13 January 2017

Film review: The Story of Qiuju (1992) by Zhang Yimou, ****


Synopsis

Qiu ju, a peasant woman in Shaanxi province (central China) seeks redress for her husband, who has been badly kicked by the village chief following a trivial dispute. Local authorities rule in her favor, the chief is ready to pay compensation but does not apologize.

Qiu ju appeal to ever higher higher levels of government but the result is always the same. There is a stalemate in the proceedings until an unexpected turn of events puts Quiju and the chief face to face again. She will come to regret being so stubborn.
going to see a doctor

One of the first films by director Zhang with his long time collaborator and, at the time, partner Gong Li.








Review

Interesting peek into provincial China in the 1980s, and the contrast between hard, backward rural life and rapidly modernizing cities. The director uses "verité" camera to show us real street life, which makes the film part documentary.

This film also shows a very sympathetic bureaucracy, ready to listen to the grievances of a country girl, which may not always be the case in real China. Maybe the director was trying to be ironic about this or perhaps the movie is meant as an encouragement for real civil servants and law and order officials to do their job.

It is also a story of human relationships: one moral of the story is that even when something wrong is done to you, you need to keep calm and find a way out that is reasonable. For us non-Chinese the film illustrates very well the value of not "losing face" in China. All is well that ends well? Not really, but I won't give the ending away...

See my reviews of other films about China here in this blog.


selling chilis to pay for a lawsuit













In the UK buy it here



In the US buy it here




29 December 2016

Film review: Alamar (2009) by Pedro Gonzalez Rubio, ***

Synopsis

Jorge and Roberta have been separated for several years. They simply come from opposite worlds: he likes an uncomplicated life in the jungle, while she prefers a more urban existence. He is Mexican and she is Italian, and she has decided to return to Rome with their five-year-old son, Natan. Before they leave, Jorge wishes to take young Natan on a trip, hoping to teach him about his Mayan origins in Mexico. At first the boy is physically and emotionally uncomfortable with the whole affair, and gets seasick on the boat taking them to their destination. But as father and son spend more time together, Natan begins a learning experience that will remain with him forever.


Review

The real life of a family of mixed ethnic background. Or, rather, of what could have been a family but wasn't. Not sure what the point is about this film. You can get a glimpse of a lesser known part of Mexico, yes, and pristine waters along the Banco Chinchorro, one of the largest and most stunning coral reefs in the world. But then what? The little kid is going to grow up and probably wonder what were his parents thinking when they made him. What was his mother, especially, thinking to get pregnant with a man she knew she could never live with. Or perhaps she could have but she did not want to. She preferred her cosy life in Rome to giving her son a family. The father too, he might have moved to Rome, but didn't. Maybe the movie is an indictment of irresponsible love adventures by careless travelers, and if so maybe it does have a purpose after all. Beautiful photography.


You can buy this film here.

11 December 2016

Film review: A Perfect World (1993), by Clint Eastwood, ***

Synopsis

Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood confront each other from opposite sides of the law in A Perfect World, an acclaimed, multilayered manhunt saga (directed by Eastwood) that rumbles down Texas backroads toward a harrowing collision with fate. Costner plays Butch Haynes, a hardened prison escapee on the lam with a young hostage (T.J. Lowther in a remarkable film debut) who sees in Butch the father figure he never had. Eastwood is wily Texas Ranger Red Garnett, leading deputies and a criminologist (Laura Dern) on a statewide pursuit. Red knows every road and pothole in the Panhandle. What's more, he knows the elusive Haynes – because their paths have crossed before.





Review


A film about America's south in the 1960s, its gun culture and trigger-happy police. The story unfolds against the background of pre-civil rights movement racial relations. A culture that is still to a large extent there, half a century after the time when this movie is set and despite eight years of a black American president.

Clint is his usual hard-nosed expression-less man, and Costner plays very well the role of an equally tough criminal who reveals his inner kindness, even to the child he loves and who eventually contributes to his death.

The movie is a succession of apparently casual events that decide the life or death of people, seemingly by fortuitous coincidences. In a perfect world, there would have been a happy ending, or rather this story would not have started at all!



Choose your favorite Clint Eastwood movies here.

In the US buy it here



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03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****

Synopsis

By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.

Review

A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.



In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.



Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom






















29 November 2016

Film review: Red Sorghum (1987) by Zhang Yimou, ***


Synopsis

This film is based on the well known novel by Mo Yan, which I have reviewed here in this blog. The story is that of three generations of a family in the deep Chinese hinterland during the first half of the XX century. China is in the midst of great upheaval, as the old order of the Qing Empire crumbles and the new republic is not strong enough to take its place. At the family level, a young woman who is forced by her father to marry an old leper so he can receive a mule in payment, rebels.

This would have been unthinkable in the past, but she does. At a broader social level, bandits rule the countryside and the state can not enforce law and order. Then the Japanese invade, and cruelly plunder the country taking advantage of its weakeness.

It is an interesting historical novel, useful to understand the conditions that gave rise to Communist China after Japan's defeat and a brutal civil war.

Review

In my view, the film in not as good as the book. The take on the story lacks credibility. It is also not as harrowing as the book, but that is just as good as some scenes from the book could only be put to film at the cost of making it impossible to watch but for the toughest souls.

Gong Li is a young actress here, and she has not developed her skills quite yet. The script, too, is a bit naive, which the book is anything but.

I would recommend watching the movie but much more so reading the book.

A better movie by the same director, with a similar thread is Ju Dou, which I have reviewed in this blog. Same lady forced to marry same old man (silk dyer instead of wine producer) in a traditional Chinese context where the odds are stacked against her. But in the later movie (1990) she succumbs to the overwhelming odds.



See my other reviews of films on China here in this blog.

Buy the DVD here





Buy the book here



18 November 2016

Film review: Tokyo Sonata (2008) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, ****

Synopsis

Kiyoshi Kurosawa the hugely acclaimed Japanese director famous for his groundbreaking, existential horror films such as Cure and Kairo [Pulse] set Cannes alight in 2008 with this highly topical film: an eerie, poignant reflection on the mass uncertainty sweeping the world.

When Ryuhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is unceremoniously dumped from his safe company job, his family's happy, humdrum life is put at risk. Unwilling to accept the shame of unemployment, the loyal salaryman decides not to tell anyone, instead leaving home each morning in suit and tie with briefcase, spending his days searching for work and lining up for soup with the homeless. Outstanding performances; serene, elegant direction; and Kurosawa's trademark chills are evident as he ratchets up the unsettling atmosphere and the grim hopelessness of Sasaki's unemployment.







SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT EDITION:
  • Gorgeous 1080p Blu-ray transfer in the original aspect ratio
  • Making Of documentary [61:00]
  • Q&A, Tokyo, September 2008 [12:00]
  • Première footage, Tokyo, September 2008 [15:00]
  • DVD discussion [9:00] UK trailer [3:00]
  • 28-page colour booklet with a new essay by B. Kite


Review


It is a film that took me some time to appreciate. At first it  was actually boring. At the end it was riveting! You can see a traditional male-dominated Japanese family where the father is actually more concerned with preserving his wobbling authority, and face, than with the well being of his wife and sons. He loses his job to outsourcing to China, and can not pick himself up again. His elder son is a bit naive and wants to find purpose by joining the US military, only to be sent to the Middle East and change is view of the world after seeing the horrors of war. His house wife tried to make things work in the family but is constantly sidelined by the father.


The only member of the family who turns out to have a clue is the youngest son, who dreams of becoming a pianist and takes lessons in secret when he is forbidden to do so. In the end, his dreams are the only realistic prospects for the family and his success helps the father find his way once again.


The moral: follow your dream with passion and determination and be humble, true and honest to yourself.









10 November 2016

Book review: Hunan Harvest (1946) by Theophane Maguire, ****

Synopsis

Diary of a young American Passionist missionary who is sent deep into China to preach and help. Theophane is just twenty-five years old when he travels to Hunan, learns the language and starts four years of intensive work against all odds.

According to the Passionist Historical Archives, Father Theophane Maguire, C.P., St. Paul of the Cross Province (1898-1975) was born in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He attended St. Joseph's Jesuit Prep in Philadelphia. There he became interested in the Passionists and decided to enter the novitiate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On August 13, 1917 he professed his vows and received the name Theophane. He was ordained on October 28, 1923 and quickly was assigned to the Passionist mission in Hunan, China. After he returned from the mission in 1929 he wrote Hunan Harvest which was published in 1946.

Back in the United States he went to Pittsburgh and eventually to Union City where he was editor of Sign magazine. Later in Pittsburgh he did fund-raising and worked at the retreat house. His later years were at the Passionist monastery, North Palm Beach, Florida. His last days were spent at the Passionist infirmary of Brighton, Massachusetts.


Review

Unique book by an ardent Christian missionary in one of the least known provinces of China. Magire writes well and draws the reader into the harsh reality he experiences every day.


He is very dedicated to the people of Hunan, but even more to their souls, which he wants to "harvest" for Jesus Christ. It is an attitude one often finds in Christian missionaries around the world.   While he humbly serves his superiors and is truly compassionate with the Chinese, he does betray a kind of complex of superiority. He writes (p.24) that training of missionaries in the local languages is a good idea because "it is a matter of results, which in this case is to be reckoned in souls. We were to deliver a doctrine entirely new to these people. We were to deliver a message that is supernatural. It is opposed to beliefs that are rooted in centuries of obstinate tradition. it slashes at old habits and widely observed superstitions." Well many Chinese are superstitious indeed, but I am not sure they are more so than Westerners on average, and in any case the incredible wealth of Chinese culture can hardly be dismissed as just a matter of superstition,. many would argue that religion itself, any religion, is superstition.

While he does endure lots of suffering, one can see he and his colleagues are often privileged compared to their fellow Chinese helpers: for example he is depicted as traveling on horseback while his Chinese companions are on foot.

At the end of the book, he seems to worry more about the future of Christian proselytism in Hunan than about the horrors of the civil war or the gathering storm of the Japanese invasion.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that he pays a lot of attention to the minorities of China, especially the Miao people whom he met on several occasions.

He is also a careful painter of scenes of everyday life in rural China where warlords called the shots and the rule of law enforced by the state was nowhere to be seen: the Emperor is far away, as an old Chinese saying goes.

The book is also valuable because it contains lots of drawings that convey a sense of the atmosphere where father Maguire worked for four years. I reproduce them here.

























03 February 2016

Film review: Happy Times (2000) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Zhao (Zhao Benshan) is an ageing, unemployed bachelor who is desperate to get married, but has so far failed to meet the woman of his dreams. When he ends up on a date with an overweight divorcee (Qibin Leng) he proposes instantly, wanting a large lady "to keep him warm", and she agrees, thinking he is the rich owner of a large hotel. Needing 50,000 yuan to pay for the wedding, Zhao turns to his best friend Fu, who comes up with an idea to get hold of the money. The two men refurbish a derelict bus, name it the ‘Happy Times Hut’ and rent it out by the hour to young couples who are in need of privacy! The plan goes awry, however, when the council take the bus away during a clean-up of the area.

Meanwhile, Zhao’s intended introduces him to the son she dotes on and the blind stepdaughter she despises, Wu Ying (Dong Jie). Despite her pretences in front of Zhao, she mistreats Wu Ying, forcing her to do all the chores and making it clear she is considered an inconvenience. Zhao reluctantly agrees to give Wu Ying a job at his ‘hotel’ after pressure from his fiancée who wants her out of the flat. Hoping that Wu Ying’s blindness will fool both her and her stepmother, Zhao sets up a fake massage parlour in an abandoned warehouse for her to work in. Enlisting the help of his retired friends to pose as customers, he often gives them his own money to use as tips. Despite the fact that their relationship is based on deceit, a genuine bond develops between Zhao and Wu Ying, who appreciates the efforts her new father-figure has gone to in order to find her a job. Wu Ying is desperate to save up enough money to find her real father, who has promised to return one day and help her find a cure for her loss of sight. However, Zhao is fast running out of money to pay her, and Wu Ying may not be as naïve as he believes about the reality of her situation.


Review

This movie is not as flashy or stunning as some of the other ones for which Zhang Yimou is so famous. And while he launched the careers of several great actresses, Jie Dong is perhaps the least celebrated when compared to Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi.

But this is a very good movie in its own, more subtle, nouanced and delicate way. It is a story of the search of happiness, and of how one can be led off the beaten track to find it.

It is also a movie to be watched by foreigners to learn about daily life in China. Modernization of the cities and rapid growth of wild private enterprise, for one. But more interestingly, one learns how a single man in his fifties is a social basket case and must overcome impossible odds to find a wife. Which is odd, considering that China, because of the one-child policy, has a surplus of women. And especially a surplus of single women in their late twenties, thirties and forties: the women who, unlike their mothers, got an education and started a career, and did not rush to get married in their early twenties or ever earlier.

One also learns about some physical features the Chinese especially value: a man may look for a fat woman "to keep him warm". And both men and women pay a lot of attention to whether a potential partner has a single eye lid or a double one, which is highly prized (see picture).

The ending is a bit of a mystery: both Zhao and Wu Ying are posivite and energetic, and they could have accepted reality and build a father/daughter relationship and move forward together, but they don't. No one seems to have found their "happy times", and they don't have much hope ever to do so.

One or two eye lids?
Read other reviews of films on China here in this blog.

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21 January 2016

Film review: Like Stars on Earth (2007) by Aamir Khan, ****

Taare Zameen Par
Synopsis

Ishaa Ishaan is an 8 year old whose world is filled with wonders that no one else seems to appreciate; colors, fish, dogs, and kites are just not important in the world of adults, who are much more interested in things like homework, grades and neatness. Ishaan just cannot seem to get anything right in class. When he gets into far more trouble than his parents can handle, he is packed off to a boarding school to be disciplined.

Things are no different at his new school, and Ishaan has to contend with the added trauma of separation from his family. A new art teacher infects the students with joy and optimism and breaks all the rules of how things are done by asking them to think, dream and imagine. All the children respond with enthusiasm except Ishaan. The teacher soon realizes that Ishaan is unhappy and sets out to discover why. With time, patience and care, he ultimately helps Ishaan find himself.

Bonus features (in Hindi only, no subtitles) include: Director's Commentary, panel discussion on children, deleted scenes, making of, Music CD with two beautiful collectible postcards. This film is Aamir Khan's debut in directing.


Review

In this film we see a story of commitment and hope against all odds. The film takes place in contemporary upper middle class India, but the moral of the story is one for all places and all times. The subtitle, "Every child is special" tells it all. Yes there are children with special problems, and they do need special attention in special schools. But there are perfectly "normal" children, capable to become integrated in society like everyone else, who simply need to find their own pace and place to do so.

What they all need is love and appreciation, even for quirky "special" inclinations that they may display and that may arouse scepticism and criticism from "normal" people, especially adults. "If you want to win competitions, then breed race horses, don't raise children, dammit!" says Khan, and sums it up well.

In the end, Ishaan comes out on top, while his "normal", super skilled brother, the repository of the family's expectations of success and achievement, does not.

Ishaan's triumph


Darsheel Safary as seen by his art teacher












You can see my other reviews of films on India here in this blog.






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14 January 2016

Film review: Ju Dou (1990), by Zhang Yimou, ****

 Synopsis


In Zhang Yimou and Fengliang Yang's sensuous, Oscar-nominated Ju Dou (1990), billowing bolts of red, yellow and blue dyed silk have more freedom than any of the main characters, who are cut off from the possibility of happiness by circumstances and convention.

The trouble starts early, when Tian-qing (Li Baotian) returns from a long road trip and first sets eyes on his new aunt, the beautiful young Ju Dou (Gong Li). Tian-qing's selfish, harsh silk-dyer uncle Jin-shan (Li Wei) - who reluctantly took Tian-qing in after his parents died - has already gone through two wives, and at first his third seems likely to join her predecessors. Jin-shan routinely beats and humiliates Ju Dou at night, berating her for failing to give him a son (he blames her despite his own impotence and sterility).

Tian-qing is drawn to his lovely, sorrowful "aunt," and eventually they begin a torrid affair. But the strict rules and customs of 1920s China make it impossible for them to build a life together, even after Jin-shan becomes paralyzed and Ju Dou gives birth to Tian-qing's son (whom Jin-shan claims as his own).




Review

A gripping story about how tradition and cultural context can make it impossible to find happiness. Wealth, prestige, beauty, strength, youth all abound in the big house of the cloth dyer, but no one is happy. And it is unhappiness of their own making. The bad old man has his evident faults, he seems to attract hate like a magnet. The young couple is brave and fight for their rights, at least as we can tell with XXI century eyes. But they also err in taking on a battle against their world (feudal rural China) and impossible odds.

Even the little boy who is born out of wedlock in this cruel environment becomes evil very soon in his life, and after his "official" father drowns in a pool of color dye he can only smile and seems bent on perpetuating his heartless character. He viciously kills his biological father when he realizes they are all the object of gossip in the village.

The final fire that consumes the dye factory is perhaps the only satisfying scene of the film, and I read it as a depiction of the last vestiges of feudalism in China crumbling down with the onslaught of modernity. Very good photography in this film. It is paradoxical that the long rolls of cloth of the dye factory give so much color to a very sad and dark story. The DVD is technically poor, seems a bad digitalization from a film roll, for this I take out one star.

The erotic charge is strong in some scenes in this movie and it is always present in the background, but very indirectly. I would not say this is an erotic tale. No nudity at all is to be seen, presumably to get past the Chinese censor.

See more reviews of films about China here on this blog.