Men Behind the Sun (1988)

Men Behind the Sun (1988) movie poster

director T. F. Mou
viewed: 05/09/2015

When I first started on my trek through “most disturbing” or “most disgusting” films last year, one of the movies that constantly showed up on lists was T.F. Mou’s Men Behind the Sun.  It didn’t ring bells for me.

The film is a narrative approach to the frightening, horrific true-life human experiments performed by the Japanese Unit 731 in the waning days of World War II.  Inspired by the Nazis and the things that they were doing, Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii led outrageous and most terrible human tests on things like frostbite, starvation, human vivisection, all sorts of sick and twisted stuff.  The reality is in many ways far more stunning and shocking than the contents of this film.

The film, which I believe was made with educational intentions, goes from potentially serious to absolutely hilariously grotesque in its exploitation-style special effects and overall sensibilities.  From a perspective of horrors and shock and grotesqueries, it’s far more comically gruesome than impactful like Come and See (1985), a Russian film about horrors of World War II that often makes many of the same lists of gruesome films.

I say that not to devalue it, but more to differentiate.  Come and See is tremendously powerful and upsetting.  Men Behind the Sun is not quite a laugh-riot, but far more so.  The realities that it attempts to depict are as horrific as you can imagine.  But the film is far enough detached from reality in its production, so it’s really almost fun.

Little Toys (1933)

Little Toys (1933) title image

director Sun Yu
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The first of five films that I was to watch at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Sun Yu’s Little Toys was the first Chinese film that I have seen from the silent era, though the festival often features Chinese or Japanese films.  I was unfamiliar with the period of the heyday of Shanghai film-making in the 1930’s, unfamiliar with the directors and even the stars, Lingyu Ruan and Li-li Li.  While the film itself is a tragedy, the introduction of the film included some interesting notes about the tragedy of Lingyu Ruan who went on to take her own life at the age of 24.  There is always a little additional haunting when such facts are added to the viewing of a film.

Little Toys tells the story of Sister Ye (Ruan Lingyu), a creative toymaker handcrafting her wares in a small village.  She is wise and good-hearted, shunning a lover for her family, offering thoughtful advice, being the sole driver for the income of her village, raising her two children alongside.  The tragedies mount as her husband dies and small son is abducted (in a very leering, creepy moment in the film), and in many ways it only gets worse.  But Sister Ye pushes on, often addressing the camera directly as she falls into intense reveries about the right things to do.  As her daughter grows up (then played by Li-li Li), she channels her mothers spirit, leading the children of the village in play and exercise, developing her own skills in toymaking, and speaking as well of the proper, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” sort of self-motivational drive, punctuated with the good old “thumbs up”.

The film is strikingly propaganda-like, or maybe just very clear in its ideological messages.  The direct address of the audience leaves little question to whom Sister Ye is really addressing.  And in the film’s notable final sequence, in which still, even in this version that we saw in the theater just this weekend lacked key intertitles, Sister Ye proclaims in crazed, manic terror, for the people to take up arms because the enemy (in this case, the Japanese), are coming yet again to destroy and wreak havoc.  The final sequence is the culmination of the drama, in which Sister Ye, has lost everything, and though she’s being delusional, the crowd around her (and by suggestion, us the audience) see that she is actually predicting something real, sending a warning message like some sibyl on the street.  And in that sense it’s very prophetic, coming only a couple of years before the Japanese again invaded China at the onset of WWII.

Sister Ye also seems to be critiquing the coming of mass production, representing as she does, the artisanship of traditional crafts.  The message here is a little muddier, though modernization and industrialization become conflated with military aggression and weaponry.  Children “want” little toys of the fighter planes and tanks that devastate the land and the people, toys that have to be produced by machines and mass industry.  These asides are also part of the bald ideological elements.

Something beneath all of that, though, that struck me, was how the film centered so much around women, strong women who are the core of everything of the film.  Sister Ye is a creative force, ingenius and innovative, but also wise and deep, helping others to understand the world around them and what is right and wrong.  Sister Ye and her daughter are the industry of their village.  The men are like hangers-on, helping out, hunky or sad-sacks, but they are clearly nowhere as full of wisdom and energy.  I don’t know if this is something particular to this film, this period, this director, Ruan Lingyu.  Like I said, this is the first Chinese film of this period that I’ve seen.  I still thought it was most striking, especially watching other films from throughout the world where women are codified and “typed”.

Little Toys is a very moving film, sad, striking, very interesting.  There are numerous moments, shots, images that stand out considerably.  But nothing more so than the culmination of the tragedy in the final sequence.  Ruan Lingyu cries out at us and the drama is hard to forget.

24 City

24 City (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 01/29/10

It’s not like I don’t have aspirations to be more read, more appreciated, attract more readers, but the bottom line is the way that I do this film diary thing is that I write about the films that I see, the films that interest me, not the films that just come out every Friday and draw the dollars into the theater or even the “big” DVD rentals of the week.  Case in point is 24 City, a film by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia who probably fewer than 1% of film viewers will have ever heard nor will ever see the films produced by this fascinating director.

The difference for me is that while on a jag of his films, having watched Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), and Still Life (2006), I read about his film 24 City, a film about a Chinese munitions/airplane factory that was like a pseudo-pre-fab city and its transition into modern deluxe housing, I was totally excited.  I was feeling like “This is a film I want to see!” and it took some months to come here, and then ultimately to DVD/Video rather than theatrical release despite its playing at the Cannes Film Festival.

Who is going to be reading my damn film writing with the same interests as me?  Fucking nobody.

Hey, I get it.  But it’s something I committed to almost 8 years ago and still use for a crazy outlet of my own thoughts, my own discovery of cinema, world cinema, contemporary cinema, historical cinema, trash cinema, DVD’s, genre films, all whatever fucking interests me.  How many people who will even stumble on this (my writing) who have even heard of Zhang Ke Jia?  Surely in deeper cinematic circles, people respect and are struck by the vision that he offers.

The fact is that Zhang Ke Jia is perhaps one of the most interesting Chinese filmmakers in more than a decade, perhaps in some ways, potentially ever.  His films deal with China, the enormous, deeply historical country, that is coming to shape the future of the world.  It’s his country, it’s not an outside perspective.  But also it is a perspective that tries to understand the drastic change that is happening, the monumental against the tiny individual.   The human individual’s story against the backdrop of the massive change, the most massive country, the most massive changes, culturally and functionally, but also physically.  The dramas that play out in his films seem like poetic documents from a time of fantastic transition and significantly historical change.

24 City is a weird film in many ways, some strange mixture of straight documentary mixed with interpretive narrative fiction meant to portray the same tonality and stories.  Actually, it might be a sort of fascinating document fighting the concept of documentary against Neo-Realism.  And it’s interesting that he should choose such a dramatic change to experiment with his filmmaking.

A factory, which was created in the 1950’s to build arms for war, which drew people from a village to a new place, drew them from their families in a battle for greater good, in which individual lives gave way to the greater machinations of the country.  But now, this factory is changing again.  Only existing a generation or so, it could so easily be a historical oddity, but people’s lives happened within its rules, within its walls.  And this change is a change that reflects the change of this massive nation.

Zhang Ke Jia’s film may not be as powerful and moving as I’d hoped it would be, but I have to say, given his other work and his general approach to his work, it will likely be a strange, complicated document of change, of this humanism contrasted against the most massive world event changes a nation has to attempt to maneouver.  It’s crazy, hard to fully fathom, to understand, much less in a world in which these things have far from finished from playing themselves out.

A document from the depths of a history that is still working its changes and events upon the world, the smaller voices, the lives of people who work, live, and support this, but from a place in which these changes cannot yet be understood.  For those of us so far outside of this world, it’s a fascinating chance to understand elements of a country that is our neighbor and brother, who may come to appear and change our histories.  We can glimpse, try to understand what there is to be understood.

And beyond that, this strange and challenging work about documentation and the oppositional fictions created that are meant to enlighten those issues.  I don’t know what to do with that stuff.  Documentary vs. realistic fiction.  When no lines are drawn.  Strange and extremely thought-provoking.

The World

The World (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 07/14/08

I’ve been developing an appreciation for director Zhang Ke Jia’s films this year, starting with Unknown Pleasures (2002) and more recently with Still Life (2006), but it wasn’t until I saw this film, The World, that I think I have fully crystalized my appreciation of his work.

Zhang Ke Jia is considered part of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers, noted for a somewhat neo-realist feel or cinéma vérité, using many non-actors, shooting on digital, and shooting with long takes.  I can’t fully say since I haven’t seen the films of the other directors, though all of those characteristics can be applied to Zhang’s films.

The World, as I understand it, was his only big budget production, shot on location in Beijing’s The World amusement park, a park that promises that you can see all the world without leaving Beijing.  And it features a 1/3-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, areas with Manhattan, the Giza pyramids, Big Ben, and lots of others.  And the story, a somewhat meandering semi-melodrama about two park workers, who are in a relationship, is set amidst and in contrast to this world within the world, this world of replicas, of Capitalism, of pretense and show.

While Zhang employs a lot of non-actors, sometimes more obviously, in his films, all three of his films have also starred Zhao Tao, his female protagonist in each film, here the costume-changing performer, who moves from culture to culture in the shows and roles she plays in the park throughout the film.  Her boyfriend, who moved up with her from the villages, begins the film as a security guard, but shifts into the black market underground evolving into something different.

Much of the contrasts and representations are easy to see: many scenes, both significant and more extraneous, play out against the backgrounds of these iconic grand cultural wonders.  The characters are small against them, even the shrunken versions of the world’s treasures.  Many long to travel, many can’t imagine leaving, as their dramas are enacted within this strange and ironic place.

Zhang Ke Jia clearly saw what kind of potential he could evoke from these images, from these narratives.  His critiques on culture and identity in the changing face of China are both broad and subtle.  But what really, really blew my mind was the cinematography and visual compositions.  His handling of the camera is masterful.  Some scenes play out in quite long takes, with the camera purposefully moving around the scene in a quiet, yet omniscient fashion, but always caputuring the important images, tracking up to the image into some beautiful ways.

This film is much more than the description that I give it here.  It has all this aesthetic and cultural commentary, a compelling narrative with good and meaningful characters, and in a sense, an epic breadth of types.  But this film, which I also think is his most accessible that I have seen, is also just simply a thing of greatness.

Up the Yangtze

Up the Yangtze (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Yung Chang
viewed: 07/08/08 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

I was somewhat disappointed with the documentary Up the Yangtze.  I didn’t care for some of its techniques and found it kind of boring at times, despite the fact that I have developed a keen interest in the subject matter, the Three Gorges Dam project in China, the largest hydro-electric project on Earth and its effect on the people, the environment, and its symbolism and impact on China and the world.  As I was sitting in the theater, I was thinking to myself that I was probably the only person that I know that was actually excited about seeing Up the Yangtze, or perhaps even knew about it.  It had gotten good reviews in a lot of places.  I didn’t think it was all that good.

Made by Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang, the film starts with the director’s voice-over about a trip that he is taking with his grandfather on a luxury liner “up the Yangtze”, a ride that is one of reflection for the older man, having grown up in the area, seeing the change.  It’s also a culture shock of the change, the scale of change and the effects that it has on a couple of specific families and individuals.  “Personalized” documentaries aren’t my favorite approach to film, but Chang actually doesn’t even stick with it.  His personal story is only partial and despite opening the narrative, ends up only being a piece of the picture, and not a well-integrated piece.

The majority of the film follows a family that is desperately poor.  Relocated from their initial home in a city that is now a ghost city, abandoned and deconstructed and soon to be underwater, the father had been a coolie or rickshaw runner.  When they were moved out, he and his wife built a shack on the side of the Yangtze and started growing their own food.  But this shack is not long for the land and air, it also is in an area that will be flooded as the dam nears completion.  Their story also follows their daughter, who wants to go to high school but has to take a job, as she winds up working on one of the luxury cruise liners that go up and down the river and the culture shock between their abject poverty and the tourist industry right in front of them.

My problem with the following of this family is that some of the scenes seem staged.  I say this based on camera angles and certain shots that seem so implausible as some of the family drama unfolds.

There is a lot to take stock of in the film, but I don’t feel the film really acted strongly in drawing some of these more dramatic contrasts and changes.  The ghost city where the family began is eerie and odd and a shocking contrast to the neon glowing city that has been constructed on the other side of the river, modern, glowing, Vegas-like against the beauty of the sloping hills and mountains.  The family that Chang follows is a striking story, showing how much of an outcast some of the peasants are just in their being.  Some of the people that Chang talks to offer their feelings toward the government and its role in the lives and decisions made that are so dramatically changing the landscape.  It’s a myriad of opinion.

The fact is that this is an amazing construct, this dam.  It represents the vastness of power of the government in China and the technological and industrial power of the country.  The landscape itself, the Three Gorges, are vast and beautiful themselves, and while the river is often brown, its majesty and power and history are dramatic.

But oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), I found director Zhang ke Jia’s Still Life (2006), a narrative film set against this change and landscape, much more compelling.  Because Chang takes such a narrative approach with the poor family, the contrast may not be so stark.  Besides, Zhang’s films have a documentary-like approach to the landscape and the evolving history.  Still Life featured some amazing images or desolate towns being torn down, people living amidst signage of doom (soon to be flooded) areas.  Though both films inhabit the region and the culture, Still Life even with its weird surrealistic moments, used its visual imagery to a stronger extent.

I don’t know why I was so bothered by the inconsistencies in Chang’s Up the Yangtze, but it felt like a less sophisticated piece of filmmaking.  Not that it’s bad, just that I was hoping for more.


Still Life

Still Life (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 05/11/08 at the Roxie Film Center, SF, CA

A few months back, I’d read about Still Life in the New York Times or something and became quite interested in the work of filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia, one of a group of Chinese filmmakers referred to at the “Sixth Generation”.  A month of two ago I rented his earlier film, Unknown Pleasures (2002), which I liked and which continued to resonate for me since watching it.  His films seem like a more naturalistic view inside a part of China (cultural strata and location) much different from anything I’d seen before.  His characters are isolated amidst great change, culturally and physically, within the world’s largest country, the world of the small individual situated within the enormous world of dramatic change.  Isolation and a sense of loss pervade his films.

The other truly fascinating thing about Still Life is the settings and the location of the film.  The backdrop is the ancient cities and villages among the Three Gorges that are being evacuated and demolished as they are to be flooded in the process of damming the Yangtze River in the massive Three Gorges Dam project.  Perhaps one of the most enormous projects of its kind from an industrial, physical human change to the landscape, ecological, and human in the displacement of millions of people, this is truly the “massive” background against which Zhang Ke Jia’s characters are centered.

I first drew interest to this change, though it has been going on for years, when I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (2006).  Burtynsky’s work focuses on the human hand in reshaping the world, landscapes that are oppositional often to the natural, oppositional to an extreme.  In that film, Burtynsky and Baichwal had great difficulty in getting access to photograph or film in the project as the Chinese government is very protective of the project from getting bad publicity or bad analysis in the world’s eye.  It’s what makes Zhang Ke Jia’s film so fascinating.   The landscapes, the soon to be submerged city in which people are still living and working, is a sight to see.

The story follows Han Sanming, a man from another village, who comes to find his long lost wife of 16 years in a town already underwater.  He takes up a job with a sledgehammer, felling the buildings that will soon be below water.  Even the building in which he takes up residence eventually is marked for destruction.  The world is the center of destruction, living on the fringe of a world that will soon be swallowed up by “progress”.  Some of these villages and towns are over 2000 years old, and the culture of the people is beautifully captured by Zhang Ke Jia’s camera.

While his films rely on a form of neo-realism, focusing on a strata of culture that is perhaps not the lowest on the ladder, but near bottom, he uses non-actors to gain a style of performance that gives the film a tone unlike other films.  One, especially myself, who has never been to China, nor these specific locations, can only speculate to the accuracty of these depictions, to their naturalism.  But at face value, that is how I read it.  Neo-realistic depiction, whose power, when handled well, speaks of a truth and a naturalism, one of belief.

But interestingly, Zhang Ke Jia uses some CGI for a couple of moments of fantasy: a UFO siting, a structure that blasts off like a rocket, a man tight-rope walking between to towers.  These flights of fantasy, I think, are meant to reflect the characters’ mentality to an extent.  The outre-ness of their world, perhaps of hope, and escape.  But they seem to detract from the film’s naturalism distinctly.  I don’t know if he’s used such techniques in other films, but it did sort of disconcert me to an extent.  I still don’t know exactly what to make of them, but they add to the question of belief in the naturalism of the film.

Other shots and sequences are striking.  As Sanming passes these derelict buildings, he turns to see an entire wall felled.  This seems like a beautifully timed shot.  But later when an entire structure is detonated in the backgroud, I wondered whether or not that was also CGI.  Some of his lingering shots of people sitting together are the most striking and beautiful, but his contrasts of these individuals against the massiveness of the river, of the bridges, of the gorges themselves, the iconic quality of this whole thing is still very powerful.

I am eager to see more of his films.

Unknown Pleasures

Unknown Pleasures (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 03/08/08

Though I recall when this film came out a couple of years ago, I hadn’t really put it on my list to view.  But reading recently about Zhang Ke Jia’s latest film to get theatrical release in the United States, Still Life (2006), I decided to queue this one up.  Still Life has gotten a lot of positive praise in reputable publications, though I hadn’t read much about his work before.

Jia’s work, as I have read, is part of a movement in Chinese cinema toward a style akin to Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité.  Jia is noted for his long takes and shooting in parts of China that are drastically different from much of the cinema that has been exported from that country in the past 15 years.  His films are also noted for themes of youthful alienation against a backdrop of China’s cultural and physical landscape.  And much of that is evident in this film.

Unknown Pleasures follows the story of two friends and a would-be pop star that one of the two is in love with.  The two friends are from fairly low rungs on the financial ladder, Bin Bin lives with his mother in a small but middle class apartment, while his friend lives with his father in a very cramped little room.  When they discover a single American dollar, they are wowed by it and cannot estimate its value, though it following the dollar through the film, it seems clear that it represents capitalist wealth, its lure, and their lack of understanding of it.

The girl, a would-be star, who dances and sings in small local promotions for a liquor company, is the girlfriend of a moderately small-time criminal.  The love triangle, as it were, is akin to those of movies with great drama, where the figures are bigger on the world stage, the beautiful and talented moll of the city’s top crime boss or something.  But here, the people are all on the lower rungs, not the lowest, but still figured in contrast to those types of narratives.  The criminal is a loan shark who carries a gun and has a young gang of henchmen to parcel out his beatings.  The girl, whose talent is moderate at best and whose beauty is more simple than luminous, is in her early twenties and has a veneer of importance that hides her real self, as simple as her moderately cheap wig that she wears to define her “look”.

There is a sadness, a longing in these characters, yet so undefined.  Bin Bin has a younger girlfriend who is about to go away to university, she has a pathway out of their world.  Bin Bin attempts to join the army, an opportunity to become one of the Beijing Soldiers, to move out and away, but finds out that he has hepatitis and is rejected.  They have little, they are lost against the landscape, physical, societal, and cultural, and of change.

Jia uses television and popular culture that comes through it to demonstrate the time and place of events, including the announcement that Beijing had won the opportunity to host the 2008 Olympic games as well as a controversial landing of a U.S. spy plane on mainland China.  But television is how the characters get their cultural information, popular music, movies, and ideas.

What struck me was the physical landscapes, the crumbled, torn up city, the new highway, still yet unopened, the bus station, where Bin Bin lolls sadly.  Having recently watched Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who photographs urban and industrial landscapes in China, the physicality that Jia works in here, is definitely part of those same worlds.  Filmed in Datong, Shanxi, it’s an isolated life, alienated, and strange.

I am very interested in seeing Still Life, and I hope to catch it while it’s still in the cinemas here (if it still is) because one of my only peeves of the film was that it was shot on digital video.  As I understand it, shooting on digital video is key to the production of Jia’s films, keeping them cheap, underground, adding to its documentary feel.  But the framing and movement of the camera and the images were beautiful, though some shots, particularly inside, in fluorescent light, had the look of cheap television dramas, which kind of hurt the feeling and aesthetic.  Maybe in the theater, as opposed to DVD, this might not be such a striking thing.  And anyways, that is just one opinion on the style.


Three… Extremes

Three... Extremes (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Fruit Chan, Chan-wook Park, Takashi Miike
viewed: 04/06/06

Oddly, these anthology style films, which always seem like an interesting concept, always seem to mostly suck. It’s usually that one director does particularly interesting work, maybe another does so-so work, and then the rest are pretty awful. Still, it seems like a good idea. In the case of Three… Extremes we have at least two pretty fascinating directors, Chan-wook Park and Takashi Miike (I am not familiar with Fruit Chan), and the idea of some short horror films by them strung together could make for interesting stuff. There was another anthology flick that came out the same year, 2004’s Eros that included work by Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh, and Wong Kar Wai, which I have been vaguely interested in. Though I have read that Wong Kar Wai’s segment was the only good one of that film. Really, it’s essentially watching three short films by different directors. Being a bit of an auteurist, I figure that if I like the director, I’ll probably be interested in the movie. This is the case in point.

But the results a typically mixed. None of it is terrible, I guess. Fruit Chan’s segment, “Dumplings”, is amusing in its transgressively gruesome abortion/cannibalism/eroticism thing. Christopher Doyle, who shoots all of Wong Kar Wai’s amazing cinematography shot this segment, and it’s interesting. Bai Ling is pretty creepy in it, but I don’t know if that was just her or the way she was dressed or something. It has a pervasive gross-out creepiness that earns some credit.

Chan-wook Park, who had become my newest of my favorite directors after watching Oldboy (2003), delivers the weakest effort in the mix, “Cut”. It’s a revenge theme again, seemingly focusing on some self-reflexive aspect of film-making that I didn’t totally understand. It starts with a nice shot of a vampire woman sucking blood from a frozen, mannequin-like man, which turns out to be a scene from a movie that eventually becomes the set where action takes place. The set reflects to some extent the director’s home. There is a lot going on with artifice and there are some comedic things. It’s weird. I just didn’t totally get it.

Takashi Miike’s segment, “Box” is the most interesting of the films. It’s a very arty piece for him, I would say. It has nice cinematography and has all these strange themes in it, people in boxes, twins, live burials, ghosts…it’s kinda wacky. But it’s quite poetic in its open-endedness, and it struck me as the most interesting of the three “extremes”.

This film was overall a little disappointing for me, and really it’s only gone on to support my notion that while the anthology film is an interesting form, it’s rarely turned out rock-solid movies.