03 February 2016

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


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.


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.

Watch a trailer here

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21 January 2016

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

Taare Zameen Par

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.


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.

Click this link to buy more films with Aamir Khan.

14 January 2016

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


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).


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.

01 December 2015

Film review: Earth (1998) by Deepa Mehta, ****


Earth, the second film in Deepa Mehta's controversial trilogy is an emotionally devastating love story set within the sweeping social upheaval and violence of 1947 India. As her country teeters on the brink of self rule and instability, 8-year old Lenny, an innocent girl from an affluent family, is in danger of having her world turned upside down. As the simmering violence around them reaches a boiling point, Lenny's beautiful nanny Shanta (Nandita Das) falls in love with one of Lenny's heroes, the charismatic and peace-advocating Hassan. Love, however, can be dangerous when religious differences are tearing the country apart, and friendships and loyalty are put to the test. Building to a shattering climax, Earth is a devastating human drama in which desire unfolds into a stirring tale of love and the ultimate betrayal.


This is a good movie about the dramatic partition events of 1947. It show the conflict between Muslims and Hindus though the eyes of a parsi family. Parsis are a Zoroastrian community that constitutes a substantial minority in the Mumbai area and were often caught between their two large neighbors. No happy ending, and indeed the history of India and Pakistan since then sadly shows that beyond doubt.

The movie is harrowing, Mehta does not refrain from showing horrific violence, if indirectly but not less shockingly for that. The question of identity in India is addressed in depth, with friends and neighbors who shared a lifetime finding themselves on the opposite side of the fence.

It's probably my least favorite movies among the three of Mehta's trilogy because it relates to well known events, while the other two address much less discussed issues in Indian society like child abuse, family violence and homosexuality. Aamir Khan is great as usual.  Aamir Khan is great as usual. I take one star off because compared to Fire and Water this is just a bit predictable.

See my other reviews of films on India in this blog.

In the UK buy it here

Available from Amazon.us

25 November 2015

Film review: Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), by Zhang Yimou, ****


From Zhang Yimou, the Director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, comes a stunning epic about the folly of war and the disintegration of one family under the weight of unrequited love, unforgivable betrayals, and a never-ending thirst for power.

On the eve of the Chong Yong Festival, golden flowers fill the Imperial Palace and when the Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) unexpectedly returns to his Empress (Gong Li) and two sons, the tension is clear in his lavish kingdom. His absence has given rise to illicit love affairs, dangerous alliances, and malicious conspiracies; all of which threaten to overthrow his power.

However, it may well be the Emperor’s own dark secret that threatens him most of all. As the secrets of the Imperial family unravel against this backdrop of breathtaking opulence and grandeur, an attack on the Palace by myriad armoured warriors results in a spectacular climax wrought with thrilling action and epic tragedy.

Interesting bonus features on the main actors and backstage.


Another grand movie by Zhang Yimou with a sure-fire couple of protagonists in Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li). It will be a masterpiece for the lovers of wuxia and, more generally, of Chinese epic films. I am not, but liked the movie as well for the majestic historical reconstruction (a whole new Forbidden City) and marvellous costumes. Grand scenes of battle, with over one thousand extras (appropriately recruited in the Chinese army!) are memorable if utterly unrealistic.

What a sad life in the palace. From the Emperor to  the most humble of servants, everyone is watching everyone else, there is no privacy, no trust, no happiness really. I can't remember anyone smiling in this film! It makes you thank your fate for not being born a royalty in medieval China!

The western blurb for the movie (but not the Chinese) advertises it as taking place in the period of the late Tang dynasty. I was a bit disappointed because I expected more of a historical film about the Tang dynasty. I was led to think of this as a historical fiction, and it really is not.

See my selection of movies on China here in this blog.

You can buy the film here. Other films by Zhang Yimou here.

In the US and worldwide buy it here:

If you liked it, you may wish to look at other films by Zhang Yimou

14 November 2015

Film review: Red Obsession (2013) by David Roach and Warwick Ross, ****


Red Obsession is a film about power, passion and the fine wine game. Something unprecedented is happening to the fine wine market and that something is China. While the dragon economy could bring untold wealth to the revered wine-making region, the terms of engagement are different from any other customer in the past. This market is young, voracious and unpredictable. Demand is massively outstripping supply. The product is finite and this new client wants it all. For better or worse, Bordeaux is hitching itself to this new, infinitely wealthy client. RED OBSESSION sets out to explore this phenomenon and the link between China and Bordeaux.


A most interesting documentary on the rise of wine in Chinese society. The Chinese drank less than one bottle of wine each per year until just a few years ago. They have recently discovered wine. Not just to drink it, but to show it off, to display as a status symbol, and to invest in. In the past the Americans, and then the Japanese, similarly impacted the world of wine, but the sheer scale of the Chinese onslaught is greater by an order of magnitude. One Chinese billionaire who made his fortune selling sex toys has no qualms admitting in front of a camera that he prefers a bottle of great wine to great sex.

I was also pleased to see that some of the most prominent Chinese wine collectors seem to appreciate cigars and pipe smoking but not cigarettes. I can certainly sympathize with that. Great wine drinkers think alike!

While China is furiously planting new vineyards in regions with appropriate terroir and climate, and is already the fifth largest producer of wine in the world, the fascination of prestigiuous Bordeaux makes them spend billions on the most recognizable brands of Chateaux. This is driving the market crazy and may well portend a bubble in the making. Counterfeiting of expensive wines, like of so many other luxury products, is widespread.

It is going to be interesting to see how this pays out. China will soon be the largest producer of wine as well as the largest consumer. It will decisively affect both demand and supply. For now supply is more quantity than quality: local wines are mediocre (with some notable exception) and mostly for local consumption. Demand, on the other hand, is more focussed on quality, with rich Chinese buying only the best of the best. The global wine market is undergoing a Chinese revolution.

See my selection of movies on China on this blog.

27 October 2015

Recensione: Pillole di Cina (2013), di Massimo Donda, ****


Lo scritto “la Cina in pillole” non vuole essere un libro, ma una serie di appunti, utili per meglio comprendere. Esso nasce da una passione, quasi un innamoramento, dell’universo sinico da parte dell’autore causato da oltre 20 anni di frequentazioni e da rilevanti letture. Tanto da considerarsi occidentale fuori, ma “cinese” dentro.

L’autore ha voluto affrontre l’argomento Cina da moltissime angolature. Approfondendo la parte storica, sempre pero’ “utilizzandola” per meglio chiarire le forti influenze sul presente. Approfondendo la parte sul pensiero cinese (la “filosofia”) perché  fondamentale non tanto per una miglior comprensione ma proprio per “la” comprensione delle differenze tra la mentalità occidentale e quella sinica.

Parte rilevante hanno i capitoli sul diritto in Cina e sulla storia e sul pensiero filosofico che stà alla base del diritto. Si parla anche della vastità della geografia cinese e dell’importanza dei flussi migratori e turistici cinesi all’estero. Un accenno perfino al bon ton e alle principali regole di comportamento laddove differiscono con quelle occidentali, per non creare imbarazzi reciproci.

L’autore, fedele alla propria sinizzazione, non nasconde nemmeno l’uso disinvolto, per la mentalità occidentale, della copia: infatti applica alla lettera il detto di Confucio che disse:”Io tramando non creo”.


Interessante il libriccino di Donda. Il titolo è molto azzeccato. Non si tratta di una narrazione organica infatti, ma di una pioggia di informazioni che vengono lanciate al lettore curioso. Si spazia, senza ordine e senza un filo conduttore, dalla politica alla filosofia, dall'arte all'educazione, dall'istruzione pubblica all'economia all'agricoltura alla geografia e via così, in un lunghissimo soliloquio da maratoneta.

La quantità delle informazioni è enorme, la qualità è diseguale. Si percepisce come in alcuni argomenti l'autore sia più ferrato, in altri molto meno. Una imperdonabile ripetitività mi ha quasi fatto smettere di leggere in svariati punti del libro, ma alla fine sono arrivato all'ultima pagina e lo consiglio, magari per una lettura spesso più veloce che attenta.

Una valanga di informazioni, disordinata e spesso ripetitiva, ma utile e divertente!

Altri libro sulla Cina che ho recensito in questa piccola bibliografia.

04 October 2015

Sake Master Class, Londra

Confesso che mi ero iscritto alla Master Class sul sake organizzata dall’Associazione Italiana Sommelier a Londra con un misto di curiosità e scetticismo. Come la maggior parte dei colleghi sommelier presenti, avevo bevuto sake in numerose occasioni. Ma questo era avvenuto esclusivamente presso ristoranti giapponesi, abbinandolo con soddisfazione a sushi o tempura, ma senza un criterio sistematico. Come se per il sake non valessero i parametri di abbinamento - concordanza e contrasto - che abbiamo imparato ad applicare quando sposiamo un vino ad una pietanza occidentale. Sake dolce o secco, aromatico o fruttato, più fresco o più morbido, servito a quale temperatura? Ci mancavano gli strumenti per prendere le decisioni migliori.

With colleagues during the master class
Al nostro arrivo siamo stati accolti da Andrea, Federica e Armando, gli organizzatori del Club AIS di Londra, nonché da un centinaio di bottiglie di sake perfettamente allineate in ordine progressivo di servizio dietro lo schermo predisposto per la proiezione di Jonathan Beagle, simpatico inglese con lunga esperienza nipponica ed esperto di sake. Il tutto sotto il vigile coordinamento di Akimitsu Takata, responsabile di Japan@UK, un’azienda che si propone di valorizzare i prodotti del sol levante nel Regno Unito.

La frizzante presentazione di Jonathan è stata intervallata dagli assaggi di sake, che a mano a mano ci venivano versati nei bicchieri. La degustazione è molto diversa da quella del vino. In primo luogo non c’è l’analisi visiva: il sake è trasparente. Se non lo è vuol dire che il tempo lo ha leggermente scurito durante un affinamento in bottiglia magari non perfettamente conservata. Ma il sake non deve mai aspettare, è concepito per essere bevuto appena imbottigliato, pochi mesi dopo la produzione. Infatti la data indicata sulle bottiglie è quella dell’imbottigliamento e non del raccolto.

Jonathan Beagle
L’analisi olfattiva è più semplificata rispetto alla cosmologia di sentori che possiamo ricevere da un calice di vino complesso. Infine l’analisi olfattivo-gustativa, l’unica veramente rilevante per il sake. Qui i parametri in gioco sono più numerosi, e si può applicare, con qualche adattamento, la categorizzazione AIS sull’equilibrio tra sensazioni morbide (dolcezza, pseudo-alcolicità e morbidezza) e dure (solo acidità e sapidità, non ci sono tannini). La gamma dei sapori e degli aromi che emerge ad un assaggio attento è sorprendente, anche se non diversificata come quella del vino. Meno complesso del vino dal punto di vista organolettico, il sake presenta però una maggiore gamma di temperature per essere gustato, che può variare dai 5 gradi centigradi fino a 60!

Da notare come il risultato di un buon sake è opera soprattutto del produttore e meno di madre natura. Esistono infatti diverse tipologie di riso (i “vitigni” del sake) e di terroir, ma in entrambi i casi i produttori di sake non possono disporre della panoplia di strumenti a disposizione del vignaiolo e dell’enologo. Elementi fondamentali sono qui il koji, una muffa che serve a produrre zucchero dagli amidi del riso, e poi i lieviti per la trasformazione dello zucchero in alcol. Su questi si fa valere la maestrìa del produttore.

Come il vino, il sake ha una storia plurimillenaria alle spalle ed un futuro radioso davanti, e per entrambi i rispettivi produttori tendono a provilegiare la qualità rispetto alla quantità. Sconosciuto in Occidente fino a poco tempo fa, oggi viene scoperto dai sommelier di tutto il mondo per la sua grande flessibilità negli abbinamenti con il cibo della cucina internazionale. Durante la manifestazione di Londra siamo persino stati stupiti dal felice abbinamento del sake con la bestia nera del vino: il carciofo!

Federica e Andrea della UKSA

Buy your sake sets here.

Grazie ad Armando Pereira per le fotografie.

12 August 2015

Film Review: Alone Across the Pacific (1963) by Kon Ichikawa, *****


A powerful hymn to the human spirit, Alone Across the Pacific by renowned Japanese director Kon Ichikawa (An Actor's Revenge, The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad) tells the extraordinary real-life story of one man's obsessive quest to break free from the strictures of society. In 1962, Kenichi Horie (Yujiro Ishihara) embarks on a heroic attempt to sail single-handed across the Pacific Ocean.

Leaving Osaka in an ill-prepared vessel, the Mermaid, the young adventurer must overcome the most savage of seas, the psychological torment of cabin fever, and his mental and physical breaking point, if he is ever to reach the fabled destination of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Using Horie's best-selling logbook as his source, Ichikawa portrays the epic struggle of man against nature.

'Scope cinematography with Horie isolated in the oceanic expanse of the frame and a score by celebrated composer Toru Takemitsu, add to the drama of a film for which Ichikawa received a Golden Globe nomination, among other accolades.

New high definition digital transfer, anamorphically encoded, original 2.35:1 aspect ratio
New and improved optional English subtitles
Original Japanese trailer and two teasers newly subtitled
A lavish 24-page booklet featuring a colour reproduction of the original Japanese poster, archival publicity stills, and an essay by Brent Kliewer (professor at the College of Santa Fe)


This is Traveling with a capital T. Traveling for the sake of traveling. The real story of Kenichi Horie's first of many sailing challenges he set for himself. In 1962 he was a young ambitious man in Japan, a country still recuperating from a devastating defeat in WW II. He felt for his country, and said that for a nation with a long maritime tradition it was a shame no one had yet sailed solo across the Pacific. He wanted to do it for Japan.

And yet he wanted to leave Japan, where he suffered because of the cultural and social restrictions that hampered his wandering spirit. He wanted to be free of Japan as much as of his own family, whom he loved but whose interference with his dreams he could no longer put up with. He was fascinated by America, the power that defeated the Japanese Empire and established such a pervasive presence on the islands. He wanted to sail under the Golden Gate bridge of San Francisco. And he did, after ninety-four days of excruciating adventure and hardship.

He did it in a Japanese way: carefully preparing everything, meticulously executing the plan he had drawn, even trying to apply for a passport (he did not manage to get one in time) because he wanted to follow the rules. It is ironic that when he completed his feat his father, instead of being proud, promised to the media that upon return the son would apologize to the nation for having contravened the rules. (It was not allowed at the time for small boats to leave Japan.)

Buy the book here

In the US buy it here

11 August 2015

Film review: Three times (2005) di Hou Hsiao Hsien, ***

Taipei temple

Un film diviso in tre episodi in cui si riflette sulla impossibilita' dell'amore.

1911, Dadaocheng. il tempo della liberta'. il padrone di una piantagione di tè e suo figlio vogliono riscattare il contratto di una giovane cortigiana. avendo capito che la ragazza aspetta un bambino dal figlio, m. chang cerca di accelerare le trattative. la ragazza intanto diventa la concubina del padre e m. chang va in Giappone a raggiungere un rivoluzionario cinese in esilio.

1966, Kaohsiung. il tempo dell'amore. chen incontra may, che lavora in una sala da biliardo che lui frequenta con regolarita'. i due giovani giocano una partita insieme poco prima che lui parta per il servizio militare. durante un permesso, chen torna a trovarla ma lei sembra essere scomparsa.

2005, Taipei. il tempo della giovinezza. Jing e' epilettica e sta perdendo progressivamente la vista dall'occhio destro. abita con la madre e la nonna ed ha un'avventura con una donna, michy. Zhen lavora in un negozio di foto digitali ed abita con blue, la sua ragazza. quando lei scopre che lui la tradisce con Jing, diventa folle di rabbia. che futuro avranno questi quattro giovani? Almeno uno di loro potra' avere una vita serena?

Taipen night market


Non il miglior film del regista di Taiwan Hou Hsiao-Hsien a mio parere. Parte con un ritmo difficile e stenta a decollare. È interessante la sequenza storica: la "prima volta" è il 1966, la seconda è il 1911 (si parla dialetto Hokkien sotto occupazione coloniale giapponese) e la terza nella moderna Taiwan degli anni sessanta del XX secolo (si parla mandarino).

Ho trovato difficile entrare nel film, ma penso sia comunque utile a capire alcuni aspetti della storia di Taiwan, questa isola cinese che da oltre un secolo è separata dalla madrepatria.