It’s a safe assumption that the majority of Westerners, unless they were lucky enough to live in a big city with a film festival or a small college town with an arthouse theater, have never seen a Chinese movie. Hong Kong movies—in particular the wuxia spectacles of Run Run Shaw and the gun ballets of John Woo—have left an incalculable impact on Western cinema and culture. But Hong Kong cinema and Chinese cinema are two very, very different beasts. Muzzled by state-controlled censorship for decades, the creative and popular resurgence of Mainland China’s film industry is still in its early stages, even as it moves to become one of the dominant economic forces in world cinema. But still, most of the paltry few films of theirs to make it to the West were heady historical dramas and award-winners from prestigious festivals. Ask an average moviegoer if they’ve heard of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, they’ll probably say yes. Ask them if they’ve heard of Zhang Yimou or Tian Zhuangzhuang and you’ll probably get a blank stare. But here at the New York Asian Film Festival, Western viewers are given a rare chance to experience the popular cinema of Mainland China: the extravagant, crowd-pleasing blockbusters; the high-concept drama thrillers; the culturally penetrative dramas. This year, the festival’s slate of films from Mainland China reveal a country in the throes of a painful yet necessary metamorphosis, a nation gripped with a growing dissatisfaction with traditional norms regarding things as varied as romantic relationships to institutional justice. Yet these films remain proudly, unapologetically Chinese in their identity. To watch them is to witness the future, not just of China but of cinema itself.

 

Battle of Memories

If traditional Hollywood wisdom dictates that blockbusters must include an action scene every 15 minutes, then the growing trend in Asian thrillers is that every 15 minutes there must be a plot twist. Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong have all seen the rise of these labyrinthine pot-boilers; some have achieved cult status such as Park Chan-wook’s earth-shaking OLDBOY (2003) and Na Hong-jin’s frustratingly esoteric The Wailing (2016), but many are so top-heavy with shock reveals and sudden realizations that they collapse in on themselves. Few films better exemplify this than Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories, an exhausting science-fiction puzzle box that liberally borrows ideas and scenes from other (predominately Western) films and punches them up with enough twists to last M. Night Shyamalan the rest of his career. By the end, we haven’t just lost track of the plot, we’ve become so exhausted of having the rug pulled out from beneath us that we just don’t care anymore.

In the futuristic Asian country known only as “Nation T,” a famous writer named Jiang Feng (Bo Huang) undergoes a medical procedure to remove his memories of his estranged wife. But after a brief reconciliation with her, he decides to have his memories restored. But while at the clinic—a cavernous complex large enough to have an actual raincloud in its lobby—an accident results in Jiang receiving the wrong memories: those of a serial killer. So Jiang finds himself caught up in a police investigation to identify and catch the memories’ owner before they strike again. Simple enough, right? Well, no.

Unlike other science-fiction films about the removal or alteration of memories—most recently with Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)—the memory removal/restoration procedure is overcomplicated with pointlessly arbitrary rules that only serve to introduce a ticking clock to the narrative. For instance: it takes memories 72 hours to fully activate after being restored, after which point they are permanent. In the meantime, the patient remembers only bits and pieces of the memories. Therefore, Jiang must catch the killer before the grisly murder memories are fully restored, lest he must live with them forever. And most bizarrely, the memory procedure doesn’t actually remove unwanted memories: they reorient them so that the patient moves from being a participant to a mere spectator. This allows Jiang to physically walk through the murderer’s memories like he was Jennifer Lopez in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000). (This raises the further question of what good this procedure would be for most people. The kind of traumatic memories most people would want removed would reasonably be ones where being the participant or spectator would be irrelevant. If, say, the survivor of child molestation had the procedure, they’d still have the memories of watching a different child get molested. And how could the procedure possibly help soldiers with PTSD deal with memories of watching comrades in arms get killed? But I digress.) The best moments in the film see Jiang spelunking in these disturbing memories, including an ingenious sequence where he gets trapped in an endlessly recurring bathroom murder scene that’s been frozen in time. But after the third or fourth time he relives these memories, each time seeing a different person inhabiting the murderer’s body depending on the current plot twist—first it’s him, then a woman, then a young boy, and so on—they lose their effect.

Watching Battle of Memories, I couldn’t help but think of David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007), a sprawling police procedural exploring the Zodiac serial killer. That film also played endlessly with the identity of its killer. Every 20-30 minutes there are new, puzzling revelations about who the Zodiac might or might not be. But here’s where Fincher succeeded and Chen failed: the former never sacrificed narrative logic and cohesion for the sake of their twists. The private lives of the investigators, their personal obsessions and neuroses, hovered above the Zodiac mystery, anchoring the impossible case with emotional weight and deliberately measured pacing. New revelations might upend the investigation, but never the film itself. Battle of Memories sacrifices itself with every new reveal, confusing us and making us question everything we’ve seen until then—and for the entirely wrong reasons.

Grade: D

Blood of Youth

There are really three films going on in Yang Shupeng’s Blood of Youth. It’s only through sheer force of will that he manages to bring all three together into a semi-coherent climax in the film’s last 40 minutes, at least until a disastrously mis-advised twist ending. But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, the three films.

The first is a quasi-erotic drama about an abusive conductor in a dead-end marriage who begins an affair with a young cellist in his orchestra. There’s clearly something wrong with him: he seems incapable of expressing his affections to the cellist without cruelly insulting her in the middle of rehearsals. But he can’t look away from her. The second film is a murder investigation featuring two cops, one skinny and smart, one fat and bumbling. After the skeleton of a young woman murdered almost two decades ago is discovered by an “average citizen” walking his dog in the woods, the two cops try to identify the victim, but with disastrous results. The final film involves a young hacker slowly dying of brain damage he received as a child after being beaten half to death in an orphanage. This gangly young man is on a quest for revenge. But against whom? And why does he seem equally willing to act as an informer to both the police and a gang of bank robbers? Hovering above all three of these movies are a group of men with suspiciously nondescript briefcases full of suspiciously nondescript bundles of cash making their way to a suspiciously nondescript building by the suspiciously nondescript dockyards.

Blood of Youth is one of those distinctly Asian thrillers which use the tenants of traditional genre filmmaking more as quaint suggestions than iron-clad rules. Like free jazz, it dips and bends through wildly incongruous tones and ideas. Lectures on Shostakovich give way to gangsters being interrogated in slaughterhouses. Bank robberies vie for screen time with queasy scenes of domestic rape. And sequences where teenagers are brutally assaulted are juxtaposed with the two homicide cops playing pranks on each other. (Anyone familiar with the chicken truck cops from The Last House on the Left (1972) will understand how grating and out-of-place these two feel amidst the bloodshed and trauma of the rest of the story.) Yet the film does come together in the end, providing a satisfactory conclusion to a stunning overarching story, at least until a last minute twist that’s so confusing, so uncalled for it leaves one stupefied as to why Shupeng included it in the first place. So many potentially wonderful films have been destroyed by overly-ambitious third act plot twists. But unlike Nadeem Soumah’s 6 Ways to Die (2015)—my gold standard for great movies destroyed by unnecessary twists—the twist here makes so little sense that it’s easy to ignore. If you can ignore it, then Blood of Youth will be one of the most unexpectedly satisfying thrillers of the year. If you can’t, you’ll leave the film wondering why Mr. Shupeng bothered making it.

Grade: C+

Extraordinary Mission

Early in Alan Mak and Anthony Pun’s Extraordinary Mission, there’s a scene where a drug-runner gets stopped by the police while driving down a deserted country road. After getting pulled out of his car, he jumps the officers, leaps back into the driver’s seat, and sideswipes one of them with his rear bumper. It’s a great stunt I’m personally amazed I’ve never seen before in an action film. The problem is that the shot of the stunt is less than a second long and captured with Jason Bourne-esque shakey cam. Before we can fully appreciate the stunt, we’ve been throttled with several more split-second edits and clumsy camera work, breaking the kinetic flow of the scene. What we have here is a moment of brilliance drowned in a murk of Western action cinema vomit. And it’s heartbreaking. The film advertises itself as a response to the classic Hong Kong action films of the 80s and 90s, a period of breathtaking cinematic innovation, daring, and brilliance. Yet all Extraordinary Mission does is reveal how stylistically indistinct much Chinese action cinema has become from its Western counterparts.

Typical of the heyday of classic HK action cinema—a movement almost as obsessed with the idea of shifting identities as Shakespeare—the film involves a police officer who goes undercover to infiltrate a drug smuggling ring. Having witnessed his mother overdose on heroin as a child, officer Lin Kai (Huang Xuan) devoted his life to stomping out the illegal drug trade in China. After a drug bust goes wrong, the still-undercover Lin Kai rescues one of the dealers who takes him to Thailand where he’s introduced to Eagle (Duan Yihong), a psychopathic poppy grower who—like the Batman villain The Riddler—chooses whether or not to kill people who displease him based on games of chance, usually Russian Roulette. After gaining his trust, Lin Kai teams up with Eagle to expand their heroin trade. But Eagle, being a sadistic psychopath who likes to hurt people because he can, drugs Lin Kai and makes him an addict. So, the entire time he’s undercover in Thailand, he’s fighting off crippling withdrawal and hallucinations.

The film climaxes with a pyrotechnic run-and-gun action extravaganza featuring a small army of disposable goons, suddenly invincible main antagonists, and brave, honorable heroes who fight and kill and die for each other in the traditional heroic bloodshed manner. And if you can get past the obnoxious editing and the occasional CGI fireball it’ll scratch the average viewer’s itch for cinematic violence. But the rest of the film feels hollow and blasé; it borrows too much from too many other movies without trying to innovate or establish its own identity. There’s even a shootout scene in a warehouse filled with nothing but empty boxes and barrels. Afterwards I felt like I needed to watch John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) as penance.

Grade: C

Soul on a String

The bigger the budget, the bigger the scope, the bigger the risk for a movie to go meta. Self-reflexive movies might be in vogue among many filmmakers, but they’re too big of a gamble for most wide-spread audiences. Even Spike Jonze’s superlative Adaptation. (2002) was shot on a measly $32.8 million budget. So one can’t help but admire Zhang Yang’s audacity in making Soul on a String, a sprawling 2 ½ hour historical epic with locations spanning verdant forests, sun-baked deserts, and the infinite Mongolian steppe and a small army of extras in meticulously reconstructed period-appropriate costumes and props. It follows Tabei (Kimba), a hunter who discovers a dzi bead—a Tibetan sacred stone—in the mouth of a deer. After immediately getting killed by lightning, he’s restored to life by a lama who tasks him with taking the ancient stone to sacred land of the Lotus Master far to the north. During his quest, the rough and taciturn hero picks up many allies, including a love-sick shepherdess and a mute boy with psychic powers. Along their journey they’re pursued by artifact hunters and two brothers sworn to fulfill a blood oath against Tabei whose father murdered their father 15 years ago. And amid this monomythic journey, there just so happens to also be a modern-day writer pursuing his characters in search for the ending of his story.

It’s an odd mixture, to be sure. But the inclusion of the story’s literal writer makes sense within the larger context of Yang’s meaty, self-reflective story. Based on two books by Tibetan writer Tashi Dawa, the film is as dense and substantive as a novel—pregnant with symbolism and narrative ellipses, the film uses the central narrative as a framework to hang observations on human nature, primarily ones from an explicitly Buddhist perspective. Each character battles to release themselves from earthly attachments, temptations, and obsessions—Tabei his inner wickedness, the brothers their frenzied vengeance, and so on. Eventually we begin to wonder if the writer should abandon his search for narrative closure as well.

While undeniably ambitious, Soul on a String is hobbled by a general lack of focus. There are too many subplots, too many ancillary characters draining our focus away from the protagonist’s quest for enlightenment. The film does such a poor job delineating the separate timelines between the mythic story and the modern-day writer’s journey that for the first hour I thought the film was set in the twenty-first century and Tabei was just an unusually isolated aboriginal. And while the film’s deliberately languid and measured pacing occasionally hypnotizes, many might find the film annoyingly soporific and bloated.

Grade: B

Someone to Talk To

Old Western Village Pictures

There couldn’t have been a better director for the adaptation of Liu Zhenyun’s award-winning novel One Sentence is Ten Thousand Sentences than his daughter Liu Yulin: educated in filmmaking at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts—Martin Scorsese’s alma mater—she brought both an intimate knowledge of filmmaking as well as an unprecedented insight into her father’s characters to this quiet examination of a self-destructive marriage. With just a few lines of dialogue she announces Someone to Talk To’s central theme in the very first scene. At a government agency in northern Henan province, a morose couple applies for a divorce. When asked why, they say that they’ve stopped talking.

“The first word we said in three months was ‘divorce.’”

But they’re quickly shoved to the side by a pair of young lovers eager to tie the knot: Aiguo (Mao Hai) and Lina (Li Qian). When asked how they know they’re right for each other, they happily chirp that they can talk for hours and hours without running out of things to say. Cut to ten years later. Aiguo, a wannabe entrepreneur, has settled into a dead-end job as a cobbler while Lina slaves away at a factory. At night they sit in silence at the dinner table. Their silence is their death knell.

In Yulin’s penetrative study into marital isolation and loneliness, the ability to communicate is the explicit measuring stick for the strength of relationships and the mental prisons characters trap themselves in. When Aiguo discovers Lina is cheating on him, he only knows it’s a serious affair when he spies them talking together like they used to do in the early days of their marriage. When Aiguo’s desperate divorcée sister Aixiang (Liu Bei) marries a homely chef, she says that she doesn’t care what he looks like; she just wants somebody she can talk to as she grows older. And when Aiguo starts flying into rages when Lina runs off with her lover, he only begins to understand how badly he’s traumatizing their young daughter Baihui (Li Nuonuo) when she mentally shuts down and stops communicating, even destroying the toys he buys her as peace offerings. For Zhenyun and Yulin, to talk is to live, to experience the world and the people inside it.

Someone to Talk To is a dour, introspective film that’s perhaps a bit too morose for its own good. When combined with the general narrative dissoluteness of the first hour, the film can seem an unnecessarily pretentious film school exercise. And when the lethargic pacing gets interrupted with sudden moments of violence like an unexpected suicide attempt and Aiguo seriously considering murdering Lina and her lover, we can’t help but feel like Yulin doesn’t fully know what she’s doing. But the film comes together in its surprisingly tight, surprisingly effective third act. This was Yulin’s debut feature film and it shows—it has the familiar scent of young graduates eager to make films that SAY something, man. Yulin may be the perfect director for her father’s story, but one wishes that she could have notched a few more films under her belt before attempting such a complex, delicate, and difficult project.

Grade: C

Duckweed

Shanghai Professional Making Film

I suppose that infamous Chinese government-imposed moratorium on time-travel fiction has gone the way of the Hollywood Production Code, for Han Han’s time-travel dramedy Duckweed didn’t just take the country by storm, it made over one billion yuan in less than a month. In January. You can’t argue with those returns.

But for such a ground-breaking piece of time-travel media, one would be hard pressed to find another film less interested in the actual mechanics of time-travel than Duckweed. After race-car driver Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) wins the 2022 China Rally Championship, he takes his estranged father Xu Zhengtai (Eddie Peng) on a victory joyride. After accidentally getting sideswiped by a train, Tailing wakes up in a hospital in the year 1998. It’s never explained how or why this happened, and Tailiang never seems particularly interested, either. Although, in fairness, he does have bigger fish to fry: he discovers his younger father is engaged to marry a woman who isn’t his mother. Even Marty McFly put returning to the future on the back-burner when he realized his mom was macking on the wrong man.

So begins a zany, scattershot story where Tailang tries to reconcile with his father’s youthful self and hook him up with his mother. He discovers his father is a small-town crook with a band of wannabe gangsters. Although essentially harmless—one of the best laughs in the film comes when Zhengtai tells Tailang that DVDs are just a passing fad and they’re investing all their money into a VHS store: “No wonder we were so poor,” Tailang grumbles—they get into a dispute with a major criminal organization, one unafraid to kidnap, torture, and murder anyone who stands in their way. So not only does Tailang have to get his parents together, he has to make sure they survive.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Chinese censors okayed the film was its obsession with filial duty: Tailang comes to eventually love and respect the father who abused him as a child. And in a country struggling with intergenerational strife as millions of teenagers and young people move from the countryside to the big cities for work, anything that stresses the importance of family can be of some use to the Chinese government. The problem is that the film sacrifices cohesion and tonal consistency for this message. Duckweed is frequently infuriating in its sloppy screenwriting: one wonders if the lack of interest in time-traveling was a creative choice or a directorial oversight. The film feels unfinished and unfocused, poorly establishing characters and their motivations. Duckweed might be good for the Chinese film industry, but the same can’t be said for people wanting a satisfying movie.

Grade: C-

 

Editor’s Note (7/4/2017): Review for Duckweed added.

Featured Image: Old Western Village Pictures