Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
Opening the same weekend as The Last Jedi, though on considerably fewer screens in North America, were two films from major Chinese filmmakers. The Thousand Faces of Dunjia is a CGI-driven fantasy epic by two legends of Hong Kong cinema: writer/producer Tsui Hark and director Yuen Woo-ping. Youth is a coming-of-age melodrama set amidst an arts troupe in the later years of the Cultural Revolution from Beijing-based director Feng Xiaogang. Dunjia had been billed throughout its production as a remake of Yuen’s 1982 feature The Miracle Fighters, and this, combined with Tsui’s facility with modern technology (as seen earlier this year in his Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, a collaboration with another Hong Kong auteur, Stephen Chow), positioned it as one of the most promising films of 2017. That it fails to bear any real relation to The Miracle Fighters, or really be of much interest at all, is a crushing disappointment. Youth doesn’t really live up to expectations either, at least not those aroused by the abrupt cancellation of the film’s release earlier this year. There was some hope that, building off his satire of Chinese bureaucracy in last year’s I Am Not Madame Bovary, Feng had breached some kind of governmental taboo in his depiction of the Cultural Revolution, still a largely forbidden subject in the People’s Republic. But alas, the film’s postponement seems to have been more a matter of extreme caution on the part of the state’s film bureau: its planned release on October 1st was going to coincide with the run-up to the 19th National Party Congress, and no one wanted to be responsible just in case something untoward in the film slipped into the media spotlight. Instead, the film is largely apolitical, but its humane approach and some standout performances easily make it the more satisfying of the two films.
The Miracle Fighters is the peak of Yuen Woo-ping’s early period. After a pair of smash hits with his first two features, Yuen embarked on a series of low-budget kung fu films starring his brothers. Their father, Yuen Siu-tien, had trained them all in Peking Opera acrobatics and they had been working in bit parts and as stunt performers in Hong Kong for years. Siu-tien first appeared on-screen in 1949’s Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame, the first film in the series of Wong Fei-hung movies starring Kwan Tak-hing which were a key training training ground in the 1950s and 60s for the directors and choreographers who would come to define martial arts cinema in its heyday: Lau Kar-leung and his brother Lau Kar-wing, Tong Gaai, Yuen Woo-ping and others. After working his way up as a stunt performer and then choreographer at Shaw Brothers and other studios, Woo-ping made his directorial debut in 1978 with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, starring his father as the irascible old kung fu instructor for an impetuous young fighter played by Jackie Chan. The film was quickly followed later that same year with a reiteration of the same formula and stars, Drunken Master. Chan and the Yuens made a natural pair: he too had been trained in Peking Opera acrobatics, and they shared a comic sensibility that was the polar opposite of the grimly serious kung fu epics that had dominated the genre in the post-Bruce Lee years. Sammo Hung, Chan’s old classmate, had made a tentative foray into the blend of circus-style kung fu and slapstick comedy in his debut a year earlier, and Lau Kar-leung had made a couple of semi-comic features (albeit with his more rigorous, traditionalist approach to the martial arts), but it was the two Yuen-Chan films that truly transformed the industry, paving the way for the blend of stunningly acrobatic action and lowbrow comedy that would dominate Hong Kong cinema for years to come. But with Chan moving on to his own directorial career, Yuen found himself without a star. Most of the films he made over the next half decade, with the exception of the Sammo Hung-starring Magnificent Butcher and the Yuen Biao (no relation: he was another classmate of Chan and Hung) vehicle Dreadnaught, were made in collaboration with his younger brothers: Yuen Yat-Chor, Brandy Yuen Chun-yeung, Sunny Yuen Shun-yi and Yuen Cheung-yan.
The Miracle Fighters is the best of these films, an endlessly inventive and bizarre magical kung fu movie that looks something like wuxia as directed by Jean Cocteau. Yuen Yat-chor plays a young man being hunted by an evil sorcerer (Sunny Yuen). His master having been killed by the sorcerer, Yat-Chor enlists the help of a pair of feuding magicians, played by Yuen Cheung-yan (in drag) and Bryan Leung Kar-yan (known affectionately in cult cinema circles as “Beardy”). Packed with wild gags and surreal imagery (most ingeniously Brandy Yuen as an assassin who lives in an oversized urn), the film is a triumph of practical effects and the Yuen clan’s vaudevillian approach to choreography and comedy. The prospect of it being remade, under the guiding hand of Tsui Hark, arguably the most important figure in Chinese film over the past half century, a filmmaker who’s been at the forefront of the creative use of technology in martial arts cinema ever since his 1983 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain kicked off a whole new era of effects-driven wuxia, easily made The Thousand Faces of Dunjia one of the most potentially exciting films of 2017. But instead, the film bears almost no relation to its forerunner: Tsui and Yuen have since clarified that the film is a remake in the sense that it too is an attempt to reimagine the kung fu film. Which is to say: it’s not a remake at all. The only thing the two have in common is in the title, the Chinese name of the original film being Qimen Dunjia, which is both the names of the two wizards played by Leung and Yuen, respectively, and also the name of an ancient form of divination, based on the interplay of astronomic observations and various opposed elements, the intricacies of which wholly escape me. They appear to have escaped Tsui as well, as in Thousand Faces Qimen Dunjia becomes some kind of a MacGuffin, a world-destroying object (it looks something like a soccer ball made of magma) sought after by a pair of alien-demons.
Opposing these demons is a rag-tag band of magicians, a clan of warriors whose mission through the ages has been to stand against them (how long these alien invasions have been going on is unclear: this whole premise was handled much more coherently in Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall). Into their midst comes a dim-witted but heroic police constable (Arif Rahman Lee) and an amnesiac girl (Zhou Dongyu) who can mysteriously transform into a giant dragon/phoenix and might be the prophesied new leader of the clan. They join with the second and third in command of the clan (the first is off on some mission), a slightly goofy man played by Da Peng and a no-nonsense woman played by Ni Ni. Though the first action sequence is inventive and fun, a chase through city streets after a fish alien-demon, the action sequences from then on tend towards the blandly computer generated: someone floats a bit in the air and the CGI does some stuff. Everything is as generic as can be: the fights, the effects, the locations (there are three digitally rendered versions of ancient Chinese capital cities—Kaifeng, Chang’an and Luoyang—but they all look exactly the same dusty beige) and the character dynamics. The four leads neatly pair off into romantic couples, with the expected jealousies and small moments of romance. Ni Ni does a creditable job of creating interest in her generic character, but Zhou Dongyu, one of the best young actresses in China (see her in Soul Mate and This is Not What I Expected), is completely wasted playing a scared innocent in peril.
Of all of Tsui Hark’s forays into digital cinema, this is both the least interesting and the least successful since 2001’s remake Zu Warriors. His Detective Dee adventure films are both clever and exciting, while his reimagining of King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn as The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is goofy but greatly enhanced by a stellar cast led by Jet Li and Zhou Xun. The Thousand Faces of Dunjia has neither the star power nor the visual or narrative imagination to match those earlier films, and even pales in comparison to the film he produced last Christmas season, Derek Yee’s Sword Master, which modernized the classic Chor Yuen wuxia Death Duel. There’s also little of Yuen Woo-ping’s distinctively whimsical choreography to be found either, nor his taste for the burlesque. While his last film, the Netflix-produced sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny,was equally sanitized and generic, that film at least had some good action and a pair of strong supporting roles for Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen. Thousand Faces is closer to the kind of bland commercial products the Mainland churns out every couple of months, utterly forgettable films like Legend of the Naga Pearls or Mojin: The Lost Legend. And even Mojin at least offered a lengthy flashback sequence set during the Cultural Revolution, an especially contentious era of Chinese history. Any director with hopes of official theatrical release approaches the subject at their peril.
But that is exactly what Feng Xiaogang has done with Youth. The most successful commercial Mainland director of his generation, since the late 90s Feng has specialized in crowd-pleasing romances and equally crowd-pleasing epics, films like The Dream Factory, Assembly, Aftershock, If You Are the One and others successfully melded the high standards of Hong Kong filmmaking (especially traditional Lunar New Year’s fare) with more or less lightly patriotic touches. Assembly, for example, is half a Saving Private Ryan-esque war movie about a doomed battle against the Nationalists in the Civil War, half a gentle critique of the bureaucracy that allows the People’s Heroes to fall through the post-war cracks, and half a propaganda piece about the glory and honor of the People’s Liberation Army. Even I Am Not Madame Bovary, a fable about the labyrinthine nature of Chinese bureaucracy, more Joseph Heller than Franz Kafka but undeniably in opposition to the ruling elite, had its release delayed but did eventually play Chinese theatres. That film earned Feng some press outside China as well, largely having to do with its unusual aspect ratio: a circle evoking cameo portraiture. Youth is similarly obsessed with a formal device, but unfortunately one both more common and more irritating: the hand-held traveling shot. Bobbing and weaving throughout the film’s two-plus hours, during rehearsals, performances or backstage dramas, Feng prowls about like a man who just discovered the existence of the Steadicam. At times the effect is striking, particularly during rehearsals when we see various members of the arts troupe practicing together, orchestra and dancers, in a single large hall. But in its ubiquity it becomes obnoxious.
Beginning at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, the film centers on two members of a PLA arts group, a generous and forthright man named Liu Feng (played by Huang Xuan) and a shy newcomer to the troupe, He Xiaoping (Miao Miao). The story is narrated by a third dancer, Xiao Suizi (Zhong Chuxi) as she witnesses the various misfortunes that befall the two over the course of five years or so (with a few scenes set in future years coming at the end). The bulk of the timeline roughly runs from a couple of years before Mao’s death through the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War and the subsequent dismantling of the arts group. There’s little in the way of political satire, along the lines of Madame Bovary, and other than the unique disruptions of the time (Xiaoping is estranged from her father, who is off being reeducated) the various coming-of-age dramas could have been set anywhere. It’s first half could be an especially serious episode of Bunheads, if not for the fact that all the superbly performed ballet sequences are revolutionary propaganda pieces, dancing girls slinging around AK-47s and such.
Xiaoping is bullied by the other girls in the troupe right from the start, because of her shyness, her clumsiness, her lack of social grace and, paradoxically, for her class status. Despite the ideology fervently espoused by everyone in the troupe, the dynamics of class power replicate themselves even in the most revolutionary settings. She’ll find redemption in the second half of the film, though at great cost. Transferring to a position as a field nurse, she finds herself on the frontlines of the war, the trauma of which breaks her already fragile psyche. She’ll dance her way out of it in the movie’s most improbable, and most beautiful, sequence. Liu Feng finds himself in the middle of the same conflict (a moment of romantic aggressiveness has him sent to the front lines), where his heroism takes a more violent form, also at great cost. (You can be sure that the fact that both main characters are depicted as heroic members of the PLA did not hurt the film’s chance of securing a release). The two leads' paths almost cross at the field hospital, but they just miss seeing each other. They will meet up again years in the future, their war wounds mostly healed. Through it all, Suizi, the observer, remains the most interesting character, bolstered by Zhong’s more contained performance and the movie’s odd but intriguing structure: what should be key moments are mysteriously elided, and the film’s stuttering leaps into the present bring into question the value of this kind of nostalgia trip, of which events from our youth really form who we become and just how much one person can understand about another.
That’s not to say the film is some kind of radical break with traditional storytelling. Aside from the time and setting, it has little in common with Jia Zhangke’s minimalist masterpiece Platform or Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun, in which Feng Xiaogang plays a small but not insignificant role as a school teacher during the Cultural Revolution. Jiang’s film too breaks down at the end, but it’s explicitly because he can no longer remember where his story, ostensibly autobiographical, is going or what exactly happened: he’s caught himself turning his memory into a movie. Feng takes no such narrative chances, and what we’re left with is the story of two people who knew each other often in their youth, but only really became friends years later, though they would met only a few times, years apart. Or rather, it’s the story of a person who knew two people, once. It’s a warm, at times lovely film packed with stirring music and dance and at least twice the humanity of The Thousand Faces of Dunjia.