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.