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China

Great Wall photo
Great Wall

Great Wall director speaks up about White Washing


Chinese guy OK with not Chinese actor
Aug 04
// Matthew Razak
Last week the first trailer for The Great Wall dropped, and as it was a movie about China with its lead being not Chinese cries of white washing went up. And it is, of course, white washing. It would make a lot more sens...

NYAFF Capsule Review: The Mermaid

Jul 27 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220644:42996:0[/embed] The Mermaid  (美人鱼)Director: Stephen ChowRelease Date: February 8, 2016Rating: NR 
The Mermaid Review photo
I... don't understand
It's always fascinating to me to see blockbusters from other countries. The Mermaid is the highest grossing Chinese film of all time; that's a big flipping deal. Apparently the lead actress was chosen out of literally 100,000...

Skiptrace trailer photo
Skiptrace trailer

The trailer for Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville's Skiptrace would be better with Adele


Directed by Renny Harlin--RENNY HARLIN!
Jul 20
// Hubert Vigilla
It's been a long while since Jackie Chan's put out a genuinely good movie. In my opinion, his last great film was 2004's New Police Story, though he's still capable of some flashes of brilliance as seen in 2013's Chinese Zodi...
Ghostbusters in China photo
Ghostbusters in China

Ghostbusters reboot denied release in China over censorship guidelines (or lack of interest)


G-g-g-g-ghosts!
Jul 13
// Hubert Vigilla
The Ghostbusters reboot is set for release this week, and will probably do pretty well at the box office thanks to controversy surrounding the clash between angry, nostalgic manchild nerds and people who are not them. Even if...

Warcraft box office photo
Warcraft box office

Warcraft bombs at the domestic box office but is a hit in China


Oh baby, just you shut your mouth
Jun 13
// Hubert Vigilla
Universal may have been right to think that Warcraft was a problem movie. No, not because Duncan Jones made Generic Fantasy Film: The Movie. Depending on how you look at it, Warcraft is either a Universal boondoggle or a...
Tetris Trilogy photo
Tetris Trilogy

Tetris is getting a big budget, Chinese trilogy


Form rows in the theater for points
May 17
// Nick Valdez
This year we have four videogame adaptations hitting theaters and there's no sign of stopping anytime soon. The only problem with this is none of these films look particularly gripping with Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, an...

Review: Dragon Inn

May 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220493:42920:0[/embed] Dragon Inn (Long Men Ke Zhan, 龍門客棧)Director: King HuRating: NRRelease Date: May 6, 2016 (limited)Country: Taiwan An evil eunuch named Cao (Ying Bai) has seized power from one of his political enemies, putting him to death and exiling his children. Cao makes a power play to assassinate these exiles, which leads to a conflict with three heroes on a mission to prevent this from happening. There's a dashing rogue who carries an umbrella (Shih Chun), and there's a swashbuckling brother and sister duo consisting of a bullish hot-head (Hsieh Han) and a woman so skilled with a sword she causes gender confusion among her foes (Lingfeng Shangguan). There's conflict between these warriors, which has to be set aside to save the day. Sure, it's a familiar dynamic that isn't particularly complicated, but Dragon Inn is such an undeniable joy, like a grandparent's cooking. Yet to call it high-end cinematic comfort food sells Hu's craftsmanship short. He's mastering the form with just his second film in the genre. Like certain scenes of Come Drink with Me, much of the tension in Dragon Inn is the result of keeping heroes and villains in close quarters with one another. Cao's goons overrun the eponymous inn, which is situated in the middle of a rocky wasteland--part sanctuary, part target; a little bit Motel 6, a little bit Alamo. The heroes are grossly outnumbered, and they're always targets or under siege. When Chun's dashing rogue appears, there's a sense of calm about him, as if all is well while he tries to control the situation, eventually leading to a scruff. Lingfeng and Han have some comic moments, particularly during one scene where they dine with their enemies as a bit of subterfuge and do their darndest to avoid being poisoned. I mentioned the gender confusion earlier, which is a common trope of martial stories of all kinds--women warriors mistaken for men given their prowess. In many of King Hu's films, he has women as the front-and-center heroes. It's Cheng Pei-pei in Come Drink with Me (who would later play Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Hsu Feng in A Touch of Zen. Though Chun's mysterious rogue is the primary badass of the movie, Lingfeng's young heroine in Dragon Inn gets a fine moment to shine against dozens of goons, and this gender confusion offers a great way of undercutting traditional gender roles and gender expectations with the draw of action, as if skewering sexism, the patriarchy, and machismo with an elegant jian. The fights of Dragon Inn are staged like a movie musical, which may have a lot to do with the influence of Peking Opera. There's also the feel of a samurai movie about the fights since the visual rhythms and vocabulary of the Chinese martial arts movie were still in development. There's a major leap made between Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen in terms of the pacing, staging, movements, and editing of the fight scenes, which makes both films essential for action aficionados. There's a softness to the fights here that hardens in Zen, as if Hu would ironically discover the visceral stuff of combat while making his meditative spiritual epic. A similar leap was made from Come Drink with Me to Dragon Inn. When the genre eventually turned away from swordsman pictures to the unarmed fighting genre, the vocabulary, grammar, and sheet forcefulness of the action would change again. Beyond its history, Dragon Inn is so watchable because it's a pure delight. The rousing Lan-ping Chow score is like some sonic representation of a dashing chilvaric code, all flight and blades and evasions. The height of the wuxia film in the late 1960s is still a glorious landmark nearly 50 years later.
Review: Dragon Inn photo
King Hu's landmark early wuxia film
While King Hu's 1971 epic A Touch of Zen is his towering masterpiece, his earlier film Dragon Inn may be the best entry point into the director's work. This 1967 adventure is one of the essential early martial arts ...

Review: A Touch of Zen

Apr 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220492:42919:0[/embed] A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 俠女)Director: King HuRating: NRRelease Date: April 22, 2016 (New York, with subsequent expansion)Country: Taiwan A Touch of Zen is such a singular sort of movie. After the success of Come Drink with Me and Dragon Inn, Hu had the creative freedom to do what he wanted, and the result was a movie of different moods and different modes. There is the wuxia element centered around a heroic fugitive named Yang (Feng Hsu), a swordswoman fighting for her life after corrupt government officials have murdered the rest of her family. She's one of Hu's many female heroes, though this movie doesn't have the same level of gender role confusion seen in other martial arts films. Yang is a woman but never mistaken for a man (the common genre convention), and she's the most capable fighter in the film. The centerpiece fight in the bamboo grove is an exhilarating bit of old school swordsman action. When A Touch of Zen was released as two films, the bamboo fight concluded the first movie and opened the second. Hu further adapts the theatrical movements of Peking Opera and the visual style of Japanese samurai pictures (en vogue at the time) to a swashbuckling cinematic form uniquely suited to Chinese martial arts. Trampolines give the heroes and villains a kind of superheroic flair as they clash with one another on rooftops and treetops. Hsu slashes, evades, and ripostes, and Hu cuts the action together to add intensity to the elegant movements on display. The action in A Touch of Zen feels like a transition period in fight choreography between the stage-like combat of the 1960s to the faster-paced cinematic combat that would be pioneered by later Shaw Brothers filmmakers Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. Yet the first fight doesn't occur until at least one hour into the film. Instead of rollicking adventure, A Touch of Zen opens with the banal rhythms of pastoral life. We follow a bumbling mama's boy/artist-scholar named Ku (Chun Shih), who takes an interest in Yang and a blind man (Ying Bai) who are hiding in an abandoned ruin. Ku is an archetypal fool, and a great vessel for the audience into the story (which has an archetypal opening: a stranger comes into town). While he's crafty, Ku's a coward and he falls in love too easily, which is a great contrast to Yang's ruggedly stoic heroism. Before A Touch of Zen, Chun Shih played the hero of Hu's Dragon Inn. In a subversive move, Hu has a previous star play against type and also against gender stereotype. And then there's the Zen Buddhism, which pervades the film's visual style emphasizing nature, seasons, and impermanence. I mentioned patience at the beginning of the review, and Hu's return to slow rhythms and long takes seems to give the audience a chance to breathe and take in each scene. A group of Buddhist monks show up when Yang is on the run, and they are unstoppable force and immovable object. They're shot with diffuse or star-filtered light emanating from behind them, and they seem to be followed by a supernatural veil of mist. The Zen aspects figure heavily in the film's unexpectedly bonkers finale, which I can only be described as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets El Topo.  The 4K digital restoration looks great during the daytime shots--you can make out the dust on King Hu's camera lenses as he lovingly absorbs hillsides and waterfalls and sky--though I noticed some major issues with image noise during the nighttime scenes. One of the pivotal action sequences in the last half of the film is at night, and it was often difficult to make out what was happening in each scene. Part of it may be the limitations of lighting and photography that Hu had to work with back then, though I sense there might have been an issue with the projection and/or the copy I saw during my screening. I'm curious to see A Touch of Zen again now that it's out in theaters, just to see for myself if the digital noise has been eliminated/addressed. Besides, I could use a little more patience and adventure in my life.
Review: A Touch of Zen photo
The beguiling wuxia masterpiece in 4k
A Touch of Zen is King Hu's masterpiece, yet unless you're patient and a bit adventurous, it may not be the best introduction to his work. Dragon Inn, his straightforward wuxia classic from 1967, might be a more palatable ent...

NYC: 6th Old School Kung Fu Fest showcases the badassery of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Golden Harvest

Apr 06 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220479:42891:0[/embed] Enter the Dragon (1973)Starring Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Bolo Yeung Even though Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) is my favorite Bruce Lee movie, I can't deny the importance of Enter the Dragon. The landmark movie brought Lee international stardom, and it helped kick off my personal martial arts movie obsession. (Ditto Infra-Man.) The film would also help propel the film careers of perennial bad guy Bolo Yeung (Bloodsport) and blaxploitation star Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones). The set-up is simple: infiltrate an island, punch and kick people really hard, repeat. In addition to one of the most brutal kicks to the head in cinema history and a funky ass Lalo Schifrin score, Enter the Dragon manages to impart some martial arts philosophy amid the mayhem. Sammo Hung makes a cameo appearance, as does Jackie Chan in two blink-or-you'll-miss-him moments while Bruce Lee dispenses of faceless goons. [embed]220479:42892:0[/embed] The Man from Hong Kong aka The Dragon Flies (1975)Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Roger Ward, Hugh Keays-Byrne Australian exploitation movies are bonkers in the best possible way. Take The Man from Hong Kong for example. The film stars Shanghai-born Jimmy Wang Yu (Master of the Flying Guillotine, One-Armed Swordsman) as a violent Chinese supercop sent to fight an Australian crime boss played by George Lazenby (James freakin' Bond). The film is recklessly enjoyable. Yu blows up cars, demolishes a Chinese restaurant, blows up buildings, and effortlessly seduces comely Aussie women (whom he apparently detested behind the scenes). Sammo Hung also appears in this movie, as does Roger Ward (Mad Max) and Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max, Mad Max: Fury Road). For more on The Man from Hong Kong and other great Australian exploitation movies, I urge you to watch Mark Hartley's excellent documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! [embed]220479:42889:0[/embed] Pedicab Driver (1989)Starring Sammo Hung, Nina Li, Lau Kar-Leung, Billy Chow Both Enter the Dragon and The Man from Hong Kong are American and Australian co-productions, respectively. Pedicab Driver, on the other hand, is a Hong Kong movie through and through, featuring hard-hitting action, broad Cantonese comedy, machismo, and extreme melodrama. It may be a matter of taste, but I love that histrionic hodgepodge. (Though its gender and sexual politics are definitely of a different era.) The film follows the travails of some pedicab drivers as they look for love and seek justice against an irredeemable crime boss. Pedicab Driver features an exceptional fight between director/star Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-Leung. Lau was one of Shaw Brothers' premiere action filmmakers, which makes his on-screen battle with Hung feel like a generational passing of the torch. Sammo Hung also dukes it out with Billy Chow (Fist of Legend). Both fights typify the fast, fierce choreography that Hung perfected in the 80s. [embed]220479:42890:0[/embed] Rumble in the Bronx (1995)Starring Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Francoise Yip, Bill Tung Jackie Chan didn't break big into the US market until Rumble in the Bronx, which received a major push when Quentin Tarantino championed Chan's work at the 1995 MTV Movie Awards. For most Americans, Rumble in the Bronx was Jackie Chan 101: Introduction to Jackie Chan. While not his best Golden Harvest movie, Chan shows off his prowess as a choreographer, stuntman, and cornball comedian, including a memorable clash with a gang in a hideout full of props. Based on the info listed by Subway Cinema and Metrograph, Old School Kung Fu Fest is apparently screening the longer Hong Kong version of Rumble in the Bronx rather than the American cut released by New Line Cinema. This means you get a better-paced film with the original score and sound effects, and you'll be seeing a version of the movie not readily available stateside.
Old School Kung Fu Fest photo
Celebrating Hong Kong action cinema
This weekend (April 8-10) is the 6th Old School Kung Fu Fest, put on by Subway Cinema and held at Metrograph in the Lower East Side. This year's unifying theme is Golden Harvest. Co-founded by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, Gol...

Old School Kung Fu Fest photo
Old School Kung Fu Fest

NYC: Check out the trailer for the Old School Kung Fu Fest at Metrograph (April 8-10)


A harvest from Golden Harvest
Mar 29
// Hubert Vigilla
The 6th Old School Kung Fu Fest is coming to New York at the ginchy new Metrograph cinema. The Old School Kung Fu Fest is put on by Subway Cinema, who are also responsible for The New York Asian Film Festival (NAYFF), one of ...
Old School Kung Fu photo
Eight classic kung fu flicks
There's nothing like a good kung fu movie to make me smile. When done right, they're almost like musicals, just with more kicking in the face. If you live in New York and love kung fu films, you're in luck. The 6th Old School...

Review: Ip Man 3

Jan 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220266:42751:0[/embed] Ip Man 3 (葉問3)Director: Wilson YipRelease Date: January 22, 2016Rating: NRCountry: China In the three Donnie Yen Ip Man films, the constant concern has been how a person can remain righteous while dividing energies between country, family, and the martial arts. This boils down to the obligations a person has to the future of a culture, to immediate loved ones, and to the self. It's also about punching people in the face repeatedly very fast, sure, but if we're looking at the martial arts as a way of being (i.e., a way), Ip Man's always been about how a person takes a core belief, universalizes these dictums, and then puts this into action. It's explored visually in The Grandmaster with the way every strike disturbs the environment, but watching so many kung-fu movies over the years has made this whole notion of the extension of thought into action into the world more apparent. Maybe what makes Ip Man such a compelling hero is that taking thought into action into the world is what makes all sorts of heroes memorable. There's philosophy behind every punch. Ip Man 3 continues this tradition of duties to country/family/self, and the plot is mostly  hinged to all three. The film opens irreverently with Ip Man meeting a young Bruce Lee, who proceeds to demonstrate his fighting prowess in what can only be described as a martial arts anti-smoking ad. The rest of the plot involves a foreign crime boss trying to shut down a school to claim the land for his own (Mike Tyson), a would-be Wing Chun master in search of fame (Max Zhang aka Jin Zhang), and the health of Ip Man's wife (Lynn Hung). Ip Man, a righteous dude, volunteers to defend the school--Ip Man tropes ensue. The fights in Ip Man 3 may some of the finest in the series in terms of variety and staging. Sammo Hung handled the choreography in the previous two films, but Ip Man 3 instead turns to Yuen Woo-Ping. The fights seem more grounded though just as brutal, and generally a little more old school than bombastic. Yen's talked about how his diet and training changes with each role to better embody the character. Playing Ip Man means cutting carbs and staying as slim as possible, and Yen looks especially thin here. As much as I love Ip Man and kind of liked Ip Man 2, the biggest hurdle to each fight was Ip Man's sense of invincibility. He spends all of the first movie in God Mode, dominating almost every fight he's in, even the final battle. In Ip Man 2, he's still in God Mode for much of the film, which makes that movie's final battle feel out of place; what's more, Ip Man's solution of how to best his overpowered opponent would have been the first thing a skilled martial artist would consider, not the last. There was rarely a sense of danger. Ip Man 3, by contrast, seems to acknowledge that Ip Man is nigh invulnerable despite his age. The danger comes from having to defend other people nearby rather than just defending himself. It's a simple but great idea, and it leads to a harrowing rescue attempt as well as an excellent sequence involving an elevator later in the film. Much has been made of Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson's bout in the film, and it's one of the film's highlights, and it was more exciting than the Wing Chun vs. boxing bout that finished Ip Man 2. And yet the fight reveals Tyson's presence in Ip Man 3 as some hollow stunt casting. There's something great about Tyson cursing people out in snatches of Cantonese, but the entire storyline involving his character is dropped at a certain point. The whole impetus for the action fades away, which makes me wonder if Tyson was only available for a week or so, or if a finger fracture Tyson sustained while filming the fight scene required changes to the script. Even though Tyson's plotline feels unfinished, it's fascinating where the other threads go, and how they reveal the foundation for Ip Man as a character, as if Yen and Yip are tying to make their final definitive statements about who Ip Man was and what he'll represent as a cinematic icon moving forward. Ip Man's a loving husband, for instance, but not always attentive (think about how Peter Parker's love life is ruined by having to be Spider-Man). Here, he tries to focus more on home and what matters to him most, and there are some tender moments between Yen and Hung, as if Yen's trying to channel the acting chops that Anthony Wong and Tony Leung brought to the role, and Hung is trying to find the right note of melancholy glamour that Zhang Ziyi brings to her roles. Some of these scenes between Ip Man and his wife are lensed with a level of attention that might have been inspired by The Grandmaster; more beautiful to look at than anything in the previous Ip Man films, though a few scenes are marred by a semi-chintzy nylon-string Spanish guitar love theme. I began to notice this steady evolution of Ip Man's presence as a political/cultural icon as well in Ip Man 3. The first film was decidedly against the Imperial Japanese forces, which places Ip Man in the home of a character like Chen Zhen from Fist of Fury. The second film skirted this line between anti-colonialism and Chinese nationalism, with the British aristocrats rendered as grotesques of the nobility. Ip Man 3 also has a scoffing, snooty British caricature (he sounds like he should be tying women to railroad tracks while twirling his mustache), but the political stance is decidedly anti-colonial in a universal way. Ip Man even has a monologue in which he rails against oligarchs and plutocrats. If Mike Tyson was cast as a way of garnering attention for Ip Man from western audiences, this populist shift in Ip Man may signal an attempt to position him as a cinematic hero with a strong cultural identity but no borders in terms of an audience's ability to identify with him. If this is Yen's last full-on kung-fu film (there's still that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel to consider), he's ending his career with the movie series that catapulted him into leading man status. I got a sense he was passing the torch to Max Zhang. Zhang's 41 years old, but he makes a strong impression here as a performer and fighter, just as he did in The Grandmaster. (In another strange coincidence, Zhang also starred in SPL 2, the sequel to the 2005 movie (aka Kill Zone) that boosted Donnie Yen's star and signaled a kind of comeback for Hong Kong action films.) Zhang's character is a Wing Chun up-and-comer eyeing Ip Man, sizing him up, wondering if he's better as new blood. This had to be intentional, they had know what they were doing. Ip Man 3 might be my favorite film of the trilogy because of how knowing and assured it is, and because it understands the core of its main character so well. It's also a film that knows where it stands in terms of martial arts film history, and the same goes for Donnie Yen's filmography. Really, there's something rather Ip Man-like about Ip Man 3.
Review: Ip Man 3 photo
An Ip Man movie about Ip Man movies
It's weird to think that the first Ip Man came out in 2008. It seems so much longer than that. Since then, the series has spawned two sequels as well as plenty of other media about the eponymous real-life practitioner of...

Deadpool  photo
Deadpool

Deadpool banned in China over graphic violence


Jan 18
// Nick Valdez
Despite the numerous trailers, images, and impeding release date, I still can't believe Deadpool is a real film. It was talked about for years, Ryan Reynolds personally lobbied for it at every opportunity, and now it finally ...
Industry photo
Industry

Legendary is bought by China's Wanda for $3.5 billion


Prepare for a lot more China in movies
Jan 12
// Matthew Razak
It's a good time to be Legendary Entertainment. The studio is known for its genre films that started out small, but eventually led to things like the Dark Knight trilogy and Godzilla, but thanks to a spate of wise invest...
Chinese Star Wars trailer photo
Chinese Star Wars trailer

Chinese Force Awakens trailer has new footage (to make up for possibly racist movie poster)


Is this trailer giving too much away?
Dec 10
// Hubert Vigilla
In case you haven't realized it, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS COMES OUT NEXT WEEK! At least in most of the world. China has to wait until January 9th. To hype things up in China, they released a trailer for the film featuring...
Ip Man 3 teaser trailer photo
Ip Man 3 teaser trailer

The first teaser trailer for Ip Man 3 just punched you repeatedly in the face


Donnie Yen vs. Mike Tyson
Nov 13
// Hubert Vigilla
Here it is: a US teaser trailer for Ip Man 3, the latest installment in the badass wing chun series starring Donnie Yen. Despite the presence of Sammo Hung in Ip Man 2, the sequel was a step down in general quality from ...
Genisys photo
Genisys

Terminator: Genisys makes bank in China


China still cool
Aug 24
// Matthew Razak
Currently we can blame China for a lot of crappiness what with their destroying of the world economy in full swing at the moment. On top of this they're probably going to be responsible for a sequel to Terminator: Genisys&nbs...
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The estate of Bruce Lee doesn't want him in Ip Man 3


The CG Bruce Lee is now unlikely
Apr 02
// Hubert Vigilla
Just last week we reported that production on Ip Man 3 is underway, featuring Mike Tyson and a CG Bruce Lee. While Iron Mike is a lock, it seems that the Donnie Yen sequel has hit a snag with CG Bruce Lee (aka Marshall Law fr...
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Ip Man 3 will feature Mike Tyson and a CG Bruce Lee


So... will this Donnie Yen sequel be partial schlock or total schlock?
Mar 24
// Hubert Vigilla
Ip Man 3 (or Ip Man 3D) has been in the works for a while, but the Donnie Yen sequel started shooting today in Shanghai. With the start of production comes news of some really bizarre stunt casting. According to The Hollywood...
Outcast Trailer photo
Outcast Trailer

Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen are a match made in heaven in this Outcast trailer


Aug 22
// Nick Valdez
What do you get when you cross an actor who can't seem to say no, and an actor who can't afford to say no? You get Outcast, the absolutely insane looking film where Hayden Christensen teams up with a British accent spewing N...

NYAFF Review: Silent Witness

Jul 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218019:41674:0[/embed] Silent Witness (Quán Mín Mù Jī | 全民目擊)Director: Fei XingRating: NRCountry: China Courtroom dramas have always fascinated me. In any given crime, there is a single objective truth: the perpetrator committed the crime, or they didn't. It's a black and white reality that's mired by a whole lot of gray. Sometimes the crime was committed for legitimate reasons, ones that could allow the "criminal" to walk. Sometimes the real crime is hidden and some serious digging needs to be done. Most of the time, actual courtrooms are a whole lot less interesting than the ones you see in movies. But why would someone make a movie about a straightforward case? Silent Witness isn't a reflection of reality, straddling a line between the familiar and something ridiculous like the Phoenix Wright games (brilliantly adapted by Takashi Miike). In these stories, the police are basically useless, forcing the lawyers to go search out evidence in all manner of ways, going out on wild goose chases based on super-secret intel or even hunches. These aren't things an actual lawyer does, but they make for a far more interesting story. On trial is the daughter of the famous entrepreneur Lin Tai (Sun Honglei) for the murder of his girlfriend. Heading up the prosecution is Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok), a man who has been trying to convict Lin Tai for years. The defense is Zhou Li (Yu Nan), the most expensive lawyer in the country. It's a battle that plays out primarily on the public stage, and it's fascinating how it unfolds. Especially in the beginning, the film makes extensive use of a newsroom as a producer tries to create the most compelling TV drama he can. Choosing subjects and cameras from behind the scenes, he gives insight into how the media can manipulate a viewer's impressions of people and an event. It's a fitting metaphor, because everything in the trial is every bit as manipulated. Unclear motivations, misunderstands, and false evidence are about. Twists and turns come rapid-fire, and by the time everything becomes clear, it turns out that nobody is really who they seemed. The biases that everyone brought into the courtroom painted very specific pictures of the characters, but people are rarely so black-and-white. Fortunately, Silent Witness knows this, and everybody is given some nuance to clarify and even redeem them. And this gets to the part of the narrative that's uniquely Chinese. While much of the film could really take place anywhere in the world, the true reverence for family (and not just family values) is foreign. There is an extremely strong bond between Lin Tai and his daughter, and that bond drives everything in the film. It's kind of heartbreaking, really, but it all feels very natural and real. Bravo to the performances on all sides. As an interesting aside, actor Aaron Kwok is from Hong Kong, and his Mandarin is not particularly good. You'd never know it from watching Silent Witness, though, because he had someone read out the ~60,000 character script and put it onto a CD for him to listen to. He memorized the entire thing like a song, and then acted on top of that. It's a brilliant bit of theatre underlying the whole narrative. While I'm no expert on the intricacies of Chinese dialects, the shocked reactions from the crowd (which featured no small number of Chinese natives) when director Fei Xing mentioned it told me that Kwok pulled it off with aplomb. As I watched Silent Witness, I kept coming back to the idea of the mainstream. I wondered whether or not this sort of narrative could be popular in the US, and I still don't know the answer to that. Courtroom dramas make for good TV, but they rarely succeed on the big screen. If the film truly represents Chinese cinema, then that's a sign of a film market that has excellent potential to grow with all kinds of narratives. If Silent Witness can succeed in theaters side by side with juggernauts like the new Transformers film, then the industry is going to thrive. And that's a future I'm looking to.
Silent Witness Review photo
Ace Attorney
Before the screening of Silent Witness, it was introduced as an example of what mainstream Chinese filmmaking is like in the modern era. Many of the films that play at the New York Asian Film Festival fit into some sort of ni...

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Transformers 4 becomes the highest grossing movie in China ever


Film pulls in over $1.39 billion beating Avatar
Jul 09
// Matthew Razak
Damn it, China. What happened to you? You used to be cool. This is why we can't have nice things.  [via Variety]

NYAFF Review: As the Light Goes Out

Jul 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217972:41653:0[/embed] As the Light Goes Out (救火英雄)Director: Derek KwokRating: NRCountry: Hong Kong/China  As is often the case, As the Light Goes Out is centered around a series of unfortunate events. It’s Christmas (which I would have never known if they didn’t keep repeating it, because Hong Kong is close to the equator and there’s not a snowflake in sight), so the availability of power is more important than usual. But a fire near an oil pipe causes some problems that result in a power plant explosion followed by a mass blackout. Hong Kong does have female firefighters, but there are none to be found in As the Light Goes Out. This movie is all men all the time doing all sorts of manly things like digging and carrying people. It’s not quite the fireman porn that some might be looking for, with its notable lack of glistening bare chests and bulging biceps. But if men-in-uniform is your thing, then there’s still plenty for you here. And these manly men have all sorts of manly problems. The official NYAFF description says the members of the fire squad suffer from “man angst,” and I’m inclined to agree. Haunted by visions of the past and former fights, these men are often at each others’ throats trying to prove to each other (and to themselves) that they are worthy of their station. There’s the grizzled veteran trying to prove that he’s still number one, the man on his last day who decides to go out just one last time, the hardheaded new guy, and all of the other clichés that you probably grumble about like but secretly love. Each character gets their big moment to shine; unfortunately, not all of them survive. Early on, a time skip turns the film into an advertisement for the fire department. But initially there’s no indication that it is an ad, and suddenly meteors fall from the sky and begin to destroy Hong Kong. I groaned, because those effects really weren’t all that good, and not having read the synopsis, I thought that the movie had just gone from 0 to 60 and this is what I was in for. Fortunately, it went back to normal after a brief cameo by Jackie Chan. My fears were assuaged. Some of the characters watching the ad even joked about how overblown the visuals were. Little did I know that this was a sign of things to come. While meteors didn’t fall from the sky, the second half of As the Lights Go Out is a veritable smorgasboard of visual effects. Once that plant goes up in flames, there’s probably not a single shot that goes by without some sort of special effect, practical or otherwise. Fortunately, they’re generally pretty good. A few moments are subpar and don’t quite work, but the ones that matter are all enough to make the drama and intensity feel real, especially as the fire begins to take its toll. But that intensity is mitigated somewhat by As the Light Goes Out’s slowness. Even amidst a raging fire, the film periodically stops to let the drama play out, and I really mean stop, thanks to the most excessive use of slow motion since 300. This happens most frequently amidst the “thick smoke,” which the film’s opening text presents as the true nemesis of a firefighter. In the thick smoke, visibility goes down to zero, and trying to breathe without a special apparatus means near-instant death. When the firemen step into the smoke, everything else disappears. It’s a nice effect, the first time. But it happens over and over again, when you just want to get back to the action. The big climax, a moment that should be extremely emotional, becomes excruciating because a 30-second sequence takes five minutes (and feels like ten). It’s too slow, and it happens too often. It has an unfortunate consequence of making the whole film feel far longer than it is. Even so, As the Light Goes Out is worth seeing because it scratches an itch. I can think of dozens of cop movies (especially from Hong Kong), but firefighters are underrepresented in cinema. This is likely in part due to the big-budget requirements of big fire-centric sequences, but whatever the reason, it makes this film stand out. Not all of the beats hit their mark, but it’s still one heck of a ride.
As the Light Goes Out photo
The roof is on fire, and so is everything else
There’s something uniquely fascinating about firefighters. When they arrive on a scene, they aren’t armed to the teeth and ready to take down some villain; they are there to save lives. That’s pretty much th...

NYCFF Review: So Young

Nov 07 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]216780:40892:0[/embed] So Young (To Our Youth That Is Fading Away | 致我们终将逝去的青春)Director: Zhao WeiRating: NRCountry: China  So Young stars a girl. That's not in and of itself particularly noteworthy, but it's important because it lets the film get away with something a male-centric film couldn't: avoiding creepiness. It’s a romance, but in it a young girl, Zheng Wei, pines after a young man, Chen Xiaozheng. She’s pretty weird about it and she can get away with it, in a way, because she’s adorable and whatever, but what if the roles were reversed? What if Chen Xiaozheng was doing exactly what she did but pining after a girl? It would remove that cuteness and just make it weird. Like the Taiwanese film Make Up, the fact that the “aggressor” is female means that something kind of uncomfortable presents as cute and naïve rather than creepy. Eventually, Chen Xiaozheng relents, because of course he does, but it seems like a misunderstanding of human nature on the part of the filmmakers. I would simply chalk it up to their youth, that being the driving force of so much of the film (shocking, I know), if it weren't for an instance of actually-creepy stalker behavior later in the film. Inititally, it appears to be treated with some level of seriousness (even if that seriousness is kind of uncomfortable in its own right), but the ultimate message of that revelation is “threatening suicide is a totally acceptable way to make a man love you and stay with you.” Which is, let's be very clear, not okay. Maybe it's a cultural thing (I know for a fact that I missed some things because I'm an ignorant American), but that's a terrible message to send under any circumstances. Not okay.   So Young covers a pretty sizable timeline quickly, and it does so to varying degress of success. At the start, most of the characters are beginning their college careers, and they look about as young as I would expect them to look. Four years later, their time at the university has ended, and the only way to tell is that they talk about their time at university ending. Those four years play out over about an hour and a half, and time passages just happen without any indication. One moment, Zheng Wei is standoffishly rejecting a person and the next she’s borrowing DVDs from him. How did they get past that first barrier? Don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter after the fact, but in the moment it’s jarring. In the film’s final act, the characters have all aged by a substantial amount, and... I have no idea how they did it. They take these people who look 17/18 and make them look late 20s/early 30s. Or maybe they take those who look late 20s/early 30s and make them look 17/18. I don’t know, but wherever that transformation took place it is truly breathtaking. In the first act, I never questioned that the actors were college age. If anything, I thought they were too young (see previous paragraph). But in that final act? I would have believed they were all late 20s/early 30s. The only reason I questioned it was because I’d spent the previous 90 minutes seeing them look so young. Whoever was supposed to age Adèle for Blue is the Warmest Color could learn a thing or two. So Young is the debut feature from actress Zhao Wei, and I could kind of tell. Not necessarily in a bad way, but there are certain aspects of the visual style that just seemed like rookie mistakes (although "mistakes" isn’t quite the word…): The first is the way the camera moves. It’s almost always moving, up, down, in, out, doing all kinds of cool stuff. But sometimes it moves in ways that breaks the continuity in editing. Sometimes it just looks like something went slightly off course and no one realized it. It’s nothing horrendous, but it's problematic in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. There was also something odd about motion in certain shots. It seemed like the frame-rate was something other than 24fps, or maybe the shutter speed had been changed. I don’t know if it was the film itself or the projection or just me losing it a little bit, but it happened with reasonable frequency. And maybe they were intentional decisions made by a rational director, but they didn't seem to be. Even so, So Young is freaking gorgeous. The use of lighting especially is spectacular, and the colors of the film are just wonderfully vibrant. I haven’t seen enough films from China proper to be able to make any kind of sweeping statements about its place in Chinese cinema, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like an American movie, and I mean that in the best way possible. The only real visual complaint I have stems from a few moments of truly, truly awful CGI. Like, early 2000s level bad. So Young is like a generically pretty, young college student: nice to look at but ultimately empty. Its attempts at profundity are laughable and it doesn't really know how to make a point. It throws weird things into conversations without any clear reason, and sometimes it has an emotional breakdown that doesn't seem rationally motivated. The film's characters exhibit these traits, so they clearly apply in Chinese colleges as well as American ones, but the film itself doesn't need to fit that stereotype. Maybe it's making some grand statement, but it's not an interesting statement to make. I'm still young and even I get that.  But sometimes that pretty, young college student is fun to be around... in small doses. So Young may not have much to say, but it's entertaining and worthwhile nonetheless. Also, it's really pretty, and call me shallow, but I'm willing to forgive a lot from a movie that's really pretty.
So Young Review photo
Pretty, silly, and ultimately entertaining
I'm still young. Young enough that I can understand and generally relate to the characters in So Young, but also old enough to see just how silly they actually are. It's an odd place to be, and it leaves me wishing I was a fe...

Watch out for the 2013 New York Chinese Film Festival

Nov 06 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
4TH New York Chinese Film Festival November 5,6,7, 2013   Acclaimed Actress Zhao Wei’s Directorial Debut SO YOUNG Set As Opening Night At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall Film Screenings At Empire 25 Closing Night And Awards at Capitale   Vicky Zhao Wei, Miriam Yeung, Donnie Yen, Larry Yang, Wesley Wong Among Talent & Filmmakers To Attend   Join in the celebration as the New York Chinese Film Festival returns for its 4th annual outing of presenting the best in Chinese cinema.   The 2013 NYCFF, presented by the Chinese American Arts Council (CAAC) and the Chinese Movie Channel, CCTV-6, will screen 7 new films from Hong Kong & Mainland China over the 3-day event, and will introduce such celebrated filmmakers and performers as Vicky Zhao Wei, Miriam Yeung, Xiubo Wu and Donnie Yen to New York audiences. The NYCFF Opening Night film, Vicky Zhao Wei’s box-office smash So Young will be presented on Tuesday, November 5th at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.  The remaining films will be presented on Wednesday, November 6th and on Thursday, November 7th at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street and will be followed by Q&As with talent in attendance.  The Closing Night Awards Gala will be held on November 7th, at one of New York’s most fashionable venues, Capitale. The NYCFF is a non-profit organization whose aim is to promote Chinese art and culture through film, while gaining exposure and insight from an American audience.  Selected films are chosen to participate because they provoke conversation, compassion, peace and friendship amongst our two great nations, as well as to help Americans gain a better understanding of Chinese Cinema.   In essence the NYCFF is the foundation for having constructed a great working relationship between the United States and China.              The NYCFF is produced by Qi Jia, Alan Chow, Kaijie Wang and Kate Lin, and is presented by the highly successful Chinese American Arts Council (CAAC) and the Chinese Movie Channel, CCTV-6.  The culture of Chinese Cinema has transformed itself in the past one hundred years becoming a major influential player in International Cinema.   Established in 1975, The Chinese American Arts Council has gone above and beyond, expanding the existence and the culture of the Chinese Community within the city of New York.   The CAAC’s main objective is to maintain Chinese Heritage both domestically and internationally in the greater New York area.  Being the entertainment capital of the world, there is no better place than New York to present and display the latest in Chinese filming to America. Some of the CAAC’s year-round activities include outdoor and indoor performances of modern and traditional Chinese theater, dance, vocal and instrumental concerts.  In addition, the CAAC also presents annual exhibitions of Asian American Art.  The Council takes their cause a step further by providing assistance to Artists and Organizations in support of their programs.  Chinese American Arts Council is supported in part by funds from the National Endowment of the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affair.             The China Movie Channel Programming Center was established in 1995, with its first flagship channel, CCTV-6 having launched on January 1st, 1996. To date it is the only national movie channel in China that reaches over 930 million people.  CCTV-6 has consistently ranked at the top in annual ratings and market share of all Chinese TV channels.  Over the past ten years, new television programs have been introduced, such as the China Home Cinema and the China Movie Channel, which stretches across Asia, Europe and North America.               The NYCFF has built a platform for internationally promoting Chinese films and with such an impressive film lineup and star-studded group attending, this year is sure to be NYCFF’s best festival to date.                “A great director opens our eyes; a great film opens our minds.” - The New York Chinese Film Festival Foundation 4TH New York Chinese Film Festival Films: So Young (Opening Night Presentation at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, 8:00pm) – Directed by Vicky Zhao Wei. So Young is the debut directorial effort of the renowned Chinese actress Vicky Zhao Wei.  It is based on the best-selling novel "To Our Youth that is Fading Away" by Xin YiwuIt, adapted by Li Qiang ("The Postmodern Life of My Aunt") and produced by Stanley Kwan. It is a film about the love, joy, and pain of a group of young students in their school days and their harsh confrontation with the realities and a lament on the loss of youth to adulthood. Attending the Festival will be Director Zhao Wei.    Sorry, I Love You (Presented at the AMC Empire 25. Wednesday, November 6 at 11:00am) – Directed by Larry Yang.  With only six months to live, Walker decides to leave Vancouver to go back to China, where he was born and adopted and go look for his biological parents and twin sister.  With the aid of Encai, a girl he once helped, he tries to find his family but they start falling in love with each other very quickly. With only six months to live, Walker will have to make important decisions to make his loved one’s life complete.  Attending the Festival will be Director Larry Yang, Actor Wesley Wong and Producer Hang Hon.  Finding Mr. Right (Presented at the AMC Empire 25, Wednesday, November 6 at 2:00pm) – Directed by Xue Xiaolu (“Ocean Heaven”). City girl Jiajia is traveling to Seattle to give birth to the son who's going to help her win over her rich, married boyfriend. Armed with his unlimited credit card and the singular goal of bringing a little U.S. citizen back to Beijing, Jiajia knows how to play this game of modern love. But when Jiajia arrives in Seattle, nothing goes right: she's stuck sharing a small house with two other pregnant ladies, she has trouble reaching her boyfriend on the phone, and eventually, even the credit card stops working. To top that off, the only person willing to spend time with her is her driver Frank. Frank is the opposite of everything she ever wanted in a man... or could he be exactly the kind of guy she really needs.  Attending the Festival will be Actor Wu Xiubo. Love Undercover (Presented at the AMC Empire 25, Wednesday, November 6 at 4:30pm) – Directed by Joe Ma. Fong (Miriam Yeung), fresh out of the Police Training School is only allowed to work on some trivial missions in the police station after graduation. Fortunately, she is soon assigned to work undercover as a waitress. She needs to get close enough to a gangster's son so that she can plant a microphone at a table where the gangsters make their deals. Complications arise when she finds herself falling for him.  Attending the Festival will be Actress Miriam Yeung. Love in the Buff (Presented at the AMC Empire 25, Wednesday, November 6 at 7:30pm) – Directed by Pang Ho-Cheung. In this sequel to the hit movie Love in a Puff, former lovers Jimmy and Cherie start a new life in Beijing after they ended their relationship. Despite meeting someone else, they can’t seem to forget each other and are torn between fidelity towards their new partners and following their hearts.  Attending the Festival will be Actress Miriam Yeung  IP Man (Presented at the AMC Empire 25, Thursday, November 7 at 11:00am) – Directed by Wilson Yip.  This is the story of IP Man, a legendary Wing Chun Kung Fu master set in Foshan, China in the 1930s. IP Man becomes a hero and creates a craze for Wing Chun. During the Japanese invasion, General Miura, a fanatical practitioner in martial arts, demands that IP Man teach Wing Chun martial arts to the Japanese Army, but IP Man refuses and takes up Miura’s challenge. A fierce fight is going to start….  Attending the Festival will be Actor Donnie Yen. Special ID (Presented at the AMC Empire 25, Thursday, November 7 at 2:00pm) – Directed by Clarence Fok Yiu-leung.  A cop and his team of comrades go undercover in one of China's most ruthless underworld organizations to stop a gang leader, only to put themselves in great danger after being exposed one by one.  Attending the Festival will be Actor Donnie Yen.   NYCFF Film Schedule November 5, Opening Night, Alice Tully Hall 8:00pm – So Young November 6, AMC Empire 25 11:00am – Sorry, I Love You 2:00pm – Finding Mr. Right 4:30pm – Love Undercover 7:30pm – Love in the Buff November 7, AMC Empire 25 11:00am – IP Man 2:00pm – Special ID November 7, Capitale 4:00-9:00pm, Closing Night and Awards   For additional information, schedule, and to purchase tickets to all the above films (including Opening Night) please visit the Chinese American Arts Council site at www.caacarts.org or the New York Chinese Film Festival site at www.nycff.org
NYCFF photo
And (probably) our coverage of it!
[Just a reminder that this is going on! I was hoping to have my review of So Young up by now to act as a reminder, but I have been at the AMC Empire all day and it's made writing kind of hard. Am still there, actually, a...

Review: CZ12 (Chinese Zodiac)

Oct 18 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216599:40810:0[/embed] CZ12 (Chinese Zodiac | 12 Chinese Zodiac Heads | 十二生肖)Director: Jackie ChanRating: PG-13Country: Hong Kong/ChinaRelease Date: December 20, 2012 (Asia); October 18th, 2013 (US) If CZ12 is Jackie Chan's last big action movie, maybe it's for the best, and it pains me to write that since I've been a Jackie Chan fan for so long. CZ12 is not necessarily a bad movie, and it's definitely not Chan's worst film of the 21st century (that would be the almost unwatchable The Spy Next Door). The biggest issue with CZ12 is how unremarkable it is despite some moments of brilliance. It's also problematic that CZ12 is semi-associated with Armor of God and Armor of God II: Operation Condor, two of Chan's landmark classics. By comparison, it falls far short. Maybe this is less a case of Chan showing his age and more Chan showing his lack of good judgment. At the heart of CZ12 is a story of retrieving some bronze animal heads that were looted by European soldiers during the mid-19th century. JC is on the case, and he's doing it all for the money rather than a sense of national pride/reverence of Chinese history. You can probably guess how that will flip as the story continues. There's slapstick, there's globetrotting, and boy is there ever some cheesiness involved. Chan's movies have always had a cheesy streak to them which is endearing (see Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights for the best and most enjoyable examples of cheesiness in latter-day Chan's career), but here the cheese seems especially dialed up. In some ways it's Chan paying homage to the broadness of Cantonese comedy, but it also seems just too quaint and not all that appealing anymore. Maybe it's the execution -- the difference between Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun and Leslie Nielsen in 2001: A Space Travesty. Yet there are still some great scenes in CZ12 that I can't deny. The opening with that rollerblade suit is pretty cool for the most part, and it has the vibe of dangerous zaniness that always marked Jackie Chan's best efforts of the past. I even think that the skydiving finale is almost great in how absolutely random it is. Sure, it doesn't really work with the story (which, yeah, is often a secondary concern in Chan's movies), but it works as a bizarre conceit that I'm willing to go with. Watching Chan airborne is like a mix of the last shots of Armor of God, the wind tunnel of Operation Condor, and the underwater fight from Police Story IV (aka First Strike). The showstopper of CZ12 is the only big fight in the film, and you can tell just how much effort went into the choreography and visual gags. The fight comes way too late in the movie, which has been disappointingly light on fights overall. What we get throughout so much of CZ12 are unmemorable skirmishes that don't amount to much. But this big fight, when it finally happens, is such a welcome reprieve from the rest of the mediocre slog that is CZ12. Chan's in a giant warehouse full of gewgaws, doodads, catwalks, and props. Bad guys come at him from all angles, and he brings them down with such creativity and style. Sure the action is sped up about as much as an 80s Hong Kong flick, but this is Chan the immortal and I don't care. Well, at least I don't care until he flips CG Chiclets into his mouth. That's when I cringe and sigh. It was so much cooler when he just did stuff like that for real. CG often undermines the best bits of action in CZ12. Some of that is just due to the chintzy obviousness of the CG. A great sequence in theory that involves attack dogs and a hedge maze is ruined by constant CG overhead shots. One bad CG shot in a pipe during the rollerbalde suit scene took me out of an otherwise fun set piece. There are also CG bees and a really painful logride during one scene of the film, and since the film was released in 3D in China, there are the requisite "in your face" shots. Chan has always been better than any digital effect, and yet he relies on them too much for storytelling rather than safety. Personally, I think Chan's real last hurrah was 2004's New Police Story. It was a darker reboot of the Police Story franchise, and it was a wonderful mix of "greatest hits" and "he's still got it." The darkness isn't the film's appeal for me, though. New Police Story offered Chan's fans a sense of a new direction. He's fighting a younger generation of criminals and has to adapt. He's mentoring someone to be an ass-kicking supercop. More than that, the final confrontation is a game of wits where the solution isn't to be tougher and faster than the young whelp he's up against. Instead it's about using his years of experience to be smarter and better. That's something that I hoped would carry through in this stage of Chan's career -- the ability to outsmart as an integral strategy for outfighting, the sense of an older master besting opponents through years of knowledge -- but it seems to have stalled without follow through with New Police Story. In the audio commentary for the original Drunken Master, writer and Hong Kong movie enthusiast Ric Meyers said that Jackie Chan has always felt the need to top himself, but it's so hard to do. In fact, it gets harder and harder given his tremendous body of work, the constraints of studios, and the unavoidable effects of age. Meyers ended his point by saying (and I'm paraphrasing) that the only person who could really beat Jackie Chan is Jackie Chan. CZ12 proves how true that is.
CZ12 Review photo
A final harrumph over Jackie Chan's last hurrah
When the first promo/trailer hit for CZ12 (aka Chinese Zodiac), I bought into the hype and the possibility of the film. When news landed that CZ12 was going to be Jackie Chan's last big action movie, I was eager to see how he...

Interview: Jia Zhangke & Zhao Tao (A Touch of Sin)

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
I've heard that A Touch of Sin is coming out in China in November. What has the process been like with the censors and have there been any compromises? Jia Zhangke: For Chinese films to pass through censorship and enter into theatrical release, there are two steps. The first one is before you begin principle photography, before you even begin production. You need to have official sign-off on the script, story, and premise of the work. And then after the completion of the film, there is another step where you enter into negotiation for another level of approval. So that second step was completed before we left for Cannes. We waited for a few weeks and we learned that it was approved. Obviously you can't tell the future, but how do you think the film will be received when Chinese audiences see it? Jia Zhangke: I believe there will be a lot of discussions formed after people view this film in China. Perhaps the arguments will separate into two different poles for discussion. One is that because of the complexities and the different layers of Chinese society and social realities, only parts become visible at once to the individual, so people cannot see a whole picture. So the emergence of violent events such as those in the film emerge from this complexity. And the other point of discussion comes from the perception of how art functions in Chinese society. For instance, many people will say, "Why did you make this?" and "To what end are going for with with work of art?" There's a question of what art does in society. But of course I'm very much looking forward to the film finding its audience in Mainland China because to me this film represents part of the missing picture to these events. So many of your films are socially conscious. Expanding on the previous question, can you both speak about what being a socially conscious artist in China means to you. Jia Zhangke: This is inextricable from my life in China. When I make a film, it comes from a very personal place. Living in China and having encountered and lived through the Cultural Revolution, working within such a state of change and flux -- both in the economy and society -- inevitably alters the way that you work. So in order for me to work on a personal level, the art cannot be separated from a social level. On a deep personal level, we cannot help but be radically affected by these social and economic changes. And Zhao Tao? As an actress in socially conscious films? Zhao Tao: Through collaborating with director Jia, I feel that we expressed a world, a society, that was facing many changes. And personally having grown up in a working-class family, working together on these films was a way to get a scope on these larger, changing social realities. But through and actor's perspective, I expressed these through my body. One of the most memorable scenes in A Touch of Sin is at the sauna when you're being beaten with a stack of money. Could you talk about the scene? Zhao Tao: The difficulty came in collaborating with other actors in this very long take. So from the moment that the two men enter into the room to after the beating happens, that's one long take. It had to be conveyed through body language mostly, so it was difficult to work with that constriction. On screen, I was beaten 38 times, and we filmed for six hours, so the pain that was felt was very palpable for me on a very physical level. I wanted it to be a visceral reaction; the performance to be a viscerral performance. Jia said after the 20th blow I could turn away and we could stop, but I wanted to continue in order to feel this anger and to be pushed to this point where violence seems like the only logical response. And it appears that I made the right decision because that part of the performance in that scene seems to have affected people very deeply. There was a point when I wondered when the beating was going to stop! It's remarkably effective. That does get to the idea of violence as a last resort or an only resort. Could you talk about violence in the context of the film as well as in human nature in general. Jia Zhangke: I wanted to explore a deep contemplation of two factors. One is the social roots of violence and the second is violence that has its roots in a very human level. Perhaps the most extreme form of violence is to take away a person's pride or dignity with your violence, and to make it worse is when it becomes unconsciously manifested. Perhaps this unconscious violence is worse than getting hit in the face directly. For instance, the character Dahai (Wu Jiang) in the first story. He acquires a nickname partway through that segment, which is "Golf," because when he's beat up at the airport, he's beat up with a golf club. And this is actually a way to insidiously take someone's pride away, which is very violent in its nature. And there's the man who beats up Zhao Tao's character with a stack of cash, who thinks that money is the ultimate weapon, which can solve every problem. Maybe these are very insidious, violent accumulations of innate tendencies of people. And perhaps, ultimately in the last story, the form of violence that's invisible is when the mother makes the phone call to the son and makes those demands of him. To me, this is a violence that comes from the family -- from the people who should be dearest to you. Do you think there's any way to end the cycle of violence as presented in the movie? Jia Zhangke: I think the film serves to describe and observe these events because that forms a kind of necessary platform to change. In our current social reality in China, I think we need to have a deeper focus on respecting other people and respecting one another's freedom and pride. On a global level, violence is a collective problem for everyone, and in order to see behind that and get to the root of these problems is the key to promoting a kind of change. But we have to come to acknowledge these invisible forces that accumulate and manifest themselves into acts of violence. This might simply be a restatement of the last point, but how do you hope these platforms for recognition will bring about change? [Editor's note: After fumbling through a few versions of this on-the-fly question with the interpreter, I finally arrived at this more succinct version of the question.] Jia Zhangke: I think that the film itself will not offer any singular solutions or a prescriptive plan for change, nor is it the role of a director to prescribe such a plan. But the key is for the film to spur people's ideas about possible avenues of change. I think the film serves to describe our current experiences today. I remember reading that wuxia films had influenced your approach to this movie. When did the wuxia genre come in in terms of approach to these stories? Jia Zhangke: Well, it was about last year around April that I realized that the wuxia mode could be applied to this film because I'd wanted to make this film a while before, but there was no form of filmmaking that excited me in terms of applying it to these stories. But then I noticed that there were distinct parallelisms between the wuxia narrative and the people in this film. Even though wuxia films describe stories that come from a feudal era, I thought that I could apply them to a contemporary context. Did it affect your performance at all knowing there was a wuxia focus? Zhao Tao: When I first received the script, [Zhangke said] he wanted to be able to distinguish a certain spirit of a wuxia heroine in Xiao Yu's character. To prepare for the role I watched a lot of wuxia films, and I noticed the female characters wielded their swords and had this sense of heroism. I imbued this kind of energy to my character in the scene when I'm walking through the mountains to find my mom -- just by walking. And the notion of wuxia is manifested in Xiao Yu in sort of mystical way. When she endures the violent event that turns her into a tragic figure, and she reacts to it with an act of violence, that's when she transforms into a wuxia heroine. As a final question, I remember hearing that social media such as Weibo helped the film get made and perhaps even helped secure its upcoming Chinese release. [Editor's note: Weibo is a Chinese microblogging and social media website.] What hopes do you have for social media in China's future? Jia Zhangke: Weibo brought a sense of democracy to the way that news is transmitted in China and received. So for instance, events that could have been obscured or would have been obscured by official newspapers in the past are no longer obscured because of social media. It made it impossible to hide certain social realities that exist in China. So the existence of Weibo eliminated one basic question for this film, which was "Did this really happen in China?" Weibo gave the stories a validity that was irrefutable.
Zhangke & Tao Interview photo
The director and star of A Touch of Sin discuss the changing face of China
Jia Zhangke has been called one of the most important filmmakers in the world by Richard Brody of The New Yorker and John Powers of NPR. This isn't just because his films are well made. Jia occupies an interesting place in co...

Review: A Touch of Sin

Oct 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216431:40743:0[/embed] A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding | 天注定)Director: Jia ZhangkeRating: NRCountry: ChinaRelease Date:  October 4th, 2013 (New York); October 11th, 2013 (LA) In retrospect, the wuxia allusions are pretty apparent. The protagonists of the four vignettes are struggling against larger forces and they carry themselves like the chivalric heroes of old. Three of them, at least, strike poses or achieve gaits that put me in mind of wandering swordsmen. The irony is their social position (these are all everyday working class people elevated to the level of martial folk hero), the kind of violence that occurs (there's no spiritual or philosophical sense of refinement as there would be to the martial arts, this is simply violence as a desperate lashing out), and the emptiness of the violence they enact (there's a sense that nothing will come of the violence). The references begin in the opening scene following a striking image of an overturned tomato truck. A man on a scooter drives an empty freeway -- a massive extension under construction is visible in the distance -- and is accosted by teenage bandits wielding hatchets. Axe-wielding baddies have appeared in plenty of kung fu films from Chang Cheh's Boxer from Shantung to Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle. He dispatches of them quickly and then rides on. There's nothing glorious about what just happened as there would be in a wuxia film, it's just violence, and he continues on his way. In the opening vignette, we watch a worker played by Jiang Wu struggle with political corruption at a local level. Next we get acquainted with the man on the scooter (Wang Baoqiang) who took out the teens with hatchets. Then comes a woman who works in a sauna (Tao) who's pushed to extremes partly because of an affair. The last vignette involves a young man (first-time actor Luo Lanshan) trying to make it in different demoralizing workplaces. Even before knowing these were all based on true stories, I could recognize the non-fiction elements in the final vignette. Part of it centers around an electronics factory/worker dorm not unlike Foxconn; the other portion of that vignette centers on a brothel where teenage girls give themselves to businessmen. It's difficult not to notice the sharp bitterness in the connection. I sensed a few sources of tension throughout A Touch of Sin that underline these ironies and allusions. The violence is so brutal and so ugly, and yet most of the film is based on these artfully paced characters studies with delicate, emotional moments within them. The film is also so beautifully shot, with several images that keep cycling back through my head even days after I've seen the movie. A Touch of Sin is the kind of film where you watch a man's jaw get blown off with a shotgun in graphic detail, but you also experience the quiet desperation of the man who pulled the trigger. There's also a scene where the silent, awkward reticence as a man reunites with his family implies so much about the entire nature of their relationship. All of this is against the backdrop of modern China, rapidly changing, always leaving people behind, the country in the process of trying to catch up to its own ambitions as an economic super power. One of the most memorable images that highlights the differences between the haves and have-nots involves a New Year's fireworks display. Across the water where skyscrapers light up the night, the skies are illuminated by a lush pyrotechnics display. In a lowland, working-class area opposite the skyscrapers, a father amuses his son with the closest available equivalent: he fires his pistol into the air. Since the point of view of the film is that of the working class, I couldn't help but read an us vs. them moment in this act, which wasn't just to make the man's kid happy but to punctuate a kind of thesis statement for the violence in the film: Them, they have industry and so many other tools to degrade and to dehumanize; us, all we have left is violence. But violence is a limited kind of power given how it's manifested in the film. I mentioned above that it seems like nothing can come of violence in and of itself, and it may have something to do with the way these vignettes end. There may be a sense of narrative closure, but not a sense of closure when it comes to affecting actual change. What happens after an act of murder to feed a family other than a cycle of murder out of necessity? Or say political violence when it's just one man and his gun? Violence may not be the answer, but it's the only option. In A Touch of Sin, and by extension China itself, violence is the manifestation of a larger social frustration, the voice of the alienated oppressed cast into steel, the only means of making a statement even when the statement will be negated and the speaker silenced once the authorities come into play. So if not violence, what is the answer to all these social woes? This is the frustrating thing about art as social criticism. It can offer a mirror and hint at possibilities, but there's no requirement to propose actual, workable solutions. But maybe that's the proper way to go about it since any simple proclamations on how to solve the ills of a quickly developing nation would be insulting and naive. Jia offers an interesting closing note for A Touch of Sin, suggesting that these stories are not just ripped from the headlines but are touchstones to the concerns of older tales. And these older tales are a reflection of history which itself cycles into the concerns of modern people. There's an interrelation between different narratives, mirrors down a hall, all points to reconsider what's gone before and what's to come. Maybe there's a leveling principle at work in art, not just art that's also a form of social criticism, or at least a space of sympathy and understanding. Maybe underlying all these acts of human degradation and woe there's a whispered acknowledgement: "There but for the grace of the global economy go I." A Touch of Sin opens in China next month. Somehow the film made it past cultural censors mostly intact despite its harsh, despairing criticism of modern Mainland  China. I'm curious about how it will be received, and also what, if anything, the viewers will be able to do with what they're shown. Like the freeway and the airport being built in the film, the future is uncertain and a work in progress.
A Touch of Sin Review photo
A collage of real-life violence across Mainland China
It's remarkable what a little context can do. My initial impressions about A Touch of Sin were generally positive but also ambivalent. I wasn't sure of what to make of the four loosely connected vignettes, each a mix of right...

Review: Ip Man: The Final Fight

Sep 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215911:40340:0[/embed] Ip Man: The Final Fight (Jip6 Man6: Zung1-gik6 Jat1 Zin3 | 叶问:终极一战)Director: Herman YauRating: PG-13Country: China (Hong Kong)Release Date: March 22, 2013 (China); September 20, 2013 (US limited) Much like The Legend is Born, The Final Fight operates in the mold of the old-fashioned biopic. The movie chronicles about 20 years in the life of an older Yip Man. It's the post-war period, however, so the oppression of the Imperial Japanese isn't bearing down on the country or on the film. The dread of annihilation is gone and the reactionary nationalism in many films about the Sino-Japanese conflict has been swapped for unbridled nostalgia. The Hong Kong of this time seems idyllic even though there's brimming social unrest. Workers call for rights on the job, and it feels at home with the bustle of rickshaws, the brightness of the cheongsams, the flutter of old love songs. In some ways I found it hard to think of this as a sequel to The Legend Is Born. There's little continuity between Dennis To's portrayal of a young Yip Man and Wong's take on the older Yip Man. To's young Yip Man was noble but lacking in personality. Compare that to Donnie Yen in the Wilson Yip films: a badass chivalric Wing Chun machine with leading man charisma. What Wong brings to Yip Man is gravitas. This is Yip Man by way of Yoda and Morgan Freeman. He's a sage to numerous Wing Chun students in the film, and selfless to a fault like most noble cinematic heroes. "A warrior and a scholar!" a character declares after hearing one of Yip Man's poems in the newspaper. Wong isn't really known as a martial artist. He went on a diet (the real Yip Man was very skinny) and trained in Wing Chun for a year prior to taking this role. The fights in the movie are fewer than The Legend Is Born, and yet they feel more invigorating. The choreography by Xiong Xin-Xin (Once Upon a Time in China 3) stresses a cleanness and groundedness of movement that's free from overt wirework or near-superheroics. It's stylized fighting that feels more real than the young Yip Man film. The fights may also be interesting since it's Wong doing so much of it himself. He looks comfortable as he goes from move to move, dishing out flurries of punches to the chest with the occasional high kick to the jaw. It's as impressive as Daniel Day Lewis doing MMA in a stovepipe hat and a beard. My first exposure to Anthony Wong came in a much different Herman Yau film from 1993 called The Untold Story: Human Meat Pies. I'd seen Wong before in Hard Boiled, but I always noticed him after The Untold Story. Wong played a ruthless psychopath who murders people, chops up their bodies, and puts their flesh in the pork buns he sells at his restaurant. (The film was allegedly based on an actual crime in Macau.) The Wong sections of the film are inhumane, particularly when we see what he did to the previous owners of the restaurant. This bleakness is off-set by the goofy detectives in the film, though it's not as bad as the bumbling cops from Last House on the Left. Every Wong movie I see is measured against this role. What Wong's shown over the years, aside from staggering productivity (he has 174 acting credits on IMDb), is versatility. He can play a sociopath, a suave criminal, a wizened older cop, and a goon, and he'll fully inhabit these parts. With Yip Man, there's something fascinating about what Wong is doing, even in the still moments where he's lost in thought and about to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette. There's a scene where Yip Man and his wife are together. She's come to Hong Kong from Foshan, and there's a dignified giddiness to Wong's performance when he's with her. They've been living apart for a long time, and it's one of the few sequences of The Final Fight where Yip Man isn't in Yoda mode. The couple are in bed and it's cold, and Yip Man's students bring up a comforter for them. It's a kind of Capra moment. Yip Man and his wife turn toward each other with eyes locked. Yip Man hasn't been this happy in a long while. It's so old-timey and might have been schmaltzy if Wong wasn't so good. Wong is the real strength of The Final Fight, and as long as he's on screen there's something worth noticing. Where the film falters is its looseness, which might be a consequence of the post-war setting. Without the Imperial Japanese as an obvious foil and without Yip Man as a symbol of Chinese persistence in the face of an outside force, there's almost no conflict that drives the film. In some ways it works since it's about the winding down of Yip Man's life, and yet it's a little off. Matters of plot and proportion are the ultimate difficulty of biopics -- too much plot molding doesn't feel like real life, too little feels like the narrative is meandering. There's a fight against the head of a rival martial arts school (played by Wong's Infernal Affairs co-star Eric Tsang) which reveals character rather than builds conflict. It's more like a tussle between two righteous men with mutual respect, which has an interesting payoff in a quiet scene following another fight. Eventually a sideplot involving a criminal in Kowloon Walled City drives the last half (really the last third) of the story, but it feels forced. Whereas The Legend Is Born is too rounded with its plot and ties its slew of fight scenes together with a bow of movie intrigues (i.e., sibling rivalries, love triangles, double crosses, betrayals), The Final Fight begins to droop and its last action scene feels perfunctory. The Final Fight is an admirable effort that adds a new take on Yip Man even if it doesn't quite work. I actually can't wait to see what Tony Leung (another Hong Kong great) brings to Yip Man in Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster, or more accurately, what part of himself he'll reveal in the guise of Yip Man. On the note of other Yip Mans, I think the third Donnie Yen/Wilson Yip Ip Man film (whenever it comes) will take place at some point in this post-war period as well. How will they handle this this era without a handy conflict? Will Yip Man become a social crusader, a warrior against water rationing? Will this social unrest become integral to the plot rather than part of the film's historical garnish -- Wong Fei-Hung meets Woodie Guthrie? Whatever happens, it'll be tough to match Wong's grace as a guiding force.
Ip Man Final Fight Review photo
Anthony Wong and the many faces of Yip Man
In the review for The Legend Is Born: Ip Man, I mentioned how the character of Yip Man seems to be turning into the new Wong Fei-Hung. Here's a real-life historical figure who's suddenly become an idealized version of the rea...

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J - A - C... See you real soon!
During an event in Beijing, Jackie Chan said he's interested in creating his own theme park in Yizhuang. According to the Malaysia Times, the park will be called JC World. The two square kilometer park will be comprised of fi...


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