a fistful of renminbi

mike walsh: hong kong international film festival

Let the Bullets Fly

Let the Bullets Fly

AT THE FILMART MARKET THAT ACCOMPANIES THE HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (HKIFF), THIS YEAR THE TALK WAS ALL OF THE RISE OF CHINESE CINEMA AND WHETHER WE WERE SEEING A GOLDEN AGE. THE IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO THIS QUESTION WAS A RESOUNDING YES, WITH THE BOX OFFICE ROCKETING PAST 10 BILLION RENMINBI ($A1.45B) AND A RECORD NUMBER OF FILMS PRODUCED LAST YEAR.

This represents hefty growth, but the longer the panellists tried to talk up China, the more the doubts started to emerge. China’s box office still doesn’t represent such a great advance on Australia’s $1.1 billion, and it seems there are only 20 million active cinema-goers in China. Other revenue sources such as video, television and the internet remain sadly underdeveloped and, worst yet, of the 536 films made in China last year, only 100 got any kind of distribution. While Chinese films still have almost 60% of their domestic market, this is attributable to a handful of blockbusters.

A lot of films are being made throughout East Asia right now. The most interesting are shot cheaply on digital video, sometimes with seed money from the promotional events that accompany Asian festivals. They go largely unseen within China and the industry folk at FilMart have little interest in them. One of the few places where they mingle is at HKIFF, so it seems an ideal place to sample developments on either side of the Chinese cinema chasm and also to consider the middle ground.

let the bullets fly

The biggest recent hit in Chinese cinema is Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly (2010). This is a remarkable and welcome development, not only because it is a pretty good movie but also because Jiang has shown himself to be a fine filmmaker, one whose last film, The Sun Also Rises, wilfully embraced all the obscurities of art cinema.

The new film is set during the 1920s, a transitional period when China was struggling to move from peasantry to modernity. It is flush with two-fisted automatic pistol action and flashy CGI effects, but succeeds in using digital effects for something more than just spectacle. In fact, spectacle is held in check for moments of flourish, while character interaction is still the main driver. Jiang plays a bandit who starts out simply wanting to make a fortune and ends up achieving something more. There are some clear analogies to the spaghetti western here. The film is a poker game between Jiang and an urbane warlord played by Chow Yun-Fat—two smiling antagonists learning mutual respect even while each plots to kill the other. This battle of wits is all macho co-operation on the surface and simmering animosity beneath it. Somehow, China will take a step forward out of this confrontation, though each of the protagonists will be left behind.

Devils on the Doorstep (2000) showed Jiang to be a fabulous stylist and this latest film demonstrates a confidence and storytelling finesse. It is one of those rare instances where a blockbuster can capture a mass audience’s respect for pleasurable innovation. Significantly, it marks a step away from the overblown, period martial arts fantasies which have weighed down big budget Chinese production for a decade now.

old dog

On the other side of the divide is Old Dog, a cheap, digital feature from Tibetan Pema Tsuden. The story is of a Tibetan mastiff owned by an old man. These dogs are in demand by Chinese businessmen and the old sheepherder is besieged with offers to sell before the dog is stolen. Of course, this is all open to interpretation as an allegory of Tibet’s situation in relation to the Han Chinese. Tibetan culture can provide no place of respite from the demands of the Chinese.

On the other hand, we can also see the dog as simply a dog. There is a resolute refusal to take the easy option by allegorising or sentimentalising the story. The dog is the item of exchange that keeps the narrative going, but it has no name and is never touched or spoken to by its master. Things rarely need to be spoken in this film. One scene is shared between a father and his son who has just been arrested. They say hardly anything but pass a lighter back and forth with an eloquence that speaks loudly.

There is also a lot of spare time in the film: time to show guys playing pool in the street, time to show a herd of cattle pass by. One memorable shot is sustained so that we can watch a sheep stuck on one side of a fence try to get through to rejoin the flock.

Narratives are like bags—you can put a lot of things in them. Pema’s bag has a lot of space in it for wonderful things. The camera is kept back from the action, not to distance you from the characters in the style of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but to place the characters in their environment. Part of the project of the film is simply to show you what small Tibetan towns are these days, with their mixture of wide, muddy, rubble-strewn streets and cloud-adorned mountains; where trucks and motorcycles share the streets with goats and cattle.

Chongqing Blues

Chongqing Blues

chongqing blues

To be stuck in the middle of the Chinese cinema is an uncomfortable place. Dan Edwards’ accompanying HKIFF piece (p15) touches on the ungainly way that Jia Zhangke is trying to scramble across the divide. A few years ago Wang Xiaoshuai, director of Beijing Bicycle (2000), was grouped together with Jia as one of the key figures of the so-called Sixth Generation. So what if the Fifth Generation was largely a marketing device and that the 6G tag never took off as a label in the broad post-Tiananmen territory of low budget grunge in which filmmakers who were never going to be accepted by the Party made China look like hell on earth.

Fifteen years on, this miserabilist orthodoxy has run out of steam, Wang is no longer a cutting edge figure, but he has a new film, Chongqing Blues (2010). He isn’t a particularly distinctive stylist or social critic, but he is still a solid filmmaker. The film is dominated by Wang Xueqi’s fine, understated performance as Lin, a middle-aged sea captain returning after an absence of 15 years to make peace with his past. The sailor is home from the sea because his estranged son, who hates but loves his absent father, has been gunned down in a hostage-taking standoff.

Like many recent Chinese films, this one addresses the generational gulf in China. Lin shares the problems of millions of migrant workers who have left their families to earn a living, only to find that they have to learn how to be fathers on their return. Wang follows the action in longish handheld takes as the father wanders a city he barely recognises. His son’s crime and death grow out of the way that Chinese youth is poised on a knife-edge between aimlessness and the lure of spurious success.

An epilogue: my HKIFF ended on a strange note with a visit to the HK Film Archive for a screening of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive’s restoration of The Man from Hong Kong (1975). Coming so soon after Mario Andreacchio’s Dragon Pearl and the formation of an Australia-China Film Alliance to try to attach Australian cinema to the coat-tails of the Chinese market, Brian Trenchard-Smith’s delirious mixture of popular film elements seemed especially poignant as a road not taken, and as a nostalgic remembrance of action genre traditions in Australia and Hong Kong that are now, alas, dead. The film is a reminder that there was a brief moment when Australian and Chinese film cultures briefly touched and that bringing them back into alignment remains an elusive quest.

[The renminbi (literally people’s currency ) or the yuan is the official currency in the mainland of the People’s Republic of China. Eds]

Hong Kong International Film Festival, March 20-April 5, 2011, www.hkiff.org.hk

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 14

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 June 2011
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