Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
Over the last few years it has become increasingly easy to see mainstream Asian films in North America at the same time they are released in their home countries. Thanks to partnerships with small, international distributors, the major multiplex chains (AMC, Cinemark, Regal) have devoted a handful of screens in major markets to showing new releases from India, Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most of these titles fall under the radar of both critics and audiences outside the diasporic communities to which they are targeted. They play for a week or two and then disappear, outside of a handful of breakout titles. Last year Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid made headlines for its high per-screen averages in North America as it shattered domestic box office records in China. This year, Telugu filmmaker SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali: The Conclusion opened at #3 at the North American box office, just ahead of Tom Hanks and Emma Watson in The Circle, despite playing on only 425 screens and with little to no coverage in the mainstream press. Almost all of these films are solidly within the commercial mainstream, while more esoteric fare (your Hou Hsiao-hsiens and Jia Zhangkes) continues to travel the traditional festival and arthouse path to North American screens (smaller festivals like the New York Asian Film Festival and similar programs in cities around the country split the difference, with an eclectic blend of commercial and artier fare).
The films that make it to our multiplexes are resolutely genre material, but importantly not just the action films for which Asian cinema has long been known. Alongside martial arts movies and gangster dramas are romantic comedies, slapstick farces, tear-jerking melodramas, and sometimes all of the above plus a musical number or two. It’s the domain of established auteurs like Johnnie To and Tsui Hark, alongside relative up-and-comers like Soi Cheang, Pang Ho-cheung, and a host of new voices trying to make their mark in the dynamic, rapidly-evolving Chinese film industry. This is an unsteady time, as likely to be exhilarating as confounding, as Chinese cinema attempts to both assert itself as what we are repeatedly told will soon be the world’s largest film market while integrating the stars and traditions of the Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture industries (each of which are highly motivated to remain independent of the Mainland while becoming increasingly reliant on it for audience and funding). This column will be devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at our local multiplexes. We’ll start with a quick overview of the year to date, where we’ve seen comedies both romantic and absurd, a wide variety of action films (CGI wuxia fantasies, traditional iterations of the perennially popular kung fu, cop and war movie subgenres, and star vehicles exploring one icon’s quest to turn himself into a flag and another’s sad decline into irrelevance), a few generically unclassifiable oddities, some expensive failures and one of the very best films released anywhere in the world in 2017.
The surprise hit of this year’s Lunar New Year season, the traditional holiday home of China’s biggest blockbusters, was a time travel comedy/drama by a race car driver and novelist turned director named Han Han. Inspired by Peter Chan’s classic He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, which starred both Tony Leungs back in 1993, along with Western movies like Back to the Future, Duckweed stars Feng Chao as an arrogant driver with daddy issues who gets sent back in time thanks to a car accident-induced coma (the PRC’s rules on sci-fi and fantasy are complex but essentially require that things like this be written off as dreams). There he meets his dad (Eddie Peng) a small-time, kind of dopey gangster with a heart of gold. Han Han has a light touch, Peng shows an unexpected facility for comedy and the film’s action sequences, especially the car stunts, are impressive.
Pang Ho-cheung’s Love Off the Cuff is the third film in a series chronicling the relationship between Miriam Yeung’s Cherie and Shawn Yue’s Jimmy. The first, 2010’s Love in a Puff, was a scruffy look at life in the back alleys where Hong Kongers were forced to take their breaks after a ban on indoor smoking. Its liberal use of vulgar Cantonese slang earned it a Category III ranking, more or less equivalent to the MPAA’s NC-17. Jimmy and Cherie are young professionals with a shared sense of whimsy who after some fits and starts end up together. The sequel, Love in the Buff, found the couple relocated to Beijing and the film suffers from the concomitant lack of cultural specificity. Both characters are advancing in their careers (hence the move) and the pressures that go along with that lead to a traditional break-up/reunion plot. The third film finds them back in Hong Kong, more vulgar than ever, but rapidly growing too old for their youthful shenanigans. Far from Apatovian boy needs to grow up to win the girl dramatics, Cherie and Jimmy instead both have to find some way to balance their goofiness with adult responsibility, which means the immensely scary risk of putting your faith in another person.
An even better romance, though, was Derek Hui’s debut feature This is Not What I Expected, a variation on the classic Shop Around the Corner story where letters are replaced by food. Zhou Dongyu (who was terrific in Soul Mate, which played US theatres last summer) plays a klutzy chef who repeatedly runs afoul of a rich hotelier played by Takashi Kaneshiro. He doesn’t know she’s the cook at the hotel he’s thinking about buying, but he falls in love with her food. After a series of slapstick encounters, eventually they meet, and Kaneshiro, obsessed with her food, practically moves into her house. They fall in love over hallucinogenic blowfish (as one does). While lacking the cultural specificity of Love Off the Cuff (it’s set in Shanghai but really could take place anywhere), This is Not What I Expected is more fun, Zhou and Kaneshiro are a delightful couple and Hui uses a lot of shallow focus, centering his images on his actors’ faces and giving the film the crisp brightness of color that so distinguishes contemporary Chinese film.
The food in This Is Not What I’m Expected also looks fantastic and realistic at the same time, unlike the fanciful concoctions of Stephen Chow’s The God of Cookery or Tsui Hark’s The Chinese Feast. It also shames Raymond Yip’s Cook Up a Storm, which opened here a few months earlier and stars Nicolas Tse as a Cantonese chef battling the Europeanized chef across the street both commercially (as in Michael Hui’s classic Chicken and Duck Talk) and literally (on an Iron Chef-like competition the rules of which make no sense). An all-around failure, Cook Up a Storm, despite its plot celebrating the local over the global, feels entirely fabricated, even its cooking scenes are plagued by CGI fakery, despite the fact that Tse himself is an actual chef with a cooking show on Chinese television. But local flavor isn’t everything, as the case of The Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey, a weird, half-written farce about Hong Kong’s housing shortage, shows. It’s a defiantly local film that is nonetheless almost entirely free of wit or charm in its characterizations and apparently random in its plotting.
Transcending all notions of good or bad is Benny Chan’s Meow, a movie in which Louis Koo and his family befriend a giant alien cat. Inspired, naturally enough, by a series of commercials, the most bizarre film of the year might be an allegory for the corrupting influence of consumer capitalism on revolutionary ideology, or it might itself be that corruption, as its inane charms worm their way into our heart as surely as the temptations of family and material comfort turn the cat planet’s greatest warrior into an overstuffed and beloved pet.
More CGI monstrosities are to be found in the year’s action films. Dating back at least to Tsui Hark’s seminal 1983 Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, the special effects-driven wuxia has a long and mostly ignoble history in Chinese cinema. With the introduction of cheap CGI and 3D, the Mainland has been churning out glossy fantasy films that have little in the way of artistic merit or popular appeal and less to recommend them to the memory. Two I saw this year were Once Upon a Time, about which all I can recall is that it was based on an apparently plagiarized web novel, and The Legend of the Naga Pearls, which starred Simon Yam in his least memorable performance ever. Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong is somewhat better, as Kwok is a director with some talent (he co-directed the charming kung fu comedy Gallants and Stephen Chow’s first Journey to the West film), but his skills are mired in the ugly scenario that amounts to little more than a dark reboot of the Monkey King story, like something out of Frank Miller but without the commitment to fascism. Even Eddie Peng, one of the brightest stars of his generation, couldn’t bring it any charm.
Two of the biggest names in Chinese cinema released effects-driven adventures this year, with mixed results. Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall stirred controversy on this side of the Pacific after its promotional campaign that placed Matt Damon front and center in a story set in medieval China. Accusations of whitewashing and/or perpetuating a white savior narrative though proved to be unfounded in the movie itself, which is instead a nationalistic epic in which Damon’s smelly, scheming Westerner is redeemed by the brilliance and collective bravery of the Chinese people. It’s also a spectacular monster film, adapting Zhang’s full-color aesthetic to pulp material proves to be a light, fun, intermittently gorgeous entertainment.
One of the most anticipated movies of the year was Tsui Hark’s first-ever collaboration with Stephen Chow, a sequel to Chow and Derek Kwok’s 2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. With Tsui directing and Chow producing, Demons Strike Back’s coherence suffers from a multiplicity of auteurs, though more damning is that it just isn’t that funny, repeating many of the first film’s jokes, but slower. The cast, too, isn’t as engaging, with wide-eyed Wen Zhang replaced as the Tang Monk Tripitaka by bland pop idol Kris Wu and with Shu Qi, who brought much-needed humanity to the otherworldly concerns of Chow’s spiritual farce, relegated to flashbacks only. But its use of computer effects to augment both its fantasy world and its action sequences is rivaled only by Baahubali: The Conclusion among this year’s films.
In the more tangible action world, this year provided both the year’s most financially-successful Chinese film, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2, and Herman Yau’s Andy Lau-starring cop drama Shock Wave. Wu Jing both directed and stars in Wolf Warrior 2, playing a former commando in the People’s Liberation Army who gets kicked out for defending poor people against a corrupt landlord and finds himself working in a fictional country in Africa. When the country erupts in civil war, he’s tasked with both rescuing a group of Chinese factory workers and a Chinese doctor working to stop the spread of a deadly disease. The film boasts some of the most inventive and thrilling action scenes of the year, including an underwater fight sequence that’s the best action movie opener since Resident Evil: Retribution. It’s also blatantly jingoistic, like a less subtle version of a flag-waving 1980s Cannon film, except the flag is Chinese and Wu Jing himself is the flag pole. Herman Yau, on the other hand, isn’t allowed onto the Mainland thanks to his outspoken support of Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests and history of criticism of the People’s Republic. Shock Wave is a classical suspense film, with Lau as The Best Bomb-Disposal Expert in the City who becomes the target of a revenge scheme by mad bomber Jiang Wu. Half the film is a tense stand-off as Jiang and his gang takeover one of the big tunnels connecting Hong Kong Island to Kowloon on the Mainland. A little bit The Taking of Pelham 123 and a little bit The Hurt Locker, Yau’s handle of suspense is first-rate, and yet it’s only the third best film he released in 2017. The haunting and grotesque horror film The Sleep Curse and the clever romance, 77 Heartbreaks, a pop confection with a heart of darkness, both unfortunately failed to find North American distribution.
Andy Lau’s other 2017 action movie is far less successful, despite costarring Shu Qi and being directed by Stephen Fung, whose Tai Chi Zero films are among the most inventive kung fu films of the decade. The Adventurers (the second Andy Lau film to bear that name: the 1995 one might be the worst film of Ringo Lam’s career), is a Mission: Impossible style caper/heist film almost totally lacking in weight or wit, content to coast on the charm of its stars and the utter blandness of its scenario and suspense set-pieces. But that’s more than can be said for the venerable Jackie Chan’s two films this year. While the period adventure film Railroad Tigers has its moments (a multi-leveled stunt sequence in a warehouse and the final train chase), Kung Fu Yoga is abysmal, easily the worst archeology-related movie since Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh appeared in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Chan’s old compatriot Sammo Hung fared somewhat better in Gordon Chan’s God of War, a war movie based on the same events as King Hu’s The Valiant Ones (in which a young Sammo played the villain). Sammo plays an aged general who gives way to Vincent Zhao’s younger, more inventive leader in defending the homeland against a band of Japanese pirate/ronin led by Yasuaki Kurata. As usual in a Mainland production, there’s much talk of unity, as the Chinese unite across all lines of class, gender and ethnicity to defeat the invaders. But Sammo Hung’s best work of the year, as the action director for Wilson Yip’s SPL: Paradox, remains unreleased in North America.
A much more effective war movie, and my pick as the best Chinese language film of the year so far, is Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come. Set during World War II, it tracks a band of leftist resistance fighters as they spy on and counter Japanese movements in Hong Kong. With a diffuse array of characters including Eddie Peng as a dashing commando and Wallace Huo as the man inside Japanese headquarters, the film effortlessly finds its focus among the women risking their lives right alongside the men, with Zhou Xun as the lead, a schoolteacher turned courier, and her mother, played brilliantly by Deanie Ip. Told episodically with expertly crafted suspense sequences, the film is a perfect counterpoint to Hui’s 2014 film The Golden Era, which told the story of the war from the perspective of a woman lost in it, the leftist writer Xiao Hong. Linear and thrilling where the early film is jumbled and opaque, Hui demonstrates her remarkable ability to move back and forth from the mainstream to the arthouse, the result of which is one of the more impressively eclectic bodies of work made by any director in the world over the past forty years.
Before I close for this month, I want to highlight a few titles which didn’t get theatrically released here, but which played at various festivals and which you might find on video or streaming. The Village of No Return, a comedy from Taiwan starring Shu Qi and directed by Chen Yu-hsun, is a very clever fable about a hustler who comes to a small village armed with a memory-erasing device, a deceptively complex metaphor for a nation that per official policy, doesn’t actually exist. Bad Genius isn’t a Chinese film at all, but the Thai test-taking thriller from director Nattawut Poonpiriya is probably the smartest, most exciting genre film of the year. Huang Hsin-yao’s debut feature The Great Buddha+ is a dark satire of contemporary Taiwan told from the point of view of a pair of its lowliest denizens. Last weekend it picked up five wins at the prestigious, pan-Chinese Golden Horse Awards.
Some of the most-anticipated films of the year will be making their way onto North American screens in the next few weeks, including Feng Xiaogang’s Youth and Yuen Woo-ping and Tsui Hark’s The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, both of which are slated to open December 15. The next column will be devoted to the latter, a remake of Yuen’s 1982 surrealist masterpiece The Miracle Fighters.