Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Throne of Blood

So what can one do, when the joys of a sunny early spring are brutally interrupted by the return of something resembling winter (but not just quite) ? Last weekend, a bunch of us choose to go into hiding, deep into the dark dungeons of Cinema, not to see one, but two movies.

Chinese movies, that is.

Then that must have been a film festival, you say ? Spot on ! Otherwise, can you imagine getting up at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, crawling from under the warm covers of your bed, to get into your car, drive for three quarters of an hour through the splashing rain ... to watch a movie at 10 A.M. ?

If "worldmusic" is a term that defies definition but nevertheless rings a bell with anybody on what to expect, then I would like to call this a festival of "worldcinema". No Hollywood blockbusters, just small productions, often hard to find in the commercial circuit, the "cinéma d'auteur" like the French would say, the refreshing Third World-kind of cinema ...

So Sunday morning we went to that festival to see ... Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" ! Hahaha ... so far for the previous paragraph !

Some of the wicked amongst you could argue that I went to see Gong Li. I will not deny it, but as having seen most of her movies equals saying I have seen more than a fair deal of Yimou's movies also, makes me opt for the latter as the prevailing argument to see this movie. Quite frankly, I'm not very much into all that martial arts / kungfu kind of stuff, so the fact that "The Curse... " was being cited as the third part in Zhang's wuxia 武侠 trilogy (after "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers"), was not really much of a incentive. The fact however that Zhang Yimou has released a new movie; the fact that Zhang teams up with Gong Li again for this movie; the fact that the "monstre sacré" of Hong Kong cinema, Chow Yun-Fat, co-stars with Gong Li ... that's what is important and that's what makes one wonder what result it will bring to the screen.

Okay, time-out for a second: did I tell you already about my other Crush, likewise with a capital C ? As powerful as Zhang's opening sequence with Jiang Wen and Gong Li in "Red Sorghum" may have been, I believe some of the scenes shot by Kurosawa in "Seven Samurai", starting with the opening raid of the bandits on the village, are unparalleled in world cinema, and ever since watching that opening sequence for the first time many years ago, I have kept watching the movies of the "Tenno", whenever there was a chance (which is not plenty, I must say). As a fan, it happened that on another filmfestival (also long time ago. Am I now growing old or what ?), I was able to watch one of his other masterpieces, "Kumonosu-jo" or "The Spiderweb Castle", but probably best known as "The Throne of Blood". You could also say it is unmistakably one of the best Shakespeare adaptations - "Macbeth" in this case - to be brought to the screen. I'll revert to this later in this post.

I didn't try to find out a lot on the movie before going to see "The Curse ...", I even avoided watching the trailers. So I admit to have been happily unaware of the almost Shakesperean plot, though the movie claims to be based on the Chinese drama "Lei yü" (雷雨) by Chinese playwright Cao Yu (曹禺).
For a very short summary of the plot, lets' rely on Oscar:

In the tenth-century Tang Dynasty, the Empress has begun an affair with her stepson, Crown Prince Wan, although the young man secretly loves Chan, the daughter of the Imperial Doctor. The unhappy state of the royal marriage has also led the Emperor to order his physician to poison his wife with a fungus that will cause her to lose her mind.

The movie-plot has enough tragedy to bridge the gap from Euripides over Shakespeare to ... euh, the Jerry Springer show. In the end, it's all again about the universal theme of Eros (seduction, love ...) and it's inseverable link to Thanatos (death). But before you come to that conclusion, what a movie you have seen from China's most famous director. Is it entirely satisfactory ? No, it is not, it is far from that, but have you been blown away ? Constantly !

Now the question is: what is Zhang had in mind and what is it the audience wants ? Do we want to be blown away or do we want to be dragged into a heart-ripping story ? If you opt for the latter, this is not exactly going to be your piece of cake. Though Gong and Chow act on the top of their art, the mere luxury and lusciousness of the settings prevent you from diving in. Like the commoners never were allowed to enter the realm of their emperor, the Forbidden City, so is empathy with the characters stopped at the door.

Once you get that over with, be prepared to enjoy a visionary of the image demonstrating his utmost talent. (Though I am aware it's a stretch to say this, it actually may make you long for August 8, 2008 and it's Olympic opening ceremony to come around the corner ... now !). At 45 million USD, "The Curse ..." is the most expensive Chinese movie ever made and it shows. From the palace itself, to the attack of the Darth Vader-meets-Ninja kind of guys, to the overwhelming final attack of the army entirely in golden armor on the palace: there is no rest for the eyes of the beholder of all this beauty.

So why was I mentionning Kurosawa then ? Because having seen his "Macbeth" adaptation and now "The Curse ...", I couldn't but reflect on the very different ways these two directors have handled their related subjects. While Kurosawa was said to be the most "western" of his Japanese contemporary directors, yet for "Kumonosu-jo", an adaptation of a western play, he turned to one of the most japanese art-forms to bring his movie to the screen: the Noh-theatre. Structured with the same rigidity, implementing all the required plot elements of any traditional Noh-play without diverting in any way from his base story, Kurosawa delivered a stylistic masterpiece, that draws it's strength from the inherent spatial limit of a Noh-stage. Whenever there is motion on the stage (e.g. in the almost claustrophobic settings of the rooms in the castle), it is a referral to bigger events taking place outside the scope of the screen. The murder on the king is almost entirely "visualized" by keeping the camera focussed on the facial expressions of Lady Macbeth, who is an a different room.The movie requires from it's audience an appreciation of an almost minimalistic way of filming, where the detail is taken to represent the bigger picture.

Compare this to Zhang Yimou's latest. Under the motto "To boldly go where no Chinese director has ever gone before", he has unladen every visual bravoure he has mastered. Where Kurosawa turned deep inward into Japanese culture to film his "Spiderweb Castle", Zhang Yimou seems to go the opposite direction. Have you seen those heaving breasts on all the women (firmly establishing the invention of the push-up bra in the Tang Dynasty ... not my joke, unfortunately, but had to tell it here !), have you seen those colours (not the imperial red and yellow from the Forbidden City as we know it, but pink and green and blue, besides gold of course, splashing off your screen): no chinese director at this moment except for Zhang could outdo Hollywood at it's own game.

All in all, it was a morning well spent. What I will remember after all visual artistry will have faded in my mind, is that a Chinese director, like a Japanese half a century before him, has again made a powerful statement on the hubris (the arrogance, overbearing pride) of man and how that invariably leads to sorrow, pain, death. This story, centuries old, could with ease be transposed to all those places in our world of today where tyrants in the east, south, north and west remain to be seated on their thrones of blood.

(to be continued ... after all, I saw two movies !)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Wall

Let's talk about China's Great Wall for a change.

What began as defensive structures mostly made of earth, stone and wood, eventually expanded into the longest man-made construction ever erected. Stretching over 4000 miles, it effectively tried to separate China from the rest of the world on it's weakest side: the north. I guess, when Qin Shi Huang woke up one morning in 220 BC with the idea that he had to connect those several shattered pieces of earthen fortification mounds into one big wall to keep possible invaders out of his newly unified country, he had no clue how that would be resounding through the ages. From Hadrian's Wall to the Berlin Wall, governments, emperors, cities have been building walls throughout history as a way of defense ... and they still do.

The latest addition is now likely to be contributed by ... Iran.

Quetta, March 1: Iran has started building a concrete wall along its border with Pakistan, from Taftan to Mand, to stop illegal border crossings.

According to reports received here, the wall will be built from near the border town of Taftan, about 700km west of Quetta.

"The Iranian authorities started work on the wall about a month ago," according to Barkat Ali Khan, a Pakistani border town administration official.

"The concrete wall will be 10 feet high and 3 feet wide," he said, adding that hundreds of workers could be seen building the wall.

He said that the Iranian authorities appeared to be in a hurry to complete the project.

"I think they want to seal the border with Pakistan to stop illegal crossings from both sides and check drug smuggling," Mr Barkat said, adding that the wall would be up to the Mand area in the Turbat district of Balochistan.

Pakistan and Iran already fenced their border at different points a long time ago.

Lest we forget, let us also remind some of the other, most notable, fine examples of new walls competing for a star in "Qin's Hall of Fame":

From the BBC' website:

US President George W Bush has signed into law a plan for 700 miles (1,125km) of new fencing along the US-Mexico border, to curb illegal immigration.

Mr Bush said the US had not been in control of the border for decades.

Illegal immigration is expected to be a major question in next month's US mid-term elections.

Mexican officials have opposed the fence, with outgoing President Vicente Fox calling it "shameful" and likening it to the Berlin Wall.

About 10 million Mexicans are thought to live in the US, some four million of them illegally.

An estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants were arrested last year trying to cross into the US via the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

It gets very interesting when you look at some of the numbers as are provided here:

But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said a wall running the length of a border would cost too much. A 2,000 mile state-of-the-art border fence has been estimated to cost between four and eight billion dollars. Costs for a wall that would run the entire length of the border might be as low as $851 million for a standard 10-foot prison chain link fence topped by razor wire. For another $362 million, the fence could be electrified. A larger 12-foot tall, two-foot-thick concrete wall painted on both sides would run about $2 billion. Initially it was estimated that the San Diego fence would cost $14 million -- about $1 million a mile. The first 11 miles of the fence eventually cost $42 million -- $3.8 million per mile, and the last 3.5 miles may cost even more since they cover more difficult terrain. An additional $35 million to complete the final 3.5 miles was approved in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security -- $10 million per mile.

That reminds me of one of the latest articles of one of my favorite columnists, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, on the situation in Iraq where he made the following assertion:

A major global consulting firm has reviewed Iraq's state-owned enterprises and estimated that it would cost $100 million to restart all of them and employ more than 150,000 Iraqis—$100 million. That's as much money as the American military will spend in Iraq in the next 12 hours.

Talking about getting the priorities right !

Now here's another formidable contender (from Wikipedia):

The Israeli West Bank barrier is a physical barrier being constructed by Israel consisting of a network of fences with vehicle-barrier trenches surrounded by an on average 60 meters wide exclusion area (90%) and up to 8 meters high concrete walls (10%).[1] It is located mainly within the West Bank, partly along the 1949 Armistice line, or "Green Line" between the West Bank and Israel. As of April 2006 the length of the barrier as approved by the Israeli government is 703 kilometers (436 miles) long. Approximately 58.4% has been constructed, 8.96% is under construction, and construction has not yet begun on 33% of the barrier.[2]

In November 1989, the world was cheering them on, as the Berlin Wall came down and the people from the east crossed the separation line for the first time as human beings instead of as machine-gun targets. The fall was heralded as the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism.

After that, it went quiet for a couple of years, but it seems construction fever on walls is now back with a vengeance. These constructions are prone to frustrate and humiliate those on the "wrong side" of them and we all know how a caged in creature may react. As for those on the "right side", they may one day wake up, realizing that the idea that they are better protected by the mere presence of such a wall, is just such an urban legend as the fact that China's Great Wall can be seen from the moon. In the end, China's wall didn't keep out the invaders: the Manchu's, the Mongols before them, ruled over China for centuries, not so much because the brickwork was not resistant to the attacks, but because at a certain moment someone from within opened the gate and took the lid off Pandora's box.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Centre Stage

Okay, let's get it over with right at the beginning of this post: I have this Crush (with capital C) for Gong Li.

You can read that sentence in the past, present or future tense, it won't make a difference.

Ever since she lifted her veil in the sedan chair that took her to her husband's house in "Red Sorghum" (红高粱) (1987), it's been there and that Crush is there to stay.

If you want to know what I am talking about from the pure "male chauvinist pig" point of view, let it suffice for you to take a look at the picture on the left. Does the P-word come to mind? Perfection ? Thank you. I rest my case.

However, I could not be sure that the Crush would be there to stay if I didn't consider her a very accomplished actress as well. I have seen most of her movies, admired her for her performances in her Chinese work, admired her for having the courage to go outside China and try to be the actress Gong Li and not: the chinese actress Gong Li. Though less successful in my opinion and bogged down too much still by a language barrier, she has proven that it was possible to transgress the borders of China and still make it big time. As I alluded to in this post before, she -and of course the directors that cast her- has come to personify the renaissance of chinese cinema in the years after the intellectual and artistic near-dead experience of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. And that's what I'd hoped she would always be remembered for.

(By the way, did I tell you already I have this Crush for Gong Li ?)

So I was very surprised / disappointed to read these remarks from her fellow actor Ge You, who really put down a top performance class act in Zhang Yimou's 1994 "To Live" (活着):

Chinese actor Ge You, who stars in The Banquet, says Chinese film siren Gong Li is too old to be favored by the Chinese film market.

He made the remarks while promoting the film with director Feng Xiaogang's production team in Taiwan along with Zhang Ziyi and Zhou Xun.

Zhang Ziyi was regarded as a young replica of Gong Li when she first appeared in Zhang Yimou's film My Father and Mother. Now both are rising Chinese actresses in Hollywood gifted with acting talents.

Ge You revealed that 40-year-old Gong Li and 42-year-old Maggie Cheung were considered to play the empress in The Banquet. The role eventually went to Zhang Ziyi.

"That's it. Zhang is much younger. We can't do anything about it," said Ge. "Gong may have a bright prospect in Hollywood, but certainly not in China."

Well I'll be damned !

Let me get this straight: China, with it's 5000 years of history, with it's 1.3 billion people and it's limitless ambition, would lack the oxygen to have three star actresses breathing and thriving at the same moment in time ??? The idea is ridiculous and preposterous. If China is serious on film and wants to earn it's place among the great cinematic legacies of countries such as Japan, France, Italy, Great Britain and the United States, it will need all the "star-power" it can get, for I believe the stars create the playing field in which also smaller, independent, less commercial movies can come to exist.

Don't also get me started on Maggie Cheung. I think, if you read this blog, chance is fairly big you will have seen her in Wong Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love" (2000). To see the star quality I am talking about, I would advise you however to go and see Stanley Kwan's "Centre Stage" (1992), on the life of chinese actress Ruan Lingyu.

Ridiculous as I find the idea to be, I am afraid though that Ge You's words may have at least some foundation in reality. When I look at the Chinese consumption pattern, I do see the "winner takes all"-tendency. Consumption patterns are very much linked to hype and so it could be that with Zhang Ziyi top seeded right now, there is no place left for the others.

For the time being, I hope that he uttered those words under pressure of the marketing machine that needs him to promote "The Banquet", which happens now to be starring Zhang Ziyi and not Gong Li nor Maggie Cheung. I trust they can still be back with a vengeance and that can only be to the benefit of the audience ... and my Crush.