Sunday, November 22, 2009

2009 Chinese American Film Festival

The 2009 Chinese American Film Festival closed on November 22. The festival name seems a misnomer since all the films were from China and set in China.

I was able to see 5 of the 8 films. I previously watched Red Cliff (2009) and The Equation of Love and Death (2008) and I mentioned the subtitling problems with Sophie's Revenge (2009). Although not advertised on their website, Sophie's Revenge is opening at the 4 Star on November 25 for at least 8 days. I've been assured by Frank Lee that it will be the English subtitled version.

The five films I screened at the festival were:

The Message; (2009)
The Founding of a Republic; (2009)
Turning Point 1977; (2009)
And The Spring Comes; (2007)
Stirring Trip to Mutuo; (2003)

I believe all the films were in Mandarin with English subtitles.


I was not that impressed with the films except for the relentlessly bleak And The Spring Comes.

Stirring Trip to Mutuo and Turning Point 1977 were formulaic. Stirring Trip to Mutuo was the classic MacGuffin based road trip. A Shanghai reporter and a Shanghai doctor chase after an old man that built a school in the remotest regions of Tibet. They trek by foot for six days days and encounter life and death along the way. They never meet the old man as he has moved on to another town to build another school. The man was near near death when they started the trek and after the arduous journey, you would think they would continue chasing the man. The closest they get to Old Man Do or Lu or whatever his name was is by seeing his blissful visage in the clouds.

The film featured a unbearably selfish, shrill and germaphobic female doctor. She causes an avalanche, she refuses to wear someone's dirty shoes after being rescued from quicksand and she turns up her nose at strange food (seemingly she would rather starve). It was predictable, featured some cheesy special effects and too schmaltzy for my taste. The most groan inducing moment for me was when a boy (15 or 16 years old) is hanging onto a twig on a sheer cliff wall. He has a pack of book bags on his back for the kids (and his sister) at the school the old man built. The party throws down a rope to save the boys. Before the twig gives way, the boy attaches the rope to the bundle of book bags rather than save himself. He subsequently plunges to his death.

Turning Point 1977 was not nearly as overly sentimental and had the benefit of dealing with the Cultural Revolution. Teenagers from the cities were sent to collective farms and factories out in the countryside. A whole generation of Chinese were left without post-secondary education as they spent their formative years plowing fields in the middle of nowhere and learning Communist dogma.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping returned to power and opened the college admission process to everyone and instituted a national entrance exam. Prior to that, recommendations from local commisars and being from a family without convicted "traitors" were the main qualifications for college admission. Amidst this backdrop, Turning Point 1977 tells the fictitious story of some young men and women struggling to take their exams.

They work on a farm and the farm director doesn't want them to leave. It would destroy the productivity of his farm if all his workers left to go to university. In addition, he has formed a paternal affection for them and is loathe to see them leave. Eventually, his handpicked successor convinces him to let the young people take the exam. There is a subplot involving a female whose father was convicted early in the Cultural Revolution.

Schmaltzy moment - the kids are taking the backup tractor to the train station to go the exam site. The tractor breaks down so they run through the forest catch the only train that will get them to the site. The implacable rail station master refuses to hold the train for the students even as son begs him with tears running down his cheek and the gaggle of would-be students within eyesight. The kids miss the train by seconds; exhausted and dejected, they begin to sob. The farm director (who has a gruff exterior but a heart of gold), drives up in the primary tractor and drives them to the exam site.


The Founding of a Republic was produced by the Chinese government so I was expecting to see Communist propaganda. The film delivered that but wasn't very good. The film relied on quick-fire scenes, jump cuts and the audiences knowledge of events. Character development was nil although Chiang Kai-chek was portrayed more evenly than I expected. Chiang was largely absolved of any wrongdoing from the Communist perspective. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was nearly heroic if not naive on his portrayal. The main venon was reserved for dreaded capitalists and graft/corruption, their constant companion.

I saw Jet Li (one scene) and Jackie Chan (two scenes) but missed Andy Lau and Ziyi Zhang. One piece of trivia - Madame Chiang was portrayed by Vivian Wu. In 1997, she played the same role in The Soong Sisters which I saw at the 4 Star as well. Three sisters - "One loved money. One loved power. And one loved China." Madame Chiang love power. Maggie Cheung played Madame Sun (as in Sun Yat-sen) who loved China and played a role in drafting the Chinese constitution after the Communists took over. The third sister was played by Michelle Yeoh. That sister married H.H. Kung who was a financier and the object of scorn in The Founding of a Republic as his family was one of the most corrupt among the Nationalists.


The Message was a bit like a locked room mystery. In 1942 Nanking, the Japanese occupiers are suffering assassinations from local counter-revolutionaries. The Japanese gather all the suspects in a remote, mountainous retreat and aim to flush out the culprit(s). I found the story tedious. One by one, each suspect is accused, tortured, killed and exonerated (after death). It was one of those films where it was confusing but at the end of the movie, they showed the audience what really happened - the argument and attempted rape behind a locked door was actually a cover story so the two conspirators could discuss the situation in a bugged room.

One memorable moment was when they suspected a woman of being involved. For torture, they took a thick rope and suspended it about five feet off the ground. They used a straight razor to fray the surface of the rope slightly. They straddled the woman on the rope in her slip (presumably without panties) and pulled her along the rope. She would get hemp splinters and rope burn on her vagina. Absolutely diabolical! I don't know if that was a real technique used by the Japanese but you have to wonder what kind of person (Japanese interrogators or screenwriters) would think of such a thing.


That leaves my favorite film of the festival - And The Spring Comes. This film is an indictment against humanity. Jiang Wenli delivers an award winning performance as Wang Cailing, an unattractive woman in every sense of the word. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, she is bereft of everything else particularly compassion and honesty. If this were a US film, the character would be immensely likable to make up for her frumpy appearance and severe acne. Thankfully, it was made in China.

Wang is a voice instructor at local school in a grimy industrial town. Her dream is to be an opera singer in Beijing. In fact, she tells her neighbors that she is soon "returning" to Beijing to take a position with the National Opera. This, of course, is a lie but Wang has convinced herself that it will eventually happen. That doesn't explain her haughty or prideful manner. I think her behavior towards others is a coping mechanism for her self-consciousness about her appearance.

Let's start cataloging the wrongs against her and committed by her. She convinces herself a painter is in love with her when he is actually using her to get a resident permit in Beijing. An alcoholic, he continually fails his art school entrance exams. During one of his stupors, Wang takes advantage of him sexually. Publicly confronted by him, she attempts suicide but only succeeds in breaking her arm.

Next she meets a gay ballet instructor. They strike up a friendship as they are two artists in town that eschews opera and ballet. The man is constantly harrassed and ostracized for his sexuality. He proposes marriage to Wang to solve both their problems as people are "beginning to talk" about her as well. She becomes indignant and turns down his offer. He goes on to "sexually assault" a woman to prove his heterosexuality. The last we see of him is an awkward visit to his prison by Wang.

Next is her next door neighbor, an attractive wife. Largely standoffish, Wang is forced to seek her help when suffering from a severe stomach ache. Again Wang becomes friendly. One nice scene was when the woman gives Wang a vibrator as a gift. Certainly a method for some sexual release but also a backhanded way of saying no one is going to have sex with her. Eventually, the woman's husband leaves her. In despair, the woman comes to Wang for sympathy but she makes offhand comment - "Now, I'll be worse off than you." Wang reacts with callousness. Wang coldly tells the woman that she was only being friendly with her (Wang) because she felt superior and now that her situation has changed, she is trying to console herself at Wang's expense. This was the most painful scene to watch for me because of its complexity. I think both women were right. They did have a friendship but much of it was predicated on one being young, pretty and happy and the other being ugly and unsatisfied.

The final straw is a young girl who comes to Wang. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In her remaining time, she wants to take singing lessons from Wang so she can win an "American Idol" type television contest. Despite her better judgment, Wang agrees to help the girl. Wang gives the girl the money she has been saving to bribe her way to a Beijing residency permit. The girl uses the money to bribe her way onto the television show. She eventually wins the contest and Wang is overjoyed. However, the girl confesses that it is a hoax. She doesn't have cancer, she shaved her head to appear she took chemotherapy and she came to Wang not because she wanted singing lessons (she was already an accomplished singer) but to use her connections to get on the show. Wang's lies about her connections at the National Opera have spread around town.

At this point, Wang gives up her dream of singing in the opera and adopts a baby girl (with an authentic cleft palate). Throwing herself into being a mother, the film ends with the girl transfixed by the Forbidden City on a daytrip to Beijing - dreams are eternal and Wang's daughter will have a dream just like she had; presumably with the same results.

This film left me exhausted. Every character lied and had ulterior motives. Each had their dreams crushed (except the television contest winner). Speaking of the television contest winner, I think this was based on a real-life incident.

Life goes on. I guess in a country like China with over a billion people, dreams are devalued as the grinding day-to-day existence mixed with a Confuscian outlook drain the spirit from the masses. At least, that's the message I took away.

Jiang Wenli is the wife of the film's director, Gu Changwei. Here are two photos that show the remarkable transformation of Jiang Wenli for the role. Jiang won numerous awards for her performance including the Golden Rooster Award for Best Actress.

Jiang Wenli in And The Spring Comes

Zhou Xun (left) and Jiang Wenli share the Golden Rooster Best Actress Award.

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