Monday, December 1, 2014

2014 Chinese American Film Festival

The 2014 Chinese American Film Festival (CAFF) was held at the 4 Star Theater from November 19 to 25.  It conflicted with the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series at the Vogue and The French Had A Name For It Redux at the Roxie.

There were nine films on the CAFF program.  Two of the films (The Golden Era & The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) were presented the prior week at the SFFS' Hong Kong Cinema series.  Oddly, The Golden Era had already gotten a limited release as I saw it at the Camera 12 a few weeks before the Hong Kong Cinema screenings.  SFFS typically does not program films which have already been released.  I had little desire to see The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom.

Another strange thing is that the 4 Star started screening American Dreams in China five days before CAFF opened.  On November 14 I went to the Roxie to see La vérité but it was sold out so I went to the 4 Star and saw American Dreams in China instead.  Anyway, the point is that I saw The Golden Era and American Dreams in China before CAFF started.

American Dreams in China screened at CAAMFest San Jose on September 6 and the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival in April/May.  Although I did not see the film at either of the festivals, I recall favorable buzz about them from the festivals and read a positive review in the Chronicle on the morning of Novembe 14.

In addition to the two films I saw before the festival, I watched three films during the festival:  The Seventh Lie, Brotherhood of Blades & No Man's Land.

The Golden Era starring Tang Wei &Feng Shaofeng; directed by Ann Hui; Mandarin with subtitles; ( 2014)
American Dreams in China starring Xiaoming Huang, Dawei Tong & Deng Chao; directed by Peter Chan; Mandarin & English with subtitles; (2013)
The Seventh Lie; directed by James Hung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)
Brotherhood of Blades starring Chang Chen, Wang Qianyuan & Ethan Li; directed by Lu Yang; Mandarin with subtitles; (2014)
No Man's Land starring Zheng Xu; directed by Ning Hao; Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)

The program guide said admission was $10 but I was charged $10.50 to see The Seventh Lie.  A few days later when I saw No Man's Land, I was charged $10.  I don't know why the minutiae of life like a 50 cent price discrepancy sticks in my mind.

The three films I saw at CAFF were in the little auditorium and using the word "auditorium" is a stretch if you have been in that room.  For reasons unclear to me, American Dreams in China started a late.  As a consolation, 4 Star owner Frank Lee told the people in line for American Dreams that they could stick around for the film after that (Brotherhood of Blades) for free admission.  I was the only person who did so.


The Golden Era was the closing night film for this year's Venice International Film Festival and director Ann Hui is an acclaimed HK New Wave figure.  I greatly enjoyed her film A Simple Life which screened at the 2012 Hong Kong Cinema series.

With The Golden Era, Hui strives for epic but I don't think the subject is quite up to the least not for Western audiences.  The film follows the life of Chinese author Xiao Hong (Tang Wei).  She is an author I have never heard of but I'd be hard-pressed to name five Chinese novelists.  After watch 179 minutes of The Golden Era I not sure if I really understand Xiao any better.  The film (if historically accurate) touched all the bases of Xiao's short & tragic life but didn't really give any insight into her work or her character.

Xiao was a progressive in the 1930s.  She tried to escape her arranged marriage but upon getting pregnant, her fiancé  (were they married at the time) abandons her at the hotel.  Unable to pay the bill, she is kept prisoner at the hotel and nearly sold into forced prostitution.  She is rescued by her compatriot Xiao Jun, an author, political writer & newspaperman.

I could recite the rest of Xiao Hong's particulars according to the film but I get the sense that the intelligentsia she was part of is more familiar to Chinese audiences than Western ones.  It would be something akin to saying someone was an acolyte of Ayn Rand.  If you don't know who Ayn Rand was, the context of what it means to be a follower of Rand is lost.  Much of the movie felt that way to me.  I didn't have any context of who these people were that were moving in and out of Xiao Hong's life.

For me, the most moving scenes were at the end of the film (as well as Xiao Hong's life).  Living in Hong Kong during the Fall of Hong Kong, her final days were spent shuttling from hospital to hospital during the battle and ensuing Japanese occupation as she succumbed to illness.


American Dreams in China spans a twenty year period.  College friends Meng (Deng Chao), Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) and Wang (Tong Dawei) experience different versions of the American Dream which in China is to be influenced by American culture and/or travel to the US.  Cheng desperately wants to get a visa to the US but is repeatedly denied with no explanation.  Wang loves American films (even citing On the Waterfront in one scene) and has a American girlfriend but a breakup with said girlfriend sends into a funk.  Meng graduate with an advanced degree in biology at Columbia before losing his university job and working as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant.

Eventually, Cheng loses his teaching position in China and stumbles upon the idea of tutoring students on English and standardized exams to gain admission to US universities.  After initially teaching his students in a KFC, he begins squat in an abandoned factory as his classes become more popular.  He recruits Wang to his endeavor to handle the additional students and provide some instruction on American popular culture glommed from his ex-girlfriend and hour spent watching American movies.  When Meng returns home from US in defeat, he is recruited into the company which is christened New Dreams and formed as a private university with the three friends as partners (but with Cheng retaining the majority stake).

The film bounces back and forth in time.  The audience sees the success of New Dreams and the struggles the three partners have in maintaining their friendship.  In particular, Meng wants to take the company public via an IPO whereas Cheng resists this idea at every turn.  A crisis occurs when an US company sues New Dreams for copyright violation & unauthorized use of their materials.  The finale occurs when the three partners fly to New York to meet for a settlement with the US company.

I enjoyed the conflicted attitudes of the three lead characters in the film.  I think the vacillating views towards the US reflect the general attitude of the government of China and Chinese people towards the US.  I recall listening to an NPR segment on China and the speaker noted that although the Chinese government may have to provocative policies towards the US, the government also seeks to emulate the US on a number of fronts.  Regardless of the government attitudes, the Chinese are emulating the US in the actions.  Chinese people come to the US to buy houses, go to school, make real estate investments, etc.  They increasingly dress in Western clothes and consume Western products & merchandise.

The film captures this dichotomy nicely.  The three leads want the American Dream but become disillusioned and frustrated by the process of attaining it.  The Americans they want to impress treat them disdainfully but yet they still hope to attain success by US standards in the form of a NYSE IPO.

As they say, the 19th century was the British century, the 20th century was the American century and the 21st century will be the Chinese century.  Currents events reflected in films like American Dreams in China indicate that the Chinese seem to aspire to American ways.

At times the film was a little confused and lightly developed but overall, I enjoyed the film and found it thought provoking.


I've never heard of the seven types of lies.  According to the opening credits of The Seventh Lie, the 7th type of lie is self-deception...I think.  There were all types of lies being told in The Seventh Lie so I'm not sure where self-deception fits into some of the stories.  The Seventh Lie was like an anthology film where there was a flashback within a flashback...etc.  There was a driver who dabbles as a hitman who has amorous intentions towards his employer's wife who may have her own agenda.  There is a runaway bride whose reasons for running away are not what they may seem.  Finally, there is a man who tries to frame a peeping tom for the murder of his wife.  I'm forgetting about the bellhop looking to scam hotel guests.

The stories have varying degrees of craftsmanship and enjoyment.  This was the centerpiece film but it felt kind of a 90 minute marathon of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The Seventh Lie is worth a look but not worth a special trip.  All said, I wish I had been at the Roxie watching La vérité.

After The Seventh Lie, I stuck around for Brotherhood of Blades.  BoB was a wuxia/martial arts film about 3 palace guards or royal bodyguards who are sent to assassinate someone.  It turns out to be a conspiracy but then the three guys have their own secrets.  The program write-up didn't appeal to me and the film lived up to my expectations.  If it hadn't been for the free admission, I wouldn't have attended and even with the free admission, I regret wasting my time.

No Man's Land was filmed in 2009 by up & coming director Ning Hao (Mongolian Ping Pong, Crazy Stone & Crazy Racer).  It's release was delayed because the film ran afoul of Chinese censors.  Ning allegedly re-edited the film twice to no avail.  With no explanation, No Man's Land was released in mainland China last year and box office was strong.  It's hard for me to imagine what was cut from the film.

Set in China's western Xinjiang province (which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India), the region resembles a lawless frontier like Deadwood or perhaps more aptly something like Robert Rodriguez's Desperado.  I was surprised at how much the Gobi Desert looks like deserts of the Western US and Mexico.

Pan Xiao (Zheng Xu) is a hotshot, big city lawyer who comes out to the desolate area to defend a falcon poacher.  When payment is delayed, Pan "borrows" a car as a deposit while he drives back to the big city (I can't recall which).  Along the way, he meets crazed truckers, swindlers, a prostitute desperate to leave her life behind and more.  It reminded me of Mad Max, that film where Dennis Weaver is stalked by a trucker, the aforementioned Desperado and other films I cannot recall.

No Man's Land makes me want to see Ning's earlier films.

I should note that the subtitling for Brotherhood of Blades and No Man's Land was extremely small.  I could not read them from the back of the small theater at the 4 Star.  I had to move up several rows in order to make out the words.  Even then, the pacing of the subtitles was uneven.  They flashed some subtitles so fast I didn't have time to completely read them.  Poor subtitling or poor eyesight?


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