The inaugural CineCina — officially, New York’s only Chinese cinema-focussed film festival — wrapped about a week ago. Featured in this report are just some of the fine narrative and documentary films from across the Chinese diaspora that played as part of the program, including: the fest’s Opening Film, an intimate documentary account of one family’s experiences over a four-year period (Lu Qingyi’s Four Springs); two debut features from relatively new talents (Cai Chengjie’s The Widowed Witch and Mei Fang’s Mr. No Problem); an award-winning Hong Kong film about a transgender woman (Jun Li’s Tracey); another documentary, on the son of frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborator Li Tien-Lu (Yang Li-chou’s Father); and two new films from directors who are quickly establishing themselves as some of the most exciting voices of a newly emergent generation of Mainland Chinese filmmakers (Zheng Dasheng’s Bangzi Melody and Peng Fei Song’s The Taste of Rice Flower). This year’s CineCina also featured a full retrospective of the great Sixth Generation director Lou Ye (whose latest film, The Shadow Play, is currently in theaters in China), a rare screening of Mi Jiashan’s influential 1989 film The Troubleshooters, a shorts program, and plenty of post-screening discussions. If you’re in the area next year, we highly recommend you check out this impeccably programmed new festival.
YouTube has made it easier than ever to disseminate the solipsistic musings of just about anybody — as we all have a tendency to willingly broadcast every aspect of ourselves online. Credit director Lu Qingyi for taking who-knows-how-many hours of home movie footage from his family and shaping it into an honest to goodness film. His Four Springs is an account of primarily Lu’s father, Lu Yunkun, and his mother, Li Guixian, who live in the small town of Dushan, in Guizhou province. The filmmaker imposes a simple structure to help organize his footage, beginning with the preparations for an upcoming festival in 2013, and then continuing a cycle, annually, through 2017 (with a brief coda covering some of 2018). It’s mostly simple, observational stuff; Lu’s parents go about their daily lives preparing meals, planting things in their garden, fussing around with newfangled technology, visiting with friends and extended family, etc. But Lu’s filmmaking strikes a nice balance between off-the-cuff footage — usually handheld, mobile, and close-up — and more precise, carefully framed shots, often used to transitions between scenes. Lu has a great eye, finding geometric precision and a pleasing symmetry in the local architecture and stunning landscape vistas during frequent countryside excursions. This is all pleasant enough, if a little banal, until a bombshell hits: During the second section of the film, in late 2014, Lu Qingyi’s sister, Lu Qingwei, falls ill and then passes away. It’s all the more shocking for how suddenly it transpires; after what seems like endless amounts of time spent on his doddering (but adorable) parents, Qingwei’s illness is introduced in one single, almost violent edit. We are thrust into the hospital and then she is simply…not alive anymore. Her death becomes a kind of structuring absence throughout parts 3 and 4, as everything is now viewed through a lens of grief and loss. Four Springs eschews any blatant political angle to simply chronicle a life, a family — and a marriage that has survived for decades. It’s a beautiful hymn to both the mundane and the monumental, which together comprise each of our lives. Daniel Gorman
Set toward the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, Bangzi Melody presents the life of a small village as its inhabitants go about the tasks of meeting peanut oil quotas; preparing a classical opera for their Chinese New Year pageant (attended by regional Party cadres); and wrestling with the highly inconveniencing madness of their former community leader, Wang Kuisheng (newcomer Zhibing Li), and the circumstances that led to his deterioration. Zheng Dasheng‘s latest situates itself somewhere between the Fifth and Sixth Generations of Chinese cinema, but seemingly operates in a world apart from that with which either of these movements have generally been associated. Zheng prefers to draw on ideas and formal sensibilities that date from Chinese revolutionary cinema, and from Soviet cinema, as well as from concepts that originate in classical Chinese theater. Using these touchstones, Bangzi Melody charts the story of a town’s fidelity to its nation’s abstract ideological pronouncements, as pitted against squabbles and intrigues that bubble-up from suppressed desires for the prime farmland that once existed under Wang. All this Zheng uses as a basis to comment, reflexively, on the thoroughgoing performative nature of not just social, but personal life during this period. And it’s in the characterization of Wang that this is most acutely achieved: we witness the former leader’s loss of self after he is pressured by the town to denounce his daughter as a thief — after she chokes to death on peanuts taken from the town’s crop — in order to ensure a regional grain subsidy. The theatrical import of this is clear for Zheng: Wang’s inability to meaningfully engage in the theatrics required by the town, and the country more broadly, during the Cultural Revolution guarantee his eventual exile. That Zheng shoots his film in black and white, with very intentional shifts to color, opens Bangzi Melody up to the complexities of a moment in Chinese history that, for many, is representative of a repressed trauma. Zheng reveals, at once, the lies that were told to meet demands, as well as the truths that got buried and ate away at those with souls un-calloused enough to survive the national delirium. Matt McCracken
Cai Chengjie‘s feminist fable The Widowed Witch plays-out across a succession of rural, wintry landscapes, through which travels Erhao (Tian Tian), a thrice-widowed woman who’s been ostracized, and deemed cursed, by her community, following the death of her third husband. A full color pre-credits sequence has Erhao relating the story of her younger brother’s tragic death, a death she was complicit in. This establishes the main visual motif of Cai’s film: characters are viewed as small figures, dwarfed by their environment — and vast vistas are cropped by a tight, academy ratio frame that makes interiors and exteriors alike feel claustrophobic. This opening then transitions to stark monochrome, with a shot from the POV of a bedridden, temporarily paralyzed Erhao, as she learns of her husband’s death. In this paralytic state, Erhao is raped by her uncle-in-law — a deeply disturbing sequence that is, again, shot from the character’s POV, while the credits roll. Afterward, Erhao takes to the road, seeking shelter from a succession of predatory, corrupt men. Along the way, a series of inexplicable events take place: a man she slaps in the face has his neck pain cured; Erhao herself survives a direct gunshot from a resentful woman; and a, bedridden, disabled old man left in a bathtub, outdoors, miraculously walks again, instead of freezing to death. Because of these, and other seemingly supernatural occurrences, Erhao is deemed a shaman; but whether she actually has powers or not is left an open question. What is not ambiguous is the jaundiced eye that Cai casts on a deeply embedded corruption and a toxic patriarchy by no means limited to this village. Color sometimes bleeds into the monochrome image at the edges, representing the social and moral rot that dooms the villagers as much as Erhao herself — who, finally, disappears in a puff of smoke, the only way a woman can free herself of these oppressive structures. Christopher Bourne
Ding (Fan Wei) is the director of a farm during the heyday of the second Sino-Japanese war. He’s been tasked by a group of shareholders to oversee the farmers and to maintain the status of the farm, which is something that proves difficult for him to accomplish. Ding is, in a sense, a practical man: he decides to cut corners with those who rank below him, and tries to win favoritism with those that are above him in the farm’s hierarchy. He pays the wages of his workers modestly, supplementing their income by supplying them with things that they’ve asked for (or haven’t asked for), like a wedding gift for a marrying daughter. Ding also makes frequent trips to a nearby city, to speak with, and to give soft bribes to, his patron, the Third Madam (Shi Yihong), so she may use her influence among the farm’s stockholders to prevent Ding’s replacement. Things shift in Mr. No Problem, however, when Qin (Zhang Chao), a young artist, takes up residence at the farm, and plans to open an art gallery. It’s in the back-and-forth between Ding and Qin that Mei Fang‘s film finds its footing, and its humorous tone — and its thanks in large part to Fan and Zhang’s vivid performances. Ding can be characterized as somewhat corrupt, but always reconciling, while Qin is a slacker who could incite a revolution among the workers if he so wanted; both strive to retain their status at the farm, and it is the respective struggles of these men that fuel the film’s central drama. But Mr. No Problem also moves swiftly — despite its 150-minute runtime, and its largely static, black-and-white cinematography — thanks to the direction of Mei, who had previously collaborated on screenplays with filmmaker Lou Ye, and who brings a striking visual sense, and economical editing, to Mr. No Problem. His film also gradually reveals itself as a kind of metaphor for subsequent Chinese history; Ding even has a bit of a Mao look to him. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
World cinema has come a long way in the last two decades when it comes to queer representation in film. Yet despite the growing amount of films that tell queer love stories without playing into old-fashioned ‘kill your gays’ tropes, transgender stories remain woefully underrepresented. For every Fantastic Woman there’s a Danish Girl or, um, Girl that traffics in harmful stereotypes, displaying a regressive and outmoded understanding of what it means to be transgender — and a lurid preoccupation with transgender bodies rather than transgender identities. Jun Li‘s Tracey seems to exist simultaneously in both worlds, offering moments of sublime beauty that are undercut by a dark turn into body dysmorphia clichés. The film centers around three childhood friends who’ve grown up and each gone their separate ways. Reunited in adulthood by the death of a friend, who they discover was gay, the other two now have a new lens through which to view their own development. For Tung Tai-hung (Philip Keung), that means coming to terms with the fact that she is, in fact, a transgender woman. To its credit, Tracey attempts to treat its characters with dignity, looking back on their youthful budding queerness with something akin to sunny nostalgia. Centering on middle-aged and elderly transgender women, it’s able to examine the damage caused by years of internalized trauma from having to hide ones identity, and also the sheer sense of elation when one can finally embrace their full selves. The first time we see Tracey outwardly express her true self registers as a moment of almost rapturous beauty; ditto her elderly mentor. And yet this film is betrayed by its focus on Tracey for her body dysmorphia; a scene in which she attempts to mutilate herself after an argument with her wife of nearly 20 years is especially troubling. Li manages to explore some interesting ideas of gender fluidity and sexuality as a spectrum, rather than hard and fast silos of gay and straight, but we’re still a long way from representing transgender characters as more than just people who hate the bodies in which they were born. Tracey‘s heart is in the right place, and Li’s own sexuality gives him a greater sensitivity to these issues than the cishet perspectives often given, but centering of genitalia in trans identity remains problematic, and highlights a need for more trans perspectives in modern cinema. Matthew Lucas
Yang Li-chou’s documentary Father is about Chen Hsi-huang, an octogenarian master of the budaixi Taiwanese hand puppetry. He is the student, and oldest son, of Li Tien-lu, the foremost 20th century practitioner of the folk art, who, late in life, became a prominent member of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s stock company, with supporting roles in Dust in the Wind, Daughter of the Nile, and A City of Sadness — before telling his own life story in Hou’s The Puppetmaster. This doc explores Chen’s estrangement from his father (which parallels Li’s with his own; both men were given their mothers’ surnames and treated harshly by their fathers), but more urgent is budaixi and the difficulties it faces in the modern world. Chen tries teaching his demanding techniques to his students who, unlike his own generation, have lives outside the theatre and are never beaten for their failures (even his best student has, he says, mastered only about 60% of what he knows). Yet Chen desperately wants to pass on what he can before he, and his art form, die, going so far as to interrupt the end credits of this film with yet another technical demonstration. After all, an artist, like a parent, works to share what they have learned in their life, hoping against hope that something of them will survive long after they’re gone. Sean Gilman
Set on the Sino-Burmese border, Peng Fei Song’s second feature, The Taste of Rice Flower, tells the story of Ye Nan (Ying Ze), a young mother who has been living and working in Shanghai to keep her family financially supported. When Ye Nan returns to her village, she encounters barely suppressed prejudice from neighbors who view her move to the city as a kind of cultural betrayal, and resent her for it (e.g. going so far as to call for the return of her soul) — even though they understand the economics that dictate the situation. More important to Ye Nan than any of this is the need to reduce the emotional gulf that now exists between she and her daughter, Nan Hang (Ye Bule), a strained filial dynamic that’s central to this film’s plot. To examine all of this, Peng employs a docu-fiction approach, much in the vain of the early works of Jia Zhangke; one can easily sense a real community here, one whose real problems are explored under the auspice of a heightened drama (even though the real experiences of those suffering from conditions of economic disparity are often much more traumatizing than that depicted here). The Taste of Rice Flower also manages to achieve an interesting metatextual presentation of community issues: the characters desire east China’s tourists to come and see the local beauty, spread word, and bring further business, and these are, in effect, also results of this film’s existence. This may go some way toward explaining why the cinematography in The Taste of Rice Flower looks a bit garish, with lighting that resembles nothing so much as a commercial. This isn’t even necessarily a knock against the film; these decisions explicate the double-bind of poverty in this cultural configuration, seeing both deprivation and its healing (i.e. both foreign tourism and taking up a diasporic condition) as attacking the very existence of a culture, its heritage, and the people that occupy it. The end of The Taste of Rice Flower powerfully displays familial healing in this context, but one has to wonder if its potency wanes under all that’s lost. MM