encapsulates Three Gorges as a social (as opposed to political or ecological) event: a slow tracking shot shows us the faces of the workers -- some tired, some laughing, some busily text-messaging away. Our Ten Years similarly ruminates on the faces of ordinary people on the move. In a mere eight minutes, the short film looks back at the ten years since the 1997 handover, without fetishizing "China" or "Hong Kong" as political entities. Are these characters mainlanders? Hong Kong-ers? Ultimately, they're just strangers on a train, coasting wordlessly through their lives -- and through history.  --Brian Hu


A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
dir: Edward Yang

The UCLA Film Archive screening of Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day marked  a rare public showing of one of the Taiwanese master's greatest works. Despite a beautiful print straight from the Yang family collection, the film presenters and audience members commented on a distinct feeling of melancholy viewing the film after Yang's untimely death in June 2007 from colon cancer. Due to the relative clarity of the film on screen, viewers were able to newly appreciate the film's brilliant attention to the detail of life during Taiwan's White Terror era. Yang's epic four hour tale of youthful misanthropy and adult deception retains its lyrically melancholic sensibility, despite the time that has passed since the film's initial release. Even viewing the film in hindsight, Chang Chen's nuanced performance is shockingly fresh and moving. While Yang's film has been widely heralded as one of the centerpieces of the Taiwanese New Wave, one of the more surprising aspects of Yang's classically "Taiwanese" film is the strong foreign influences which drive the narrative. From the samurai swords of the island's colonial Japanese past to the Elvis song from which the film takes its name, A Brighter Summer Day infuses Taiwan New Cinema with a striking global presence.  --Aynne Kokas


The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006)
dir: Ann Hui

With Chow Yun-fat in comic mode and a strikingly multi-layered performance by Mongolian minority actress, Siqin Gaowa, Ann Hui's The Postmodern Life of My Aunt has ample acting chops at its disposal. The kind of film with the audacity to shift between offbeat comedy and dark urban drama over the course of a brief set change, The Postmodern Life of May Aunt could do with nothing less. The film tells the story of a matronly sometime tutor, Ye Rutang (Siqin Gaowa). When we find her, Ye is an elderly Shanghai resident attempting still to be a model worker in a city where a cemetery salesman can charm a lady out of her life savings and women of a certain age fixate on cultivating the right shade of grey hair. However, what seems to be the comic life of a slightly uptight single urban auntie becomes the dark tale of an overworked post-industrial Chinese worker wife after a slight change in Ye's circumstances. Zhao Wei, the designated charmer of recent Mainland filmmaking, takes a militant turn as Ye's seemingly prodigal daughter. While the radical shift from comedy to drama may leave some viewers feeling confused, perhaps that is the point. Hui manages the noteworthy feat of synthesizing both the rampant commercial excitement of China's urban transformation with the bleakness of small town life, a tenuous coexistence utterly more confounding than any mere "dark comedy."  --Aynne Kokas


Eye in the Sky (2007)
dir: Yau Nai-hoi

Eye in the Sky
is everything you expect in a solid Hong Kong action film -- nothing more, nothing less. "Nothing more" meaning: don't expect the relationships to move you, or even to cohere. "Nothing less" meaning: expect a pitch-perfect symphony of crime across the urban landscape. The "eye in the sky" refers superficially to surveillance, but it more generally refers to the orchestration of the city in jewel heists and police procedures. Windows, platforms, 7-11s, and alleyways are not mere settings but functional in the dealings of crime and law enforcement. So is the ubiquitous "Octopus card," familiar to any Hong Kong citizen and visitor, which here plays an instrumental role in the narrative. I'm not at all fond of the film's grand statements about the nature of urban surveillance (and the cheesy surveillance cam-type dissolves sprinkled throughout); what it's trying to say is so obvious that it feels heavy-handed even without pressing the theme too hard. But as with so many Hong Kong films of the genre, it's not the meaning that impresses, but the orchestration -- the editing of action sequences, the use of props and locations, the choreography of the chase.  --Brian Hu



Click here for a review of Cao Baoping's Trouble Makers.

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Published: Friday, November 2, 2007