Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Seattle's China Stars

This year's edition of the Seattle International Film Festival's special program devoted to Chinese-language films was the best yet.
Sean Gilman

Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.

Dead Pigs

With the exception of the fine time-travel romantic comedy How Long Will I Love U, which has been doing very well at the box office in China and can still be found in select cities over here, there haven’t been many Chinese films of note recently on North American screens. There will be more to look forward to this summer, starting with Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings, which is set for a late July release. And recently New York audiences have been blessed by retrospectives on Sylvia Chang and Chang Cheh. For the rest of us, however, pickings have been slim.  

While current distribution patterns see a decent number of Chinese films make it to select mainstream multiplexes, those films are almost exclusively genre fare: martial arts movies, crime films, romantic comedies and special effects extravaganzas. The arthouse circuit, outside of a few big name auteurs (Jia, Hou, Tsai, Hui), tends to be less hospitable to Chinese film (and Asian film in general), and so to catch a glimpse of this side of Contemporary Chinese Cinema, one has to go to film festivals, either specialty ones like Japan Cuts, the New York Asian Film Festival and similar mini-festivals around the country, or bigger festivals that offer a special focus on Asian and/or Chinese film, like the ones in Vancouver and Seattle. 

The Seattle International Film Festival is surely the largest and longest festival in the world, a marathon of some 25 days and over 400 features. In recent years, SIFF has devoted a special program to Chinese-language films called China Stars, playing a dozen or so titles culled from the international festival circuit, usually by unknown directors making their debuts, alongside a handful of more established names. This year’s program was very strong, with a selection that focused especially, in keeping with the strategy of this year’s SIFF as a whole, on films directed by and/or about women. I saw eight of the films in this year’s selection: high-profile titles like Sylvia Chang’s Love Education, Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White, and Yang Ya-che’s Golden Horse Award Best Feature winner The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful; debuts by Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs), Yang Mingming (Girls Always Happy), and Cai Chengjie (The Widowed Witch); and sophomore efforts from Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) and Chapman To (The Empty Hands).

I wrote a little bit about Love Education in my preview of the Metrograph’s Sylvia Chang series last month, where it had its New York premiere. Chang stars as a woman who, after her mother dies, decides to exhume her father’s bones so her parents can be buried together. Unfortunately, the man has been buried in his hometown for decades, where his grave is lovingly watched over by his now elderly first wife. Both women have a claim on the remains, but lack the necessary paperwork to prove which, if either, of the marriages was legitimate or dissolved, one of countless bureaucratic tragedies caused by the radical upheavals of 20th century China. Complicating the plot further, and bringing a third generation into the film’s matrix, is Chang’s daughter, who works for an Oprah-like talk show and whose video of an all-out brawl between her mother and the old woman at the gravesite goes viral. She decides to make a documentary piece for the TV show about the dispute, and this production forms the spine of the film’s plot, though Chang prefers to digress into side stories about the three principal women’s relationships with the men in their lives. The result is a film as much about the generational differences in attitudes towards fidelity and family commitment as the impact of social media on the bonds that make a society out of individual families. Shot by Mark Lee Ping-bing and with a strong supporting turn from acclaimed Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang (he plays Chang’s husband), it’s one of Chang’s thorniest and richest films. 

Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White has already been covered here at Mubi, so I'll just briefly say that it's a worthy follow up to her debut Trap Street, a masterful exploration of the corrosive effects of corruption and fear on a society, the systems of power and control that dominate it, and the devastating domino effects of trauma on an entire community. 

Besting both Love Education and Angels Wear White at the Golden Horse Awards, generally considered the most prestigious award for Chinese-language film, was the Taiwanese crime saga The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful, but it’s hard to see why. Its story of institutional corruption (a gang of property speculators in league with government officials conspire to kill some one who stood in the way of their deal) is told almost entirely from the point of view of women, both in general (the wives of the bureaucrats and businessmen are seen to be pulling all the strings) and in the microcosm of one family, headed by the great Hong Kong actress Kara Hui (best known for her early career work with director Lau Kar-leung in films like My Young Auntie, Heroes from the East, and Dirty Ho). She has a daughter (Wu Ke-xi), a drug addict who works as a honey pot to ensnare her mother’s targets, and a granddaughter (Vickey Chen), whose childish glimpses of the adult goings-on are our primary way of seeing this world. This accounts for the inexplicability of much of the criminal schemes, but director Yang Ya-che doesn’t stick boldly enough to this limited perspective, presenting scenes that the young girl couldn’t possibly have witnessed which only reveal the corruption involved to be a lot less interesting and mysterious than it might have seemed. He does bring a fine sense of mood and color to the proceedings, thankfully eschewing the grays and blacks that tend to dominate contemporary crime sagas. But even warm yellows and reds aren’t enough to save a crime story that is neither fun nor insightful. 

Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs, however, manages to be even more colorful, a great deal of fun, and a compelling portrait of what gets left behind when a community washes away in a flood of capitalist development. Set in and around Shanghai, it follows a brother and sister with financial troubles. He is a pig farmer who has overextended himself with some loan sharks and finds himself in dire circumstances when all his livestock dies, part of a mysterious plague affecting thousands of pigs in the area, most of whom end up dumped into the river because the poor farmers can’t even afford to dispose of them properly. His sister owns a thriving beauty salon and lives in the family’s old house, a magnificently cluttered green structure that is the only property left standing at the site of a new housing development: she alone won’t sell. The farmer’s son is a busboy in the city who begins a kind of romance with a rich girl who has become disillusioned with club life, while the architect of the new development, an American who barely speaks any Chinese, struggles to reinvent himself with a job he’s not entirely qualified to take on. Carefully weaving the network narrative around her various characters, Yan, who on the strength of this debut won the job directing an upcoming DC superhero movie, shows a light touch with the genre’s inherent sentimentality, while hitting all the right comic beats, bringing everything together for a triumphant musical sequence (to Teresa Teng, of course). It’s the kind of pop art film that should play well on American screens, winning an award at Sundance for ensemble acting and Yan herself a directing award from SIFF.

Vastly more caustic though is Girls Always Happy, in which director Yang Mingming also stars as an aspiring writer who lives, off and on, with her mother (Nai An, an actress and producer, she starred in Ying Liang’s brilliant 2012 film When Night Falls), also an aspiring writer. The oscillating nature of the two women’s relationship forms what little structure the film has, from vehement, deeply scarring verbal onslaughts (both sides abusing the other mercilessly) to quiet moments of camaraderie, usually over food, consumed in all its bone-crunching and grease-slurping glory. Yang, who also wrote and edited the film (she was the editor for Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, one of the better films of 2016, Yang Chao serves as one of the producers here), mixes tones cavalierly, one minute wrenching personal drama told in close-ups of anguished, sweaty, tear-stained faces, the next a jaunty scooter trip through Beijing’s warren of hutong alleys, the next those same alleys turned to the scene of unnamable, invisible dread. The result is a highly unstable film, lurching from lyricism to (self-)excoriation, coming dangerously close to resembling life itself.

Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch similarly mixes tones, but somewhat surprisingly given its more playful premise, ultimately gives a much more cynical and depressing view of contemporary China. Set in and around wintery Northern villages, a woman wakes up from a dream (or the afterlife) to discover that her husband has been killed in an explosion at his makeshift fireworks factory, which she has miraculously survived. This is in fact the third husband she’s outlived, and her neighbors declare her to be a witch, in possession of the kind of animist magic that predates but lingers on in later traditions of Chinese Taoism and Buddhism. Homeless (after suffering an assault from a brother-in-law), she wanders around the village and its vicinity, accompanied by another brother-in-law, a deaf-mute teenager. She has a variety of adventures, using her (apparent) magic for good (she hopes), but tending instead to making everything much worse. Evoking other eerie spiritual journeys like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Cai films in a glossy black and white, occasionally highlighting with color certain objects in the frame, usually light sources (candles, a string of Christmas lights, the blue of winter filtered through a dingy window). The clash between ancient mysticism and modern social problems is in line with other recent independent Chinese films, such as Crosscurrent and Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown, a calling back to older narratives to help explain the disruptions and dislocations of the present schizophrenic world. 

Rather than looking to the traditions of the ancient past to structure his indictment of the current system, director Xin Yukun instead employs the rich tradition of genre fiction, both literature and film, for his thrillers, 2015’s narratively-twisted mystery The Coffin in the Mountain and this year’s Wrath of Silence, which hearkens back to Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin in its use of genre storytelling as a lens through which to view modern political and economic corruption. Song Yang, best known for starring roles in Xu Haofeng’s wuxias The Sword Identity and The Final Master, plays a mute miner who has a penchant for getting into fights. His young son, a shepherd, is reported missing and so he journeys home to look for the boy. There he finds a tangled web of corruption involving the head of the local mining company (Jiang Wu, one of the stars of A Touch of Sin and the younger brother of acclaimed actor/director Jiang Wen) and his attorney (Yuan Wenkang), but has no luck finding his son. Instead he brawls with Jiang’s minions, eventually accidentally rescuing the attorney’s daughter, who had been kidnapped to force her father’s compliance in the face of police scrutiny. It’s a lost child narrative punctuated by ably choreographed roughneck brawls and exhausted chases through and across the rocky expanses of its mountain location (contrasted effectively with the glossy glamour and steaming hot pots of Jiang’s big city headquarters). It’s the artier, grittier flip side to Wilson Yip’s SPL: Paradox, which for some unknown reason didn’t get any kind of release in the US and instead went straight to video. While it lacks Coffin in the Mountain’s narrative sophistication, it is brutally effective with a streak of absurdist humor.

The Empty Hands is another attempt at a highbrow martial arts film, though less successful in mixing its highbrow intentions and guttural thrills than Wrath of Silence. Chapman To, the outspoken actor who has found himself banned from Mainland China and erased from Wong Jing’s cellphone, directs and co-stars with Stephy Tang, a former teen pop idol who has lately been making her bid for recognition as a serious actress. She plays the daughter of a karate instructor (veteran actor Yasuaki Kurata) who, upon his death, inherits his home/school. The Hong Kong real estate market being what it is, she plans to divide the space into several smaller units and rent them out, closing the school. However, her father has given joint custody of the space to To, a former student now unhappily employed as a bodyguard for unsavory individuals. He returns to the home, finds Stephy obstinate and depressed (she’s having work and romance problems as well as mourning her father) and challenges her to fight again (she had quit after showing some promise as a child). Through training and the punishment of losing, lessons are learned and old wounds healed and a young woman comes of age. To uses a precise and contemplative style, framing the incongruous-in-Hong Kong Japanese spaces in the rigid, geometric style inspired by the architecture of screens and tatami mats, with flights of slow motion violence and striking lighting. The soundtrack is comprised of what appears to be a “Classical’s Greatest Hits” CD someone found lying around (Bach, Schubert, Vivaldi, Paganini), but the pugnacity of Tang’s performance and the film’s faith in movement and ritual over dialogue makes for something special. It’s one of the rare movies to take Johnnie To’s Throw Down as a model, a worthy successor to one of the better films of the last fifteen years.

There were a few other films in the China Stars program that I missed, including Jia Hu's The Taste of Betel Nut, which actually picked up the series's Best Film award (the other winners were Dead Pigs for Best First Film and Girls Always Happy for Best New Talent). But even without having seen everything, and despite the regrettable absence of an archival classic from 1930s Shanghai cinema, which in recent years had been a regular feature at SIFF, it's safe to say that this third edition of China Stars was the best yet.

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Contemporary Chinese CinemaFestival CoverageSeattle International Film FestivalSeattle International Film Festival 2018Sylvia ChangYang Ya-cheCathy YanYang MingmingCai ChengjieXin YukunChapman ToColumns
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