FEBRUARY 16, 2014
This romantic-comedy roundelay gets better as it gradually moves away from comedy toward more sentimental material.
Taking a rather blatant page from the Richard Curtis playbook of romantic-comedy roundelays, “Beijing Love Story” serves up a chocolate box of disparate narrative sweets, offered in episodic rather than interwoven form. This first feature for writer-director Chen Sicheng (also a member of the ensemble cast) spins off his 2012 Chinese TV series of the same name, albeit sans any returning characters or story threads. Pleasant results manage a trick rather infrequent for this genre, in that the pic actually gets better as it gradually moves away from comedy toward more sentimental material. Launched on Valentine’s Day (natch) in various markets, including nine North American screens, the film set a single-day record for a 2D film in China with $16.1 million, and is sure to generate sequels and imitations.
Running heedlessly toward the requisite “girl of his dreams” in traffic, young architect Chen Feng (helmer Chen) is promptly creamed by a passing bus. Reflecting that he never imagined his story would end this way as he flies through the air, he recalls the fateful night he met Shen Yan (Tong Liya) at a friend’s bachelor party. It’s love at first sight, and surprisingly — especially given that he’s initially very drunk and vomits endlessly — she feels likewise. The problem is that he has no assets, and her parents would much prefer she marry a rich suitor already waiting in the wings.
Chen’s boss, Wu Zheng (Wang Xuebing), merrily brags that over a decade of marriage, he’s cheated nonstop on his wife, Zhang Lei (Yu Nan). However, when she finally figures out what he’s really up to during his nightly “business dinners,” that achievement suddenly doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Her attempts at revenge infidelity don’t go so well, including with her own boss (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who soon jets off for a sinfully glamorous (and expensive) Greek seaside rendezvous with what appears to be his longtime mistress (Carina Lau). But it turns out they’re just role playing in an attempt to jazz up a more conventional relationship.
They’ve come a long, jaded way from home, where their innocent teenage daughter (cellist Nana Ou-yang) is forbidden to enter a TV talent contest with the other members of her string quartet. The boy (Liu Haoran) who has a crush on her — and who can also literally see people’s “auras” — decides to make that dream come true nonetheless. On the opposite end of the age scale, the boy’s grandfather, Old Wang (Wang Qingxiang), is enduring the strenuous efforts of Mrs. Gao’s (Siqin Gaowa) to hook him up with a suitable older lady; he’s unimpressed until she arranges a blind date with an attractive divorcee who has just returned after two decades in America.
Pic moves from initially raunchy comedy through spy-movie parody, sex farce, disarmingly wide-eyed adolescent love and finally bittersweet melodrama, never entirely forsaking humor or an earnest belief in romantic love despite all the surface shifts. While there’s no great originality on display here, “Beijing Love Story” handles its full range of stylistic and tonal gambits with impressive assurance. A strong performance or a well-placed sober moment always brings things back to terra firma whenever they turn a bit over-the-top.
Flashiest in its first reel, especially editorially, the widescreen feature maintains a refreshing attention to composition, color and camera movement in a genre that too often dispenses with visual finesse in favor of TV-style functionality. All tech contributions are high-grade.
Film Review: ‘Beijing Love Story’
Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 13, 2014. Running time: 122 MIN.
(China) A China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.) release of a Wanda Media and Shine Asia Media Co. presentation. Produced by Jerry Ye, Xia Chen’an, Gillian Zhao. Executive producers, Abe Kwong, Cary Cheng, Li Yaping. Co-producers, Albert Yeung, Li Yaping, Mani Fox, Kevin Zheng, Xia Hua, Hou Guangming, Zhao Zhi, Felix Liu, Howard Chen, Yuan Xiaomu, Yu Jianhong, Penny Jang, Wu Bin, Abby Zhang.
Directed, written by Chen Sicheng. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Song Xiaofei; editor, Tu Yiran; music, Dong Dongdong; production designer, William Chang; sound, Gary Chen; re-recording mixers, Joe Huang, Terry Tu; assistant director, Chan Po Chan; casting, Lu Yeng.
Tony Leung Ka-fai, Carina Lau, Wang Xuebing, Yu Nan, Wang Qingxiang, Chen S’tchingowa, Chen Sicheng, Tong Liya, Elaine Jin, Geng Le, Guo Jingfei, Nana Ou-yang, Liu Haoran, Siqin Gaowa. (Mandarin dialogue)
The Bottom Line
Another deliberately paced but largely engaging portrait of the grim economic and social realities of modern Burma.
Burmese director Midi Z’s latest proves the third time is lucky by turning in his strongest feature yet.
With just a few features under his belt, Burmese-Taiwanese filmmaker Midi Z has developed a signature style for his intimate portraits of modern Burmese life. Following Poor Folk and Return to Burma, the director’s latest is a similar look at the poverty, drug abuse and aimlessness that plague his homeland. Ice Poison shows a marked maturation of Midi Z as a filmmaker, and though he still lets his hallmark long shots get the better of the material from time to time, the film is his strongest to date. Festivals that showed interest in his earlier features are sure to repeat that interest here, and limited art house release, particularly in Asia, isn’t completely out of the question.
Set in a small town best known for its opium crop, the story such as it is begins with an anonymous young vegetable farmer (Wang Shin-Hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) discussing the state of the agricultural trade they’ve relied on their whole lives. With industrial farming bearing down on them and making it increasingly difficult to make a living, they discuss some of their options for the coming season. It’s a typical Midi Z segment, with a still camera and naturalistic performances as the two men talk about seeking help from friends and family in the city.
Not much comes of that, as everyone father and son speak to decry the rules, regulations and government/business decrees that are coming into effect — and in many ways destroying farmers and average workers’ livelihoods. Their last hope is Uncle Wang (Li Shang Da), who takes the father’s prized cow as down payment for a motorbike that the son — now officially the Driver — can use as a taxi. If no more money is forthcoming, the cow will be sold to the slaughterhouse.
To this point Ice Poison is a measured (some would say slow), carefully composed and somewhat rambling narrative that deftly illustrates this side of Burma right now. Details are dropped into meandering conversations that unfold within Midi Z’s observational approach. The film really starts to take shape when the Driver finally picks up a fare: Sanmei (Midi Z regular Wu Ke-Xi), a local woman living in China back in town to bury her grandfather. Like many Burmese, Sanmei left for greener pastures, but is desperate to find a way to get her son and stay so as to get out of her arranged marriage to an older Chinese man. Though hardly an unexpected turn, Sanmei ropes the Driver into helping her out as a courier for her cousin, who deals a meth-like drug called ice and who is too closely scrutinized to do his own dirty work.
One of Ice Poison’s greatest strengths is its dispassionate tone; Midi Z’s screenplay never condemns or condones the driver and Sanmei’s decisions, and the casual acceptance of options like smuggling are all the more tragic and infuriating for it. Seemingly throwaway scenes — like one where Sanmei’s mother tells her she should consider herself fortunate to have a husband that doesn’t beat her — gracefully crystallize the state of life in Burma; that Sanmei and the driver choose to get wasted on the product they peddle is no surprise. Wu and Wang are both wholly believable as young people frustrated with what they see as a lack of a future, and balance despair and resigned action to a perfect pitch. Though cinematographer Fan Sheng Siang’s camerawork is rich and fluid, more than a few segments belabor their point, and the necessity of the final closing shot is debatable, ultimately Ice Poison demonstrates a heretofore unseen, and welcome, level of accessibility to Midi Z.
Producer: Midi Z
Director: Midi Z
Cast: Wu Ke-Xi, Wang Shin-Hong, Zhou Cai Chang, Li Shang Da, Tang Shu Lan
Screenwriter: Midi Z
Executive producer: Patrick Mao Huang
Director of Photography: Fan Sheng Siang
Production Designer: Zhao Zhi-Tang
Music: Sonic Dead Horse
Costume designer: Dan Ka Ming Lwin
Editor: Lin Sheng Wen, Midi Z
The Bottom Line
A standard action comedy that’s an diverting mixed bag at best.
Lien Yi-chi’s second feature marks a rare foray into genre entertainment from Taiwan.
A chocolate eating dog, a protective police chief, a movie star’s felonious twin brother and Taiwan’s answer to Walter White are just a few of the moving parts bouncing around in Sweet Alibis, a rare piece of unapologetic genre entertainment from Taiwan, better known for angsty teens, sentimental melodrama and moody art house fare. The second feature by burgeoning populist Lien Yi-chi (the middling 2011 thriller Make Up) is a high-energy romp that doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not, and hits its targets as often as it misses by a mile.
The film’s gregarious comic book tone is set right from the opening credits (which play something like an ’80s action television series), which is also when the Shaft-lite soundtrack starts. A vaguely stereotyped transgender character and a movie theater shooting scene could prove problematic in some markets, but Sweet Alibis could easily find a life in Asia where the humor will likely land better. And though it’s too commercial for most festivals Asian interest programs may want to take a look.
The needlessly convoluted plot begins with new partners Chih-yi (Alex Su) and Yi-ping (Ariel Lin) working on a poodle homicide (really, it’s part of a bigger case). Chih-yi is a bad, as in not good at his job, cop more interested in dating services than policing, and is known for never putting himself in harm’s way. Yi-ping is the ultra-keen chief’s daughter, who can’t wait to draw her gun and is desperate to prove her policing chops outside the shadow of her dad. Their boss Long partners Chih-yi with Yi-ping to keep her safe, but to absolutely no one’s surprise, the duo stumble deeper into a major drug case involving meth dealer Snack (Matt Wu), Chih-yi’s love struck nephew Johnny, a group of gay gangsters (one of whom transition from male to female to preserve the gang’s criminal “face”) the aforementioned poodle and a remarkable cancer recovery. Cue comic high jinks.
Sweet Alibisis the kind of throwaway amusement that’s rare for Taiwan, and though the toilet humor abounds (the chief has an intestinal problem, which is a recurring, er, joke) it does have its share of genuinely witty moments. Yi-ping’s gun fixation earns a few chuckles and when Snack’s actor brother Matt Wu (Wu cheekily playing himself) gets roped into a sting operation, his distress at crowds being unable to see his perp walk “performance” proves to be a highlight. Sweet Alibis is juvenile in flashes, grossly sentimental in others, boasts one moment that is simply bizarre (a musical interlude that doesn’t work as spoof, satire or tragedy) and its lead actors are only partially engaging. It takes far too long for Su to give Chih-yi a personality trait aside from idiot (granted a script flaw) and Lin is saddled with the “feisty but vulnerable girl” role in Yi-ping. It’s the supporting cast that give the mostly unnamed secondary characters the zing that move the film from the level of forgettable nonsense to enjoyably forgettable nonsense.
Producer: Jackie Wang
Director: Lien Yi-chi
Cast: Alec Su, Ariel Lin, Matt Wu, Lei Hong, Lang Tzu-yun
Screenwriter: Yu Shang-min, Chen Jia-jhen, Lien Yi-chi
Executive producer: Lin Tien-kuei, Yin Hsiao-jung, Alex Wong, Charles Hu
Director of photography: Randy Che
Production designer: YC Kuo
Music: Yang Wan-chien
Costume designer: Emma Lin
Editor: Wenders Li, Ian Lin
No rating, 113 minutes
A dissolute former detective, a trail of dismembered human remains, and a widow with a dark secret set the stage for a bleak but powerful Chinese film noir.
The spirits of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain course through “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” a bleak but powerful, carefully controlled detective thriller in which — as with all the best noirs — there are no real heroes or villains, only various states of compromise. A most curious hybrid of genre movie and art film, drenched in neon and wintry industrial bleakness, this third feature by the gifted mainland Chinese director Diao Yinan reps a significant advance in scale and craftsmanship over his festival favorites “Uniform” (2003) and “Night Train” (2007), with the potential to penetrate modestly further into the commercial sector.
Diao, who began his career as a screenwriter for director Zhang Yang (“Shower,” “Spicy Love Soup”), first showed an affinity for noir in his debut pic, where an aimless young man working in his family’s laundry business took to impersonating a police officer. (In a sly nod to that film, the plot of “Black Coal” also comes to revolve around a laundry shop and a particular unclaimed item.) This time, the cops are real, but there is much that is not as it first appears in Diao’s tale of a grisly crime from the past that returns to haunt the characters a half-decade later.
The setting is a northern Chinese factory district, circa 1999, and the coal of the title is where a set of dismembered human remains turns up in the movie’s opening scenes. The dead man is identified as Liang Zhijun, a worker in one of the local plants and husband to a laundry worker, Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei). Enter a no-nonsense detective, Zhang (Liao Fan), who quickly identifies a suspect. But what should be a routine arrest goes awry, turning into one of the more imaginatively staged shootouts in recent movies — by turns comic, absurd and, finally, brutally efficient.
We then jump forward five years to find Zhang, still traumatized by the carnage of ’99, drunk and dissolute, having abandoned the force for a post as a security guard. In a chance encounter with his former partner, he learns that two factory workers have newly turned up dead and dismembered in eerily similar fashion to the earlier case. At which point, Zhang decides to begin his own investigation, starting with the widow Wu herself. Her late husband, it seems, isn’t the only man who’s met his maker in the last five years after getting close to her, and Zhang’s deductive nose, when it isn’t buried in alcohol, tells him something is amiss. So he becomes a customer of the laundry shop, and takes to following his femme fatale by night (so clumsily that she quickly catches on to him).
Whether or not she’s a lethal “black widow,” Wu Zhizhen is clearly a woman of secrets, and Gwei (star of the 2012 Taiwanese hit “Girlfriend Boyfriend”) has just the right dark, glassy-eyed beauty to play a woman trapped by desperate circumstance. (In the 1940s Hollywood version, Lana Turner or Ida Lupino would have made a good fit, while it’s easy to imagine Bogart or Mitchum in the detective role.) Exactly how and why Wu suffers is something we discover gradually, as Zhang does, in the movie’s second half. And the more the pieces of the puzzle come together, and the closer Zhang grows to Wu (on and off the job), the richer “Black Coal, Thin Ice” grows in its air of pulp romantic fatalism.
Throughout, Diao maintains an impressive mood of unease and encroaching danger, which carries the film forward even when the plotting becomes a touch too knotty for its own good (though nothing that mystery buffs won’t be able to parse with a few minutes of concentrated reflection). Besides, a certain opacity may well be part of Diao’s grander design. Though it is a less overtly political film than Jia Zhangke’s recent “A Touch of Sin,” “Black Coal, Thin Ice” does proffer a similarly dark and blood-soaked portrait of a China in which human lives are as expendable as natural resources and everyone is standing on dangerous ground. All that’s missing is for Diao to have someone tell our forlorn hero, “Forget it Zhang, it’s China.”
Together with d.p. Dong Jinsong (“11 Flowers”), Diao devises many inventive approaches to scenes, from the dazzling tracking shot that carries us forward from 1999 to 2004, to an unexpected fireworks finale that lends “Black Coal” a perfect absurdist punctuation. Art director Liu Qiang enhances the mood of working-class despair with a series of wonderfully seedy bars, police stations and assorted other holes in the wall.
Berlin Film Review: ‘Black Coal, Thin Ice’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2014. Running time: 108 MIN. Original title: “Bai ri yan huo”
(China-Hong Kong) An Omnijoi Media Corporation Co./Boneyard Entertainment China (BEC)/China Film Co. presentation. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Vivian Qu, Wan Juan. Executive producers, Bu Yu, Daniel Jonathan Victor, Han Sanping, Hong Tao, Han Xiaoli. Co-producers, Shen Yang, Zhang Dajun.
Directed, written by Diao Yinan. Camera (color, HD), Dong Jinsong; editor, Yang Hongyu; music, Wen Li; art director, Liu Qiang; sound, Zhang Yang.
Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Wang Yu Ailei, Su Lijuan, Ni Jingyang. (Mandarin dialogue)
Dir/scr: Diao Yinan. China. 2014. 106mins
The unadorned, unflattering, raw and lifelike portrait of a mid-size Northern Chinese town in winter, all frozen and covered in thick layers of snow, is the best thing in Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo), the new film from Diao Yinan (Night Train). What’s missing is a solid, well-told plot to keep audiences alert and justify the painstaking trouble taken with the background.
The film is a mystery story presented almost exclusively from the point of view of an ex-cop, and dealing with a series of grisly murders, with the victims’ bodies chopped to pieces and spread over a large territory, hundreds of miles apart. It is an interesting premise but its credible, authentic background, cannot fill the yawning gaps left time and again in the plot.
Divorced policeman Zhang Zili (Liao Fan) is seriously wounded and two of his colleagues are killed while attempting to arrest a couple of culprits suspected of having committed the first in this series of crimes. Once released from hospital after a long convalescence - or so it seems - he is retired from the force, has to take on a job as security guard and drowns his frustration in alcohol.
Five years later he understands, after meeting Wang (Yu Ailei), an old colleague who is now a police inspector, that more crimes of the same kind had been committed and gone unsolved and decides to go investigating on his own, if only to give a sense to his empty existence.
All the victims seem to have been connected at some time with the same woman Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun Mei, looking forlorn, lost and melancholy) who works in a small laundry. He tries to approach her, inevitably falls in love with her but, once a lawman always a lawman, and he goes on digging for new facts and information that might reveal the identity of the truth.
From this point on, major leaps of faith are required to follow the story. You have to ignore all the red herrings strewn throughout; the dead men identified beyond the shadow of a doubt, who are apparently not so dead, and a lead suspect arriving in the story out of thin air. Once the case seems to be solved, there is a coda, the plot twisting itself around once more for the final revelation, before ending in a spectacular display of fireworks.
With the help of an experienced script editor in pre-production, the same story with the same ingredients, but put in a different order, (and with some more work on characterization) could have the potential of turning this film into a real detective story, with the vast variety of characters revealed through the investigation turning out to be as relevant. For suspense and tension, the structure of each scene would need to be altered and the flow of information going from the screen to be changed as well.
As it is now, the one thing that an audience can hope to latch onto is the realistic feeling of each frame, offering the equivalent of a visit to one of the more remote and less fashionable corners of China, at one of the less attractive times of the year.
Production companies: Jiangsu Omnijo Movie Company
International Sales: Fortissimo, www.fortissimo.nl
Producers: Vivian Qu, Wan Juan
Executive producers: Bu Yu, Daniel Jonathan Victor, Han Sauping, Hong Tao, Hang Xiaoli
Cinematography: Dong Jinsong
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Music: Wen Zi
Main cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebin, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang
Dir: Ning Hao. China. 2013. 117mins
Widescreen sepia deserts, lashings of Spanish guitar and highway mayhem a go-go - Chinese actioner No Man’s Land (Wu Ren Qu) milks them for all they’re worth, and more so. This boisterous entertainment by Ning Hao - director of Crazy Stone and Mongolian Ping-Pong - is in a vein of pastiche updated spaghetti Western action that you might call ‘phoney Leone’. In the US, the vein has been milked variously by the likes of John Dahl, Oliver Stone and the Coens, and Ning gives the sub-genre a boisterous spin of his own, although the knockabout violence and escape-from-peril twists pile up to eventually numbing effect.
But it’s all very slickly executed, if impersonal, with much wham-bam road content. In Chinese markets, the film - completed in 2009 and released belatedly, reportedly because of censorship issues over its representation of police - made over $20 million in its first week of Chinese release in December. The film should export healthily, and play in festival cult slots - essentially, find a home wherever there’s a fanboy following for post-Tarantino genre-twisting fun.
The setting is in the vast, arid expanses of the Gobi Desert, which a Tex-Mex flavoured score gives that old Western borderline feel. The action begins with the arrest of a falcon rustler (Huang Bo) and a car crash caused by his leather-jacketed, dagger-toting boss (a memorably scowling, Van Cleef-like Duo Bujie). Self-serving city slicker attorney Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng) breezes into town and uses his cynical wiles to get the Boss acquitted of murder, then leaves with a sleek red car as his down payment. But once he comically manages to alienate the entire vicinity’s raggle-taggle population, it becomes clear that he won’t be seeing the big city again in a hurry.
Trying to manage his escape, with some caged falcons, a pile of loot and an apparently dead body (although stiffs have a way of resuscitating quickly here) Pan Xiao ends up with no allies except a roadside hooker (Yu Nan) - although her main role is the traditional one of screaming a lot and getting bound and gagged by whichever heavy wanders along next.
Engagingly cast with assorted character plug-uglies giving their all, the film goes gangbusters at the start, but once it hits the desert roads, the action really has nowhere much to go. More cars crash, more guns are fired, more (increasingly brutal) blows come Pan Xiao’s way, more mariachi trumpet blares on the soundtrack. Intermittently, the hero offers ponderous voice-over theories about man, monkeys and the dog-eat-dog world. The relentless cynical tone is hardly leavened by a bathetically soppy coda. But splashes of black humour and the occasional authentically knockout action moment at least make it hard to dislike the film - or to lose interest for too long. The caged wild birds don’t seem to have too happy a ride, though.
Production companies: China Film Group, Injo Films
International sales: China Film Company, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Sanping Han, Haicheng Zhao
Screenplay: Ning Hao, Shu Ping, Xing Aina
Cinematography: Du Jie
Production designer: Hao Yi
Editor: Cheung Yuan
Music: Nathan Wang
Main cast: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie
2/12/2014 by Deborah Young
The Bottom Line
A fascinating exercise in style that will entrance the critics and leave audiences scratching their heads.
Chinese director Diao Yinan sets a stylish film noir among ordinary people in the provinces.
Perhaps the most innovative of the Chinese films creating buzz in Berlin, Black Coal, Thin Ice is a salute to the classic Hollywood film noir, an exciting stylistic tour-de-force in which writer-director Diao Yinan combines the wry humor of his debut film Uniform with the bleakness and pessimism of his 2007 Night Train. But in spite of all these nice things, as a detective story it verges on the incomprehensible, which will be a serious drawback to distribution. Sophisticated audiences will enjoy its strange atmosphere as they try to puzzle out plot and characters.
In 1999, a strange-shaped package in a dumpster turns out to be a human body part. Another piece surfaces in a coal factory. Someone has been chopped to bits and his remains are turning up all over the province, in places too remote for a single murderer to have scattered them in one day.
Enter detective Zhang (Liao Fan), a comical figure behind a drooping mustache. We have glimpsed him earlier in a hotel room, where he has a last fling with the wife who is divorcing him. After an absurd tussle at the train station, she departs, leaving him alone with an alcohol problem.
Called in to investigate, he and his team identify the murder victim as a simple man whose job was to weigh trucks laden with coal. They corner two suspects in what might be a gay punk hair salon, but botch the arrest so badly that two policemen are killed.
We catch up to Zhang in 2004, lying dead drunk on an icy road. He’s working as a security guard now, but a chance encounter with his old colleague Capt. Wang (the warm Yu Ailei) draws him back into a case remarkably similar to the last. The police are staking out Wu Zhizhen (played by young Taiwanese star Gwei Lun Mei), widow of the murdered coal weigher in the case five years ago. She is linked to two fresh murders.
Though he’s no longer working for the police, Zhang starts hanging around the dry cleaners where Zhizhen quietly works in a boring job. Sleuthing turns to awkward courtship, and he invites her to go skating in an eerie night scene pulsating with danger, as they twirl around the ice on skate blades sharpened like knives. But by now he’s hooked on the mousy femme fatale, and even another grisley murder can’t break her spell. Their attraction climaxes in more ways than one while they’re dangling inside an immobile cable car, in a Hitchcockian scene spiked with eros and tension.
But Diao is up to much more than a simple homage to the masters, and his screenplay turns the traditional noir ambience upside down by setting the story among the humble and lowly members of contemporary Chinese society. If the plotting was only more coherent and audience-friendly and the story-telling more disciplined, the film’s extraordinarily complex atmosphere would be irresistible.
With her downcast eyes and hands busy folding laundry, Gwei (Girlfriend/Boyfriend, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) makes an odd Dark Lady. She has more the appeal of an ordinary woman who has blurred the line between good and evil.
Liao, whose work ranges from the award-winning Green Hat to Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac, plays Zhang in the classic mold of the unslept, unshaven hard-boiled detective who, despite appearances, figures out the most arcane mystery in the final reel. (Warning: this is more than many film-goers are going to be able to do.) His mellow face lends itself to comedy, for instance in a delicious scene of him chasing after Zhizhen on skates and slipping on the ice. But the film also gives him a chance to grapple with big themes like love and betrayal and to vent a desperately human side that is poignant without being sentimental.
Shooting on snow-covered streets and underpasses, in huge factories and neon-lit gambling dens, cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s images are strikingly original, casting the whole story in a unique filmic space hovering between dreams and reality.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Omnijoi Media Corp., Boneyard Entertainment China, China Film Co
Cast: Liao Fan, Gwei Lun Mei, Wang Xuebing, Wang Jingchun, Yu Ailei, Ni Jingyang
Director: Diao Yinan
Screenwriter: Diao Yinan
Producers: Vivian Qu, Wan Juan
Co-producers: Shen Yang, Zhang Dajun
Director of photography: Dong Jinsong
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Music: Wen Zi
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
No rating,106 minutes
The Bottom Line
Chinese audiences will flock to this moving if awkwardly rendered portrait of multi-generational romance.
This spin-off of the hugely popular Chinese television series presents a complex series of intertwined love stories.
Demonstrating that sappiness recognizes no international borders, Beijing Love Story belies its title by presenting a series of intertwined love stories taking place in that capital city. A spin-off of the hugely popular 2012 Chinese television series of the same name, this directorial debut by Chen Sicheng is too diffuse and understated to achieve crossover success. But Chinese moviegoers both home and abroad will likely flock to the film which is receiving a day-and-date release with the Mainland, appropriately on Valentine’s Day.
The filmmaker also plays a leading role in the first segment, portraying Feng, an impoverished young man who quickly falls in love, impregnates and proposes to a beautiful young woman (Tony Liya) from an affluent family. But the relationship doesn’t sit well with the woman’s status-obsessed mother or her still-besotted ex-boyfriend who both do their best to derail the couple’s happiness.
Other intertwined segments involve Feng’s married best friend (Wang Xuebing) whose wife (Yu Nan) discovers his rampant infidelity and becomes determined to get revenge in kind; a high school student (Liu Haoran) who finds himself besotted with a young cello prodigy (Nana Ou Yang) because of her “aura,” only to be crushed when she leaves him to go to England and attend a private school; the girl’s father (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who heads to Greece to reunite with his longtime mistress (Carina Lau), with the assignation spoiled by his angry discovery that she’s had plastic surgery; and the boy’s grandfather (Wang Qinxiang), who’s set up on a series of disastrous blind dates by his cousin matchmaker (Siqin Gaowa). When he finally meets a woman who seems suitable, his happiness becomes short-lived when a tragic secret is revealed.
The tyro director/screenwriter, clearly influenced by American movies ranging from Love, Actually to Titanic — the latter is referred to several times — is not fully successful in tying together the multiple storylines in coherent fashion, with the occasional doses of magical realism injected into the proceedings feeling particularly strained. Ultimately, the film’s attempt at blending humor, poignancy and melodrama results in an awkward mish-mosh. But it has heart to spare, and the performances by the multi-generational ensemble are very effective, with particularly moving work by the veterans in the cast.
Opens: Friday, Feb. 14 (China Lion Film)
Production: Wanda Media Company, Shine Entertainment Media Company
Cast: Tony Leung ka Fai, Wang Xuebing, Siqin Gaowa, Carina Lau, Tong Liya, Jin Yanling, Yu Nan, Wang Qinxiang, Chen Sicheng
Director/screenwriter: Chen Sicheng
Producer: Li Chen
Not rated, 122 min.
FEBRUARY 11, 2014
An intrinsically fascinating true story of a Taiwanese ecological activist prevails over director Cho Li’s dry but well-meaning narrative approach.
Like wet dynamite, “The Rice Bomber” has trouble achieving the desired explosive momentum with its potentially incendiary history of Taiwan’s downtrodden farmers. Recounting the early life of ecological activist Yang Rumen, who went to jail for 17 bombing incidents staged to draw public attention to unfair agrarian policies, helmer Cho Li’s well-meaning attempt to provide a comprehensive picture results in a preachy first hour and a dearth of cinematic visuals. Fortunately for audiences, the intrinsically fascinating material on Yang trumps the dry narrative style, and he emerges as an extraordinary figure — romantic but eccentric, desperate yet driven. The film’s socially conscious message will find sympathy among indie fests and on educational channels.
The film is based on Yang’s book “White Rice Is Not a Bomb,” and the narrative is up to its ears in voiceover, quoting wordy excerpts of his ideals and philosophies. It also assumes considerable knowledge on the audience’s part about Taiwan politics, both regional and international, as evidenced by a bomb detonation in the opening scene for which no context is provided until more than an hour into the film.
Yang’s story proper starts in 1988, when he and mentally challenged brother Cai are just unruly tykes being raised in Erlin Town, Changhua County, by their peasant grandparents; already farmers are clashing with the government over produce prices. A quick jump forward in time sees Yang (Huang Chien-wei) fulfilling his military service, revealing his rebellious nature when he’s hazed by other cadets and impetuously retaliates.
In 2001, Yang is discharged and returns to Changhua, where the government is buying up farmland and building factories. Persuaded by his grandparents to give up their ancestral vocation, the young idler re-encounters a childhood friend, known only as “Troublemaker” (Nikki Hsieh), and they embark on a long, bumpy romance. The daughter of shifty legislator Hong Jung (Hsu Chia-jung), she calls herself a revolutionary and flirts with suicide while living off Daddy’s deep pockets. Yang, on the other hand, ekes out a living as a seaside fruit vendor. The film could have made more of their class differences, though a more glaring flaw is that it takes ages for them to develop any basic chemistry.
There follows a combination of factors, public and personal, that cause Yang’s social indignation to escalate, including his friendship with a teenager (Yang Peng-yu) abandoned by parents and society; Taiwan’s entry into the WTO, opening the floodgates for imported produce; and the gradual proliferation of factories, leading to fatal accidents. Cho’s documentary-like technique and reliance on expository news footage reflects a certain high-mindedness and avoidance of sensationalism, but it also squanders the picture’s dramatic potential.
The turning point in Yang’s life arrives more than an hour into the film, when he starts planting DIY bombs made with field ingredients in public places, accompanied by a protest message. Although re-creating so many of his protest antics doesn’t help advance the plot, his methods are so eccentric and audacious that they’re a delight to watch, and finally it becomes clear that every struggle or endeavor in his adult life has been building toward this mission.
Veteran thesp and acting instructor Huang (“Yang Yang”) limns Yang’s shifting moods and intellectual growth with intuitive directness. Hsieh (“Makeup,” “Honey Pu Pu”) doesn’t get enough room to expand on a character who’s not particularly likable or sharply defined; only the scenes of ideological clash between her and her father allow her to express her fiery nature.
Cho, who has longtime experience as a producer, ensures that craft contributions are all solid. Korean lenser Cho Yong-kyo delivers some breathtaking compositions of rice fields and wetlands, and a melodious score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian (“The Wind Will Carry Us,” “Summer Palace,” “Buddha Mountain”) adds warmth and emotional heft to even the flatter scenes.
Berlin Film Review: ‘The Rice Bomber’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 6, 2013. Running time: 117 MIN. Original title: “Baimi zhadan ke”
(Taiwan) A Warner Bros. release of a 1 Prod. Film Co., Taipei Postproduction, Arrow Cinema Group, Ocean Deep Films presentation of an Ocean Deep Films production. (International sales: Ablaze Image, Taipei.) Produced by Li Lieh, Yeh Ju-fen.
Directed by Cho Li. Screenplay, Hung Hung, Zin Do-lan based on the book “White Rice Is Not a Bomb” by Yang Rumen. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Cho Yong-kyou; editors, Qin Mai-song, Liao Ching-sung; music, Peyman Yazdanian; production designer, Lee Tian-yue; set decorator, Chen Yi-ching; costume designer, Wei Hsiang-jung; sound (Dolby Digital), Sunit Asvinkul, Frank Cheng; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Frank Cheng; visual effects supervisor, Linus Cheng; visual effects, Taipei Postproduction; associate producer, Lin Hsiao-ching; assistant director, Lu Keng-hsien; second unit camera, Pei Ji-wei; casting, Shirley Chen.
Huang Chien-wei, Nikki Hsieh, Michael Chang, Hsu Chia-jung, Yang Peng-yu. (Mandarin, Taiwanese dialogue)
FEBRUARY 10, 2014
This tactful drama about sight-impaired masseurs and masseuses is one of Lou Ye’s more absorbing films in recent memory.
Non-conformist Chinese auteur Lou Ye has always trained his sensuous gaze on outsiders, and in “Blind Massage,” he explores the fringe existence of sight-impaired masseurs and masseuses from an unsentimental distance. Demystifying their specialized profession and evoking their arduous search for love and stability, Lou’s detachment — often an artsy pose in his other films — has a kind of tactfulness here that allows these absorbing stories to speak for themselves. The helmer’s second feature made with the Chinese film bureau’s official approval, this French-Chinese co-production is no more mainstream than his previous work. Likely to enjoy critical buzz but lukewarm domestic B.O., it will nonetheless find its way into his usual festivals and European arthouses.
At the Sha Zongqi Massage Center in Nanjing, fully and partially blind employees enjoy an oasis outside what they call “mainstream society.” Run on a slick management model by blind partners Zhang Zongqi (Wang Zhihua) and Sha Fuming (Qin Hao), the masseurs are respectfully called “doctors” and attain dignity through their skill and self-sufficiency. While Zongqi is a man of few words, Fuming is an outgoing charmer whose hobbies including writing poetry and visiting dance halls for the retired.
Into this close-knit community comes Sha’s old classmate Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), broke from stock losses in Shenzhen, and eloping with his young, foxy, partially sighted g.f. Kong (Zhang Lei). Then comes proud, self-contained Du Hong (Mei Ting, perfectly poised), who regards her clients’ daily flattery on her beauty a nuisance, and who is doggedly courted by Fuming; she rejects him, dismissing his professed love as “an obsession with a concept,” since he cannot grasp what physical beauty is. Another young masseur is handsome lad Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), whose hormones are racing and who becomes infatuated with Kong. His heart remains set on her even after his pal Yiguang (Mu Huaipeng) initiates him into the pleasures of Nanjing’s red-light district, where he and sassy sex worker Mann (Wang Lu) find casual emotional refuge in each other.
Bi Feiyu’s source novel (adapted by Ma Yingli) has been lauded for avoiding the inspirational/patronizing tone of most mainland literature on the disabled, and Lou shows similar integrity by conveying the experience of living in the dark from his subjects’ perspective. With his signature fluid and intimate film language, he captures the touchy-feely way in which protags interact among themselves, and honestly acknowledges their sexual desires and deprivations.
Adopting a clean and simple storyline that focuses on ensemble acting rather than on the narrative riddles and knotty reversals that have defined his oeuvre, Lou delves into each protag’s emotional world with a documentary-like observational style that is nonetheless entirely engrossing. Gradually their individual hangups surface, revealing the unspoken wounds of social discrimination — as when Fuming goes on (of all things) a blind date, taking a risk that only reinforces the futility of his hopes of becoming integrated into society, or when Wang vents his own self-loathing and injured pride in a shockingly gory confrontation with debt collectors. Other than a somewhat manufactured and overwrought twist in the third act, the film wraps on a gently forlorn that captures the randomness and mutability of life.
The professional actors, many of them Lou regulars, mingle comfortably with their sight-impaired amateur counterparts. Of the latter group, Zhang gives a knockout perf as the coquettish Kong; fearlessly voluptuous in sex scenes that might make professional actresses blush, she is a radiant presence, even in the rare moments when she’s subdued by sadness or insecurity. The film also marks a significant breakthrough for Qin, proving that his range extends beyond the morose roles he played in Lou’s “Spring Fever” and “Mystery.” Although he’s obviously spent considerable time mastering the body language and facial expressions of the blind, he goes beyond that to express the frustration and loneliness beneath Fuming’s man-of-the-world facade and upbeat demeanor.
Limning a different brand of disaffection from Qin’s, Guo draws on the simmering rage he’s evinced past roles to convey Wang’s uphill struggle as he tries to make a comeback in life. Looking careworn even when he should be finding comfort in Kong’s passionate embrace, Guo imbues his climactic outburst with reverberant power.
Lou’s fondness for shakily handheld, artfully opaque cinematography (notably in “Purple Butterfly” and “Spring Fever”) finds a less pretentious channel in lenser Zeng Jian’s highly tactile re-creation of the characters’ impaired vision, conveyed through blurry image textures, spatially distorted closeups, lurching camera movements and off-kilter angles; by contrast, the sound design, although fine, could have more inventively reflected the protags’ hypersensitive hearing. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“Prisoners”), who collaborated with Lou on “Mystery,” contributes an ambient, minimalist score that effectively builds to an elegiac melody, incorporating classical Chinese flute music toward the end. Other craft contributions are stylish; the muggy, misty ambience of Nanjing, shot here in constant torrential rain, fuels the downcast mood.
Berlin Film Review: ‘Blind Massage’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2014. Running time: 117 MIN. Original title: “Tui na”
(China-France) A Shaanxi Culture Industry, Yinhai, Dream Factory, Les Films du Lendemain presentation of a Shaanxi Culture Industry, Les Films du Lendemain production, in association with Zhu Hongbo, Cui Yujie. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Wang Yong. Executive producers, Lou Ye, Nai An, Li Ling, Kristina Larsen. Co-executive producers, Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen.
Directed by Lou Ye. Screenplay, Ma Yingli, based on the novel “Tui na” by Bi Feiyu. Camera (color, HD), Zeng Jian; editors, Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin; music, Johann Johannsson; production designer, Du Ailin; costume designer, Zhang Dingmu; sound (Dolby Digital), Fu Kang; visual effects supervisor, Liu Song; visual effects, Imade Forest; assistant director, Lu Ying; casting, Zhang Rong.
Qin Hao, Guo Xiaodong, Huang Xuan, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua, Wang Lu. (Mandarin dialogue)