Chinese Language Films at the 2004
Toronto International Film Festival

By Shelly Kraicer

Copyright MCLC Resource Center, 2004

Chinese Language Films at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival (September 9-18, 2004, Toronto Canada)

posterMainland China

Two Great Sheep (Haoda yidui yang; dir. Liu Hao)
Plastic Flowers (Chunhua kai; dir. Liu Bingjian)
Electric Shadows (Meng ying tongnian; dir. Xiao Jiang)
House of Flying Daggers (Shimian maifu; dir. Zhang Yimou)
The World (Shijie; dir. Jia Zhangke)

posterHong Kong

Kung Fu Hustle (Gong fu; dir. Stephen Chow)
Breaking News (Da shijian; dir. Johnnie To)
Throwdown (Roudao long hu bang; dir. Johnnie To)
Eros (“The Hand”) (Shou; dir. Wong Kar-wai)


Mainland China

In a calendar now packed with far more film festivals than there are days of the year, a major international festival such as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) needs to position itself in some ways against “the competition.” In its glory days in the mid 1980s to early 1990s, TIFF’s Asian film section, lead by programmer David Overbey, held a leading role among major international film festivals in bringing to the attention of the West major Chinese directors and film trends, especially those from Taiwan and Hong Kong. TIFF, now in its twenty-ninth year, has evolved from a “festival of festivals,” which brought to the city the best its programmers culled from other major festivals around the world, to its current incarnation as a one-stop monster-sized shopping fest, North American version. Cannes remains for the foreseeable future the preeminent international film market, as well as the most prestigious prize-bestowing international film event. This guarantees attention from those Chinese film directors and producers whose marketing strategy still does not extend much beyond “win a big prize first” (virtually every Chinese filmmaker’s fixation). Second- and third-level major prizes are handed out at Venice and Berlin, which explains why films like Gu Changwei’s important new work Peacock (Kongque), complete for months now, will not receive its world premiere until next year (Berlin, February 2005).

As TIFF has recently tended more and more towards calibrating its programming to meet the needs of (largely American) film industry buyers who flock here en masse on its first weekend, the traditional panorama of festival highlights has given way to a push for international premieres. Instead of offering what might be construed as “the best” of cinema the world has to offer over the last year or so, TIFF now tries to be first as often as it tries to be best. Premieres, after all, offer prestige, glamour, programming cachet, and attract buyers who want to be the first to see, and they hope, to snatch up, marketable international curiosities that might be, if not the next Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, 2000), then at least the next niche-marketable Gong Li vehicle (Zhou Yu’s Train / Zhou Yu de huoche, 2002) or easily commodifiable celebration of local colour (Beijing Bicycle / Shiqisuide danche, 2001).

These programming exigencies may have had something to do with the shape of Chinese language cinema at TIFF 2004. Three world premieres from China led the list, supplemented by recent works from previously screened masters (Jia Zhangke, Johnnie To, Wong Kar-wai).

Scene from Liu Hao's <em>Two Great Sheep</em>

Scene from Liu Hao’s Two Great Sheep

Of the premieres, Liu Hao’s Two Great Sheep is the most successful. It is a small-scale tale of a poor but honest peasant couple past middle age who live in China’s arid northwest. Chosen by the county head for their honesty (the husband frankly criticizes the extreme poverty of their village to the bureaucrat, though the latter, oblivious, is seen later enjoying a spanking new official jeep), they receive, out of the blue, two expensive and incredibly picky sheep, wildly unsuited for their climate, whom they have to raise to impress a prospective investor. The film shows their manically-stressed home life in fascinating detail, as they grow more and more distressed providing said sheep with food, laxatives, wool treatments (even white shoe polish gets pressed into service), and comfy surroundings (their own living room).

Liu Hao’s second feature (the first was his wonderfully intimate underground study of urban lovers Chen Mo and Meiting (Chen Mo yu Meiting, 2002)) was made within the system and approved by the Film Bureau. But his quietly observant eye patiently captures slyly satirical, telling details that subtly limn the rhythms and textures of a contemporary rural life buckling under economic pressures from far away, pressures that its residents can barely make out. This is the most Kiarostamian film I’ve seen from China, in its use of non-professional rural actors, in the way it fixes its tiny characters against broad arid spaces of their environment, and especially in the way the camera keeps a perfectly judged distance (objective yet compassionate) from its characters. Two Great Sheep may not show us much that is new, but its balance of implicit sociological critique and entertaining storytelling marks Liu Hao as one of the most interesting formerly underground directors now working in the mainstream, along with Zhu Wen, Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Zhang Yuan.

Scene from Liu Bingjian's Plastic Flowers, starring Liu Xiaoqing

Scene from Liu Bingjian’s Plastic Flowers, starring Liu Xiaoqing

TIFF’s other two mainland film premieres were less impressive. Liu Bingjian’s Plastic Flowers is a major disappointment. This director, whose acute intelligence and gutsy originality were so evident in Men and Women (Nan nan nü nü, 1999) and Cry Woman (Kuqide nüren, 2002), has produced a new work that is confused, confusing, and merely episodically intriguing. Perhaps it is the strictures of censorship, perhaps the exigencies of working with a mega-star (or, more precisely, former mega-star) like Liu Xiaoqing, but his new film only periodically strikes hot. Liu Xiaoqing plays Chunhua, the new owner/manager of a plastic flower company. Her aggressive, feisty, outrageously made-up, garishly outfitted character is a wonder to watch (one can almost imagine her chomping a cigar as she chews out slack employees). Her character attracts the attention of two male employees, a shy poetically-inclined worker and a suave and ambitious engineer. As they vie for her attentions (amorous and professional), the film’s focus unfortunately shifts from firecracker boss to shy worker, whose obscurely magic-realist romantic fantasies overwhelm and derail the narrative. The film’s narrative incoherence is supposed to stem from an authentically contemporary blurring of the boundaries between dream-life and real life in present day China, according to the director. While that’s a nice thesis, in theory, the results are unfortunately a structural collapse. The film should have stuck with Liu Xiaoqing, who gets the kind of juicy, multi-faceted mid-life role that could revitalize her film career.

Scene from Xiao Jiang's Electric Shadows

Scene from Xiao Jiang’s Electric Shadows

First time director Xiao Jiang’s Electric Shadows aggressively sets out to please the crowds. Modeled self-consciously on late model Euro-art-pap Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1989), Xiao tempers the sentimental sugar content (for the most part), while upping the Historical Melodrama quotient. A freak accident (involving the tragic waste of a small puppy) brings together two young adults: a delivery boy (Xia Yu, normally an actor of impressive power and sensitivity) and a mute, film-struck young woman (first time actress Qiu Zhongyang). His cloyingly obvious voice-over doles out the back story: as young children in the 1970s, they met during outdoor screenings of late Cultural Revolution-approved films (mom was the town PA system announcer; adoptive dad was the projectionist). There is plenty of period material to hold one’s attention, particularly the extensive clips of old Chinese films from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (I definitely want to see more of Railroad Guerillas, with its rousing scenes of Communist patriots exploding Japanese occupation trains and otherwise creating spectacular mayhem). But the film’s characterizations often made little sense; the plot chugged along hitting predictable points when it wasn’t arbitrarily lunging towards greater pathos. The whole enterprise seemed oddly old-fashioned: though Chinese cinema certainly is in desperate need of home-grown, audience appealing fare, one can’t help asking if this particular instance genuinely belonged at a festival such as TIFF.

Zhang Yimou’s newest extravaganza, House of Flying Daggers (link to official website) most certainly did belong. Even though (or perhaps precisely because) it wants to be nothing more than an out and out crowd pleaser. Which need not in itself be a crime. In fact, the film and its director know the mechanics of pleasure:Flying Daggers is a massive (though fleet) machine for producing delight. It is a companion piece to Hero(Yingxiong, 2002), but in some ways a mirror opposite of that controversial film. Hero’s substance provoked furious attacks and denunciations by politically and historically serious critics within China, attacks that even elicited what sounded like a recent apology (for the “ill-chosen” historical setting) by the director. Well, Flying Daggers is blithely content-free. Unbound by gravity, utterly without the gravitas that still burdens Chinese intellectuals bent on grappling with the Big Questions even in their public entertainments, Zhang’s new film is a feather-light concoction devoted to the worship of star power, virtuosic wuxia, and romantic narrative.

Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Ziyi and Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers

And fun it is. Energized by the lavishly self-conscious set pieces that open the film (whose look, all sumptuous objets and bright lighting, seems to derive from Li Han-hsiang’s classy costume dramas of the 1960s), our three heroes—Tang dynasty cops Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro and dancing girl/rebel fighter Zhang Ziyi—fly through varied seasons and landscapes until the film congeals into its final form – romantic triangle. It’s a shame that this triangle is handled so conventionally (with shameless melodrama, one might even say, pushed to such obvious, Sirkian excess that one suspects the director is standing, smiling, at some distance outside his material). The budget seems to have been spent well – the costumes are the film’s chief glory – and the stars don’t disappoint. Though only Takeshi Kaneshiro really breaks free of the constraints of the blocky dialogue and invests his character with an individualized depth and passion.

If it sounds like I’m suggesting that Flying Daggers is kitsch, indeed I am. Wild, grandly conceived, viscerally exciting kitsch. Is the film gleefully comfortable in its kitschy skin, or might Zhang the auteur be sitting off to the side, winking at us with serious artist’s eyes and saying “you know and I know, but look how much they love it”? Hard to tell.

Jia Zhangke’s The World asks the question “what kind of world do you want to live in?,” and worries that we’re getting further from an answer all the time. If contemporary global culture has anything to offer, it’s a world in which everything is connected, accessible, downloadable, transformable across boundaries, cultures, languages, continents. But at what cost? What if so much access comes at the price of truth: if everything is at your fingertips, but you can’t be sure that anything you can touch is “real”? The World is set on the outskirts of Beijing, in a 114-acre theme park, World Park (Shijie gongyuan), which contains shrunken monster-kitsch replicas of famous international tourist sites. Among these mini- Eiffel Towers, Great Pyramids, and Taj Mahals, Jia takes on the global metropolis as his subject. But his poetical-analytic sensibility proves just as suited for digital urban pop culture as it was for rural post-industrial torpor. The World seems to be the natural destination of his films’ progress from dusty small towns through to mid-sized industrial cityscapes. Its excursions into futuristic nightclubs, on-screen cellphone text-messaging, and even fantastical animated sequences, develop organically from Jia’s style and preoccupations.

Zhao Tao in The World

Zhao Tao in The World

At the centre of The World is Jia’s soulfully elegant muse Zhao Tao, who plays the lead dancer in the theme park’s multi-ethnic staged musical spectaculars, portions of which we glimpse throughout the film. The narrative follows the intertwined lives of her fellow performers and the park’s security guards, whose various romantic entanglements play out against this surreal backdrop. Tao and her colleagues seem so up-to-the-minute modern, so comfortably wired into easy-access global culture. But Jia’s patient, penetrating gaze slowly reveals that their inner lives are paralyzed, haunted with a sense of dread, of gradually emptying hope.

This is Jia Zhangke’s first film approved for release in China by the Film Bureau. In going “above ground”, though, Jia has lost none of his critical edge. Apparently, the officials responsible for Beijing’s and Shenzhen’s World Parks are delighted with Jia’s depiction of their product. Which would be another sad illustration of the film’s thesis, if their bureaucratic cluelessness weren’t so absurdly funny. This film is in fact Jia’s darkest critique yet of the futures available to his compatriots in present-day urban China: dead ends and black holes, as far as the eye can see. The film creates worlds within worlds, wherein everything—architecture, costumes, emotions, behaviours—are laboriously constructed fakes, painstakingly crafted copies of imaginary originals who remain ever more out of reach, the more obsessively their simulacra are fetishized.

The film mercilessly (but with wit and humour) interrogates the environment it traps its characters in, excavating its deep structure, a tottering Escher-like nightmare of infinite regress, where reality is cut off, hidden behind unending iterations of fakes. But Jia gives us more than analysis. His film’s pained, urgently anguished heart emerges right at the nexus of its characters’ failure to integrate into such a world, as they—tentatively hopeful, half-knowing, already preemptively defeated—flail desperately against the prison walls of their simulated paradise.

Jia’s latest work deepens and broadens his main preoccupations, while preserving the beauty of his magisterially elegant long takes, his astonishing ability to plumb his characters’ psyches while seeming to hold them at an objective distance. A key work that challenges the basis and the direction of China’s new century, The World is a stunning addition to the most probingly analytical, creatively daring, and deeply moving body of work to have appeared from any director in the last decade.

Hong Kong

TIFF’s Hong Kong selections ignored the self-consciously artier end of the SAR’s filmmaking spectrum (where pickings were admittedly rather thin this year) in favour of star-studded genre films from directors with proven commercial track records. Namely, Johnnie To and Stephen Chow.

Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle probably received the lowest profile world premiere of a major film at TIFF. Columbia Pictures Asia somewhat surprisingly chose Toronto for the premiere, though only one of two scheduled public screenings actually took place. There was as well the standard press screening, with outrageously obsessive “security” measures in place (due, presumably, to piracy worries, which also reportedly were the cause of the unprecedented cancellation of the second public screening). At any rate, those who did manage to see Chow’s latest (slated for a Christmas release in East Asia) were treated to his finest film in years.

The plot concerns a group of plucky residents of a tenement, Pigsty Alley, who are terrorized by members of the rather ineptly evil Axe Gang. Retired kung fu masters emerge among the tenement’s residents, retune their skills, and help fight off the gang. In the process, they attract the attention of Sing (Chow), a layabout and wannabe Axe Gang member. The plot thickens as the Gang retaliates against the residents by bringing in heavier guns; two implacably lethal qin-wielding assassins. When that fails, they finally co-opt Sing to spring from prison a famous though crazed master killer, the Beast. Several brief though effectively sentimental flashbacks later, Sing will undergo an apotheosis as meets the Beast in a final apocalyptic showdown.

If Shaolin Soccer (Shaolin zuqiu, 2001) was Chow’s experiment in globalized filmmaking, his practice vehicle for combining special effects and primarily visual action comedy in a new internationalized hybrid,Kung Fu Hustle is his first fully realized masterwork in this new style. Chow’s new priorities and strategies are now clear. He is obviously interested in combining state of the art computer graphic effects with live action, and pulls this of with a seamless virtuosity that Zhang Yimou’s twin action blockbusters can’t approach. Kung Fu Hustle’s appeal to both the mainland Chinese audience and to an international (i.e. non-Chinese-speaking) audience is maximized by a radical reduction in the role dialogue plays in generating comedy. Chow’s signature moleitau, his completely local brand of Cantonese wordplay, is virtually absent inKung Fu Hustle. Local geographic markers are also minimized: the film takes place in a mythic 1920s or 1930s Chinese urban space that could be Shanghai, or could be Canton. Of course, local audiences will find much to connect with, and HK film cognoscenti will still be able to trace the film’s historical antecedents, and enjoy identifying the film’s source materials (in fact, the film can be seen as virtually pure pastiche, put together from episodes of classic HK films from the past few decades, the most obvious of which includeBuddha’s Palm (Ru lai shen zhang, 1964), Six-fingered Lord of the Lute (Liu zhi qin mo, 1965), Fists of Fury(Tangshan daxiong, 1971), The Boxer From Shantung (Ma Yongzhen, 1972), The House of 72 Tenants(Qishi’er jia fangke, 1973)).

Most radically, Chow removes himself as an actor from most of the film. His character is offstage until the second act, then is absent for much of the development of the story, before returning for a triumphantly traditional Chow-as-God ending. And Chow does not incarnate his usual easy-to-identify-with Hong Kong everyman, an outsider/loser who uses his smarts to work himself into society. He has taken the radical step of redefining his persona as merely a low life “bad guy”, someone whom audiences are driven to despise until the film’s grand final act, which enacts a grand comic inversion.

Instead of Chow’s performance carrying the film, a comically and dramatically rich cast of middle aged Hong Kong and Taiwanese actor-stuntmen and -women (Dong Zhihua, Chiu Chi-ling, Xing Yu, and Yuen Qiu) take centre stage, and they are a delight to watch. The three men perform a physically vigorous and visually dazzling brand of “old-fashioned” 1970s style action set pieces, but with twenty-first century speed and density. And Yuen Qiu, as the landlady cum kungfu master, is comic powerhouse, and a powerful foil to Chow’s own magnetic screen presence. Oliver Wong’s richly conceived art direction and a tuneful, tradition-tinged score by Raymond Wong add depth and substance to this altogether hilarious and exciting new Chow film, one that shows his creativity brilliantly renewed by the challenge of a new international marketplace.

Johnnie To managed to place two films at the festival: Breaking News (which premiered at Cannes) andThrow Down (fresh from its premiere at the Venice Film Festival). As well as repackaging the current reigning master of HK genre cinema as a freshly minted “international festival director”, this pairing could serve to illustrate a “two Tos” thesis that I would like tentatively to propose. There seem to be two kinds of Johnnie To films: those that celebrate control, and those that celebrate anarchy. The former include those policiers (see PTU, 2003) that tend to side with professionalized monopolizers of state-sanctioned brutality who face off against even more terrifyingly out-of-control outlaws. I’d suggest that these “social stability” films can also be aligned with To’s romantic comedies that propose traditional domesticity as the solution for a certain amount of manageable gender and class conflict (see Needing You / Gu nan gua nü, 2000). On the other side are films that interrogate, destabilize, or puncture genre strictures, that offer liberating visions that avoid standard models of the way things “have to be” (see, for example his gender-switching yellow plum opera Wu Yen / Zhong Wuyan, 2001; or his genre-defying masterpiece Running on Karma / Da zhi lao, 2003).

Scene from Johnnie To's <em>Breaking News</em>

Scene from Johnnie To’s Breaking News

Breaking News fits neatly into the former category, with its ferocious mainland criminals barely held at bay by HK’s technologically advanced armies of police. An already-famous opening bravura long take (as the camera climbs up and down multi-story buildings, tracks back and forth along a narrow street, whirling and capturing a firefight between cops and robbers) enacts the kind of technological mastery that To celebrates thematically. It works to assure us, on a visceral level, that, no matter how close things are to falling apart, the world can hold together in the end. This thesis is complicated, in this instance, by an incipient critique of the mediatization of contemporary society (which resonates in interesting ways with Jia Zhangke’s universe of fake media in The World), but Breaking News doesn’t bother to develop these ideas in any intriguing ways. On the way to a disappointingly traditional and oddly small-scale ending, the film takes an intriguing detour into original material, during several amusing scenes of camaraderie between temporarily humanized gangsters and their hostages.

I’m far more intrigued by the wildness and uncertainty embraced by the “other” Johnnie To, To No. 2, andThrow Down offers an endearingly vibrant example. An ode to the joys implicit in randomness, anarchy, and pastiche, the film is an indefinable mix of black comedy, dreamy fantasy, and balletic judo action. It is designed explicitly as a tribute to Akira Kurosawa, and based on his feature debut Sanshiro Sugata (1943), an action film about the creator of judo and his protégé. Throw Down celebrates three young lost loners, a washed-up judo champion (Louis Koo), a sax-playing judo enthusiast (Aaron Kwok), and a would-be female singing star (Cherrie Ying) who meet in a dingy bar in Hong Kong and ultimately egg each other on to pursue their slightly loopy dreams.

Several beautifully graceful judo set-pieces, more like dance than fighting, are set against an achingly romantic under-beat and a droll, oddball sensibility that never settles down. Tony Leung Kar-fai is unexpectedly perfect as an intense judo master, whose final match with Koo is choreographed to highlight the bodies of both actors (the use of stuntmen seems minimal). And one sequence soars above the rest: Ying and Koo, pursued by gangsters, run along a deserted street trailing handfuls of stolen money. They and the gangsters intermittently pause, collect the bills, resume their pursuit, and pause again, and we track back and forth across the scene three times, as a rhapsodic theme swells behind them. For one breathtaking moment, the pursuit is magically suspended while Ying, unopposed, returns to retrieve Koo’s lost shoe from the middle of the road. There’s a feeling here of escape, a suspension, a soaring above everyday life, of true feeling displacing greed, caught up in a rush of pure movement. It’s a purely filmic utopian moment that To dares to celebrate, and it’s exhilarating to share it with him.

Scene from Wong Kar-wai's section of Eros

Scene from Wong Kar-wai’s section of Eros

Films missing in action in Toronto: Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, which the distributor Fortissimo Film Sales withheld, pending final reediting, for a Pusan Film Festival premiere. TIFF did show the new portmanteau film Eros, with segments directed by Wong (The Hand), Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni. Wong’s segment easily overshadows the other two. Though even then, it threatens to be little more than a stylistic recapitulation of the director’s well known tropes and image-making. The Hand is a memory mood piece, told in flashback, of young Hong Kong tailor Chang Chen’s erotic obsession with his client (played by Gong Li), a once-glamorous courtesan now in decline. It’s a small scale showpiece for the familiar, but undeniably beguiling, style that Wong has forged with Christopher Doyle and William Chang: chromatically high key, slow motion suffused dream scenes both distorted and illuminated by emotion-drenched memory. But this recognizably marketable signature raises a disconcerting question about self-commodification: has the director allowed himself to be seduced into supporting something like the “Wong Kar-wai” brand, whose international cachet functions as a marker of elite cultural consumption?

Also missing at TIFF was the elegantly macabre drama Dumplings (Jiaozi, 2004) indie director Fruit Chan’s powerfully eerie entry into commercial filmmaking. But I most regret the absence of a cartoon: McDull. After having missed out on the dazzlingly creative animated cartoon My Life as McDull (Maidou gushi, 2001) two years ago, TIFF should have grabbed its even more brilliant sequel McDull Prince de la Bun (Maidou boluoyou wangzi) this year. This second feature, based on the popular Hong Kong animated characters, takes the cute-but-dumb pre-school piglet on a quest for his vanished father, McBing (voiced by HK superstar Andy Lau). How much beauty and despair can a water-coloured pastel-cute cartoon hold? Creators Alice Mak, Brian Tse, and Toe Yuen have pushed their hit HK characters into a sometimes plotless, experimentally structured, free-floating land of childlike whimsy, riotous dadaist invention, existential terror, and anguished regret. Dazzling images of a city under deconstruction collide with exquisite passages of pastoral beauty, extended fantasies structured around pieces by Mahler, Mozart, and Bach. A masterpiece hides inside this definitely not-for-kids rumination on a present tense unmoored, suspended, like the HK SAR itself, between an irretrievable past and an unknowable future.

Shelly Kraicer