At first glance this is more of a straight doc than I Wish I Knew. Interviewing a handful of writers, with pillow daily-life scenes in the cities the writers are from. Soft piano or string music, when there’s any. Between chapters someone will read aloud from the previous writer’s work, followed by a repeated line from the same passage in subtitles over black screen.

Extremely fun movie, opening with a powerful monk capturing an evil old man who’d been training for 100 years to ascend to human form, and I don’t know a whole lot about Chinese mythology but supermonk (Vincent Zhao, who took over the Once Upon a Time in China series after part 3) seems kinda like the bad guy. This is confirmed towards the end when he’s singlemindedly pursuing his enemies while carelessly destroying temples and drowning monks as collateral damage.

Green and Supermonk:

Supermonk has a tentative alliance with two snake sisters. White Snake (Joey Wong, lost in the huge cast of Eagle Shooting Heroes, also in the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy) is older and more powerful, while Green Snake (Maggie Cheung, at the tail end of her period of starring in ten films per year) is more bold and curious. They seduce some local guy (Wu Hsing-Guo), who will die along with White in the climactic supermonk-caused catastrophe.

Meantime we get colorful sets, giant snake tails, ludicrous side plots, tons of flying, great staging and action.

Wu Hsing-Guo, resurrected:

Previous stories and films based on this folktale have been named White Snake, so the titular focus on the younger sister indicate Tsui’s and Farewell My Concubine writer Lillian Lee’s intention to turn tradition on its head.

“Our tolerance was a mistake.” After the poisoning death of a martial arts master, a brown-suited dude is sent to insult and challenge his disciples during the memorial service, a crass move that earns the wrath of disciple Bruce Lee. This starts out way better than The Big Boss by pitting Bruce against forty guys early on instead of waiting for the second half – “Next time I’ll make you eat the glass.”

The titular fist:

Lee’s confuse-o-vision technique:

This is Shanghai, and all the villains are Japanese. Not a master of history, I’d forgotten that the Japanese colonized parts of China throughout the 1930’s and I was amazed at their nerve. Bruce goes on a righteous rampage through the city, smashing racist Japanese in their jerk faces, then in case we’re tempted to feel bad for them, the Japanese massacre all of Bruce’s friends (including poor James Tien again). There is a love interest, just barely, and a couple of fun disguises. The big boss sports an absurd long mustache and has hired an English-speaking Russian tough who fights in a bow-tie – Bruce punches a guy’s dick off before taking them on, the action in this movie always great. Same as The Big Boss, the army closes in on Bruce post-killing-spree. Must see Lo Wei’s New Fist of Fury, a sequel starring Jackie Chan in his first major role.

love interest Nora Miao:

the big boss Chikara Hashimoto:

Portrait of a NYC clinic that sticks pins in your ears to treat stress and addiction. Through interview and archive footage it delves into the history of how Black Panthers and other associated groups studied Chinese acupuncture and brought it back to help their community, then keeps returning from the archives to the present-day clinic and its patients. The founding leader was Mutulu Shakur (below) – I’m behind on the ol’ blog, no surprise, and now we’re watching the new Adam Curtis movie, following the story of Afeni Shakur, so really covering Tupac’s roots this year. The fatal armed car robbery that gets Mutulu imprisoned for life came out of nowhere in this story, and it’s not interested in explaining much about acupuncture itself, more of a history lesson and community portrait.

See, when I stay consistently five weeks behind on the blog, I lose all the details, and can only say that we watched the doc where the Chinese company reopens a closed American factory, and their different cultures and approaches to work and management and safety cause many funny and poignant moments, which is the same thing I would’ve said from the trailer or plot description. But truly, we watched this, and it was good. We were surprised that the Fuyao CEO allowed the film crew access to his visits and conversations, and to visit the Chinese factory. Reichert has been making docs for fifty years, Bognar for thirty, and now they’re oscar-nominated for filming the reopening of the same factory they were oscar-nominated for filming shutting down in late 2008.

Another Zhao Tao movie set in three distinct time periods with multiple aspect ratios, this one with an unusual synth score. Qiao is with small-time gangster Bin (Fan Liao of Black Coal, Thin Ice), and after she does five years in prison for firing a gun to save his life during an attack, Bin hides from her, leaving his new girl to explain his absence.

Also there is ballroom dancing – that’s Bin with the mustache wearing all black:

Interesting sidetrack where she spontaneously runs off with a man running a UFO tourism company. On the train he confesses he only runs a convenience store, then she abandons him while he sleeps. Back where she started a decade later, she has internalized the gangster ethos and runs a mahjong parlor, while a pathetic, stroke-crippled Bin has slinked back into her life, only to walk out again after she helps him back on his feet. The final shot of Qiao searching for him as seen through her security system has got nothing on Zhao dancing alone in the snow, but what does? I haven’t loved any of Jia’s pre-2010 films so far, but I’m glad I stuck with him, because A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White have made him one of my favorites of this decade.

James Lattimer in Cinema Scope:

Alongside settings and structural conceits, many of these moods and registers seem to have wandered in from Jia’s other works: the rapid-fire martial-arts stylings of A Touch of Sin; the backdrop of Datong familiar from Unknown Pleasures; the three-part structure and repeated pop songs from Mountains May Depart; or the exquisite melancholy of 24 City, to name just a few, while the presence of Zhao Tao, whose wonderfully understated acting style reaches new heights here, equally conjures up all the other characters she’s played over the years. Of all the references to Jia’s cinematic past, the most explicit ones come from Still Life, as Qiao takes the same ferry down the Yangtze as in the previous film, wearing the same shade of yellow and carrying the same water bottle her spiritual cousin Shen Hong did all those years ago, with the same UFO later passing overhead. Despite these similarities, though, everything is different, as what used to be the present has now become the past. This change is visible both in Zhao Tao’s face and in one of the images shared by both films, a shot of a sign on the river bank showing the projected level of the reservoir. One points to a future yet to happen, the other to a past that only exists in memory, the original now buried under so much water.

Geography: they start in Datong in Shanxi, some four hours west of the center of Beijing. After prison, she travels to Fengjie in Hubei province – this makes nearly a right angle south of Xian and east of Chengdu – crossing the Yangtze halfway there. The man on the train is headed for Karamay in Xinjiang, way the hell in the northwest.

Fengjie:

Nanfu explores Chinese policy through the personal histories of her own family and neighbors, then expands to the country’s legacy of international adoption and a quest to trace adopted kids to their birth parents. As the country’s present-day propaganda shifts towards telling people that the perfect number of children to have is two, Nanfu tries to get people who lived through the previous era – parents who abandoned newborn children to die in the marketplace, party official abortionists, local government leaders who tore down the homes of residents who disobeyed the policy, families who made a business of selling abandoned babies to adoption agencies only to be imprisoned for human trafficking – to denounce the policy. But after decades of indoctrination, she manages to get one person to say it was a good idea, “but they took it too far.” Feels like too massive of an issue (and a country) for a single doc to cover, but the way she weaves the politics through her family’s own stories and memories makes it work beautifully – one of the best of this year’s T/F docs.

Kaili Blues (2015)

Watched this on Criterion to see what this Bi Gan guy is about, since Long Day’s Journey had apparently bypassed our city… then it opened the following weekend and we ran out to see it. They’re both set in the same area – Kaili is southeast of Chengdu, halfway to Hong Kong. Both movies center around an epic long take, the camera traveling all over town following a protagonist in pursuit of something. And they both have a slow, dreamy atmosphere. I thought of Tarkovsky more than once, and in the Kaili Blues extras he says watching Stalker changed his feelings about filmmaking, and I thought yes, of course.

Mirrors, watches/timepieces, a “wild man”, and talk of being in a dream. It’s kind of a journey film, as Chen heads to Zhenyuan (a two hour drive, if Chen had a car) to find his nephew. Characters are named Crazy Face and Piss Head, Chen gets rides from a rock band and a bullied guy, fails to deliver a shirt given by his doctor friend, also fails to pick up the nephew, though we’re led to believe the kid is fine. But there are ghosts and doubles along the way, subtle suggestions that we’ve become unstuck in time and narrative, and Shelly Kraicer’s Cinema Scope article does a good job sorting them.


A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Darker, more sumptuously dreamy, and certainly longer than its predecessor (with a longer and more apparently complicated single take at the end). The Tara didn’t care to show it in 3D, I guess. Its New Year premiere in China was controversial for supposedly tricking people into seeing a slow art movie that nobody understood, but the one person I talked with in China who’d watched it said it was great.

Luo wanders Kaili, haunted by the deaths of his father and a friend, searches for a lost love (Wei Tang, Thor’s girl in Blackhat), and runs into his friend’s mom (Sylvia Chang the boss of Office, which IMDB has decided to rename Design For Living). We also meet people who may exist in alternate or dreamed timelines, which is to say that Luo beats his own non-existent son at ping pong.

Blake Williams in Cinema Scope:

By car and by foot, Luo follows her, much to her concern, and then loses her, much to his recurrent perplexion. Unable to grab onto anything solid in the present, he dips into his memories with her, flashing back to their days of being wild (circa the turn of the millennium), when her materiality was less unstable. Crime and jealous boyfriends adorn the architecture of Luo’s memories, which are presented in murky enough vignettes that we’re never sure if he’s recalling an actual event or some movie he once saw; most likely, he’s fusing the two together … If Bi’s cinema has been clear about anything so far, it’s that he is completely unburdened by narrative cohesion.

This year’s True/False was pried in between two moves and the China trip, so I made a point to schedule two of the Chinese movies playing. This one’s about painting and a scenic retreat, figured it’d at least be some nice scenery a la last year’s Next Guardian. Turned out to be an excellent movie by an unknown master of the “sixth generation” who often casts people as themselves.

A squarish aspect ratio helps him create compositions that look like the paintings which he explicitly mirrors. The movie plays like a slice-of-life village portrait that happens to mostly be set at a painters retreat, with a birth, a death, a wedding. You wouldn’t necessarily know about the documentary aspects – and I still don’t, since we skipped the Q&A to get snacks – except that we see the women sketching and painting, and most of the character names match the actor names in the credits.

River Arkansas opened with a pleasant sort of country thing, and I noted not to get the french toast next time we’re at Cafe Berlin.