Friday, March 13, 2009

of the

Several months ago, I reviewed the following controversial Chin-
ese films for Video Librarian, and thought they were worth sharing.

(Yu Li, China, 2007, 112 mins.)

In her native land, Yu Li's third feature experienced the best and
worst her country had to offer. On the one hand, Lost in Beijing
was a hit. On the other, authorities pulled it from theaters after a
few weeks and imposed a two-year ban on the director and writ-
er/producer Li Fang (Summer Palace). Western viewers may not
find the results as "pornographic" as China's Film Bureau—non-
gratuitous nudity aside—but nor will anyone confuse this claus-
trophobic melodrama for chamber of commerce propaganda.

In Yu Li's Beijing, money buys everything but happiness. Liu
Ping Guo (Fan Bingbing, Battle of Wits), wife of high-rise window
washer An Kun (Tong Da Wei), works in a foot massage parlor.
Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka Fai, Election), husband of infertile aesthetician Wang Mei (Elaine Jin, Yi Yi), runs the joint. One couple is poor and powerless; the other rich and powerful.

After a night of drinking with a depressed colleague, Liu Ping
Guo passes out at work, and Lin Dong takes advantage of her.
Washing windows outside the parlor at the time, An Kun catch-
es him in the act, and attempts blackmail. Then, when his wife
becomes pregnant, he offers to sell Lin Dong the baby. Relations
between the haves and the have-nots become hopelessly tangled.

Tough going at times, but always well acted, Lost in Beijing
loosens up once the two couples become unlikely business part-
ners. Fans of Jia Zhangke (The World) and early Zhang Yimou
(The Story of Qiu Ju) should find this film of particular interest.

(Lee Ye, China, 2006, 140 mins.)

In 2000's dreamy Suzhou River, Lee Ye proved he had a strong
visual sense. With the leisurely-paced Summer Palace, his
fourth feature, the director combines fluid camera work with
an impressionistic narrative that spans almost two decades.

Starting in 1987, the beauti-
ful, but introverted Yu Hong (television veteran Hao Lei) leaves her provincial boyfriend behind when she goes off to Beijing University. In the city, she drifts aimlessly until the outgoing Li Ti (Lingling Hu) befriends her. Yu Hong's new friend then introduces her to
the idealistic Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong), with whom
she enters into a tempestuous relationship.

From that point forward, her journal entries serve as narration. After the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen, she drops out
of school, Li Ti moves to Berlin, and Zhou Wei enters the militar-
y, later joining Li Ti in Germany, while Yu Hong remains in Chi-
na, traveling from Wuhan to Chongqing and from man to man.

All the while, she thinks about Zhou Wei, but makes no effort to
contact him (and vice versa). Eventually, she settles down, and
Zhou Wei returns from Europe, but they're more tamped-down
than ever. The director doesn't spell it out in so many words,
but the events of 1989 have crushed their collective spirits.

On the surface, the story may not sound controversial, but Chi-
nese authorities sentenced Lee Ye to a five-year ban due to the
Tiananmen footage and sexually explicit material. At 140 min-
utes, Summer Palace is longer than necessary, but comes rec-
ommended for its intimate approach towards historic events. Two
featurettes examine the production (The Making of Summer Pal-
ace) and the controversy (Summer Palace and Chinese Censorship).

Click here for Movie of the Month, Part Three: Chris & Don

Endnote: Slightly revised from the original text. Incidentally,
I covered these films at the same time as The Last Emperor and
Sunflower. Fortunately, I never get tired of Chinese-oriented
cinema. And speaking of Suzhou River, I caught it at the Toronto
Film Festival. It's a lovely film, but Lee Ye had a hard time talking
about it. From the extras included with the Summer DVD, it's
clear he's learned to articulate his ideas more succinctly (there
are few things more discomfiting than listening to a filmmaker
hem and haw for several endless minutes in a row). Images
(copyright 2007) from the late great New Yorker Films.


Anonymous said...

I saw Lost in Beijing at a screening where a host family to a Chinese exchange student had brought their young guest. Periodically they would apologize to her for bringing her to the film and ask if she wanted to go. She assured them every time that she was interested in the film, but the family could hardly contain their discomfort.

Kathy Fennessy said...

How funny. It's definitely an adult film--in every sense of the word--but I would hope Chinese citizens of all ages would make the effort to see it while they're in the States. And who knows how long these New Yorkers discs will remain in circulation!