Tag Archives: Chinese

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 its 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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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)

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