Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

On The Seventh Art In The Age Of The Digital.

Tag: chinese cinema

Eastern Premise #63 – Uniform

In this latest instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier moves away from Japan and takes a look at Chinese director Diao Yinan’s Uniform.

This week Eastern Premise places Uniform, the directorial debut from Chinese screenwriter Diao Yinan under the spotlight. Zhi Fu, otherwise known as Uniform, is just that, a tale of a by chance clothing finding that opens up a realm of new possibilities to its new owner.

China has not been a regular stopover on our travels so far and that’s not through choice but rather a lack of worthwhile films. I can recall the optimism and excitement surrounding Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum and Ju Dou in the late 1980’s and the works of other 5th Generation directors. At last China was wrestling free from the shackles of central government control and grasping the medium of film. In my opinion, this generation and the next did not truly break free and instead new measures and partnerships stifled true expression. Whereas the 5th focused on village and the harsh realities of rural life, the 6th generation migrated just like the Chinese youth towards the sprawling urban cities of new China and mass production.

For all its financial clout and growing influence in film, China’s output can at times consistently disappoint. I’ve endured several epic historical clashes of late, powered by vast budgets, hundreds of extras, expertly filmed and choreographed, yet they lack substance; a heart and soul, becoming instantly forgettable. Occasionally a worthwhile film does appear and more than often not, from an unexpected source, often outside the influence of the ruling powers. Such was the case with Uniform, released in 2003.

Jia Zhangke’s 24 City took the mock-documentary approach to what the ‘Made in China’ label actually means to its workers, whereas Uniform approaches this era from a whole new perspective, cataloguing the disillusionment with what China is becoming. Set in China’s Shaanxi Province, this area is a real-life hotbed of fossil fuel and technology production. The competition is fierce for corporate success and those seeking employment within such facilities. What might seem like an unskilled job of little importance can in this environment be a financial lifeline for the employee and their family. Even China is not immune to the winds of consumerism and when two factories are forced to merge into a textile equivalent, this causes a great deal of local fallout, pain and suffering. Amidst this sense of redundancy we are introduced to Xiao Jian, a street tailor who works from a small stall, repairing, making adjustments and laundering clothes.

Jian is fortunate to have such practical skills, but with his unemployed father’s health dwindling, the pressure is on his shoulders to support the family and meet the growing medical bills. With the hostile merger very much in the forefront of the minds of the area’s inhabitants, tailoring work beings to dry up as residents become more financially aware. This is a trait we can all identify with in our own current economic climate. Jian takes stock of his options and almost by accident, decides to take advantage of an unclaimed laundered police uniform with dramatic results.

At first he dons this alternate persona for a bit of fun and dishing out instantly payable traffic fines, taking sweet revenge on the types who have irritated him over the years. As more opportunities present themselves, Jian finds it harder to resist and loses himself to the uniform. From a relative nobody, the uniform transforms in much the same way as a superhero costume. A constant theme is one of pollution; factories and engines operate regardless of emission constraints. Jian uses this as a regular device to fine drivers on the spot; unbeknown to Jian, the actual pollution is within as slowly he succumbs to the uniform. Provincial corruption is seems is widespread in China whether its party members, government employees or policemen; everyone can benefit from their enhanced status. An added bonus for Jian is the effect the uniform seems to have on the opposite sex particularly Zheng Shasha, a local CD store worker. This unlikely relationship is one of deceit on both sides and is suggestive of the struggle to survive in this expanding society.

Diano Yi-nan may have started in film as a screenwriter for directors such as Zhang Yang and Shi Runjiu but his debut film confirms a talented director in the making. Shot digitally, Uniform is blessed with a clarity and sharpness of vision that this format can snare and enhance. Technicolor backdrops are evident throughout proceedings; even for the most mundane of scenes there is an explosion of colour and a confidence in placement and lighting. This rush on the senses takes us, or for me at least, to Kar Wai Wong’s stunningly visual and adorable Chungking Express. Wong may have had the characteristic collision of cultures in Hong Kong to call upon and in comparison Yi-nan prises far more visuality from an alien, decaying industrial setting.

Axion Films put together a decent package for the UK DVD release of Uniform including an excellent transfer. The low budget and independent origins of the film itself explains the lack of available additional materials, so while the only DVD extra is an interview with the director, this is theoretically most likely all that could be included. A worthwhile addition is a well presented limited edition booklet that is of a Masters of Cinema standard. Whatever Chinese generation, films that have a true voice are few and far between. Uniform remains a film that deserves to be seen.


Eastern Premise #37 – The World

For this weeks Eastern Premise Jason Julier turns to more modern fare than offered by the last couple of weeks, with a look towards China and Zia Zhanke’s The World

Such a huge ambitious title could summarise almost anything and for China’s Zia Zhangke this project marked his first above ground feature. Previously despite international recognition his films had avoided the influence of the state censor. With such censorship rules relaxed and money being invested in Chinese films, Zhangke was ideally placed to take advantage with his next project.

The World isn’t a fantastic film, despite being released on the excellent Masters of Cinema label; it’s far from his best work. I remain a fan of 24 City, which I covered in an earlier instalment of Eastern Premise, which blends the documentary format to capture the essence of an aging Communist giant into a global consumer superpower. Many of the same themes permeate The World, with a changing population still enduring a harsh work ethic and living standards. Forced to remain in the poverty trap they can only dream of new cultures and experiences. This is where the World Park comes into its own by offering a capsule of landmarks and cultures within one location. Think of it as the muted Chinese version of Vegas or Disney’s global snapshots; for those who don’t wish to leave the comfort of their own country.

 

 

 

In The World, the visitors have no ability to travel. Lacking a visa or passport they can only aspire to experience new cultures beyond China. Clearly it’s not a problem endemic to China, as the inclusion of Russian workers provides an interesting comparison. They are faced by the same financial limitations and for one worker the pursuit of money leads her away from the relative safety of the World Park. Despite the lack of a common language Tao and Anna form an unlikely friendship. Somehow against all odds they find common ground and converse, their bond forms a brief moment within a sizeable running time yet it remains a highlight.

Theme parks are a wonderful setting for films; normally in the twilight of their existence and the most eerie of backdrops. In The World we spend more time backstage with the performers as they dress into their international costumes and work their way across locations. Lavish stage shows are commonplace but we are spared these routines in favour of the rudimentary chores and struggles of the workers. Zhangke may have missed a trick here as I found the World Park to be a captivating environment with its one third scale depictions and the Chinese take on the West. This potentially interesting and diverse environment is an instrument rather than the main attraction.

 

 

 

Instead we mainly follow two workers within the park; Tao played by Zhao Tao is Zhangke’s regular leading lady. The relationship with her boyfriend is the core of the film and their internal struggles offer us the chance to see other areas of this world. The importance of family and supporting your circle is a constant pressure. Lust rears its ugly head as Tao’s boyfriend (Taisheng), becomes infatuated with another woman. Qun has her own concerns despite a successful career making fake Western goods, she longs for her husband who many years previously, spent everything in an effort to make his fortune in the West. Qun stayed at home and utilised the legal channels to obtain her own Visa to travel beyond China. This is modern China, the central characters are perceived by their family to have well-paid jobs and in comparison to the rural areas lead a more prosperous lifestyle. Financial struggles are never too far away. The park workers may offer a few hours of freedom to their visitors yet they remain stuck in this fake world; an alien blot on a Chinese landscape. 

With state backing The World wasn’t really going to deal with the real issues of China and the restrictions it places on freedom. While the park workers can only dream of ‘freedom’, Zhangke never tackles what real freedom actually represents and its true cost. This picturesque tale of love and working hardship skirts around this contentious political issue what could have been. Freedom to travel is admittedly limited by wealth otherwise we’d all be constantly shooting across the globe, but that’s only a partial consideration. Qun’s tale and the risks taken by her husband are not dwelt upon, as she becomes the trigger for the conclusion of the film itself. The real question is why many are unable to travel or leave the confines of China, to express themselves and experience new cultures and ideas.

 

 

 

 

The botched premise of The World is disappointing, yet it remains a visual treat; full of flair and imagination. The miniaturised sights of the globe standout against a modern landscape, which is growing all around the park, as a new China prospers. The Eiffel Tower is a centrepiece; devoid of the queues that blight the original feature and as one park worker exclaims; ‘we still have the Twin Towers’. Zhangke’s eye for a setting continues to prosper, that’s the only consolation I can take from The World, which marks his acceptance by the establishment.

The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray arrives with a wonderfully colourful booklet that offers an insight into the director and The World itself. A detailed introduction from Tony Rayns sheds the spotlight on both aspects and deviates at times to highlight other areas of interest. An hour long ‘making of’ documentary goes behind the scenes and an interview with Zhangke rounds off a decent selection of extras. The World is an interesting piece of Chinese cinema, limited by its ambition and overly long running time. It is flawed, despite the international acclaim I find it personally difficult to recommend. (Editors Note; I disagree with Jason completely, and recommend the film very highly – Adam)

Eastern Premise #2 – Ju Dou

Jason Julier once again provides a slice of East Asian cinema, with this look at Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou.

Zhang Yimou, 1990. China.

Following my debut piece for Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second this is the torrid ‘second album’ experience. Previously I had discussed the merits of Tetsuo: The Iron Man,  one of the few VHS cassettes that remains in my possession. Despite suggesting to Adam that I intended to cover Hirokazu Koreeda’s Air Doll (2009) this week, I felt it only right that we place the spotlight on the only other surviving VHS tape; to pay homage to its rear-guard action and what is a landmark Chinese film.

Ju Dou (1990) is special in many ways, whether it’s the listing of two directors (although consensus is that Zhang Yimou was the main driving force), its use of the near obsolete three strip Technicolor format, the arrival of Gong Li on the international stage or becoming the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Take your pick, but it is clear that Ju Dou sparked a fight against Chinese films that were seen to confirm to the party vision. Debuting shortly after the Tiananmen Square protests it was unsurprisingly caught up in the aftershocks and banned for several years in its homeland.

Today China is more open than it was twenty years ago, albeit still heavily policed, yet it remains a land of mystery to many in the West. To a teenager in 1990, Ju Dou was a brief visa to a forbidden land, where technology had failed to plant its seed and the peasant lifestyle with its cultural traditions was very much the order of the day. Set in the early 20thCentury, Ju Dou dispels the romantic myths often associated with a rural life in a similar fashion to Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island (1960). The period is portrayed as a hard life, devoid of idyllic trappings and fanciful excess. Every morsel is valuable, every scrap counts.

Gong Li in what is arguably the performance of her career, commits fully to the role. She experiences mental and physical hardship on a relentless basis under a regime of tyranny with only brief moments of respite. Bought by a local businessman to become his third wife she is pitched into a torrent of uncertainty, and cruelty. Her husband has beaten his previous wives to death for their failure to provide him with a son. Unknown to all concerned Yang Jinshan is infertile and Ju Dou would be destined for a similar fate if it was not for the interest of a family relation.

A romance soon blossoms and by chance a son, with the parents hatching a plan to pass off the child as Jinshan’s. Any prospect of happiness it cut short by a stroke that leaves the husband physically marooned, patrolling his possessions with an increasing zeal. Soon he discovers the affair and events take a new direction culminating in tragedy.

Ju Dou is not only an emotional experience but a beautifully composed film thanks partially to Zhang Yimou’s background as a cinematographer. If one film demands to be released on blu ray then this is it. A fantastic blend of radiant colours, picturesque backdrops, it’s a welcome return to the Technicolor format. To date as far as I’m aware the film is only available on DVD and even then most transfers are substandard, often in the 4:3 format. Even in such a truncated form Ju Dou retains its ability to cast a spell over the viewer.

Jason Julier can be found on Twitter.