Category Archives: Featured Film Reviews

The Bird People in China, Movie Review

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The Bird People in China, directed by Takashi Miike, is a film highlighting natural beauty outside of modern civilization and reflects on the conflicts that occur when merging modern developments and cultural traditions in human society. The movie portrays people from developed Japanese society learning to live life in pristine Yunnan province. The movie raises a question: should society give up its traditions to enjoy the benefits of modern life?

The Bird People in China moves away from the typically violent movies of director Takashi Miike and focuses on the beauty of nature and personal reflection. Miike is most famous for his extremely violent gangster movies, for example Ichi the Killer, which is banned in some countries. While The Bird People in China moves away from the violent style, it shares with his other movies with its unusual plots and bizarre scenes.

The movie is about an adventure in Yunan province, the remote South West region in China, for three main characters: the businessman Wada, the gangster Ujiie and the tour guide Shen. Wada is ordered by his Japanese company to search for a vein of jade in a remote village of Yunan province. Ujiie is also sent by his gangster boss to supervise Wada, making sure Wada’s company will be able to pay the money they owed his boss. As they move further and further away from civilization and modern society, they struggle to adapt to the hostile environment during the long journey. They are brought to a small remote village, where people live in innocence and have the belief that humans can fly. There is a girl who hosts a “flying school” and teaches young children the tradition of flying from her grandfather. The title, The Bird People in China, comes from this mysterious belief in flying.

While Wada is trying to understand the reason behind the mystery in the village, Ujiie truly enjoys his new life in the village away from modernity. Ujiie wants to protect the tradition of the villagers and prevent it from being tampered with by modern society. In the end, Ujiie does not want Wada and the tour guild Shen to leave the village and reveal it to modern society. Even though Wada has good intentions, to use modernity and technology to help this remote area develop, Ujiie thinks they will exploit the village’s natural resource and that the invasion of a modern lifestyle will have irreversible consequences for the traditional lifestyle in the village.

This story’s setting is among the beautiful mountains of Yunnan province. There are many long distance shots in the movie. Because of this long distance, we are able to see the full landscape of the village and enjoy the views of this gorgeous area in a wide screen. We enjoy the blue sky, white clouds and green mountains. The setting and camera shots further emphasize the innocent nature and the beauty of the area. The movies seem to tell us that all of this natural beauty is so gorgeous that it is worth being preserved.

The movie, made in 1998, is based during China’s transition from the traditional rural society to industrialization. In the 1990s, Chinese society was relatively stable and the government focused on economic development and improving people’s standard of living. The government adopted reforms and an opening-up policy, which attracted foreign investments in natural resources. Also, the economic development spread beyond the urban areas and moved to the rural areas. This explains why the Japanese businessmen are in the remote area of China searching for the vein of jade. The drive for economic growth comes at the cost of nature, environment and tradition. Apparently, the government at that time was not aware of the danger of this unsustainable development. The director is trying to sound an alarm for Chinese society as well as other developing countries. Economic development and modernity will definitely benefit the people and improving their standard of living exponentially, however, it always comes with the cost of losing traditions. People will completely change their previous lifestyles, beliefs and value systems. It is like a tradeoff, and it is hard to achieve a balance and decide which approach is better.

The beautiful nature and traditions are definitely valuable, but the question is how we should preserve it. The movie takes an objective view towards the conflict between traditional and modern society. The theme of the movie is showed through the characters’ personal experiences and reflections. Wada is trying to reveal the mystery of the village through his own technique and reasoning. He is using his tape recorder to record the song from the “flying girl” and uses his electronic dictionary to translate her words. In contrast, Ujiie is fully integrated into the village himself. He enjoys being with the villagers and kids and tries to understand their lives. In the end, he is determined to protect the village from modern society. In their final encounter, Wada and Ujiie come to blows about which approach the village should take. Wada believes that they should allow technology and modernity to improve people’s lives, while at the same time protecting the tradition. Ujiie believes it is not possible because of human nature and the tradition should stay away from modernity. At the end, the movie did not indicate which approach is correct and let the viewers reflect on this common conflict in today’s society.

The Bird People in China is a fairytale-like story that shows the natural beauty and traditions of an innocent Chinese village in Yunan province. Through the characters’ experiences and personal reflections, we understand the value of preserving this beautiful region. Moreover, the movie raises a question about whether or not modernity should play a role in this protection. While the movie does not fully answer that question, it makes us reflect on how should human interact with tradition and nature.

Hero Film Review

Hero (2002)
Hero (2002)

Hero is bright, colorful, dramatic, and dazzling. The visual effects, mise-en-scene, and star power come together to create a powerhouse of entertainment.  While the commercial success of the film is a tribute to its blockbuster status, the overall appeal of the film is tainted by the troubling nature of some of the themes. Hero is surely entertaining, but the underlying ideas surrounding power vs. the masses cannot be ignored.

Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)
Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)

Hero takes place during the Warring States period of Chinese history, occurring just before the King of Qin succeeds in creating a unified China. The story follows the journey of a skilled martial arts fighter called Nameless (Jet Li), who is credited with killing three assassins–Long Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung)–who attempted to murder the King of Qin (Chen Daoming). As a reward for his feats, Nameless receives the honor of sitting within 10 paces of the king. During their time together the king asks Nameless to recount the stories of killing the assassins. The rest of the film is made up of smaller stories told by Nameless and the king, interspersed with returns to the conversation between the two men. Nameless and the king of Qin engage in a battle of their own, fought within their minds.

King of Qin (Chen Daoming)
King of Qin (Chen Daoming)

Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, was released in 2002 and was the most expensive project in the history of Chinese cinema. After its release, Hero also became the highest grossing film in China’s history. The film was not released in the U.S. until 2004, where it debuted as #1 and garnered the second highest opening weekend for a foreign language film. Hero was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

I would argue that Hero‘s international success is largely due to its visual appeal. The film includes beautifully choreographed fight scenes that resemble dances more so than battles. Despite Hero’s categorization as a martial arts film, emphasis is placed on the beauty and skill of the craft rather than the violence. The costumes and set design work in conjunction with the choreography to create a visual masterpiece. Typical of Zhang Yimou, the colors in Hero are vibrant and emotionally charged, highlighting the action and overarching ideas within every scene and the film as a whole.

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Flying Snow in battle

Needless to say, Hero was an international success from both a commercial and critical perspective. However, I found that the visually beautiful scenes often eclipse the film’s major themes. Some of the visual elements assist in emphasizing nationalism (surrounding a common Chinese identity), but often distract from some of the more troubling aspects of the film. Hero is meant to convey a sense of pride in a national identity, but it also implies that the masses are not capable of deciding their own fate. Instead, the masses must place their trust in the implied superior intelligence of the ruling body. Troubling indeed.

Hero is undeniably an entertaining film. Its visual elements are absolutely captivating and the plot will keep viewers on their toes. I would recommend watching this film for the quality of entertainment, but not for the content of its overall message. I believe it is certainly possible to enjoy Hero, but, as with any film, it is also important to maintain a critical eye towards the underlying themes.

In The Mood for Love

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In The Mood for Love (2000) examines the relationship of two next-door-neighbors brought together by their unfaithful spouses. The Chinese title of the film 花樣年華 means “the age of blossoms” and refers to transience of youth and a nostalgia for the past. In 2000, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is the second installment in Wong Kar-wai’s (sort of) trilogy with Days of Being Wild (1991) and 2046 (2004).

Set in 1960’s Hong Kong, Wong Kar-wai creates a world lush with nostalgia. Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) are always impeccably dressed and mannered. They are the glossy figures lifted from a Lucky Strike print ad. Yet despite their beauty, the main characters suffer from stifling loneliness. Although they live in an apartment teeming with people, they often eat alone. Both Chan and Chow’s spouses remain curiously absent from the film. The viewer only sees the back of Mrs. Chow’s head and hears Mr. Chan’s voice. Their absence becomes enhanced when we learn of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow’s affair.

Affairs, along with nostalgia, become repeated themes in the film. Wong Kar-wai seems fascinated by the simultaneously vivid and murky quality of memory. While the film drips with rich reds and sparkling golds, it often frames its characters in an unusual manner. Wong remembers the romantic panache of the 60s but also its societal constrictions. Mrs. Chan works as a secretary for a shipping company. Dressed in a stunning floral cheongsam, her delicate neck wrapped in fabric, she must arrange her boss’ dinners with both his wife and mistress. Mrs. Chan, a wife who has recently learned of her husband’s own infidelity, must aide in another man’s deceit.

In In The Mood for Love, Wong often pairs beauty with sadness, the shinning facade of nostalgia with its dark underbelly. In one scene, Maggie Cheung’s character leaves the neighborhood noodle shop and a mint green thermos swings in her manicured hands. The scene moves in slow motion, lingering on her figure as it ascends the stairs.  For a moment we are transfixed by her perfection. Then the camera shows the crumbling walls of the shop. We remember why Mrs. Chan eats alone each night. When the shot changes to Mr. Chow, we watch him eat dumplings, his dark hair slicked into place, but he too eats unaccompanied. On the surface, the viewer sees two attractive people, but inches below are two spouses abandoned by their other halves. When they walk past one another, the camera frames Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan in the decrepit corridor.

In The Mood for Love gives its viewers both beauty and substance. The cinematography and soundtrack overwhelm with their exceptionality. Wong awakens in his viewers a sense of nostalgia. We yearn for the polished sophistication of the 60s even if we never lived through it. We yearn for lovers never lost. In The Mood for Love moves slowly and deliberately, but the patient viewer is greatly rewarded.

 

Review of Spring in a Small Town

The love triangle explored in Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town takes on a new depth when set against China’s post-war backdrop of 1948. The film is narrated by Yuwen (Wei Wei), a young woman stuck in an depressing marriage to her sick husband, Liyan (Shi Yu). The two characters feel weighed down by Liyan’s illness and despair, the latter caused by the destruction of his home during the war. The arrival of Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan and former romantic interest of Yuwen, shakes the household to its core. Over the course of the film Yuwen and Zhang are drawn to each other more and more, struggling to leave the past behind when the present is so dim.

Spring in a Small Town takes place after the war with Japan and the Chinese Civil War in 1945. Film production slowed drastically during the Japanese Occupation, and Spring was created when film production resumed. Spring in a Small Town was the last film directed by Fei Mu before he was forced to flee to Hong Kong to avoid persecution during the Communist Revolution. After his arrival in Hong Kong in 1949, Fei did not make any more films before his death in 1951. Spring is considered to be Fei’s greatest accomplishment, although he and his works fell into obscurity until the 1980s following the Cultural Revolution.

The theme of war and loss weighs heavily on the characters of Spring in a Small Town.  Amidst the crumbling rubble of their home, Yuwen and Liyan struggle to move into the future. Meanwhile Liyan’s alarmingly cheerful teenaged sister (simply referred to as “Meimei”, the word for “younger sister” in Chinese) represents China’s bright future. Zhang’s character is also rooted in the future. He wears western-styled clothing and works as a modern-day doctor, starkly contrasting Liyan and Yuwen’s traditional clothing and style of living.

Zhang’s arrival to the household adds a vitality sorely missing from the family (despite Meimei’s constant cheer). He serves a different purpose for every character, but provides a positive influence across the board. He is able to match Meimei’s excitement and playfulness, while inspiring hope in both Yuwen and Liyan. None of the characters want Zhang to leave, but his past relationship with Yuwen complicates the family relationships the longer he stays.

Zhang (Li Wei) and Luwen (Wei Wei) in Spring in a Small Town

The film is understated and demure, much like its heroine Yuwen. However, at times I thought the acting was trying to overcompensate for the film’s subtle nature. Yuwen’s character tends toward the dramatic, while Meimei’s intense cheerfulness is grating. Liyan, too, is guilty of dramatic antics, however he remains largely solemn throughout the film. Aside from Yuwen’s narration, the film features little dialogue, sometimes causing the pace to slow to a crawl. Many of the film’s most anticipated moments never come to pass, perhaps disappointing only American audiences not accustomed to loose ends.

A Time to Live and A Time to Die

movie-a-time-to-live-a-time-to-die-by-hou-hsiao-hsien-s2-mask9A Time to Live and A Time to Die follows Ah-hsiao (nicknamed Ah-ha) and his family as they adapt to a new life in Taiwan. The film is the second installment in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s coming-of-age trilogy. Released in 1985, A Time to Live and A Time to Die won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1986 Berlin International Film Festival and the Best Non-American/Non-European Film Award at the 1987 Rotterdam International Film Festival. The film’s international accolades reflect the mesmerizing cinematography and understated directorial ability of Hsiao-Hsien.

The film begins in 1947 after Ah-ha’s family moves to Taiwan from mainland China. The semi-autobiographical A Time to Live and A Time to Die draws from Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s own relocation and upbringing in Taiwan. Ah-ha, a reflection of Hou, represents the first generation of children raised in Taiwan by Chinese immigrants. In the 1940’s, the Chinese Civil War split the country into two opposing factions, the Communists and the KMT Nationalists. Those who sided with the KMT fled to Taiwan after the Communist Party of China gained control of the mainland. Taiwan’s political histories, both the lingering Japanese influence on the island and the Chinese Civil War, never overwhelm the film. Rather, Hou Hsiao-Hsien hints at the Japanese occupation and Nationalist Party control. The camera holds a shot of tank tracks in the mud. The family as listens to planes fly over their home at night. Military horses gallop across the background of a scene. Although national history sets the stage, Ah-ha’s family history takes the foreground.

A Time to Live and A Time to Die examines filial duty, youth and death in a family removed from their homeland and cultural traditions. Hou’s experimental style avoids approaching these topics with melodrama. The characters in the film, many of whom were not trained actors, breathe believability into their roles. Much like De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, A Time to Live and A Time to Die utilizes realism for a strong emotional payoff. Ah-ha, his grandmother, his neighborhood, and his friends all become palpable. We feel as though we know these people and places. The acting never feels forced. In this aspect, the film borders on documentary.

The lush, tranquil setting of A Time to Live and A Time to Die sanctions the slow pacing of the film. 138 minutes long, the film takes its time telling Ah-ha’s story. For many, the length may be a turn off, but the pacing respects the defining moments of Ah-ha’s childhood. When Ah-ha and his grandmother walk through the thick vegetation of the Taiwanese village, we watch his grandmother long for the old country. In one scene, she asks a stranger for directions but the woman speaks a different dialect of Chinese. In this moment, we are presented with Taiwan’s disjointed society.

Unlike his parents and grandmother, Ah-ha most forge a new culture from the remnants. As he grows older, Ah-ha must explore sexuality and filial duty on his own. He joins a street gang but continues to care for his ill mother and grandmother. He and his friends act against authority with displays of hyper-masculinity. They start brawls in pool halls and beat up classmates. The first generation of mainland Chinese settled in Taiwan, Ah-ha and his siblings must navigate unfamiliar waters. In the transition, the institutions of education and family lose authority but not importance.

Understated and slow, A Time to Live and A Time to Die examines suffering, identity, and youth with a careful eye. The film does not deliver extreme violence or passionate kisses punctuated with fireworks, but Hou Hsiao-Hsien does not disappoint. We are allowed to watch a family’s most intimate moments. We witness the sadness and joy that define their lives. A Time to Live and A Time to Die is an unsentimental study of youth that leaves the viewer emotionally fulfilled.