Monthly Archives: January 2011

Five titles I’ve been re-reading the past week

Nabokov, Lolita. What else?

Borges, anything. Best thing about him is that you can turn open a page and start to read.

 Zhuang Zi (4th century BC). “We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence; like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.”

Haiku as my lullaby, or

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: “Yes, terrible things happen, but sometimes those terrible things- they save you.”

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From China with…bullets

Let the Bullets Fly

160 min | Historical drama | Comedy 

Directed by Jiang Wen

reviewed by Julie O’Yang

*This review is commissioned by a well-known website about China

On 16 December 2010, actor-turned-director Jiang Wen (Hibiscus Town) presented his fourth directorial creation Let the Bullets Fly, which is packaged as an “early present for the Chinese New Year”. Originally planned to be released in September, the film was pushed back only by a few months. Hitting the screen nationwide, immediately it broke several box office records as well as received critical acclaims – which leaves you wonder: who are the guys that call themselves critics?

Budgeted at $18 million, Bullets is yet another story that tells about a bunch of gangsters from a faraway rural area. Instead of daggers, this time it is advanced gunshots that cast the lethal Oriental charm.

During the tumultuous 1920s, the control of the country is divided between a number of bandit leaders, among whom the notorious Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen). When Zhang marches into the remote Goose Town one day, posing as their freshly installed mayor, he is accompanied by a hustler named Tang (Ge You), the latter being the originator of the scam. However, Zhang’s endeavours are soon to be met by hindrance from a local crook, Huang (Chow Yun Fat) who lives in his fortified citadel overlooking the town. The boisterous drama plays out centred around men aspiring for wealth and power. When Zhang, the counterfeit bureaucrat has no intention of sharing his ill-gotten gains with a villain he despises as much as he reveres, tensions between the two camps quickly explodes into bloodsheds. All of a sudden, the picturesque Goose Town bathes in the terror of power struggling film stars, and the one woman (Carina Lau) in the company doesn’t seem to care either whom she wants to marry as long as he is rich and knows the knack to make a rain of romanticised bullets. Very Chinese indeed. Or at least this is Hollywood – who is the producer of the Oriental Western – wants to see from China these days. However, the gunplay story is whispered to bear a deeper layer about social problems, wealth problems, and many more hidden messages on things that would otherwise never be said. But yet even with the noble intent in mind, the 2 hours and 40 minutes exploit seems way too long and might just as well be cut to less than 2 hours for the same – if not a better – result.
Alongside scenic violence, Chinese flavoured legends, “Chow Yun Fat playing Chow Yun Fat” plus a forward display of star power, Jiang Wen did add a refreshing element to the tried and tested formula. Bullets is meant to be a comedy, and the fast-paced sequences are littered with pitch-black humour throughout the entire good, old-fashioned entertainment ride too risk-free and comfortable to cause any commotion in Beijing.

Within two and a half days after its launch Bullets has grossed 100 million RMB, allegedly chiefly through social media marketing. Glad to know that Facebook users could access their account again after the Chinese Internet police is blocking Twitter and other social media networks on and off ever since the day of their birth.

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In Search of sex and politics in Beijing of 1980s

Summer Palace (Yihe yuan)

140 min Drama | Romance

Summer Palace is the fourth feature by writer-director Lou Ye. Lou is a less celebrated name of the new Chinese cinema – the so-called Sixth Generation – among whom Lou is by far the most adventurous and bold in his narrative style as well as his chosen subjects. Lou Ye’s films have proven controversial in their content, and often deal with issues of sexuality, gender, obsession, and politics. Since sex and politics still are two magic taboo words in the PRC, it is the quickest way for an artist to garner the eschewed but much sought-after “Banned in China” label, which, more often than not, grants a shortcut to a puff of  international excitement. The Chinese have a say for the Butterfly Effect set in motion by foreign media: Qiangnei kaihua qiangwai xiang. I have a jasmine queen in my mouth. Find out.

Summer Palace is a story of girl meets boy. The girl, Yu Hong grows up in a north-eastern city near the Korean border. Being admitted to  a prestigious university in China’s capital, the young independent heroine is determined to lead an intense, self-fulfilling life. However, at a disco party on campus she meets Zhou Lei. It didn’t take the two very long to know that they are the “one” for each other. But we should know upfront, this is not a love story. Down the line of confused fall outs sparking off heady lovemaking, peacemaking scenes that follow, the roaring Chinese eighties is rendered in stylish anarchy that is yet spunky and full of sweet promises. Chinese reforms on full throttle, in tandem with wannabe intellectuals enjoying short-term freedom of speech. Nevertheless, the golden age of Chinese democracy is yet to be brought to a tragic end by state-sponsored terror in the summer of 1989. The June 4 Massacre on Tiananmen Square marks the turning point of Chinese history. This is a story in which both sex and politics are set to rise to high flames only to become cinders. What’s left is a whole nation devoid of hope on the threshold of the age of “Made-in-China” capitalism.

The film doesn’t stop at the nadir both amorous and political, however. The second half of the film deals with familiar Chinese themes, which in turn are placed in a broader historical context. Here a  much more ambitious frame of mind is on display, and it is for this I admire Lou Ye’s work. Yet subsequently the established narrative seems to suffer from scattershot references and comments, and the story as a whole fails to hold and falls into rigmarole.

In spite of its flaws, Summer Palace remains a satisfying experience that has succeeded to capture a period of transformation. The era of old bicycles threading through the authentic streets of Peking, which, towards the end, are replaced by Volkswagen racing on 4-lane expressway, and hand-written love letters by e-mail. Longings for things lost wriggle up stealthily, told in an atmospheric language instilled in a breathless, female sense of beauty.

The film shows some shocking moments as well when civilians are taken down by armed forces. The scene of carnage has been condensed to a short mention but long-winded enough for Beijing to ban the film, imposing a censorship of five years on its maker. For five long years Lou was not allowed to work. Democracy didn’t rock on. Up until today Party autocracy stays unchallenged in the state controlled Chinese life. The only thing that enjoys genuine freedom is the blatant laissez-faire with its typically “Chinese” characteristics. Like the heroin of the story, China seems lost in the limbo without purpose.

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Sans titre

When people call me an “Ethnic” writer, I think what an ass. When a journalist interviews me, throwing a bunch of most ludicrous questions about China my way but completely, deliberately ignoring my writing — which is in most cases, unfortunately — I wish I had a gun. An article from Huffingtonpost I stumbled across while browsing explains why I’m not totally mad. 

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A satin ribbon

                

On the black-and-white photo, my brother and I are wearing whopping big Mao buttons considered haute couture in those days. We are talking about China around 1960s-70s. My father, a chemical engineer, made those buttons himself, locked up in his laboratory, neglecting his real work, for that was the only thing safe to do during the lost years generally known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. I think he enjoyed making them though, and proud too. Otherwise we wouldn’t be wearing them on a picture! I still have the buttons, now lying next to my laptop while I’m typing this blog post. Three of them, colourfully shiny and gold on a satin ribbon.  Good god, a satin ribbon!  So it wasn’t all about iron and steel even in those days. I think this is exactly why I now come to consider them a piece of art, perhaps rather unintended by their maker, because  “Art goes into the world unarmed, vulnerable to every quirk of fate, and it must survive only by its power to move men not to destroy it.”

I will keep the buttons safe and sound, dad!

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Happy 2011!

Found this exciting piece of music blending Jazz improvisation with Chinese traditional instruments, Zheng and Sona, which I’d like to share with you all. I wish you a spectacular year ahead! 

(Maybe a little late, but the Chinese New Year is yet to come…) 

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