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Sarangi (Tarun Thind, United Kingdom): Florescent eeriness, late-night study, and then an incongruous, but familiar sound. An unnamed student hears the tones of “God Save the Queen,” but performed on an instrument native to his ancestral land. When the witch appears, each run of the bow and turn of the wheel further traps the young man as the echoing pitch of his adopted home’s anthem severs him from his past.
Two Sides (Luo Mingyang, China): This animation was cryptic and circular, and prominently featured an ominous blade. Effectively silent, as well, as a troubled boy, the least-worthy member of a gang of toughs, is alternately challenged to rough up a victim, or petrified by a vision of a two-faced spirit. It doesn’t make much sense, but it has a “vibe”, a climax, and a post-credits coda that, for whatever reason, seared a deep impression in me.
English Tutor (Koo Jaho, South Korea): Comedy and horror from Korea! Few things are more of a delight. An (you guessed it) English tutor seeks work and is summoned by a mother desperate for her young daughter to write, one word, any word (!), in English. The tutor succeeds in her task after calming the weeping child. But, alas, something is very wrong: and things turn from sweet to creepy to violent with due haste.
FEATURING: Yi Sicheng, Guan Nan, Qiu Zhimin, Xue Xuchun, Gu Tao
PLOT: Two affable demons come for the soul of Qui, a famous Chinese opera clown; on his way to the afterlife, he reminisces about his life’s experiences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The saga unfurls on stage-like sets using theater tricks and practical effects, with an easygoing charm bubbling throughout. The mindless catastrophes besetting the Chinese from the 1930s through 1980s batter fruitlessly against a quiet resolution to survive. Demons, symbolism, wit, and magic realism co-mingle with the tragedy, creating an experience unlike anything this reviewer has ever seen.
COMMENTS: This is a daunting prospect: stage-theater style, a deep-dive into Chinese cultural politics, and an epic length. The day before watching A New Old Play, I quipped that I was certain that this three-hour film would be sooo good, I’d want it four hours long. But I can admit when I’m mistaken. Its theatrical nature gives Qiu Jiongjiong’s film a stylish and deeply cultural resonance; the deep-dive into the darkest times of the People’s Republic of China is tempered throughout by playful humanity; and when the film wrapped up, I could have happily sat through another hour—or more. From the protagonist’s friendly acquisition at the hands of two neophyte demons (they had just taken over from their recently retired fathers), during the long reminiscences at the Netherworld inn, and up through Qui’s final, memory-washing meal at the river to Hell, A New Old Play is a jaunty, enlightening ride.
Old Qui learns that his fame as an opera clown performer transcends the Earthly plane. The King of Hell himself has sent his death invitation in the care of two escorts—demons whom Qui recollects from his childhood days during China’s “Great Leap Forward” and Cultural Revolution, when they come to collect the soul of his briefly adopted sister. As Qui travels from our world to the next, he makes a stop at a wayside inn established by a fellow Sichuan who owned an inn topside, and staffed by the handyman for Qui’s troupe. The “New New Players” were an elite band of performers founded by Commander Pocky to maintain the morale of the troops: first the anti-Japanese rebels, then the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalists, and then the Maoist People’s Liberation Army. Always the same troupe, shuffling to and fro as factional powers ebb and flow.
Qiu Jiongjiong sets the stage with humor from the get-go. One demon laboriously employs a bicycle pump to inflate the front tire of the faerielight-lined rickshaw on which he and his fellow demon travel. The opening memory corrects the demon’s information about when Qui joined the acting ensemble (they admit that certain records have been lost), introducing the concept of “New New Players” via a committee-style exploration of the merits of the repetitive term. The war against Japan is framed as a competition for theater funds and an irritating lack of flour for steamed buns. The civil war is nearly reduced to the swapping-out of a poster on the theater building: first anti-communist, then anti-nationalist.
The bulk of the melodrama (if I might even to call it that) occurs during the famine and cultural destruction unleashed by Mao as he sought to maintain his grip on the fledgling new (new) country. But the focus is on the the actors, and how the downtrodden manage to cock a snook at the gun-toting thugs. As happened to nearly all those caught in the vortex of the “Cultural Revolution”, Commander Pocky falls out of favor, and his actors are forced into self-abasement; Qui, the clown, stands amongst the troupe, dressed shabbily, wearing ridiculous makeup, and wearing a sign advertising his transgression. But as he is a clown, he manages to gather a small adoring crowd with a near-immobile performance, turning those who came to shun and gawk back into human beings through the power of his performance. Qiu Jiongjiong has nothing good to say about the evils of the Maoist regime, but refuses to grant that blood-soaked tyrant even a semblance of power over him. Like his film, all of time is a new-old play, as we stumble forward with a trip and a laugh, forever escaping from the inhumanity which the evil among us would subject us to.
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DIRECTED BY: Zhang Chong
FEATURING: Talu Wang, Bingkun Cao, Jia Song, Shih-Chieh King
PLOT: Sang Yu, a screenwriter at the end of his tether, finds he can swipe high-value artifacts from his nightmares to sell in the real world.
COMMENTS: Oh, unreliable narrator, how you revel in tales of dreams and dreams within them. Oh, Chinese cinema, how quickly you catch up to the West. Oh, Mark 8:36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” And, oh, there are yet more questions to pose concerning Super Me, but for the time being, I will table the niggling unanswerables. The most surprising thing about Zhang Chong’s dream-thriller (rated TV-14 for, among other reasons, “fear”) is that its double twist undercut my predictions. The least surprising thing about it was that once our hero shaved his dorky facial hair, he became rather handsome and self-assured.
Sang hasn’t slept in half a year, or so he tells us. This obviously cannot be true. But as we suspended our disbelief for Fight Club, so let us extend that courtesy to Super Me. Sang is harried by San, to whom he owes a screenplay. This movie is about a screenwriter, one who pines for humble café owner (and possibly ex-nightclub singer; the flashback is thorough but not entirely clear), Hua’er. Sang runs out of cash, has his laptop stolen, is kicked out of his apartment, and is about to jump from a roof when he’s talked down by the kindly pancake vendor on the sidewalk below. This mystical philosopher advises the worn-out young man that in life, people always talk about death—to remind themselves they are still alive. During his nightly nightmares (in which he’s being murdered by some otherworldly blue goon), Sang should just declare, “I’m dreaming” to break the spell. Taking this sage advice, the next thing we know, he awakes with the goon’s impossibly valuable sword in hand. Pawn shop, money bags, big living, and lucid dreaming ensue.
Chong’s film is peopled with run-of-the-mill characters and the third act’s tone shift doesn’t quite gel—its sudden menace kneecaps the arc of wish fulfillment/cutesy romance an hour into the proceedings. I liked the menace; it was well executed, with unlikely but believable gangsters. Having derailed the fun and breezy tone that had dominated (post-suicide attempt, of course), Chong undercut what could have made his story even rarer: the feel-good thriller. But the lead is so goofily charismatic that I couldn’t help but root for him as he traveled along his path to wisdom at a pleasant clip.
I approach modern Chinese cinema with something of a jaundiced eye, always wondering where the propaganda will seep into the picture. But Super Me was no more laden with moralizing than standard Hollywood fare. This was aided by its narrative structure. While not on the same satirical-poetical level as Buñuel, Chong nicely bleeds reality and dream together. (His hand is heavier than the late Spanish master, but so is everyone else’s.) And moreso than Chris “I’mma Dreamer” Nolan, Chong has a playfulness and lack of pretention that makes Super Me a pleasant diversion from waking life.
Super Me is streaming exclusively on Netflix for the time being.
PLOT: “Master” has been chained in the Tower of London under the watchful eye of warden James Hook; meanwhile, in the Far East, the Great Dragon—whose eyelashes are the roots of the healing tea—is imprisoned by the evil Witch; meanwhile, accompanying the British cartographer, Jonathan Green, is the recently released Cheng Lan, Master’s daughter, who with the help of Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias, plots to save the Great Dragon from the Witch’s evil clutches.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: If the plot description doesn’t convince you, Iron Mask benefits from additional anomalies that make it “weird by a thousand cuts”. It’s a Russian-Chinese co-production for which it seems the Shaw Brothers have been resurrected to put together the most swashbuckling, uncannily-imperfect adventure possible for subtly propagandistic global distribution.
COMMENTS: Let me be clear from the outset that I did not go into Iron Mask with the intention of ever really talking about it, but what unfolded felt simultaneously familiar, bizarre, original, and derivative. Being something of a “Cold Warrior” growing up, I raised one eyebrow when I saw just how many Chinese production companies had a hand in this. The other followed suit when I then saw how many Russian production companies were involved as well. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how this big-budget, brightly-colored nonsense unspooled (seeing as I knew this was a Lions Gate production), but the experience of watching two hours of stylistic gears not quite clicking, dubbed vocals not quite making sense, and the joy the filmmakers obviously had for their dwarf overwhelmed me.
The plot. Oh, the plot. The plot write-up is one of my favorite sections. I know it’s a redundancy, and takes up valuable analysis time, but I like to relate a movie’s story in my words. This one, I don’t think I can—a sentiment I doubt I could change even if I’d seen the movie to which this is, apparently, a sequel. I described it over the telephone to a friend and the number of “What?”s building into “What!?“s was both satisfying and reassuring. This collision of narrative thefts would require at least a dozen designations from the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index. Suffice to say Chinese citizens are poor and oppressed, British citizens are foppish and eccentric, Russians are drunk and Cossack-y (redundant?), and a story isn’t helped when the English dub of the heroine is outsourced to the most Karen-y sounding actress I’ve had the mispleasure of hearing.
Iron Mask hits all the notes of a 1970s PG-rated Disney feature, but five decades late. The English title makes almost no sense, although there is a character in an iron mask: our hapless Peter I, imprisoned for some unclear reason. But worry not, he proves his identity to the sailors on a Russian ship by saving them during a thunder storm. (“I’ve never seen such seamanship! Only Peter the Great could have saved us,” remarks the first mate.) The Russian Imperialist nostalgia and the heroicism-with-Chinese-characteristics flood this uncanny valley. Even the credits join in on this off-kilter trip, with the band “Ecosystem of a Down” mentioned in the soundtrack.
The great Arnold Schwarzenegger is having fun, at least, relishing his opportunity to be neither the Terminator nor the governor of California (showing off his weapon collection, he proudly states, “Here is the sword of King Arthur! Think about that!“). Appearing early on, his Tower of London warden flicked the first switch in my “This isn’t right…” control panel. One by one, the whole array lit up. From the mad pacing I’ve only seen in Russian action films, to the spiritual tea-dragon ballad from the peasants, to the dwarf ship’s captain included for comic relief, to the truly out-of-the-blue Taxi Driver reference, all the way through to the scuba-Cossack sneak attack on the electro-mechanical proxy dragon, Iron Mask is an intense ratcheting of incongruity.