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.
Ash Is Purest White (2018, Jia Zhang-ke)
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.
One Child Nation (2019 Nanfu Wang & Jialing Zhang)
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.
Two by Bi Gan
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.
Up The Mountain (2019, Zhang Yang)
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.
Taming the Horse (2017, Tao Gu)
Tao catches up with his old buddy Dong, a former photographer who’s figuring out what to do next while being needled by his family, wishing he could just stay drunk and hang out with his friends and listen to punk rock, dreaming of returning to his pastoral home town far to the north. Dong’s mom works with fabric, dad sells flutes, and Dong is coerced into starting a jade business. This doesn’t work out – Tao films Dong listening to a jade dealer explain what kinds of stones to buy and how to convince customers into spending more than a piece is worth, then venting into the camera later about this business being an elaborate scam, and that’s the end of the jade story. Dong has lived his whole life in Post-Mao China but still can’t adjust to capitalism.
I’m not always clear on chronology or location. We’re in Kunming in 2011 on Dong’s 30th birthday talking about taking a trip to Hailar, then “Spring arrived in 2013,” and Dong is on a train, pointing to cities on the schedule, talking about his parents and his childhood in Hailar. So, we assumed it’s 2013 and the trip has begun, before realizing a few scenes later that it’s still Dong’s 30th birthday and they’ve gone nowhere, will go nowhere (except for the jade expo) until the final minutes of the movie.
Watched because of a specific interest in China this year, to be further explored soon. Kunming is in the far (central) south of the country, and Guangdong (the jade expo, and the beach where the promo stills were shot) is far to the east, on the south side near Hong Kong. Beijing is in the northeast of the country, but Hailar is even further northeast, around the eastern tip of Mongolia, a stone’s throw from Russia. According to the description of his previous film, post-earthquake survival semi-doc On the Way to the Sea, Tao Gu and his family are from Wenchuan, just northwest of Chengdu and not near any of his Taming the Horse locations. I haven’t figured out the part where drunk, crying Dong says he wants to kill himself in Yanjiang where he first saw the sea, since Yanjiang appears to be just on the other side of Chengdu from Gu’s hometown, 15 hours from the nearest ocean.
Punk Rock tells the Truth:
In The Intense Now (2017, Joăo Moreira Salles)
Would you believe that this is the hundredth May ’68 movie I’ve watched, and the first to explain how “May ’68” started and what it was about and how it ended? Sure I could’ve wikipediaed it, but I figured cinema would provide all answers, and eventually it did. This is an essay film using only preexisting footage, mixing archive footage from Paris with thoughts on the filmmaker’s mom visiting China and on other revolutions, examining subconscious behavior of the (usually anonymous) camerapeople capturing history and noting how the framing reflects their political positions. The movie is more emotional that this academic description might sound, Joao’s soft-spoken narration leading us from one country and era to another and back again whenever it feels right, without a preconceived structure, often letting large chunks of footage play out. Anyway, I take it this didn’t open in a ton of cities, and we got it for a week plus a Q&A with the director, so sometimes it’s alright living in Lincoln.
People’s Park (2012, J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Dina Cohn)
Single-take camera move (always on the move) through a crowded park in Chengdu, China – further into the center of the country than Katy will travel this month (while I watched this, she was some 900 miles east, in Shanghai). There’s dancing and games and crafts and napping and work and food and commercial demonstrations and so much music – I don’t think there’s a moment where you can’t hear live or recorded music playing.
The camera seems to be waist-high (I later learned that Cohen held the camera while Sniadecki pusher her in a wheelchair), and it’s not hidden – people stare back all the time, and most of my interest in the movie (since the park itself isn’t historically/architecturally fascinating) comes from watching the people, and seeing their reactions as they watch back. I wouldn’t say there’s enough people-watching interest to justify its full 75-minute length though, and roaming a park from my couch kept making me wanna get up and go outside. Funny how far removed this felt from last week’s people-watching doc Austerlitz. The ending is good, the camera circling around a crowd watching a dance routine then breaking through into the center, ending on a great image.
Dennis Lim got the press kit:
Over three weeks they shot 23 takes ranging from 45 to 100 minutes, with many more aborted because of mishaps like miscommunication with each other or children running into their path. The final film… uses a 75-minute segment from the 19th try.
In a film with such an evident voyeuristic aspect as this, one usually expects to see the shot at eyes height; but, instead, the vantage point in People’s Park is lower, an unexpected perspective which sometimes breaks with the more repetitive patterns of some of its moments and procedures … There is undoubtedly an element of intrusion in these images: people often look straight at the camera suggesting curiosity and, other times, irritation (the film never allows us to forget that the filmmakers are not an element that belong to that landscape; this is literally a foreign look).
Glimpsed through the crowd – man with rooster on a stick:
Bursts into musical numbers via karaoke fiends co-existing with refreshing indifference to each other, mass dances and sing-alongs to Cultural Revolution standards, the state otherwise conspicuous by its absence … Few people stand out in memory, the point being the democratic proliferation of things to watch.
Produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Leviathan). Codirector Sniadecki made earlier HSEL movie Foreign Parts, and later The Iron Ministry, and both were thanked in the Manakamana credits.
Still Tomorrow (2016, Fan Jian)
Great hook for a film – small town poet with cerebral palsy becomes famous online, her fame and newfound self-confidence shaking up her home life. We booked our True/False schedule based mostly on subject matter of the documentaries (Katy is going to Hubei, where this movie is set), not watching trailers or knowing anything about their formal presentations, so we were bowled over by the cinematic beauty in Strong Island, LoveTrue, Manifesto and this one. It’s an amazing story on its own, but the filmmaker also finds ways to visualize Xiuhua’s poetry, showing text onscreen and filming the natural environment around the house where she wrote the words.
The poetry and the film are extremely bittersweet. She uses her fame and money to get a divorce from the husband she’s never loved while her mother is dying of cancer. The husband is open on-camera about his contempt for her and has a girlfriend in Beijing, though he seems to love Xiuhua’s parents and their child. She’s invited to academic conferences, press events and even reality TV, and her media people are concerned that the divorce will hurt her fame. She finally pays off the husband and after the divorce they ride home together, with him grinning like mad. She seems very independent, giving confident answers to press and fan questions, flirting with the filmmaker and a conference panelist, but she’s deeply vulnerable in the poetry, and says her life has been a failure if she hasn’t found love.