Tag Archives: Chinese

CAPSULE: KAILI BLUES (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Gan Bi

FEATURING: Yongzhong Chen

PLOT: An elderly doctor returning to his birthplace passes through a strange town.

Still Kaili Blues (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Kaili Blues is an interesting debut from a poet-turned-filmmaker with a lot of talent. It’s strange, but it lulls you rather than wows you; its weirdness is a tad too restrained, too tasteful.

COMMENTS: Kaili Blues is the kind of film of the type frequently said to “announce a major new talent,” which is somewhat different than dubbing it an “astounding debut film” (although some critics used variations of that line, too). I think the first description is more accurate. Kaili Blues is an interesting, well-constructed film, and I’ll be curious to follow what Gan Bi does in the future. However, this is not a knock-your-socks-off masterpiece; it’s missing a little something, a touch of spice.

Describing Kaili Blues‘ style is relatively simple: it’s like with less explicit fantasy and more experimental camerawork. The two directors share the same patient pacing, a love of finding the strange amidst the ordinary, and a mystical Buddhist sensibility. Although not much seems to be happening in the first half of Kaili‘s run, story elements are being dropped in conversation, some of which will bear narrative fruit later, and some of which remain inscrutable no matter how often they are repeated. There is a lot to untangle, not all of which can be captured in a single viewing, and some of which will still be obscure after a second run through. Touches like the odd TV broadcasts and reports on “wild man” sightings, scenes with a disco ball, underwater dreams, functional clocks drawn on the wall, and a three-dimensional train that emerges from a wall behind the characters enliven the ordinary narrative about doctor Chen Shen, his criminal past, his crazy brother (literally named “Crazy Face”), and his neglected nephew. At the halfway point things pick up dramatically when Chen sets out on a journey with several goals in mind. As he passes through a town on the way, Gan Bi deploys the film’s major attraction, an impressive forty-minute tracking shot that follows Chen and several of the villagers, winding its way through the riverside town, taking shortcuts through alleyways, and at one point indulging in the rarely seen 180-degree vertical pan. The hamlet itself is full of ambiguous characters who may be ghosts from the past, or the future, but who seem to be connected to Chen and his quest(s).

Unlike Western films, which regard loss of identity as a form of existential crisis, here it describes Buddhist conceptions of the fluidity of souls and the arbitrariness of individual experience. Both the doctor’s nephew and the dead son of a triad he knew in his youth have an unlikely fascination with watches. We’re not expected to believe those two characters are the same (at least, I don’t think we are). Yet at other times individuals who appear in far-flung places are hinted to be the same person at different times in their lives. A quote from the Diamond Sutra explains: “minds… are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds… neither the past, present nor future mind can be found.” The same experiences recur across people and across time. If Kaili Blues confuses you (and it probably will), Gan Bi might respond that that’s because you’re so used to looking at illusions that reality seems like a dream.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bi’s singular vision bears comparison to those of other geniuses such as Tarkovsky, Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Like those auteurs, he achieves what film is best at but seldom accomplishes — a stirring of a deeper consciousness, a glimpse into a reality transcending the everyday.”–Peter Keough, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE MERMAID (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chao Deng, Show Lo, Yuqi Zhang

PLOT: A wealthy Chinese business tycoon buys prime coastal real estate, but his Capitalist plans will destroy life for a tribe of mermaids (and one mer-octopus) living there. The merfolk dispatch an assassin to disrupt the tycoon’s plans, but they end up in a sappy romance instead.

Still from The Mermaid (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A stylish and entertaining comedy, yes. It’s good, clean, silly fun, even fit fare to bring the kiddies. But it doesn’t touch the farthest rim of the outside category of the fringe weird movies considered here. A helpful note to future List aspirants: “fantasy” does not automatically equal “weird.”

COMMENTS: From the opening credits over shots of factories belching smoke and marine life drenched in crude oil, we expect right away we’re in for a heavy environmental message. To our relief, we end up in a bargain-basement nature museum and a farcical comedy. Tycoon Liu Xuan acquires Green Gulf, a prime island real estate, to develop. That business venture doesn’t sit well with the local fauna, especially not the kind with both arms and gills.

Shan is a mermaid dispatched by her tribe to stop Xuan’s plans by acting as a siren to lures Xuan to his assassination at the hands of a crack team of merfolk activists. But things run awry when she grows emotionally attached to Xuan, despite her leader describing humans as “pure evil” during an expository history lesson. Xuan gets mushy for Shan, too, so the fate of the merfolk hang with these star-crossed flounders. It’s just as well; as an assassin, Shan’s about as threatening as Mr. Bean. Cue Very Important Environmental/Cultural Sensitivity Message you’ve seen a hundred times in everything from Fern Gully to Pocahontas.

Even though it doesn’t qualify as “weird,” there are some memorable action scenes, top-notch special effects, grand scale slapstick sight gags, and a CGI crew who couldn’t resist inserting a Finding Nemo nod at the end there. Keep an eye out for an amok jetpack, slingshot air corps training, an outrageously over-the-top sushi chef routine, and an elder merfolk shaman with a water-bending magic ability. Stephen Chow is one director who knows how to deliver everything you were expecting, plus ten percent. The last thirty minutes even get dramatic enough to almost take itself seriously, just enough to sell the ending. Rest assured, the environmental message is not dropped with an anvil, but a quick smack from a frying pan.

“Hilarity ensues” is about all there is left to say for the rest of the film. The comedy isn’t even surreal enough to make it into territory; this is more like the Chinese Mel Brooks, complete with many classic gags from the farce school of comedy. That being said, it’s a well-done, lavishly produced, fun movie, sure to be a crowd-pleaser—it’s the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, after all. But “crowd-pleaser” isn’t what a list of weird movies would typically include.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the weirdest, hokiest and, at its best, funniest big-budget comedy since Stephen Chow’s last film, Journey to the West.”–Daniel Eagan, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2013)

AKA Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Zhang Wen, Qi Shu, Bo Huang

PLOT: A pacifist Buddhist demon hunter who tries to redeem rather than kill evil spirits clashes with a powerful mercenary huntress, who falls in love with him despite his vow of chastity; together they seek the Monkey King’s help to defeat a powerful boar demon.

Still from Journey to the West (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We have a crazy Stephen Chow movie on the ListKung Fu Hustle—and while Journey to the West is wild, it doesn’t distinguish itself enough from the 2004 classic to justify including two such similar films.

COMMENTS: Journey to the West contains the hallmarks Stephen Chow fans love: a delirious mix of wacky wire fu, cartoonish comedy, outlandish visuals, and a massive dose of heart. Chow’s spectacles recall great Hollywood storytelling traditions—you could easily imagine Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas tackling similar material—while remaining distinctively Chinese. Although Chow’s presence in front of the camera is missed in this outing, mop-headed Zhang Wen makes for an excellent stand-in. He is totally beleaguered and outclassed by demons and demon hunters alike at the film’s opening, but perseveres to find the spiritual strength to face down evil by the conclusion. Qi Shu is delightful as the tomboy mercenary smitten by the pacifist cutie, and constantly scheming to get under his robes, while Bo Huang makes an impressively impish Monkey King with groovy dance moves and insidious cunning. A trio of rival demon hunters—including a nameless shapeshifter, the ancient Foot, and the sickly Prince Important—fill out the roster of kooky characters. Every element of the film is top notch except for the CGI, which lacks necessary detail and realism and isn’t up to Hollywood standards, often looking like bad, 90% finished renderings of animatronic puppets. The monster designs themselves, however, are very good—check out the catfish/tiger/dragon hybrid—and the level of creativity is so impressive that only the most parochial and unimaginative American effects snob would complain about the sub-par technology. Journey to the West constantly surprises with its twists and turns, highlighted by a battle with a fish demon in the harbor of a ramshackle riverside village, a deserted inn that’s been turned into a ghostly pork palace, and a comic sketch involving an “obedience charm” that turns hilariously homophobic. Topping it all off is an outrageous fifteen minute final battle scene with grotesquely oversized body parts, an armada of heat-seeking swords, and (naturally, this being a Chow movie) a giant glowing space Buddha with magma palms. A lot of the Chinese tropes, both mythological and comedic, will seem unfamiliar and strange, but that only enhances the experience for the adventurous viewer. Westerners, journey to the East to see Journey to the West; you won’t regret the trip.

Journey to the West is based on a 16th century Chinese novel that has been loosely adapted for film many times (including 1995’s A Chinese Odyssey, where Stephen Chow himself played a reincarnated hero version of the Monkey King). The final scene suggests sequels to come, and as long as Chow remains involved, we should look forward to the further travels of Xuan Zang as he makes his way westward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s during this cartoony, anything-goes climax that Conquering The Demons truly hits its stride; part highly stylized wuxia, part Looney Tunes, the sequence showcases Chow at his weirdest and most entertaining.”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

CAPSULE: MATRIMONY [XIN ZHONG YOU GUI] (2007)

AKA The Matrimony

DIRECTED BY: Hua-Tao Teng

FEATURING: Rene Liu, Fan Bingbing,

PLOT:  The ghost of a woman who died moments before her lover proposed to her contacts his new bride with an offer to help her thaw the heart of the groom who still pines for his lost love.

Still from Matrimony (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite its (needlessly) weird ending, Matrimony is a standard-issue ghost story for the majority of its running time.

COMMENTS: If you have a yen for an atmospheric, timeless romantic ghost story that delivers a few mild shivers, then you may want to try out Matrimony—but be prepared for a bumpy road.  Set in Shanghai in what we might guess is the 1930s or 1940s, the story begins when hero Junchu sees his radio hostess lover Manli run down by a car before his eyes just moments before he could propose to her.  Understandably upset by the lack of closure to the relationship, he becomes a recluse, but agrees to an arranged marriage with subservient young Sansan under pressure from his sick mother.  Sansan loves Junchu but he spurns her, lost in his memories of Manli and his tortured thoughts of the life they might have shared.  After half an hour of setup accompanied by bumps in the night, forbidden basements and half-glimpsed apparitions, Manli’s spirit appears to Sansan and offers her a bargain that may help heal Junchu’s broken heart.  It’s an intriguing proposal, but unfortunately an exploration of the emotional entanglements that might have this arisen from complicated menage a trois between two living people and one dead one is ignored in favor of a predictable horror scenario.  Matrimony is a movie that keeps promising to turn into a very good one, but never quite fulfills its vows.  Although sometimes over-dramatic and heavy on the blue filter, the cinematography (by Wong Kar Wai collaborator Ping Bin Lee) is generally gorgeous—and sometimes magical, as in a flashback in a snowy provincial alley lit by paper lanterns and New Year’s fireworks, or the underwater ritual where Sansan breathes her living spirit into the ghost bride in a bathtub.  But the movie’s visual triumphs alternate with some painfully clumsy effects, most notably a supposedly shocking and tragic accident that’s one of the most unintentionally funny vehicular homicides ever filmed.  Since this unfortunate incident occurs at the very beginning of the story, it takes the movie a while to shake the aura of amateurism.  To its credit Matrimony does overcome this misstep and draw you back in to the story with its strong characters, but it ends on a weak decrescendo with a tired “the monster must be destroyed” climax followed by a mystifying “was it all a dream?” coda.  Although the ending is by far the weirdest card Matrimony plays, there are a couple of problems with it.  First, it comes out of left field—there’s nothing in the rest of the film to suggest we’re watching a mindbender.  More importantly, the twist adds nothing to the story dramatically, thematically or emotionally.  It simply undoes what we thought we knew about the principals, rather than expanding on their characters or forcing us to see events in a new light.  To give you an idea of the typical viewer’s response to this needlessly ambiguous closing, as of this writing there are currently two threads on the movie’s dedicated message board on IMDB, one titled “ending?” and the other “what kind of ending was that?”  It’s unfortunate that the movie, which does a lot right in the middle, puts its weakest moments at the very beginning and the very end, where they’re most likely to be remembered.  For better or worse, Matrimony is a sometimes rewarding, frequently frustrating experience.

Matrimony is a rare example of a horror film from mainland China; despite the genre’s popularity in the rest of east Asia and in the formerly independent province of Hong Kong, the Chinese government apparently considers scare flicks a bad investment and/or a bad influence.  Though released under Palisades Tartan’s “Asia Extreme” label with a misleadingly gruesome cover image of a wedding band slipped onto a severed hand, Matrimony is far from extreme.  It’s closer to an art film than a typical J-horror or K-horror.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film does toss us a ringer at the end, an ambiguous but strangely satisfying little coda that suggests Teng might have been more interested in playing a metaphysical card than telling a love story or a ghost story all along.”–Tom Becker, DVD Verdict (DVD)

CAPSULE: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Tsui Hark

FEATURING: Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Bingbing Li, Chao Deng

PLOT: When court officials begin spontaneously bursting into flames as her coronation

Still from Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

approaches, Empress Wu suspects a conspiracy and hires the one man she believes can uncover it: Detective Dee, whom she imprisoned years ago for treason.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Although there are some strange fantasy elements (an talking deer courtier called “the Chaplain”) existing alongside historical material (Empress Wu and Dee himself are real figures), when you get right down to it, Detective Dee is probably only as weird to Western eyes as Indiana Jones was to Asian eyes.

COMMENTS Detective Dee does just about everything above average, and it does one thing really well: art direction.  From the skyscraper-sized Buddha being built for the Empress’ coronation to the flooded underground city where lowlifes go to hide when the heat is on to the everyday pageantry of the Chinese imperial court, Dee is a fantastic looking film, and it’s always a pleasure to watch the film’s ass-kicking characters cavort across these carefully rendered backdrops.  The fight sequences (orchestrated by cult choreographer Sammo Hung) are typically spectacular—the scene where Dee kicks a leaping stag in the head as he flies by is amazing—but they sometimes lack spontaneity and soul, feeling over-studied and over-crafted.  (I admit to a prejudice here: I miss the balletic martial artistry of the old Shaw Brothers films that relied solely on the performers’ athleticism.  But I accept that wire fu is here to stay).  The abundant CGI effects are of acceptable quality, a few years and a few million dollars behind contemporary Hollywood standards; fortunately, they are mainly used for artistic rather than realistic effect.  The only place where Dee drops the ball a bit is in the plot.  Continuity and clarity are not qualities one expects to see highlighted in Hong Kong fantasies, but considering that this one is explicitly couched as a “mystery,” the audience might have expected a little more misdirection and revelation.  Instead, clues pop up arbitrarily, sending our detective to yet another exotic locale where enemy agents await him in ambush.  And with the introduction of various rebel factions and their separate schemes that may or may not be related to the main mystery, the plot gets confusing, without being particularly intricate.  Still, those are minor objections, easily solved by going into the movie with the expectation you’re going to be watching a detective who solves riddles with blows from his feet and his magic mace, rather than his mind.  Among its weirder features, Dee sports a talking deer with symbols scrawled on his head, robed robots, a kung-fu battle on top of two teams of thundering horses, and a character named “Donkey Wang” who disguises himself using acupuncture.  Dee isn’t a game-changing epic, but it is a two-hour mix of history, fantasy, pageantry, mystery, novelty, intrigue, spectacle and thrills—and that’s a lot for your entertainment dollar.

University of Texas-educated director Tsui Hark is one of the most important figures from the Hong Kong New Wave, basically founding the modern fantasy wuxia genre with his groundbreaking Wu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983).  He has also been enormously important as a producer, financing and guiding odd fantastical projects like the unforgettable A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).  Before Detective Dee, Tsui had helmed a number of financial and artistically disappointing features since the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.  This film has been widely hailed as a return to form by the beloved fantasy icon, and a prequel is already in the works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing is meant to seem real in the Chinese ‘Detective Dee,’… [it] entertains us because it is so audaciously unreal.”–Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press (contemporaneous)