Still Life

18757118.jpgSanxia haoren

Jia Zhang Ke :: China :: 2006 :: 1h48

Coal miner San-Ming arrives in the southern Chinese town of Fangje looking for his estranged wife and daughter, whom he has not seen in sixteen years. With an address in hand, he is taken to the rivers edge and told the house lies somewhere below the waves. The disappointed San-Ming remains none the less undeterred to track them down amongst the construction sites and rubble which characterize the town’s ever changing face.

In parallel, we follow Shen Hong, a nurse looking for her husband who has set up life in the town, with the help of an archaeologist friend. She is more sheltered from the harsh conditions facing people like San-Ming, but in the misery merry-go-round of displaced persons, she is no exception. The combination of the two tales take us along this moving portrait of a mutating China.

This town of Fangje lies on the route of the Yangtze river, which is being dammed up in the mega project of the Three Gorges Dam. The protagonists’ lives are but specks in an ocean controlled by a huge, seemingly other world of bureaucracy. The director does not hesitate to throw in allusions to Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, or or a Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and even surreal elements to capture the absurdity of the lives-crushing-machine of a state as it rolls in the name of progress. But, peculiarly enough, it leaves behind the characters. They serve the great purpose of the state, but they merely act out the motions, subjected, without emotions, without change. A unique long stare into the tragedy of the world’s most populous state.


La Cité Interdite

Curse of the Golden Flower

Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia

Zhang Yimou :: China :: 2006 :: 1h54

An epic Shakespearean drama unfolds when characters with nerves of steel and the agility of phantoms clash in tragic blood-stained events cloaked by a stunning, tranquil beauty. A spectacular experience of old school theatre in a modern aesthetic.

Set in the Tang dynasty, 928 AD, the Emperor returns from battle to the forbidden city, as a Macbeth avant la lettre. Plunging himself fearlessly into his strained relationships with just about all the members of his court, he assumes full responsibility for the role he is entrusted to. A role draped in the understanding that all movement is but strategy in the chess game of the imperial power struggle, a game at which he is a ruthless master.

The Emperor’s unabridged display of the worst power has to offer is contrasted with the frustration, loyalty and anger harbored by his wife and sons. The characters are all so theatrically surreal with their emotions amplified to a large-than-life scale that it should have crippled them out of any action other than desperation. But they manage, and are convincing enough to carry you along with their descent out of the honorable. They are surrounded by the impressive but cartoon-style choreography of Chinese battle scenes we have become used to, of expert anti-gravity elf-like soldiers caught up in the cinema matrix.

A captivating and engrossing depiction of life in the forbidden city as it lives in the imagination of generations passed. Along the sidelines of the tale, you will be offered a palette of colors which are breathtaking, coloring the extravagant palace, dressing the characters and demarcating the fairy-tale scenery. Many reasons, as far as I’m concerned, to pass the threshold into the realm of the Forbidden City.

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Voiture de luxe

Jiang cheng xia ri

Wang Chao :: China/ France :: 2006 :: 1h28

Aging teacher Qiming returns to the city of Wuhan (south central China) after having lived in exile in the countryside most of his life. Picked up at the port by his beautiful daughter, his sets out to track down is out-of-view son. Qiming’s daughter gives him some leads she has managed to accumulate to start him off on his search. A painful but revealing image unfolds before his eyes.

The well-intentioned, idealistic Qiming keeps his cool in the face of disappointment, in what slowly turns from uncomfortable to awful. In order to be able to make the most of the characters, the story-line is kept as compact as possible. This may be taken as plain convenience, perhaps even weak, but the subtle confrontations between the limited number of characters justify the choice. Well worth the watch.

Celluloid Dreams

Les Filles du botaniste

 Blogger 3370 1691 1600 18476089Les Filles du botaniste

Dai Sijie :: France, China :: 2005 :: 1h45

Orphaned girl Li Min gets sent to a draconian botanist for a schooling placement where she meets An, his patient and dutiful daughter. The magical garden and the surrounding -surreal- countryside bears almost impossibly hidden and cultivated herbs which are poisonous, healing, meat eaters or hallucinogenic. Like Alice in wonderland, they are confronted with the hidden powers of plants. In parallel, they fall in love, with the added complexity that this relationship is illegal in 1980s China. Li Min and An develop a scheme to keep them together in the Botanist’s house to let their love blossom. Unfortunately, especially in the beginning of the movie, their budding love is unconvincingly presented, making the intended sensuous scenes which follow artificial. The violent shocks in the story-line do not make watching any easier either, forcing the viewer to take on a very lenient position towards the characters and their play, a requirement which was easily avoided with more attention to detail. In a few words: A missed chance to praise love, with two beautiful actresses and photography in almost unreal scenery.

Nouvelle cuisine

 Blogger 3370 1691 1600 18463723

Fruit Chan :: China (HK) :: 2005 :: 1h31

While they wait for their furniture to be shipped over from Europe, Mr and Mrs Li float through their empty lives, leading her back in dreams of beauty and the simple desires of youth. Her dreams are an iron will pushed to the extreme by Ms Mei, who cooks up her recipe for a vampiresque fountain of youth. In short, the horrors of the nouveau riche superficiality of having aimed at the wrong target in life. The complete a-moral void into which they throw themselves, and utter hopelessness of the spectator who has nothing to hold on too makes for a free fall to nausea. Your compensation en route is some original and well used Degas photography although contrasted sharply with over-the-top sound effects. Your reward is nihilistic revulsion. Make a conscious decision on whether or not to go and see this one.
The title is symbollically well found.
Realistically: seeing the characters’ non-relationship as their unbuilt kitchen (house)
Conceptually: contemporary cooking’s promise of a refined purity of taste … but in essence ephemeral and too un-nutricious to achieve even its principle purpose, namely to feed.