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Great Expectations

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I was thrilled to go to the Spring Film Festival in Manila’s Trinoma mall a couple of months back. Having been in the Philippines for more than seven months, I was excited to watch all four movies from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as I was starting to feel a little homesick.
[Photo of Zhao Benshan]
Not only would I get to see and gauge the acting prowess of Chinese actors, I would also be taking a virtual trip back home; the plots of these stories would take me from villages to cities, from the mainland to Taiwan, and from ancient times to modern. But the offerings (save one) were not as riveting as I thought. These motion pictures were all major letdowns and did not give the audience a taste of the better Chinese films made and shown in the mainland.

Getting Home

When a fox dies, it will face the direction of its hole,” goes an old saying. That’s essentially what Getting Home (Luo Ye Gui Gen) tells moviegoers. It is in one’s nature to long for his roots and ancestral home. Since humans are far better than foxes, main character Old Zhao has a moral obligation to bring the remains of his friend Old Liu back to their hometown.

I find the whole story absurd. (Liu’s body, after all, wasn’t in a casket; Zhao had to carry it around like an oversized rag doll.) The director tried to show traditional Chinese family ties but he failed in that area, too; the depiction may have been a little too exaggerated.

Seeing the movie was like watching an orchestra; at the wave of the baton, various characters and events appear one after the other in an organized sequence. Old Zhao, a member of the working class, went through situations (both fortunate and not) in his noble quest to bury his friend.

The trip back home was far from monotonous: Zhao met bandits, shared a bus ride with uncaring passengers, lost his wallet, and even showed a truck driver how to win back his girl. He enjoyed a hearty meal from the mock funeral of an old and lonely man who wanted to see if people would really mourn his death. But that’s not all.

He also had his first sip of coffee from a young man who wanted to ride his bicycle all the way to Tibet before his 28th birthday and met a scavenger who has a son in college. He was given a free meal and a ride back to town by a bee farmer who hid himself and his family up in the mountains out of love for his wife. Zhao also got Old Liu an urn, which was paid for by a respectable police officer.

Yang Zhang, the director, criticizes society by showing the mainland’s modernization and the moral values the Chinese people lost in the process. But he seems to be an eternal optimist. His film may be an attempt at a biting commentary against China’s current reality, yet he cannot resist putting a hopeful tone in the story. So Old Zhao, hungry and at the end of his rope, still survived.

Despite the occasional funny scenes, the mood of the film was actually serious. I couldn’t understand why the Filipinos in the theater were laughing so loud. Black humor doesn’t make me laugh at all. Being a Chinese,  watching this kind of film abroad makes me uncomfortable.

There’s something mysterious about Chinese culture that often attracts the eyes of the world. But when can Chinese directors show to international audience the sunny side of China?

Millennium Mambo

[Photo of Millenium Mambo]It takes a lot of patience to finish this film. No, I’ll be blunt: It’s too boring. During the screening, I wanted to complain to my husband, but I found out he had fallen asleep.

This film didn’t have much of a storyline. There was practically nothing on screen the entire time and there’s too much noisy disco music. I didn’t even see the face of the male actor; it seemed that every time he showed up, the background was just too dark.

The young and beautiful Vicky (played by Qi Shu), began enjoying life when she turned 16. All she cared about was music, video games, and her junkie boyfriend Little Hao. She had no decent job and if she needed money, she would go to an adult bar to work.

Her life was all about drinking, smoking, and spending time with her so-called friends. They often hang out in different bars, cracked jokes, and laughed their heads off. But none of them were really happy. They all felt anxious and empty inside yet no one among them ever thought of seeking treatment. Instead, they just listened to ear-piercing music and drowned themselves in alcohol. When the music died down and the kick of the booze faded, they would cry like little homeless orphans. Then they went their separate ways.

I think the director of this film didn’t really care what the audience would see on screen. If all he wanted was to show the life of some modern city people, then he did a good job. But no moviegoer would part with his hard-earned cash to sit in the cinema for long hours just to see a bunch of morons smoke, get drunk, then sob like babies.

During this two-hour torture, I had an epiphany: No amount of music or angst could save a poorly-made film. I found out that a boring movie is a bad movie.

A Battle of Wits

[Photo of A Battle of Wits]Nearly all ancient Chinese martial arts films that came out after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were disasters; I think they were just poor copies of the Ang Lee classic. Still, almost all famous directors wanted to try the genre. Zhang Yimou, probably the most popular Chinese director today, and Hong Kong’s Zhang Xian Liang were also hooked.

I’m not really a big fan of movies that have heavy doses of chaos and mayhem but because of the handsome Andy Lau, I went to see Zhang Xian Liang’s A Battle of Wits.

The film was predictable, but it wasn’t disappointing either; it’s even better than the other Chinese battle epics that came out recently.

This movie tackles the Mohist philosophy and takes a peek at what life was like during the Warring States Period. Mohism promotes peace, but to obtain peace, people are forced to go to war. (The character Ge Li is an ardent believer of Mohism.) The storyline is quite simple: The one who wins the support of the people gets the country; the one who doesn’t loses it.

The acting was excellent and the director did a fine job showing the viewers the power struggle inside the imperial palace. Of course, there’s the mandatory good versus evil part.

The ancient Chinese battle ground was a visual feast. Even the coloring was very accurate. The warring forces used yellow to tell their troops to take defensive positions and black to signal an attack. So don’t be surprised that the dominant colors in the entire movie were black and yellow.

Sadly, the movie also shows Chinese filmmakers and actors lack imagination. I mean, Hollywood movies seem to look 10 to 20 years into the future, but our moviemakers are still enamored with the past. Their fascination with this genre is like digging gold out of one’s ancestral burial grounds.

A Beautiful New World

[Photo of Jiang Wu and Chen Ning]Among all the movies in the festival, A Beautiful New World (Meili Shin Xijie) was the only one worth spending money on. Watching this made me think there’s hope for the Chinese film industry after all.

The plot revolved around three characters and how they pursued their dreams in life.

Since he left his village, Bao Gen, the first character, had always dreamt of staying in the newly-built Jiang Jing Lou just beside Huangpu River, drinking red wine while sitting on a rocking chair.

The second one, Ah-Hui, wanted to marry a rich and gentle husband.

Jin Fang, the third character, was an orphan and dreamt of having her own big business and becoming rich. Her future husband would come riding in a Cadillac. (The Cadillac, by the way, must have a swimming pool in it.)

The pursuit of one’s dream was no easy task for each of the three. Bao Gen couldn’t go home, claim his house, and even find a good job. Little Hui fell victim to con men. Jin Fang was on the run from loan sharks. Out of sheer frustration, she wept like a little child beside a public phone booth one night during a mid-autumn festival.

At the lowest point of his life, Bao Gen got a pep talk from a homeless singer in an underground passageway: “You still have hope,” the troubadour said. So off he went again to the city and sold rice toppings on the street. It’s an embarrassing way to make a living, in Jin Fang’s opinion, but Bao Gen didn’t mind; his business was doing good and, more importantly, he was happy.

Ah Hui, meantime, finally accepted the marriage proposal of her driver-boyfriend. She even used her boyfriend’s bike to tell friends of her wedding.

Jin Fang became a little more flexible with what she wanted from her future husband after she and Ah Hui sat down and talked.

The three did not get what they initially wanted, still, they found their own happiness. Chasing one’s dream meant abandoning the unrealistic. For them, it became a journey towards purity. As I made my way for the exit, I realized the pretty world they were all looking for was the pure world in the tracks Innocent Child and Girl’s Dimple, both sung by Wu Bai.

Tao Hong’s acting was simply phenomenal. Her greedy, poignant, and “Tofu Xishi” image in the movie just blew me away! Her portrayal was so effective it shattered whatever good image I had of Shanghai.

print ed: 04/08


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