HKMDB Daily News

February 12, 2014

The Rice Bomber (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 7:05 pm

The Rice Bomber

FEBRUARY 11, 2014
Maggie Lee

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)

Blind Massage (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:44 pm

Blind Massage

FEBRUARY 10, 2014
Maggie Lee

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)

Blind Massage (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:29 pm

Blind Massage
2/10/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
Involving human dramas unfold in a Chinese massage institute run by the blind, in one of Lou Ye’s most engaging films.

Festival director Lou Ye changes pace to show the dignity, sacrifice and joy of the sightless.

Love among the sightless is the engrossing, at times moving, dramatic thread that links multiple relationships in Blind Massage, one of the most convincing films made by Chinese director Lou Ye in recent years. Putting aside the torrid sexual and emotional dramas of works like the 2011 Love and Bruises shot in Paris and his infidelity drama Mystery, he describes these love stories as plain human affairs full of hope and frustration, poetry and banality, straddling an interesting middle ground between realism and imagination. Ye’s auteur reputation should help this Wild Bunch title to find its way to sensitive audiences.

Based Bi Feiyu’s novel,the overlapping relationships in the film have none of the glamorous fatality of glossy Hong Kong costumers, nor the prurient interest of steamy erotica. Though there are passionate scenes of coupling, they are integral to the lives of characters we come to know and care about. This isn’t the flashiest of films, but it has sincerity and feeling that connects to audiences.

An offscreen narrator first introduces Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), who lost his sight as a baby in a traffic accident that killed his mother. As a teenager he goes berserk one day and tries to cut his own throat, before being sent to a school for the blind where he learns Braille and the art of massage.

It is the golden age of “blind massage”, the narrator informs us, and Xiao Ma ends up in a cheerful institute where the personnel lives and works, run like a big family by its blind director Sha Fuming (Qin Hao who worked on Ye’s Mystery and his gay drama Spring Fever). Fuming is soon joined by his old friend Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong from A Summer Palace and Reign of Assassins), who brings with him his also nearly sightless fiancée Kong (Zhang Lei.) The girl becomes a sexual obsession for restless Xiao Ma, until he’s taken to a different sort of massage parlor down the street. In this establishment he is smitten by the young prostitute Mann (Huang Lu). Fuming, meanwhile, falls hard for the attractive Du Hong (Mei Ting), a masseuse who drives him mad. He touches her face and licks his fingers in despair at not being able to see her beauty.

These and other relationships are woven tightly together; their final outcomes are unforeseen. With the novel and Ma Yingli’s screenplay providing the framework, Ye is free to use his camera to describe the world of the blind to sighted viewers. The opening credits are read out loud by the narrator, which alerts viewers that they will be immersed in a foreign world.

Sets are uniformly busy, cramped spaces which give the feeling of living in a fish tank or a turtle bowl. The massage institute’s glass doors that Fuming keeps bumping into are echoed by the glass storefront of the brothel, where girls beckon customers inside. Cinematographer Zeng Jian’s intimate camera avoids clear images in favor of darting, expressionistic impressions, which is probably as close as a film can come to the experience of blindness, while Johan Johannsson’s varied score firmly directs the mood throughout.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 10, 2014.
Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory, Les Films du Lendemain
Cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriter: Ma Yingli based on a novel by Bi Feiyu
Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling
Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Zeng Jian
Production design: Du Ailin
Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin
Costumes: Zhang Dingmu
Music: Johan Johannsson
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 117 minutes.


The Rice Bomber (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:15 pm

The Rice Bomber
2/10/2014 by Elizabeth Kerr

The Bottom Line
Polished but strangely distant drama that has its heart in the right place.

Producer Cho Li’s third directorial effort chronicles the exploits of a Taiwanese farming hero.

With every renaissance comes the one piece that bucks the system, and in the case of Taiwan’s recent surge it’s Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber, a polished and earnest quasi-docudrama based on the exploits of early-00s agricultural activist Yang Rumen. With our collective good supply a hot topic on both consumer and documentary filmmaking (Food Inc., Farmageddon, The Harvest) fronts, the subject matter ensures a fair amount of attention for Yang’s admittedly compelling story. However, the sum doesn’t quite add up to the parts, as The Rice Bomber flits between tones and never generates the sense of urgency it should. That said the film’s combination of strong production value, timeliness and refreshing subject matter from Taiwan (no lovelorn teens with sexual identity crises or mopey existential angst) should give it a healthy life on the festival circuit.

Set during an economically turbulent period in Taiwan’s recent history, the film follows the small town boy from his life on a rice farm in the central Changhua region, to the military service that taught his the tricks of his trade and finally to full blown agitator trying to bring attention to the plight of the island’s farmers. As Taiwan enters the WTO and struggles beneath the burden of a newly globalized food supply, Yang Rumen (Huang Chien-Wei) transforms into an advocate for local farmers. Progressing from letters to the editor, to petitions at government agencies and finally his renowned rice bombs, Rumen (in reality now a major proponent and practitioner of organic farming after 7 years in prison) doesn’t want to hurt anybody, one of the reasons his 17 bombs (which spray rice like buckshot) are planted in reasonably empty spots. That’s not the case of his like-minded friend Troublemaker (Nikki Hsieh), a rich gangster’s daughter who prefers more militant action.

One of the oddities of Bomber is the tonal shifting that frequently stalls its momentum—narrative, emotional or otherwise. Cho inserts news footage to mark important agricultural milestones that are less elucidating than slightly jarring given the frequently sharp visuals and carefully tempered and understated scenes that precede them. In addition, Cho slips into the fantastical when Rumen chats with an imaginary friend, and raises questions as to whether Troublemaker is even real. Cap that off with a few too many montage sequences set to Peyman Yazdanian’s borderline bombastic score and Bomber’s oddly disconnected, unengaging vibe that makes connecting to the situation more cerebral than visceral, and the result is an ambitious statement film that clears its throat and taps you on the shoulder rather than hollers. With the exception of the music, of course.

Regardless the film’s minor flaws, which are wholly subjective, The Rice Bomber is producer Cho’s most accomplished film as a director, and she is clearly committed to the material. And fortunately cinematographer Cho Yong-Kyou comes to the rescue on more than one occasion, capturing the Taiwanese countryside with its bright blue sky and vibrant green fields in a classically unfussy way, making the contrasting dusty brown of the same fields (at the behest of new government policy) quietly heartbreaking—which is the only time the film really gets to hollering.

Producer Lee Lieh, Yeh Jufeng
Director Cho Li
Cast Huang Chien-Wei, Nikki Hsieh, Michael Chang
Screenwriter Hung Hung, Zin Do-Lan
Director of Photography Cho Yong-Kyou
Production Designer Lee Tian-jue
Music Peyman Yazdanian
Costume designer Wei Hsiang-Jung
Editor Qin Mai-Song, Liao Ching-Sung
No rating, 117 minutes


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