Friday, April 6, 2018

A Mainland Chinese restored classic and the latest offering from a veteran Japanese filmmaker at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The Closing Film of the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival
Struggling (Mainland China, 1932)
- Part of the HKIFF's Restored Classics program
- Shi Dongshan, director
- Starring: Zheng Junli, Chen Yanyan

There are some movies whose very existence can seem like an achievement.  Made in 1932 and with at least one complete set of prints having survived into the 21st century, then being gloriously restored by the China Film Archive, Shi Dongshan's Struggling is one such work.

Of course, age is no guarantee that a film will be a classic or even truly watchable.  Still, I felt obliged to check out, at the minimum, for its historical value, this melodramatic saga revolving around a young woman named Swallow (played by then 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) with an abusive adoptive father but caring neighbors, including a young man named Xiao Zheng (Zheng Junli), who she ends up running away with after her adoptive father tries to sell her into marriage with a middle-aged stranger. 

So imagine my delight as well as surprise to find that Struggling is one of those rare cinematic gems that stands up very well to the test of time!  Featuring masterfully composed scenes and smooth pacing that never sags, this offering which begins with domestic troubles but then expands its focus to paint a picture of a nation battling against the Japanese invaders is emotionally involving throughout and the "silent" film's tinkling music that I originally feared might send me to sleep actually ended up being rather pleasant accompaniment for the dramatic action that unfolded on screen.

Somewhat puzzled as to how come I, for one, had never heard of this film before (unlike, say, Sun Yu's Little Toys (1933) or Fei Mu and Luo Mingyou's Song of China (1935)), I read up on its director and two stars and may have found reasons why based on their fates.  While lead actress Chen Yanyan went on to lead a long life (passing away only at the age of 83 in Hong Kong in 1999), director Shi Dongshan was persecuted by the Communist Chinese government and committed suicide in 1955 while star actor Zheng Junli suffered severe persecution during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison in 1969.

My rating for the film: 8.0

What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life (Japan, 2018) 
- Part of the HKIFF's Gala Presentation program
- Yoji Yamada, director and co-scriptwriter (with Emiko Hiramatsu)
- Starring: Isao Hashizume, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Masahiko Nishimura, Yui Natsukawa, Tomoko Nakajima, Shozo Hayashiya, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yu Aoi 

This morning, I heard the sad news of Studio Ghibli auteur Isao Takahata having passed away at the age of 82 years.  The night before, I had been present at the world premiere of the latest work by prolific filmmaker Yoji Yamada, born four years before Takahata and whose output I have come to cherish even while worrying each time that I view a new offering that it will be his last.

The third and perhaps final film in his What a Wonderful Family! series (whose different Japanese title pays tribute to Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose (1935)), this latest look at the three-generation Hirata family takes Yoji Yamada fans into familiar territory.  And even while a couple of the characters (namely family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) and his elder son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura)) are apt to cross into cantankerous territory, the audience knows full well that what they will be presented with will be a largely gentle offering, replete with good hearted characters (with Yu Aoi's Noriko being partly saintly in the manner of Setsuko Hara's Noriko in Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story).    

This time around, drama and tension come primarily from Konosuke's long-suffering wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa) deciding to leave the Hirata abode after feeling insulted and unappreciated by her salaryman husband, who his mother laments is becoming more and more like his old school father.  As their sons worry about their parents divorcing and feeling moved to declare whose side they're on as well as wonder if their parents had ever been in love and/or still had genuine affections for each other, the other members of the family take various actions that make one realize how much they really do care for one another individually but also as a unit.

The movie's outcome is never in doubt.  It's also patently clear that What a Wonderful Family! 3: My Wife, My Life is a tribute to wives (and women in general) along with a paean to the family.  But even though I generally prefer a film to be more unpredictable in nature, the fact of the matter is that viewing this effort leaves one with wonderfully warm emotions that are enhanced, rather than distracted, by the humorous moments that this offering also offers up in spades.        

My rating for the film: 7.5

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