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Straightforward Family Saga in times of tumult
17 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"My Bittersweet Taiwan" is yet another of an endlessly growing genre of movies - the Chinese family saga, be it from the mainland, or Taiwan.

Basic plot description follows, with mild spoilers This particular film show the life of Awen, starting with his birth, in a traditional Chinese family in Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule. Growing up as a second-class citizen, with his family subject to intermittent harassment, Awen still manages to excel in his studies and make his way in the world, at least until the outbreak of World War II, when many of the native Taiwanese were forced to fight for the Japanese overlords. The return of Taiwan to the mainland, provides new opportunities, but its separation, in the wake of the nationalist defeat, after only a few years, ensures further heartache.

As you can imagine, there a moments of tenderness and melodrama, love and heartache, treated in a manner which is much more accessible to a Western audience than the films of Hou Hsiao Hsien, for example, and with no mention at all of the Feb 14 incident, or the KMT invasion either, for that matter. But these are not great oversights, since it is the story of one life, lived mostly during the time of the Japanese occupation, and in that respect, offers an interesting view of the situation, humane, and not over-politicised. It would have been nice to hear the Taiwanese speaking Hokkien, rather than Mandarin, but this is a small point, and I suppose some concessions had to be made for the intended audience.

The acting is universally good, and there are some lovely landscapes to admire, and historical details to observe. I'd recommend this film to anyone interested in Taiwan's earlier history, or this kind of family saga, with less art-house touches that many other similar Chinese films.
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Passages (2004)
Understated Road Movie about Choices in Life
25 August 2007
Passages is a difficult film to sum up easily. For such a quiet movie, there was actually a fair bit happening, not so much in terms of plot, but in how it frames certain questions, how it portrays parts of China.

The story centers around a couple of young students. They are unmarried, but apparently close enough to leave together for another town, looking for lingzhi mushrooms, which they intend to cultivate then sell at a profit. Without giving away too much of the slender plot, most of the movie has to do with their travels to another city, then home again. On the way, they deal with a number of regular people, but also some criminals and an oddball or two. Then when they return to their own town, they have some explaining to do to their families and school. Out of this emerges a number of questions: whether it is better to keep trying to get into university (and presumably a safe career thereafter) after years of unsuccessful attempts, or whether it might be better to strike out on one's own in a risky, but perhaps profitable, venture. I suppose this is a question many young Chinese face now.

Stylistically, 'Passages' is quite similar to the works of Jia Zhangke. It has that same sort of patient camera which is happy to let things happen before it without chasing the action about or indulging in close-ups. The often distant camera allows the viewer to see more than just the two central characters, and in a sense, the changing background is like a third character – it is the broader situation the pair of students move through and deal with. The scenery is often bleak, even outside the urban areas, and there is nothing romantic about the Yangtse. Yet, the way it is photographed, it still appeals, by virtue of its unglamourised immediacy.

There is also a fair amount of humour, played in a deadpan fashion. Individual viewers may or may not appreciate it, depending on their tastes (and perhaps culture). The acting is natural and understated, suitable to the theme and style of the movie.

It is mainly to the fans of Jia Zhangke I'd recommend this film, and of course to the curious. Don't expect special effects, impossibly witty dialogue, or a hit soundtrack. It is a different kind of experience entirely, and a journey worth taking.
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Accessible silent film from China
11 June 2007
The studio was evidently making the film with a western audience in mind. The story was from a western source (Maupassant) and it had a European feel. Interestingly, when a letter in Chinese is shown to the camera, it even fades into an English translation.

The actors were well chosen, and it was easy to distinguish between them (helped by cards introducing each major character).

As for scenery, there were attractive interiors of houses shown (the middle classes seemed to be doing pretty well then), a motor car or two and rickshaws. There were some interesting technical touches in it (night shots filmed in bright light, which became dark when a cigarette was being lit, or a torch was being shone), a fairly mobile camera in some places, and even a little section of stop-motion animation. The print was pretty good - not immaculate, but complete and quite watchable. No soundtrack at all though, which seems fairly standard practice for these films.

The plot is a moral fable, about the consequences of desiring beyond one's means, and is a little preachy by modern standards, but comparable to American films of the period.

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Cageman (1992)
Slice of Hong Kong social realism
4 December 2006
Cageman might have been better titled Cagepeople, because it is all about the occupants of a men's hostel in Hong Kong, who do indeed live in cages - not all the time, of course, but they sleep and keep their belongings inside them. The film doesn't concentrate on one particular occupant, but shares its time evenly between 7-11, a ninety-nine year old who sells all kinds of goods to his fellows from inside his cage, which he hasn't left in twenty years. He also has an assistant, nicknamed Sissy. Other tenants include a tinker, a very short fellow called 'Monkey face', who also owns a monkey, a cook, a perpetually drunk Taoist, and Mao, a young newcomer, recently released from prison. The owner of the hostel is Fatty, who has a retarded son to help him run the place. Almost the entire film takes place within the hostel, and there is barely a female to be seen.

The motivating incident of the film is the announcement that the block in which the hostel is located is to be demolished by its owners, to make for a development. Issues of relocation and compensation arise among the tenants, and cause divisions. Two politicians also arrive on the scene, and compete in shaking hands for photos and making promises, though their own motives will not appear until later. The occasional presence of TV crews only complicates the situation. Plenty of social issues appear as the film goes on: the treatment of the poor, the disabled, and the addicted in Hong Kong, and the gap between the rich and the poor. Politicians, it seems, are the same everywhere. While offering no solutions (which can't be expected of a film), the movie nevertheless portrays humanely and sympathetically the underbelly of Hong Kong.

In a character-driven film such as this, acting is of prime importance. I had no trouble believing in any of these people - they looked and sounded like the roles they were playing, so that they quickly become real people, caught in a real situation, largely at the mercy of forces much stronger than themselves.

There is also an amount of humour in the film, as one would expect with such a range of characters. Of particular note is a discussion regarding the difference between a beggar and a homeless person. There is plenty of realistic dialogue, the kind one would expect to hear uttered by down-and-outs in the absence of females, and this seems to have earned the film a category III rating (which I thought only applied to sex and violence).

This film is quite a change of pace from the typical Hong Kong fare. It would appeal more to those interested in socially-aware movies rather than escapist entertainment. At 145 minutes, it is also quite long, though it doesn't drag. There is enough lively dialogue and intrigue to maintain interest.
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Masquerade (1998)
Tenchi Muyo strictly for adults - not bad at all
30 October 2006
I haven't seen very much hentai at all, but this title was recommended to me as being tentacle-free and actually having a plot (a combination which is harder to find in erotic anime than you'd think).

The story revolves around Master Gen, a Tenchi Muyo lookalike, who has gone to live with his grandma after the death of his mother. It isn't long before strange things start happening to him, but I won't spoil the surprises by saying more. The story unfolds at a regular pace with new information being revealed throughout. For an erotic anime, the plot is actually worthwhile, even if no opportunities are missed for 'interaction'.

One of the major drawcards for this OVA series was the quite 'artistic' nature of the production, with some very nice dream flashbacks in a red palette, an orchard of cherry blossoms, and music which added immensely to the enjoyment of this short series. The voice acting was also well done (in the Japanese at least), matching the character designs well.

I'd recommend this title to anyone interested in hentai, especially the curious beginner who isn't ready for tentacles and would perhaps like a bit of substance (it's not often you can say that you're watching hentai for the story). Fans of Tenchi Muyo might also get a kick out it.
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Chun can (1933)
Document of a nation's woes
22 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Seen in 2006, it's hard to appreciate just how progressive and utterly 'contemporary' this film was. The story on which it is based had just been published, and the topic, unlike the escapist entertainment of time, was a matter of immediate urgency. The village of silkworm growers was, in effect, a microcosm of the nation, showing the deleterious effects of imperialism, war, usury and their own superstitions and doggedly conservative resistance to the tide of modernity.

The immediate background to the film is as follows: In the early thirties, the Jiangnan silk industry (in particular, in the counties of Zhejiang, Hangzhou, Hubei and Hunan) was in great danger. It had to compete with inflation, Japanese imports, competition from foreign fabrics, high interest rates and other market forces that could be manipulated by exploitative capitalists.

*** Plot summary with Spoilers Ahead ***

The film itself shows the family of Tong Bao in their efforts day and night, to keep silkworms. Tong Bao is a great believer in superstitions (such as judging a future harvest by the number of sprouting onion stalks) and a number of taboos. For instance, he prohibits his son from talking to a neighbour's daughter, called He Hua (Lotus Flower), because she is believed by the village to bring bad luck. In the season in question, Tong Bao borrows money at high interest in order to buy mulberry leaves for the silkworms. He envisages a bumper harvest. At the time of the cocoon harvest, war breaks out and silk production is at a standstill. He can't offload the cocoons and eventually must ship them a long way just to sell them at a loss.

*** Plot summary ends ***

This film was one of the first Leftist films to be produced. Though it bears elements of typical melodramas, at heart it was an enormous break from tradition. As such, it was quite a courageous experiment. (Incidentally, it didn't do very well at the box office when first released, but was highly praised by the Communist party when it came to power.) The film is sometimes almost documentary in style, like a Chinese Robert Flaherty, especially when it concentrates the camera on the details of silk production. At other times, the fluid camera movements recall the work of Murnau. As a mixture of genres, it's hard to say whether it is successful or not. Is it a documentary about the national condition that has been personalised through the lens of a single village or is it a socially-aware fiction? I think it succeeds more as the first. It's tone, even in spite of the dramatic aspects, is simple and unadorned. Through one story, that of an impoverished village, it thrusts forward that of China itself, impoverished and humiliated by foreign exploitation, military attack, and by its own superstitions and resistance to the modernisation of its industries.

Seeing it now, seventy years later, its historical import is obvious. 'Spring Silkworms' encapsulated so many of the problems plaguing Republican China and stands as a valuable historical document. As such, it retains an important humane aspect, firmly rooted in reality, an aspect long lost by the more propagandistic films that Chinese leftists produced later when further radicalised by a worsening national situation.

Additional note: Though listed here as having a 'mono' soundtrack, the film is in fact silent, with title cards. The DVD copy I viewed did have a musical track of no great merit.
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"New Life Movement" film - An interesting time-capsule
18 September 2006
National Customs was the last film that Ruan Lingyu made, and it is dedicated to her memory. After her swansong in 'New Women', with its real-life parallels, this film comes like an afterthought, more akin to Xiao Wanyi (Small Toys) which, as it happens, also co-starred Li Lili. These two actress play sisters, Zhang Tao and Zhang Lan, both graduates from Middle School, who are considering what to do with their education. They wind up continuing their education in Shanghai, where Zhang Lan (Ruan Lingyu) pursues her studies in a Spartan fashion, while her younger sister plays around and learns all about 'being modern', which seems to consist of wearing makeup and alluring clothes, as well as a freer approach to interaction between the sexes.

It is here that the theme of the 'New Life' movement pops up. This movement was initiated in 1934 by Chiang Kai-shek with the aim of returning China to Confucian social ethics by the rejection of Western-styled individualism and indulgence. As the film goes on, the 'modern' versus the 'traditional' society comes to be embodied in the disagreements between the sisters.

While ably supported by the rest of the cast (including several familiar faces from the Shanghai film industry), the stars of the show are Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili. They have been very well cast and use their talents appropriately.

The plot, while tending towards melodrama in the early stages, quickly turns to social issues which were of mounting importance for Republican China. In its attitudes, the film becomes an interesting time-capsule of the New Life era, and it is probably more important as a historical document than as simple entertainment.

The print used for the DVD I viewed wasn't in bad condition, but the transfer was quite blurred in places. Perhaps in the future a better version can be produced. But as with many films of that era, one must be glad that they have survived at all.
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Engaging psycho-drama with thriller elements - a fine balancing act
8 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
As the title suggests, this title is basically a story about two women: Marie and Ninni, who, at the start of the film, are both very pregnant, looking forward to becoming mothers together.

** Slight spoiler alert **

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. Ninni's baby is discovered - in a routine checkup - to have died in utero. Marie, in contrast, gives birth to a healthy young lad. Conflicting emotions torment both the sisters: joy and guilt, mourning and jealousy. Soon, Marie becomes suspicious of the attentions her sister is giving the child, and senses something sinister at work. As relationships frazzle, older family secrets bubble to the surface. If everything happens for a reason, can the death of a baby be a catalyst for a greater healing?

** Spoilers end **

Obviously, a film of this kind is not going to be easy going, though a fairly wide range of emotions are involved, and the ending is strangely uplifting. Marie and Ninni are both rounded, but frail, human beings. (It also helps that they are very well acted.) Their respective husbands - who are also given considerable screen time - support them as best they can, juggling their spouses' problems with work commitments. And Harry, the father of the title, tries his best to keep things together as issues from his own past surface.

Rather than a straight drama, a few thriller elements have been worked into the plot without the movie drifting over into simple thriller territory either. It is a balancing act that is well achieved by the director. The use of flashbacks and the representation of subjective reality is also well done, contributing to the total effect of the tale.

I must say that I watched this movie with little foreknowledge, and was pleasantly surprised. It took me to places I hadn't expected it to take me, and mixed genres in an interesting way. A couple of notches above standard family dramas, it is definitely worth a watch.
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Fei tian (1996)
Spectacular setting for offbeat and entertaining period-piece
26 August 2006
Fei Tian, or Accidental Legend quite surprised me. I had already seen another film by the same director, Grandma and Her Ghosts, which was an animated feature from Taiwan, and expected another Taiwanese film. This movie is, however, set in the very dry, dusty hills of NW China, which are the visual highlight of this film.

This is not to say that the story itself was not worthwhile. It was, in fact, an unusual mix of adventure, humour and social commentary, in which several strands of narrative are woven into a well-balanced hole that, while following some genre conventions, was not as predictable as it might have been.

The main threads of the plot have to do with children from a 'thief village', which consists of outcasts left behind after an assortment of insurrections and revolts (White Lotus cult, Heavenly Kingdom). The children of the village have well-honed thieving skills that are, in the story, employed by a Fagin-type character who leads a group of crippled beggars. The village is facing starvation, and its inhabitants are reduced to eating leaves, while the village elders try techniques and prayers for rain from the various cults they have sprung from, be they Buddhist or Christian. Miao Sanshun, a legendary Robin-hood like figure, seems to be their last hope, but he has not been heard from for ten years. Will he return, if he is still alive? Has he already returned? Another thread of the story involves the imperial exams, faked exam papers, corrupt officials, and the golden eyes of an official seal which have gone missing.

The characters are all well-painted, and the film takes its time drawing together the plot lines towards an inspired climax. It touches on a number of issues, such as social exclusion, corruption, the burden of identity, and the question of separating lies from truth, real from fake. At heart, however, the film is entertainment, not philosophy, and these questions spring naturally and unobtrusively from the narrative.

At over two hours, it does seem a little slow-paced at times, but the acting is fine, there is much good humour, and the natural setting is put to excellent use. If anything, the huge dry hills dwarf the human drama playing out on them, diminishing its importance 'in the grand scheme of things'. But these are 'the little people', the oppressed and marginalised, so perhaps this inhospitable landscape serves as a symbol too. In the end, it is no more inhospitable than 'decent' society itself, which wants to be protected from these outcasts, even while it constantly harasses and exploits them.
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Diamond Hill (2000)
Worthwhile low-budgeter from Hong Kong
15 August 2006
Diamond Hill is a film which seems to have been extremely over-looked, though perhaps ripe for discovery by those looking to branch out from Fruit Chan's independent films into similar territory.

Diamond Hill looks and feels like just such an indie film, which is not to say that it is amateurish. It is actually very well put together and superbly acted. But it has an experimental quality to it, an adventurousness that pushes the audience towards the unfamiliar, as if trying to see how much they might be willing to accept, plot-wise and stylistically.

The plot is not hard to follow, though much of it is conveyed through flashback. These flashbacks were shot on digital video, which gives them a unique feel, and also helps the watcher separate the past from the present (which is also a problem for the characters themselves, it seems). I don't wish to say much about the plot, because it is full of twists and revelations, but will limit myself to saying that coping with baggage from the past and dealing with relationships old and new seems to be the focus of proceedings.

The director, Pou-soi Cheang, employs a range of styles, varying from schmaltzy nostalgia to horror to (almost) slapstick humour. Yet it all coheres and makes sense, which is quite an achievement, especially for indie films.

I viewed this on VCD, which contained a far-from-perfect transfer (though thankfully the subtitles were quite legible), yet even these deficiencies didn't really undermine the film at all, and perhaps even contributed to the film's overall feel.

I'd recommend this film to anyone who likes Fruit Chan's films, or Chinese indie or low-budget films in general. It's well worth a look.
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Human Comedy (2001)
Interlocking tales from Taiwan
6 August 2006
Having seen the other movies by Hung Hung, I must say that this is certainly the best of them. It consists of four tales, fairly separate, though the characters from one sometimes appear in another. The main link between the tales seems to be thematic, organised around different stories from the 'Book of Filial Pieties', a very influential classical work that tells stories about children's acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of their elders. The title itself seems an evocation of Balzac's Comedy Humaine, and rather than suggesting a slapstick kind of 'comedy', it consists in the observation of human characters and the relations between them.

As for the stories themselves, the first is about a lonely shoe store sales girl whose only love is Tony Leung. She barely seems to live her life, not interacting with, or even noticing, the people around her. Her fantasy world seems to be all she cares about.

The second story is about A-Xing, one of the players in an avant-garde play called The White Tide. His problems are divided between the finicky director (who is dying of AIDS), and his conservative mother, who will be coming to Taipei to see the play.

The third story is about a couple looking for a new flat on account of the fiancée's extreme dislike of the roaches in their current flat.

The fourth story is about a real estate salesman visiting his wife in hospital during a typhoon.

All of the tales seem to entail the theme of sacrifice for another, though this theme is not hammered into the viewer. The characters are allowed to exist very much as real people rather than cut-outs in a moral fable. There was plenty of humour also, and some real laugh-out-loud moments, though the humour was deeper than the usual sitcom variety, and came naturally out of the interactions between characters, which when seen by a detached eye, can indeed be quite entertaining. The closest thing I can think of to this film would be the Dekalog series of Kieslowski, though more concise and humorous.

The actors all acquit themselves well, which is important for a character based movie. The cinematography was thoughtful, without being obtrusively overdone, and the direction was, on the whole, just right for the story being told.

The Human Comedy is a film that should be quite accessible for any viewer. Those already interested in Taiwanese or Asian cinema should give it a look, though others should also find plenty to enjoy in it too.
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Miami Guns (2000– )
Extremely fun anime
26 June 2006
The first thing that can be said about Miami Guns is how fun it is to watch. Though a police show, the approach is satirical and often quite wacky. Though the formula of two very different cops trying to work together to solve crime is hardly new, the way it is carried out is fresh and funny.

Yao is rich and spoiled, and only joined the Miami Police because she likes the limelight to be found in fighting crime, as well as the chance to drive fast. She is also quite a fighter, relishing the chance for a contest. Her partner, Lu, is the daughter of the chief superintendent. She is much more sedate, and thinks before acting. Also assisting the pair is Kaken, the (female) technician. The chief, Lu's father, wears an afro and is usually furious about some cock-up. (Needless to say, Yao antics account for much of his irritation). Also appearing from time to time is the enigmatic Julio Peacemaker, and his pet baby alligator. All of these characters seem like true people, albeit caricatured. In fact, much of the humour depends upon the interactions between them, their conflicting ways of thinking and acting, as well as idiosyncrasies.

Most of the episodes are self-contained cases, though there is an enemy who appears in several of the later episodes, and the grand finale is expanded over two episodes. While the buddy-cop setup and even some of the cases initially seem clichéd, the writers have added extra elements, as well as lashings of humour and spontaneous energy, to attain to a great degree of originality and enjoyment.

The animation is quite good for a TV series, and the characters are well-drawn (which is just as well since the plot writers looked tirelessly for reasons for them to be deprived of articles of clothing). The voice-acting is quite well done, which is important for personality-driven comedy, and even the English dub is okay. The opening and closing music does the job required of it, the songs being enjoyable, if undistinguished.

In sum, this is a highly enjoyable police-themed comedy series, with convincing characters, nice animation, and plenty of laughs and novel ideas. Fans of FLCL or Excel Saga (and Mezzo DSA) should definitely check it out.
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Cop Abula (2000)
By-the-book cop show with some good performances
27 April 2006
Cop Abula is the first film, as far as I know, directed by Khan Lee, the brother of Ang Lee. It is a by-the-numbers police yarn redeemed by good performances, a sense of humour, and some nice accents.

Abula is, you may have guessed, a policeman in Taiwan. Most of his department are corrupt. He is a widower, but has a teenage son with whom he is struggling to see eye-to-eye. The two main story arcs concern a very pregnant mainlander who has arrived in Taiwan illegally to look for the father of her child. The other main story has to do with a criminal gang - the same one paying off most of the police department.

Storywise, there is nothing much new here, but the actor playing the sloppy-but-honest Abula plays his role with relish, contributing immensely to the enjoyment of the film. The gangsters are very stereotypical, especially one of the pony-tailed, strutting thugs, and the cigar-chomping, wine-tasting boss. Li Yu, who plays the pregnant Xiao Qing, also does an excellent job with her rather sympathetic character.

A variety of accents are on display, which is of additional interest for those who like to hear regional varieties of language, and this is one of the distinctly Taiwanese aspects of the film, which is otherwise quite light on social commentary, apart from showing something of the fate of illegal immigrants from the mainland.

All in all, not a bad film, though very standard plot-wise, the title character is quite engaging, and dominates every scene he is in, lifting this film from the predictable to the enjoyable.
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Red Persimmon (1996)
Director Wang Tung reminisces about growing up as a mainlander in Taiwan
24 April 2006
Red Persimmon begins with a family preparing to flee mainland China after the communist victory in 1949. Leaving in a hurry, they can take little with them, while also hoping for a quick return home. When the family takes a boat to Taiwan, the father, a KMT commander, stays behind. The mother, with her nine children and their grandma, take up residence in a Japanese style house in Taipei and wait for news.

So begins this charming film, which expresses itself through vignettes that eventually cover a long period of time, rather than through a tightly woven plot. It is perhaps one of the director's most personal films, since it is quite autobiographical. It is also quite long and loosely structured, which suits the reminiscent feel of the material well. There would be little point in recounting details of the plot, and it suffices to highlight a few basic themes: the need of the family, and especially the father, to 'move on' after losing the mainland and everything they left behind there. There are the usual struggles of growing up, growing old, and struggling to make a living, though none of these are greatly emphasised so as to become long story arcs.

So loosely structured, even unfocused, and yet it works, much like human life itself when it is lived. These are the director's memories of growing up. Many in his Taiwanese audience, no doubt, share them. As such, it is a film which concentrates on the mainlanders' experiences to a far greater extent than their effect on the native Taiwanese. Other director's however, have touched on such issues, and there is no obligation to cover every aspect of a given situation. This is a personal film from the director, and relates his own family's experiences. As such, it does a commendable job, especially in capturing a 'period feel' (though without the musical soundtrack). It may no be to everyone's taste, but readers will be able to judge from this brief description whether it may be of interest to them or not.
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How do you say 'Film Noir' in Taiwanese
19 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Having first seen 'Double Vision' by Chen Kuo-fu, I've been trying to track down other films by the same director. Both 'The Personals' and 'Peony Pavilion' I found interesting, and original enough to confirm that the director is a talent worth investigating. "Treasure Island" is an earlier film of his, and certainly worth tracking down.

The structure of the plot reminded me most of David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet', though another reviewers suggestion of parallels with Polanski's 'Frantic' is also appropriate. It begins with a group of young friends in Taipei who spend a lot of time together drinking and who communicate by walkie-talkie. The main character, Fong, works at a karaoke bar, and his girlfriend Ping works at a Kodak shop. They have problems typical of people their age living in a metropolis like Taipei.

*** Plot discussion begins here***

One day, Fong spots an attractive woman sitting in a coffee shop. When her two male companions leave, she invites him down and they talk for a while. When she leaves, however, she leaves behind her diary, a piece of absent-mindedness that will have implications for Fong and his friends. The mysterious woman, Miss Tan (played by the photogenic Veronica Yip), it turns out, is attached to a gangster / businessman played by Jack Gao (who seems to have been born to play such roles - as in Goodbye South, Goodbye, and Millennium Mambo). Further, she has recorded details in her diary that are rather 'sensitive'. Needless to say that things become complicated, especially after she is 'kidnapped' by other gangsters, and extortion threats are made against him. As Fong, and his girlfriend Ping, are drawn into the action, the movie builds steadily towards its violent, but appropriate, climax.

***Plot discussion ended***

There is plenty of atmosphere in this film, especially in its expositions of the dark underbelly lurking in Taipei. There are also several memorable images - a truck lit up by neon, advertising the 'Ark' karaoke bar, as it is maniacally driven in a car chase, for example. There are also some very funny moments. The acting is convincing, and Jack Gao stands out especially as the menacing crime head. The photography is colourful and complements varied aspects of the story, agreeing well with the city's neon façade, while heightening tension when required. Stylistically, I would say that it follows film noir conventions though in a modern environment. True to the Taipei setting, both Taiwanese and Mandarin are spoken, another interesting feature for Formosa-philes out there.

I really enjoyed this film, yet another distinctive tale by Chen Kuo-fu, an intelligent, well-paced thriller with fine performances and moody photography. Recommended.
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A lifetime of contradictions: excellent portrayal of social activism in Marseilles.
18 April 2006
I began watching 'My Father is an Engineer' with no preconceptions at all, not having seen any other films from the director, nor knowing the subject of this film. It began with the a couple much like Joseph and Mary, only in a modern French setting. This fable continued for a little longer, until it became revealed that it was a story being read to a near-catatonic woman by an older lady. The younger of the women turns out to be Natasha, a pediatrician amongst the poor in Marseilles, and a political activist. She is the central character, and the rest of the film delves into her story, through flashbacks, and the contradiction that she represents.

Natasha, it turns out, was born of a Christian mother (the lady reading her favourite stories in the belief that they may help her out of her current dumb state), and a communist father. This pairing is symbolised best in her nativity sets, which are both quite elaborate, but which, as a concession to her father, lack the infant Jesus in the manger. Much of Natasha's life up until the event which provoked her current state of incommunication (shown near the end) involved another doctor called Jeremy, her long-term lover. Jeremy has a family of his own, though these are never shown, and apart from social work and politics, he is Natasha's true love, even if his own politics seems distinct to hers.

Set closer to the present is another love story, another pairing of contradictions: a teenage girls, born of immigrant parents, and her beau, Rachid, against whom the girl's father has taken a great disliking.

I won't go into the many revelations relating to these relationships and their evolution, but it is interesting that the director Guedigian is himself an arch-communist - interesting because this film is far more involved than the political rant one might have expected. The characters are all well-rounded, convincing combinations of idealism and personal weakness. Their complexity is reflected in a combination of religious imagery and social realism. One might even say that through the story of the Nativity a balance is found: the Mother of God does indeed find no welcome at the inn. It is certainly a theme that is returned to several times in the film.

The acting by all concerned is superb. Apparently they have worked a lot together, and they really seem to gel as a unit, while playing their roles with utter conviction. The story progresses smoothly, keeping the viewer hooked for each new revelation about Natasha, her past and her present. There are also some political points well worth chewing upon also, though, consistent with the tone of the film, they are as much matters of simple humanity as they are about politics. I don't know how this film stands in relation to the rest of the director's work, but I found it convincing, insightful and entertaining.
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(Post-)Modern take on classic Chinese drama (which should be known first)
14 March 2006
Peony Pavilion is one of those films that relies on the audience's knowledge of the source material for its meaning to be clear. In this case, the source is the classical drama and opera of the same name, and the film will be mostly obscure for anyone not familiar with the story.

For the sake of the uninitiated, the story is as follows: An official's daughter is virtually enclosed in her home, and knows nothing of the world outside. When her maid tells her about a lovely garden just behind her house, she finds herself obsessed with the thought of it and presses the maid to take her there. She adores the place, and after returning home, dreams that she is back there again, this time in the company of a young scholar who she has never seen before. She falls in love with this dream lover and refuses to accept the reality of her confined situation in the real world. Preferring her dream world, she dies. Only in her next life will she meet the man she loves.

I would not call this film inaccessible to a non-Chinese viewer. Once the story of the original drama is known, it is easy to locate the parallel plot in this modern version. This plot deals with Li Li and her friend Mi Mi. They are high school students cramming for college entrance exams. Without going into details about the plot, it mirrors the source material in many details. Li Li, for example is clearly the official's daughter 'imprisoned' by the pressures of having to succeed in exams, and also by a mother who is extremely 'religious', and strict with her about coming home on time. Her friend Mi Mi clearly plays the role of the maid who stimulates the eventual crisis. The 'garden' of her dreams is still very much the kind one would see in a 'costume drama', as she herself admits. Given that the classical drama is so well known (much like Shakespeare for English speakers), one might wonder whether she is unconsciously paralleling its plot, or seeking solace by evoking it, by imagining herself as the young woman, pining for the love of a young man she will only meet in her next life.

The second half of the film is harder to nail down in terms of the original drama. It deals with Yu Mei, a singer who rents the flat where Li Li used to live. In some ways, it parallels the same story (since the singer is also 'trapped' in her modern existence). In other ways, it complements the first story, since the singer will be more closely linked to the character of the scholar rather than the official's daughter. Again, it is hard to pin down whether her life is paralleling the play, or whether she is consciously seeking solace in it. In the end, I suppose, both cases can be true. The characters see their lives mirroring the play, and as they do so, draw closer to the characters they identify with.

The acting is competent, but there are no tour-de-force performances. Rene Liu, as the singer in the second story, stands out among the female leads. The background music helps the story along without being overdone, and there is also a nice pop song sung by the singer Yu Mei (though I don't know if it was sung by Rene Liu, or dubbed from someone else). The film also looks excellent - which is no surprise, since the cinematographer was Christopher Doyle (best known for his work with Wong Kar Wai).

Given the reliance of this film on the classical source, and the uses made of it, it is interesting to go back and think over the details of the film to see how aspects of the film parallel the original drama. This is a fruitful exercise, and leads to additional insights or angles on the film. The uses made of the source material are the star of this film and the reason for it. As a kind of self-conscious adaptation of the original drama, the film is quite interesting. Those looking for a straightforward drama may be put off by this kind of exercise, however.
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Three Suns (2004)
From a non-Swedish perspective - I thought it was pretty good
6 March 2006
As happens, one's own views on a particular movie will vary the majority received opinion. Most of the time, the reason for an under- or over-rating is comprehensible. In the present case, however, I am at a complete loss as to understand such an extraordinarily low vote. Is this the same movie that I saw? The date, the cast and plot description would indicate that it is. The only reason I can think of is that since the other reviewers currently listed are Swedish, perhaps the majority of ratings are from Swedes also. Is a native Swede, therefore, able to pick out some particular aspect of the film which I was oblivious too - a cultural or linguistic point perhaps? A brief look at the film will be required first. Three Suns is set in Sweden in the Middle Ages. Some of the men have left to join the crusades, and the black death is a recent arrival. The film focuses on one woman who is waiting for news about her husband, Ulf. Upon hearing about his imminent return, she leaves her two children in the care of her father in law and sets out for the coast to meet him there. Without giving away too much of the slender plot, she meets various people, good , bad, generous, selfish, infectious, healthy, along the way.

Generically speaking, then, this is a road movie, the journey of a woman done very much in a woman's terms - and I think this is where so many of the negative reviews stem from, not out of conscious sexism, but from the terms on which this journey is carried out, its tempo, its motivation and its denouement. Without wishing to push a particular stereotype, I think it is possible to comprehend much of the action in terms of a womanly response to certain situations, complete with certain foibles like impatience, vanity, impulsiveness and the occasional lapse of logic. The action makes more sense when seen in this light, with the only caveat being whether a woman would have been permitted to behave in such a manner at such a time in history, or be allowed to express so openly her opinions and attitudes. As for the other characters, I found them utterly believable, especially insofar as superstition and selfishness surge forth when disaster seems imminent.

As for the actors, I thought they did well. I haven't seen many recent Swedish films, so wasn't thinking about how a particular actor or actress usually looked (something which also seems to have irked some reviewers). Nor was I particularly distressed by the wigs, having had the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy to get used to them. The clothing, buildings, carriages, and so on, all seemed authentic enough to my untrained eye. The scenery was lovely to look at, and in my mind was the high point of the film. As for the language, I was reading the subtitles, so the subtleties of older versus modern Swedish were not an issue for me - the language in the subtitles seemed appropriate enough, with no glaring lapses into modern idioms. The dialogue was fairly standard, with occasional humour. There is none of the pondering depth found in, say 'The Seventh Seal', set in a similar time and place, but there is enough to occupy the viewer in the simple human interactions. The music was standard, but pleasant, complimenting the action well.

For me, this was, at face value, an enjoyable film. It was hardly earth-shatteringly original, but was competently done, with the interesting setting and attractive photography making up for a relatively uncomplicated plot, and some unusualness regarding character actions and motivations, which I've examined in this review already. I'm glad I took a risk on this one, in spite of its incomprehensibly poor rating.
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Musical story in the New Wave tradition
27 February 2006
Lament of the Sand River is the second film I have seen from the Taiwanese director Chang Chi-Yung. There other was 'Such A Life', which was a sad evocation of the poverty lived in by some Taiwanese during the sixties. This film seems to be set in the fifties, and follows Wen-Long (or Bun Liong as he is called in Taiwanese), who leaves home to join a traveling opera troupe. Along the way he contracts tuberculosis, and he is faced with the challenge of finding another job.

Mild Spoilers ahead The film begins with two important scenes: The first is where Bun Liong hides his trumpet behind his back when he meets his father outside the front gate of his house. His father is a tyrannical figure whose shadow hangs over the entire family. The second scene is where Bun Liong enters the house to discover that his family is giving away a baby to a couple from Taipei. The family's poverty will be another pivotal point in the film. In Bun Liong, then, we find a character who is trying to free himself from both poverty, and the brutal domination of his father (perhaps a symbol of patriarchal authority). He chooses the life of the musician, in obvious rejection of his father's wishes, but poverty is harder to escape, especially as a performer. Playing with the traveling opera troupe (and also in wine-houses), he makes enough to send home, but is largely unable to visit personally. He also forges friendships with other musicians, as well as the troupe manager, an actress, and later, a young woman from his hometown, demonstrating again that it is easier to escape an oppressive ideology than the fact of poverty, which follows him in the form of his illness. This, at least to me, seems to be the main theme of the film.

Mild Spoilers ended Since the main character is a musician, we see him playing trumpet, clarinet and saxophone in various styles and in various places. We are also treated to pieces of traditional opera (which was, interestingly, also shown in another film from the same director, Such a Life - perhaps it is an interest of his). As usual, the acting is in a naturalistic style, and the actors all give solid performances. As with Such a Life, the director has been careful to recreate the period, though the themes are broadly applicable to more than just the Taiwanese context. Once again, Taiwanese is spoken, though there are some portions in Mandarin.

Very much in the vein of the New Wave films from Hou (especially his early, rural films), Lament of the Sand River is at once an accurate time- (and space-) capsule, even while dealing with issues that the rest of the world can relate to. In the last shot of the film, there even appears a kind of allusion in reverse to the tunnel-shot at the beginning of Hou's Dust in the Wind. Since it fits so neatly into that particular genre, I would naturally recommend it to anyone interested in Taiwanese films, especially if looking for an heir to early Hou Hsiao Hsien. It is a serious film, but worthwhile.
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Such a Life (1997)
Realistic depiction of poverty in Taiwan
24 February 2006
'Such a Life' is quite a sad film. It is set in the sixties, in a village on the west coast of Taiwan, where many are succumbing to 'black foot', a disease caused by drinking contaminated well water. The only 'cure' is to amputate the afflicted limb, and to avoid drinking the contaminated water. Many in the village were already sick, and few could afford to have tap-water installed. At the center of the story is Ah Chung, who lives with his grandfather, who has already lost one leg to 'black foot'. In the same village also live an opera family, who are finding things increasingly difficult there, an oyster farmer, who complains that his oysters are being poisoned by a nearby pharmaceutical plant, and an assortment of children who enjoy swimming in the sea, and who bully Ah Chung. A significant portion of the action also takes place in the village school, where Ah Chung is having trouble keeping up with the fees.

'Such a Life' shares much with some of the important Taiwanese New Wave films, in particular the poverty of many native Taiwanese, especially those living in rural areas. the story is a largely unsentimental depiction of grinding poverty alleviated by few joys. The language spoken, according the DVD I viewed, is Min Nan, which appears to be a Fujianese dialect, much like Taiwanese itself, and this adds to the authentic feel of the film. The acting is naturalistic and convincing, from both young and old, though the cast appears to consist largely of amateurs. Some of the photography is excellent, especially long shots of the surroundings, though the camera does not avoid the less palatable ugliness of destitution. There are, however, also some short sections of opera included which offer a colourful break from the drudgery of daily life.

Very much a New Wave film, 'Such a Life' is the opposite of escapist entertainment. Anyone interested in that movement, or who likes the early films of Hou Hsiao Hsien should find this film interesting. It is a serious work of art, and a memorable one at that.
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Well-acted comedy
20 February 2006
This film from Taiwan is quite different to the usual Taiwanese films, at least those most familiar to Westerners, such as the works of Hou, Tsai and Yang. In comparison, this film is quite light. Even so, apart from the entertainment factor, it does present some aspects of Taiwanese culture that non-Taiwanese might find interesting, but which Taiwanese themselves may find clichéd.

It is a comedy about a loser and the trouble he gets himself and his family into when he borrows money from Black Dog (a gang leader) under false pretenses, namely the death of his father, who was a friend of Black Dog. As expected, the tangle of lies and false appearances grows uncontrollably, involving his wife, a policeman brother (who aspires to become a Taoist master), his wife and her team of pole-dancers.

Thus far, the plot is fairly standard, and though there are a couple of surprises along the way, the denouement is hardly unforeseeable. The real strength of the film was the set of performances by the actors, each of whom played their parts excellently. They were, of course, playing well-written characters, which always helps. Even the minor characters were given scenes that helped round them out, turn them into people with a history and a personality. Whether enough is provided for each of these story lines is arguable, however, though I thought it was an effort in the right direction.

Besides the quality of the characters, I also found interesting the incidental insights into traditional culture, in particular, the Taiwanese funeral traditions which, given the plot, receive ample attention.

As a comedy, it is hard to say if this film works entirely, and certainly not because of an outstandingly original plot (though it does have its moments). Rather, it is from the strength of its numerous characters and their entertaining performances that more enjoyment is derived. There is a nice balance of drama, visual and spoken humour, as well as a sense of the absurd, so that this film operates on more than one level. Whether this is a strength or weakness is debatable.

Both Mandarin and Taiwanese are spoken, and the latter adds extra flavour, especially for the interested non-native. Ironically, a Taiwanese viewer may find it all over-simplified and stereotypical, as did the reviewer in one Taipei newspaper, but for the present reviewer, at least, it was a diverting couple of hours.
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Off-beat film that works
19 February 2006
This is one strange film, on many levels. Initially, there is the situation of a Spaniard living in London, muddling his way through by buying and selling junk. He is friends with an Italian, with whom he speaks in Spanish, but rents with an Englishman (his 'business' partner). Next door there lives a Swede who seems permanently high and paints everything orange. Most of the action revolves around the purchase, sale, recovery (etc) of a box and a photograph which are also being desperately chased by another couple of businessmen for reasons that are unclear for much of the movie, and which I will not go into now. Suffice to say that much of the action becomes clearer as the plot progresses.

The narration is in rapid Spanish, while the dialogue is in both Spanish and English, depending on who is speaking to whom. I wouldn't say that the acting was uniformly first class, but was good enough for this kind of comic caper. The soundtrack was modern, with plenty of songs to move to.

There are a few signs of budgetary constraints, but viewing the film as a whole, with its energy and inventiveness, the filmmakers have stretched their Euros pretty well. It's a good example of what can be done with a few original ideas and the cojones to follow them through.
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Nuan (2003)
Yet another quality Chinese rural drama
18 February 2006
Among the many genres of Chinese film, the rural drama is one that stands out. There are those of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, as well as many others such as 'Postman in the Mountains. I certainly prefer them to those that pick at the ugly scab of the Cultural Revolution. While historically important, the events of the Cultural Revolution, much like the horrors of war, are hard to relate to for those who did not live through it. Which is not to deny the importance of such films, but the simple humanity of films such as the aforementioned rural dramas, and this film 'Nuan', weaves a spell that is hard to shake off.

This film takes place in and around a modest, but well-watered village in a picturesque part of Jiangxi (I think). It is wonderfully green, and notwithstanding the hardships of rural life, looks quite idyllic. The narrator, Jinghe, has returned after about ten years away, and is actually leaving for the city again when he come across Nuan, the woman of the title. She suffers from a limp, and still nurses a grievance against Jinghe, one that is explained as the film progresses. Jinghe returns to the village with her, hoping perhaps to right the wrongs of the past, and the viewer is taken along too, through numerous reminiscences and lengthy flashbacks. Jinghe also meets Nuan's daughter, and her husband, the mute and volatile A Ba, of whom Nuan had actually been afraid when younger.

All four of the main characters are excellently portrayed by the actors, though the Japanese actor (Terujuki Kagawa) playing A Ba stood out in particular. The camera-work was well done, exploiting the interesting aspects of interiors and exteriors. There was so much to look at in some shots, that I'm glad they were held for long enough to enjoy more fully. On top of this, the music was really icing on the cake, particularly the bamboo flute, which was so evocative of time and place, of tranquil contemplation and bittersweet nostalgia.

I heartily recommend this movie to anyone already interested in Chinese film, or even as an ideal introduction for those new to Chinese film due to its attractiveness and accessibility. It is a worthy addition to the genre of the rural drama, is well written, well acted and beautifully photographed.
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Film noir en español
8 February 2006
I'm quite a fan of the noir genre - the lighting, the seedy side of life, the femmes fatales. Apart from the occasional film, such as 'The Man Who Wasn't There', the genre is pretty much a thing of the past.

Which brings me to 'Ants in the Mouth'. Set in the late fifties, it exploits the period atmosphere with lovely automobiles (of the kind still seen in Havana), music, fashions and so on. The attention to period detail also includes news snippets alluding to the coming communist victory on the island.

The plot is also classic 'noir' territory: an ex-con, tracking down his money and his dame, meeting a variety of hoodlums and wealthy mobsters. There are enough twists in the story to keep the viewer watching, though those familiar with the genre will already be expecting them.

So far, the film is true to its aspirations. What I think it really missed was a pair of stars with that 'spark' between them, like Bogart and Bacall, or even Mitchum and Greer. The lead actors, Eduard Fernandez and Ariadna Gil, both Catalonians, also play Catalonians in the film, so I suppose they were chosen with this in mind, and they do quite well with the material - well, just not superbly.

Overall, this is an interesting addition to the noir category. Its location and period detail are its real draw-card, with a story that is standard, and acting that is very competent, but which hardly sets the screen alight.
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The Cabbie (2000)
Energetic, anarchic (and slightly black) comedy that works.
29 January 2006
Cabbie is a film which is quite easy to classify and rate, but hard to summarize. It is an energetic (and often black) comedy that hits the target on many counts. So much for genre, put what about plot? From other reviews, one might think that it is only about the efforts of a young cabbie to win over the woman he has fallen for (a traffic cop), but this only really takes up about the last third of the movie. Before then, one is introduced to the members of his family: his father (who owns the taxi company), his mother (who is a coroner), his sister (a budding chemist who later works for a drug company) and the man she marries (another chemist). These introductions are fleshed out by several episodes from the characters' history, and all of these are actually a long flashback from the mind of the cabbie himself. An assortment of such devices, such as flashbacks, digressions, voiceovers (and even the on-screen fast-forwarding of action) occur throughout the film, contributing to its slightly manic, anarchic spirit, though without losing the viewer in the process.

The humour is very well done, mixing absurd situations, endearing performances, and an enthusiastic dark streak with refreshing originality. The performances are excellent, especially from the lead actor, Chu Chung-Heng as the cabbie himself, who is well supported by those playing the rest of his family. Japanese actress Miyazawa Rie also stands out as the attractive traffic cop whom he falls for.

In sum, this is a thoroughly enjoyable comedy, with an infectious sense of the absurd and a flavoursome dark streak that prevents it from becoming 'cute'. I don't know if an English subtitled version exists anywhere, but this film could be enjoyed by anyone with a sense of humour and really does deserve a wide audience.
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