Tag Archives: Chinese

CAPSULE: SUPER ME (2019)

Qi Huan Zhi Lv

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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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…startling visuals, an immersive video game atmosphere, and a steady wash-rinse-repeat plot that’s equal parts simplicity and obscurity make this a potential cult film…  Just when you think you understand the rules of this bizarre world, a plot twist contradicts the conclusion.”–Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IRON MASK (2019)

Тайна печати дракона; AKA Viy 2

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DIRECTED BY: Oleg Stepchenko

FEATURING: Xingtong Yao, , , Jason Flemyng, Yuri Kolokolnikov

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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense in this world, where narrative logic is a fictional concept and the only thing weirder than the story is the preposterously terrible dubbing.”–Tom Beasley, Vulture Hound (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUBURBAN BIRDS (2018)

Jiao qu de niao

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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu

FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong

PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.

Still from Suburban Birds (2018)

COMMENTS: If Suburban Birds is any indication, the modern Chinese art-house movement will be founded in the spirit of . Cinematography will be privileged over narrative, hazy mysticism will pervade, and timelines will go out of focus as one or more histories coexist at once.

Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.

What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold of and the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.

Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

“Circo Animato” 2020 program

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

For a well-deserved break from reality, instead I spent my Sunday morning enjoying thirteen cartoon shorts from around the world.

“The Spinning Top” – dir. by Shiva Momtahen

An ornately told tale from Iran about an enthusiastic child who ends up trading his ability to sing and shout for a spinning top. The animation is distinctly non-Western, and beautiful. The little boy in question travels within an  ever-shifting frame of stylized flowers as he encounters the quilt man, pool man, and the salt man. The up tempo feel is brought down to earth when the salt man takes away the boy’s youthful vigor, leaving only the memories within the top.

“Kkum” – dir. by Kim Kang-min

This is the only foam-imation I’ve ever seen, and accompanying the weird look achieved by animating its weird narrative about a young man who is protected by his mother’s dreams with polystyrene. Four dreams in particular–“Fire,” “Insect,” “Pumpkin,” and “Corpse”–are highlighted, each heavily symbolic and lovingly rendered in Styrofoam. The short ends with the mother advising her son (grown, with wife and child) not to go out that day; the grateful lad thanks the heavens for the meticulous fence his mother has constructed around him.

“There Were Four of Us” – dir. by Cassie Shao

By a whisker, this was the strangest short of the crop—both to listen to, and to look at. The sound is purposely muted, as if one is listening to the dialogue (actually, mostly monologues) through a telephone propped against an old tape recorder. The visual element, however, practically shouts from the screen. What is going on here? There are too many clues, too many things going on, to be certain; the final shot suggests a hospital. And the garbled vocal exposition suggests a mental one, at Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

CAPSULE: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang

PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.

Still from Long Day's Journey into Night (2018)

COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.

The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.

The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The only thing more surreal than the experience of going to see Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is perhaps the movie itself.”–Alex Lei, Film Inquiry (contemporaneous)

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)