Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
2019 was a difficult year for Chinese cinema. As I’ve been chronicling in this column, a number of high profile movies have had their releases pushed back or even cancelled thanks to pressures from China’s latest enigmatic censorship system. Relations between the PRC and Hong Kong and Taiwan are increasingly strained: the on-going protests in Hong Kong creating harsh divisions within the film community, while a pro-Independence statement at the 2018 Golden Horse Awards led to an almost complete boycott of the 2019 ceremony, traditionally the most prestigious for Chinese-language film, by anyone hoping to do business on the Mainland (even stalwart Hong Konger Johnnie To was forced to resign as the jury’s chairman, reportedly under pressure from the Mainland distributors of his film Chasing Dream). The chaos and unpredictability made it much more difficult to follow Chinese film from abroad last year than in the recent past, with last-minute cancellations (Better Days), surprise openings, and films just not being distributed here (the aforementioned Chasing Dream, along with Stephen Chow’s King of Comedy, Fruit Chan’s Invisible Dragon, and Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man, among others). But this December has seen somewhat of a return to form, with Wang Xiaoshuai’s excellent documentary Chinese Portrait getting a limited release and a couple of big mainstream releases playing North American multiplexes: Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 4 and Feng Xiaogang’s Only Cloud Knows.
Currently under boycott in Hong Kong thanks to pro-Chinese/anti-protest comments by the film’s producer, Raymond Wing Bak-ming, and superstar Donnie Yen, Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 4: The Finale brings the eleven year old franchise to a merciful end. Launched in 2008, Yip and Yen’s Ip Man movies are an attempt to refashion the Wing Chun instructor, previously best known as one of Bruce Lee’s teachers, into a Wong Fei-hung figure for 21st century audiences. Wong, like Ip, was a real-life kung fu instructor who inspired dozens of movies, beginning with a series of highly influential serials in the 1950s and 60s, then continuing through depictions by Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Vincent Zhao and Eddie Peng. In the classic version, Wong is an ideal of Confucian masculinity, wise and chaste and honorable above all else (the Chan versions, the Drunken Master series, parody this ideal). Similarly, Yen plays Ip like a kung fu saint, going so far as to wholly invent history when convenient (as in egregiously ignoring the fact that Ip and his wife spent the last ten years of her life apart, him in Hong Kong and her in China). In many ways, the Yip/Yen Ip is a mirror to Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, with Jet Li as Wong Fei-hung. Both heroes are depicted against a wide swath of modern Chinese history: Wong from the Boxer Rebellion through the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911; Ip from the Anti-Japanese War through the corruption and criminality of colonial Hong Kong in the 50s and 60s. And both series end with the hero finding adventure in America.
The Finale begins in 1964, with Ip being diagnosed with cancer and heading to San Francisco in hopes of finding a school that will take his son. He’s been invited there by Bruce Lee, who is participating in a karate exhibition. In order to get the son into the school (which is apparently very expensive and yet the only option for young, fight-prone Ip Ching), Ip must obtain a letter of recommendation from the local Chinese Benevolent Association. Unfortunately, the leaders of the CBA, masters of various kung fu styles, are angry with Ip because Bruce Lee is teaching kung fu to non-Chinese people. Speaking for the group is the CBA head, Master Wan, a tai chi expert who runs into trouble with the INS (though his family has been in America for several generations) after his daughter gets into a fight with the daughter of an INS agent (she’s rescued by Ip, who just happened to be passing by).
At the same time, one of Lee’s students, a Marine named Hartman, tries to introduce kung fu into the military’s training regime, but is ridiculed by his racist superiors, played by Chris Collins (a memorable bad guy in Yip’s Paradox) and VOD action icon Scott Adkins, fulfilling at long last his potential as the greatest Richard Norton in film history. Collins and Adkins are contemptuous of all Chinese, and basically all non-white peoples (we see them berating a number of African-American Marines as well), in favor of their pure, American fighting style: karate. Yes, I know karate is Japanese, but on the evidence of this film, I don’t think their characters do.
Eventually, following the structure of every Yip/Yen Ip Man film, we have a series of confrontations: first Ip defeats the lesser white guy (Collins), then he has a showdown with the rival Chinese master (Wan), and then a final fight with the baddest white guy (Adkins), after said white guy has beaten the other Chinese master. The fights are fast and brutal, with choreographer Yuen Woo-ping showing none of the fanciful imagination he brought to this past spring’s spin-off Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, instead keeping within the bone-crunching pseudo-realism of Yip and Yen’s preferred style. It’s all very good of course, but I generally like my movie fighting to be more whimsical than brutal. While not quite as puffed up as previous entries in the series, moments of lightheartedness are few and far between (by far the funniest moment is when a white cop calls a black cop who is sympathetic to the Chinese “Do-Good Marshall,” such a bizarre and obscure reference to American history for a Chinese film). It’s appeal to a pan-Chinese unity in the face of imperial aggression and racism strikes a sour note at present, with Hong Kong undergoing a unprecedented series of protests aimed at maintaining a degree of distance, politically, ideologically, from the Mainland. Hence the boycott. But it really isn’t any more jingoistic than any other of the Yip/Yen Ip Man movies, it’s just out of step with the present moment.
Equally out of time, but in a different way, Only Cloud Knows is a retreat into the cozy confines of completely non-controversial material. It follows a pair of films that saw director Feng Xiaogang pushing the limits of Chinese censorship: I Am Not Madame Bovary was an incisive satire on Chinese bureaucracy, shot in an unusual circular frame, while Youth was a fairly conventional story of young people in a performing arts troupe over the years that had its release pushed back probably due to sensitivity around its setting during the Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese War. Only Cloud Knows is instead an exceedingly tasteful and polite romantic melodrama, set far away from any potentially touchy subjects in New Zealand.
Starring two of the leads from Youth, Huang Xuan as Simon and Yang Caiyu as Jennifer, Only Cloud Knows traces their life together in flashback as Simon travels around depositing Jennifer’s ashes in certain spots after she has died. The first half of the film follows their time running a Chinese restaurant and living in a lovely house in the idyllic hills of New Zealand’s South Island. They have various adventures: meeting a vivacious young white woman who will work with them for years, adopting a dog, dealing with a drunk and armed customer, and so on. But eventually they move back to Auckland. In the second half of the movie we see the first part of their relationship, their meeting and falling in love, along with the end, when Jennifer gets sick and dies. The jumbled timeline is really the only thing of formal interest in the film, beginning in the middle and then flashing between the beginning and the end. Each chapter is punctuated by death: the long first half by the death of the dog and their restaurant, their early years by the death of the kindly landlady who served as their matchmaker, and finally by Jennifer’s own death (of cancer of the heart, which is an extremely rare but real thing and not just a pointed metaphor). It creates an overwhelming sense of life and death as inextricable, the one an integral part of the other. It’s a deeply sad film, suffused with great beauty and joy.
But the most touching moment in the film comes in its final moments. We’re told in the beginning that the movie is based on a true story. At the end, we see snapshots of the real couple who inspired it. Among them is a picture of the couple in 1982 with Feng Xiaogang himself. They were friends, and the Simon figure has been working in the film industry and with Feng for years, while the Jennifer figure died in 2017. And suddenly the absence of all the gimmickry of Feng’s recent films makes sense. There are no weird aspect ratios, none of the insouciant lunacy of previous romances like the If You Are the One films, none of the political commentary, patriotic or slyly subversive, of films like Youth or Assembly or The Dream Factory. It’s a simple story of life and death, from one friend to another. The closest analogue I can think of might be the film within a film in Johnnie To’s Romancing in Thin Air. I can only hope Feng and his friends found some solace in making it.