Striding Into the Wind
One of the central tensions in cinema is that of authenticity: The inherent power of this medium comes from its depiction of images and experiences drastically foreign to the viewer, even foreign to our reality. But there’s also an impulse towards depicting reality, the expectation that art should speak to material concerns in a genuine way and reflect individuals’ lived experiences. With that in mind, it makes a perfect kind of sense that there’s such a disproportionate number of films about filmmaking; these films unite a filmmaker and their audience, the artist essentially depicting their own experience and the viewer allowed to peer behind the curtain of the art form. Think about this, though: What if, in lieu of tumultuous tales of adventure and romance inflated from the most exciting moments of his life, Hemingway had dedicated his career to just chronicling the process of putting pen to paper? OK, this may be a cruel way to introduce Wei Shujun — a young Chinese director whose first two features have both been loose metatextual dramas following a film’s cast and crew and their lives adjacent to a shoot. Wei is the kind of filmmaker created by a society where Jia Zhangke — despite being notoriously categorised in Paul Schrader’s diagram as outsude “The Tarkovsky Ring,” i.e. too abstract for profitability — is a mainstream commercial success, even a household name.
Wei’s autobiographical debut, the dryly comic Striding Into the Wind, follows author surrogate Kun (played by Zhou You), a sound recordist embarking on the early stages of his career while taking remedial classes in film school. Kun is the image of directionless, youthful iconoclasm: irrevent, work-shy, and often less than kind to those around him. While working on a graduation film directed by his lecherous friend, Ming (Wang Xiaomu), Kun drifts in and out of dead-end work, while also struggling with his relationship with his girlfriend (Zheng Yingcheng) — in short, he lives a financially and socially destructive lifestyle. As Kun, Zhou exudes the charismatic energy of contemporary Chinese alternative culture — largely detached and cynical but occasionally wild, in moments of passion or chaos. Kun is working on a film about an Inner Mongolian herdswoman, who comes to Beijing to find her husband. Ming, that film’s director, is anxious to spruik the fact that he was originally from Inner Mongolia — and yet, his work is anything but authentic. At first, Ming’s crew attempts to use a secluded bit of unused parkland in Beijing, surrounded by towering apartments and a makeshift yurt, to replicate the grasslands of Mongolia. When reviewing the footage, though, they realize how transparent the set forgery truly is, and decide to travel to Inner Mongolia to shoot some more genuine locations.
In one sequence at a hotel in Inner Mongolia, after a party with traditional dancers is thrown for the film crew, the manager of the hotel asks Ming, enthusiastically, to send him a copy of the movie that they’re shooting so he can use it as promotion. In this scene, Wei manages to speak volumes to the relationship between Chinese filmmakers and the communities they so often choose to depict: The herdswoman in Ming’s film is every ethnic minority “noble savage” brought to the screen by a Beijing director, the hotel owner all those who are happy to profit off their foreignness to the majority in a hyper-commercialised modern China.
For a film about cinema, Striding Into the Wind is surprisingly light on references to actual movies. There are few films or filmmakers explicitly mentioned, save for some name-drops of Wong Kar-wai and Hong Sang-soo, and one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, pixelated clip from a particular ‘80s Chinese film that flashes by so fast as to inevitably be anonymous. Nevertheless, Wei is very much drawing on his medium’s history; his narrative’s progression is delineated by the presence of Kun’s dodgy, second-hand jeep, which in a way, is a motif reminiscent of those often employed in works from the cinematic milieu in which the aforementioned clip originated (China in the 1980s), such as the titular mill in Wu Ziniu’s The Big Mill. Striding is also preoccupied with another inheritance from that era, Chinese filmmakers from elite film schools in major cities venturing out to rural and culturally disparate parts of the PRC to make their work.
Wei attempts to target the shallowness of the Beijing art student scene specifically: From Kun’s toxic behaviour (e.g. stealing exam papers from his mothers school to sell, shattering her credibility), to the faux bravado of his filmmaking peers, to the pervasive depression that always seems just beneath the surface, Striding paints a stark portrait of this world. And yet, the filmmaker’s intended critique of the superficiality of the Beijing art scene ultimately fails, due to its reverent indulgence in every aspect of this culture. We see little that redeems the antisocial Kun, but Wei colours him a tragic hero simply for his (emptily) rebellious attitude. Similarly, Wei’s depiction of the student filmmakers is summarily more of a glorification than a critique. And so for a film so invested in throwing us through loops and narrative contrivances, Striding Into the Wind has little concrete to say about anything, and we’re left with an unsatisfying watch. But Wei is nevertheless a talent to keep an eye on; perhaps the biggest compliment one can make to him is that this is the work of an auteur with a distinctive vision and the talent to realize it. On that front, there’s already some good news: if word from Cannes this year has any truth to it, Wei’s even newer feature, Ripples of Life, might be a major breakthrough.
Writer: Noel Oakshot
Stanley Kwan has never achieved the same level of critical renown here in America as his countryman Wong Kar-wai, which seems most certainly in large part is due to his sporadic (at best) distribution record: Center Stage (aka Actress), generally considered his greatest film and a key work of 1980s Hong Kong cinema, was initially released with almost 30 minutes cut from its original runtime, while Kwan’s more recent films have either never been distributed at all or, like Rouge and Lan Yu, have never been released on any home video format, after only brief theatrical runs. Thankfully, things appear to be changing for the better. Center Stage was just recently restored and re-released in a new, hi-def digital edition — and now Lan Yu has received its own restoration, in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary.
One of the few openly gay filmmakers in Hong Kong, Kwan has frequently mined the tangled history of Chinese cinema for both melodramatic and political ends. 2001’s Lan Yu, based on an anonymously published, sexually explicit novel that appeared on the internet in 1998, was an independent production that shot in Shanghai without Chinese government approval and never officially opened in the mainland, despite a Hong Kong release (albeit slapped with a Category III rating) and a win for Best Picture at Taiwan’s Golden Horse awards. The film charts a turbulent decade of social turmoil and seismic economic shifts, as refracted through a tumultuous on-off love affair between older, wealthy businessman Han Dong (Hu Jun) and the much younger Lan Yu (Liu Ye), who we first meet as a poor college student. Han is used to no-strings-attached trysts, showering his lovers with gifts until he tires of them. But Lan is different, his youthful innocence and beguiling presence gradually wearing down Han’s stony facade. The pair seem to represent two different perspectives on homosexuality; the older man, who has erected emotional barriers after decades of hiding his true feelings, and a younger generation who has yet to be disillusioned by an oppressive, prejudiced society. Thankfully, Kwan doesn’t force that symbolism too much, instead allowing both men to become fully fledged characters rather than mere schematic signposts.
There’s a careful, precise visual scheme at work here, as Kwan favors subdued pastel colors and slightly cramped interiors that keep multiple figures in the frame simultaneously. He also makes careful use of mirrors, constructing images that bisect or otherwise separate Han and Lan within the same shot. In a very literal sense, they are apart even when together, a key visual representation of their relationship. Kwan also creates a stripped down narrative through-line that emphasizes specific, crystallized moments — while otherwise eliding huge chunks of narrative time with sudden, drastic ellipses. After the men have their first argument, a single cut jumps ahead an undisclosed amount of time, leaving the audience unaware of time passed until Han tells an employee that he hasn’t seen or spoken to Lan in ages. Eventually, the pair reunite, as Han rescues Kan from the authorities in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre — an obviously epochal event here mentioned only in passing, but treated as the source of Lan’s emotional trauma. Whereas the Tiananmen Square protests represent a narrative turning point in something like Lou Ye’s Summer Palace — inevitably bifurcating that film into a before-and-after structure — Kwan opts for a more elusive sense of historicity.
There’s a subtle recognition that the personal is the political, and that we are all subject to the vicissitudes of our era, but also that these larger structural events are ultimately subsumed by the mundane drama of human relationships. The second half of Lan Yu finds Han marrying a woman, and ending his affair with Lan yet again; after an undetermined amount of time (the dissolution of Han’s heterosexual relationship and eventual divorce is once again elided in a single edit), Han is arrested for shady business practices and tossed in prison. Lan bails him out, and freed from the pressures of commerce and keeping up appearances, they seem to find a peaceful equilibrium. The film ends with a sudden death, which has been criticized as needlessly dramatic and an example of a filmmaker ‘punishing’ their characters for being gay. And there’s some truth there, but it’s also important to note that the death occurs because of a construction accident, suggesting the human cost of China’s booming economic growth at the end of the 20th Century. As the film resurfaces in this new decade, it’s also hard not to think of the recent unrest in Hong Kong, as the brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2020 can’t help but mirror Tiananmen, as well as the just -announced retroactive censorship of decades of Hong Kong cinema. Kwan’s pessimism was simply prescient.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Inside the Red Brick Wall
In the wake of the mass protests that raged throughout Hong Kong for much of 2019 and the first half of last year, the 2021 international film festivals have programmed any number of nonfiction recountings of this violent upheaval, sold on merit of access and immediacy. And Inside the Red Brick Wall (which had its U.S. premiere with True/False in May and now plays the third CineCina Film Festival) can claim this more definitively than any of them, its runtime dedicated exclusively to comprehensive, on-the-ground footage of the standoff between student protestors and the militarized Hong Kong Police Force that occured at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019. The film is edited in a fluid, linear fashion by the anonymous Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers collective and takes audiences through a week plus-long siege on the university campus at a cinematic pace unhindered by overt editorializing. The conflict began the morning of November 17, 2019 when young masked protestors set up roadblocks around PolyU in response to the government’s proposal of an extradition bill that would make it exceedingly easy for Hong Kong residents to be deported to China. The bill was ostensibly drawn up to cut through legal complications that emerged when trying to prosecute Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong citizen who murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan before fleeing home and facing few repercussions because he couldn’t be extradited and charged. But it’s also viewed as a maneuver by the Chinese government (already in the practice of extrajudicial extraditions) to exert further control over Hong Kong — and thus resulted in widespread protests that became gradually more violent as they were met with brutal police suppression tactics.
Inside the Red Brick Wall picks up some nine months after the introduction of the extradition bill, and about 6 months after police-protester relations became combative. The severity of this struggle is immediately apparent: The audience is given privileged access to the frontlines of the activists faceoff with fascist law enforcement, who use a variety of advanced weaponry to maim and subdue the protestors while dispersing their roadblock. From there, the police surround the remaining activists encamped at the University, and a 5 day standoff ensues, the camera(s) staying beside the young people trapped inside the university for its duration. The filmmakers successfully pack a lot into the relatively fleet 88-minute runtime, not only giving us a broad overview of how the event played out, but also pausing on the deliberations of this non-hierarchical collective as they confront the increasingly desperate reality of their situation and the tension between the needs of the group and individual safety. We bear witness to emotional breakdowns and resignations, to doomed attempts at fighting the police head-on, and to dubious older, center-leaning professors (part of a group of uninvolved civilians also trapped on campus) brokering peace between the warring parties. The Hong Kong Filmmakers who shot and assembled Inside the Red Brick Wall have captured this pivotal political moment with remarkable clarity, rendering it not just legible but actively engrossing. The amount of footage captured by this team, not to mention its general professional quality, puts it out ahead of most of the Hong Kong protest documentaries that have circulated 2021 festivals, and marks Inside the Red Brick Wall as one of the more essential texts on the matter — universal in its depiction of the grave stakes taken on by those who organize against state.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
The Judith Butler quote (from Dispossession) that opens Jun Li’s Drifting serves as a neat entry point: “Such bodies both perform the conditions of life in public—sleeping and living there, taking care of the environment and each other — and exemplify relations of equality that are precisely those that are lacking in the economic and political domain.” Not only do Butler’s words serve to underline the specific circumstances of the homeless milieu which Li’s capturing — the “public” space — but they also describe his camera’s relationship to that milieu. Following Fai (Francis Ng), and his close-knit homeless community, Li depicts a group who exist in a liminal space; they live on the streets of Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district (which is now starting to be overrun with the luxury condos that engulf many frames of this film). The homeless here are both completely in the public eye and also a certain kind of invisible — a push-pull explored early on in this film, when an unannounced street cleaning, ordered by the government, results in possessions being carelessly thrown away. When Fai and the rest of the group decide to sue for restitution, and an apology, they increase their visibility — suddenly, they’re seen rallying on the news, they’re subjected to interviewers that want to dig into their tragic pasts, and they’re visited by student groups, who want to experience homelessness for a night. All this amounts to external, societal pressures that Li means to view in sharp contrast to the specific kind of culture that Fai and the other homeless (a rough-hewn found family, but not in the corny and harmonious sense that this phrase might imply with some films) have constructed for themselves — one that might be, as Butler says, more equitable than the outside. This is nothing so crude as an ennobling of poverty or a framing of circumstance as a lifestyle choice, but rather it’s an honest observation about community building on the fringes of society and the necessity of getting by as a collective.
It would be easy to accuse Li’s Drifting, which was inspired by true events, for taking part in the same ‘public turns its eye to the homeless’ tactic that it’s openly criticizing. The difference is that Li resists the kind of ‘prying’ to which the media portrayed here are prone. By and large, Drifting leaves the work of characterization to the actors, who, led by Ng’s great performance, convey years of pain and drug abuse just through a look or posture. The troubled pasts of the people here are only rarely excavated, and even then it’s in quiet, private moments that register with intimacy rather than voyeurism. Even the loudest, most expressive of the performances — namely, that given by Chu Pak-Hong, as the most delinquent member of the core group — avoids the mawkish sensationalism that’s so often a pitfall of narratives like this. Indeed, Drifting finds itself in quiet moments of solitary reflection and in the interactions between its characters. Like so much media coming out of Hong Kong right now, Li’s film serves as a reflection of the transition and uncertainty that defines the territory itself. Throughout, characters talk about what Hong Kong is, was, and might become. The sleek, shining skyscrapers that stretch high into the clouds stand in contrast to the messy action on the streets. As Fai states, Sham Shui Po is for the poor, such that the luxury condos have no place here, even as their under-construction skeletons eclipse image after image. In Drifting’s most plainly cinematic moment, Fai ventures to the top of some construction site and a companion raises him, via crane, high above the city. Fai looks out and down at the city that usually looms overhead; he looks at the beautiful lights in the night that have come to symbolize a world shutting him out; and, after a moment of silence, he pisses
Writer: Chris Mello
Tracing Her Shadow
Tracing Her Shadow, the third feature by Song Pengfei (whose films are credited to just his given name), deals with a relatively little-known historical tragedy: the Japanese “war orphans” of World War II, the children left behind in the Manchurian northeastern region of China when Japanese soldiers and settlers fled the country after Japan’s defeat and surrender. Many of these children were adopted by local Chinese families, but they were often discriminated against because of their Japanese heritage, and national anger at the atrocities inflicted by Japan on China during the war. When relations between Japan and China were normalized in 1972, many of these war orphans moved to Japan, hoping for more acceptance from their ancestral homeland. But unfortunately, discrimination awaited them there as well.
For most other filmmakers, this premise would likely occasion a soppy, blatantly heartstring-tugging melodrama. But Song takes a far more resonant approach here, incorporating humor and warmly observant human interactions and accumulating a series of beautifully rendered moments, often performed without dialog. Song was previously an assistant director for Tsai Ming-liang, and while his own films are stylistically quite different from Tsai’s, Song has obviously picked up more than a few pointers from his former mentor — especially on how to effectively use pure cinema language to get one’s message across.
After an energetically animated sequence illustrating his story’s historical background – Song’s way of clowning the deadly-somber methods other directors use to impart similar — we’re brought back to 2005, when elderly Chen Huiming (Wu Yanshu) travels from her home in China to Nara, Japan to search for her adopted war orphan daughter, Lihua, whom Huiming has lost touch with after several years. Huiming stays with Hatsumi Shimizu (Ying Ze, star of all three of Song’s features), a young woman of mixed Chinese-Japanese parentage whose Japanese father was a war orphan cared for by Huiming as a child. Because of this family connection, Hatsumi agrees to help Huiming in her search. Hunming is assisted by a retired policeman, Kazuo (Jun Kunimura), who’s also a patron of the bar where Hatsumi used to work, claims to have seen Lihua, and tries to use his old police connections to help track her down.
Song dramatically illustrates the difficult lives those of mixed ethnicities face in Japan, including the attendant discrimination inflicted upon them; Hatsumi has recently broken up with her boyfriend, largely because his parents were violently opposed to their son marrying a half-Chinese woman. Differences of culture and language often prevent people from communicating with one another, but Song’s characters invent clever ways to overcome these difficulties. In Tracing Her Shadow’s funniest scene, Huiming is unable to communicate to a Japanese butcher (Song himself, in a cameo role) which meat that she wishes to buy, so they converse with each other using animal noises. Later, in one masterfully acted and dialog-free sequence, Huiming and Kazuo exchange old photographs between themselves.
Tracing Her Shadow is Song’s second film at CineCina; his previous feature, the utterly charming and lovely The Taste of Rice Flower, screened at the festival’s inaugural edition, in 2019. The new work exhibits similar qualities as the old, particularly in its admirable restraint to not go for the obvious, tear-jerking moments. Song originally conceived his latest as a war film, but after hearing stories from war orphans about their experiences, he pivoted to the exquisite form which the film has now taken. Finally, Tracing Her Shadow’s parting gesture perfectly encapsulates the eradication of national/cultural barriers to which Song so passionately advocates: “Goodbye My Love,” by the beloved Taiwanese chanteuse Teresa Teng, sung in Japanese, soundtracking a film by a Mainland Chinese national.
Writer: Christopher Bourne
Taking Back the Legislature
The collective known as the Hong Kong Documentary Filmmakers – who have two of their films at this year’s CineCina Film Festival – accounts for, with its name in mind, not simply a role in the art of moviemaking of a chosen form, but a perspective and, maybe better, an allegiance to a place: Hong Kong. This association, if not a bias, structures and suffuses Taking Back the Legislature, which follows the July 1, 2019 storming of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) by (mostly) young protestors. This was to be the nascent form of the city-wide demonstrations that arose following the proposal of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill.
Filmed in close quarters, Taking Back the Legislature provides a visceral presentation of the protestors’ forced entry into the LegCo, speechifying regarding motivation, derision of other groups (both friendly and antagonistic), and engagements with police opposition. The work, as the creators’ name suggests, wears its choice of subject and, indeed, point-of-view openly: an honouring of protestors as “martyrs for the cause,” and as a representation of Hong Kong’s true interests. In this way, the film’s commitment to ‘honouring’ its subject is felt from beginning to close, through bookending images of mourning for young Hong Kongers — who have variously ended their own lives or, in some cases, have allegedly been killed by police brutality.
Another focus of the HKDF here is the impassioned declarations coming from many of the protestors, as they speak boldly of their willingness to defend their city and sacrifice themselves, as opposed to the failure of theirs and the Mainland’s government. Nevertheless, this decision to pay tribute to the movement and recount its vision and approach to protest, especially in the granular way that this film goes about it, has a side-effect: also documented is a baffling superficiality, disorder, and lack of analysis. Much less so than Inside the Red Brick Wall, but still to a pronounced degree, Taking back the Legislature principally records an erratic act of sheer despair, the dubious righteousness of which must be measured equally alongside its obvious and disastrous foolishness. In one striking moment, a protestor — after the LegCo was “taken back” — despairingly exclaims, “We can do nothing!” and then doubles over in tears, in reaction to her leaders choosing to vacate the building a mere three hours — an immediate U-turn from the stated goal of occupying it indefinitely. In this way, for as much as the film aims to pay tribute to a movement, its ambitions and its victims, it can’t be ignored that it also serves as testament to fragmented despair, lack of vision, and thoroughgoing failure. It is, if nothing else, and whether intentional or not, a sobering portrait of Hong Kong.
Writer: Matt McCracken