Monday, April 19, 2021

Ruan Lingyu shines in The Goddess but, alas, it's not enough to make me love it (Film review)

 
A measure of film fanaticism can be seen by there being 
people willing to go queue for HKIFF tickets 
at the box office up to an hour before it opens! ;b
 
The Goddess (China, 1934)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Chinese-language Restored Classics program
- Wu Yonggang, director and scriptwriter
- Starring: Ruan Lingyu, Li Keng (AKA Lai Hang), Zhang Zhizhi
 
I'm going to state it from the onset: I wish I liked The Goddess more.  If nothing else, it'd give me greater credibility as a filmophile since this 1934 offering is considered to be a sterling representative of China's cinematic golden age and stars Ruan Lingyu, the tragic luminary whose story I learned about by way of viewing Centre-Stage (AKA Actress), Stanley Kwan's 1992 biopic of this Shanghainese actress who already was an established star of the silver screen when she committed suicide at the age of just 24 years.

This film was by no means the first in which I saw Ruan Lingyu in action.  Stanley Kwan included clips of her in action in Centre-Stage -- and watching The Goddess, I got to realizing/remembering that they include ones from this particular offering.  At a previous Hong Kong International Film Festival, I also viewed Little Toys (1933), in which she shone brightly indeed.       

And Ruan is luminous in The Goddess too -- giving a brave performance as a Shanghai-based single mother who makes her living by being a lady of the night.  (The film's title refers to Shanghai's euphemism for prostitutes, who at the time accounted for approximately 1/13th of the city’s female populace.  Hence its earning a reputation for being Whore of the Orient!)
 
The reason why I dub it a brave performance is because she (and the director) appeared to aim for realism and also a non-judgemental approach rather than for such as her bearing her breasts (which she doesn't, actually) or appearing in a sex scene (which, again, she doesn't do in this movie!).  And it's interesting that The Goddess focuses more on showing its titular character interacting with her young son (played by Li Keng) than any of her clients.
 
At the same time though, I can't help but think that this drama shows its age by way of an overly simple and predictable story arc that throws up obstacles in the way of her and her son's happiness in the form of a nasty, uneducated man who takes advantage of her (Zhang Zhichi's villainous character is such a stock part) and critical other mothers who openly disapprove of the way she makes her living who are way too one-dimensionally drawn.  Honestly, it's actually a shock to realize that this film and Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) were made only three years apart -- and not just because the former is a silent movie and the latter a talkie!  
 
Actually, when I come to think about it, there's a strain of Chinese cinema that is unduly fond of moralizing -- found less so in newer Hong Kong and Taiwanese movies but definitely still there in Mainland Chinese films.  And this kind of moralizing, together with a tendency to make characters overly good or bad, is something I don't particularly care for.  Which is why I couldn't and didn't take to The Goddess even while still being able to recognize why there are others who really hold it high esteem.
 
My rating for the film: 6.0

Sunday, April 18, 2021

A pair of personal Stanley Kwan documentaries that enlighten and move (Film review)

Long overdue for Stanley Kwan to be the Hong Kong
International Film Festival's Filmmaker in Focus
 
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Stanley Kwan: Filmmaker in Focus program 
- Stanley Kwan, director
 
Stanley Kwan is known for his feature films (such as the critically acclaimed Rouge (1987) and Centre-Stage (AKA Actress) (1992)).  So he can seem like an odd choice to helm a documentary commissioned by the British Film Institute for its "Century of Cinema" series.  And this especially if the expectation was for a conventional documentary on Chinese cinema -- which his Yang +/- Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema most certainly is not.    

Alternatively, Stanley Kwan -- a male filmmaker who has helmed a number of female-centric works -- would be a good choice to make a film that examines how gender is conceived in Chinese cinema and among people living in "the three Chinas" whose cinematic history and tradition are so distinct from one another.  And that is what Yang +/- Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema is, as its title quite clearly delineates. 
 
This 1996 made-for-TV documentary is particularly notable for its director having come out as gay in it.  Kwan didn't do it in a flashy manner.  Rather, his sexual orientation becomes evident in a conversation he has with his mother in it, one which also saw her talking about how she had idolized Yam Kim-fai, a female Cantonese Opera megastar known for her male roles and her off- as well as on-stage-and-screen relationship with fellow actress Pak Suet-sin, and his talking about how she had ensured that he had grown up watching a number of their Cantonese opera performances.  
 
There's no two ways about it: Yang +/- Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema is Kwan's personal take on gender in Chinese cinema and the history of Chinese cinema in general.  Lest it be thought otherwise though, the offering is not all centered on him.  Rather, this documentary also features interesting interviews with -- and illustrative film clips from works by or featuring -- the likes of Taiwan's Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ang Lee, Hong Kong's Chang Cheh, Tsui Hark and Leslie Cheung, and Mainland China's Chen Kaige and Zhang Yang. 
 
A confession: This was actually my second time viewing this work.  But the first time was decades ago on a VHS tape.  So I was happy to rewatch this offering -- and, actually, I think it works much better the more familiar one is with the cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China.  Hence my having a far more favorable reaction to it than the individuals whose reviews of it are up on the International Movie Database (IMDB)!    

And while we're on the subject: those individuals should know to steer clear of Still Love You After All These!  An even more personal as well as shorter (at 45 minutes, as opposed to Yang +/- Yin's 79 minutes) documentary from the same filmmaker, it also is Stanley Kwan's most experimental feeling work by far -- mixing clips from some of his films along with filmed (at sometimes strange angles) excerpts from a stage play he was involved in and evocative imagery of Hong Kong spaces and life.  

Filmed in the months leading up to Hong Kong's Handover by the British (back) to China, this 1997 documentary makes for a bittersweet -- actually, far more bitter than sweet -- watch in April, 2021, here in Hong Kong; this not least because so many issues facing Hong Kongers then are ones that Hong Kongers are facing still/again, including the question of "Should I stay or go/leave/emigrate?"
 
It says a lot about Stanley Kwan as a man and filmmaker, and also about Hong Kong, that in 1997 (through to today), his answer was that he was staying put in order to continue making films and also because he loves Hong Kong.  And the same applies to a conversation captured in Still Love You After All These: one in which someone points out buildings being constructed to him and talks about the increased housing in store for Hong Kongers; whereupon Kwan indicates that his greater concern is how the people who will be living in those residences will be feeling about it all.
 
My ratings for the films: 8 for Yin +/- Yang: Gender in Chinese Cinema; 7 for Still Love You After All These  

Friday, April 16, 2021

Pro-democracy figures penalized for standing with, by and up for their fellow Hong Kongers :(

  
 
where he, alas, was sentenced to prison today

Yesterday was one of those bizarro days in Hong Kong when things one couldn't imagine not so long ago now occur and seem passable as normal in this part of the world. I'm talking about such as four social distanced protestors being surrounded byabout 50 cops ready to pounce on them if they are seen as going out of line (miraculously they weren't adjudged to) and Hong Kong observing its first ever National Security Education Day with schools doing such as erecting bastardized versions of Lennon Walls, students appearing to re-enact the police attack on civilians inside Prince Edward MTR station on August 31st, 2019 and the police performing the "goose step" march that the world tends to associates with Nazis and North Koreans, not just the People's Liberation Army

In contrast, what's happened today just feels sad.  I refer, of course, to the sentencing this afternoon of nine veteran pro-democracy figures to jail terms of up to 18 months for having organized and/or participated in an unauthorized -- but, please note, massive and massively peaceful -- protest march that took place back on August 18th, 2019. For the record, the following are the individuals concerned and the sentences they received (in order of the length of their sentences):- 
"Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung -- 18 months  
Jimmy Lai -- 12 months 
Lee Cheuk-yan -- 12 months
Margaret Ng -- 12 months (suspended for 24 months) 
Albert Ho -- 12 months (suspended for 24 months) 
Martin Lee -- 11 months (suspended for 24 months) 
Au Nok-hin -- 10 months 
Cyd Ho -- 8 months 
Leung Yiu-chung -- 8 months (suspended for 12 months) 

As history professor Jeppe Mulich was moved to observe, what this amounts to are "1 year+ sentences for organizing a peaceful rally that saw the participation of some 20 per cent of the city's population. It seems the judge ranks traffic disruptions above concerns over democracy and civil rights."  Almost needless to say, this level of punishment for a non-violent protest is unprecedented.  As mentioned in conversation just yesterday with a man whose father had been found guilty of such a charge years ago, previously, this kind of "offence" (which, supposedly, is guaranteed under Article 27 of the Basic Law) would, if prosecuted at all, just result in fines at worst.  
 
All in all, it's pretty clear to just about anyone who's been following this trial that not only has the justice system in Hong Kong changed beyond recognition but that the authorities have used it to retaliate against Hong Kong's protest movement and attempt to silence its pro-democracy political oppposition.  At the very least, this trial has always been about far more than just what took place on that super rainy day back in August, 2019.    
 
After discharging her lawyer, Margaret Ng presented her own mitigationHer speech has been hailed s being one for the ages in many quarters and you should be able to understand why when you read it (made available in full here).  Actually, I submit that this is easy to see from just the following excerpts from it alone:- 
There is no right so precious to the people of Hong Kong as the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly. Not only is the freedom to speak the truth the core of human dignity, it is also the last safety valve in a democratic society, as remarked by our illustrious judges repeatedly. Respecting those rights is also part and parcel of defending the rule of law.

I had learned that the rule of law not only has to be defended in court, or in Legco, but also in the streets and in the community... When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them. Otherwise, all my pledges and promises would be just empty words...

Your  honour, I came late to the law. I have grown old in the service of the rule of law. I understand Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of the legal profession. He was tried for treason because he would not bend the law to the King’s will. His famous last words were well authenticated. I beg to slightly adapt and adopt them: I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law.

After learning of Margaret Ng's speech, fellow Hong Kong lawyer Kevin Yam was moved to vouchsafe the following: "We do not deserve people like this sacrificing for us. They are too good for us."  And after she walked out today with "just" a suspended sentence, the tearful crowd of people waiting outside the courtroom hugged and cheered her.  
 

All in all, it seems that the campaign to keep Martin Lee out of jail (which could be seen in many news publications around the world pleading his case before today, like this one and this other one) has succeeded.  However, the authorities appear intent on making sure that the likes of Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong and "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung will be behind bars for a long time and I worry for all three of them: Jimmy Lai principally because he is no spring chicken (at the age of 73 years); Joshua Wong because he still is only 24 years young, and really should have a far better future to look forward to; and "Long Hair" because it often seems like he doesn't have the international profile of the other two -- and I still do think that international support does count for something in Hong Kongers' fight to be free.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

You Only Live Once, not twice! (Film review)

Colorful advertising for a film festival where I saw 
a good number of black and white movies :b
 
You Only Live Once (U.S.A., 1937)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Restored Classics program
- Fritz Lang, director
- Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda
 
Ask a film fan to complete the line "You only live..." and chances are they'll probably opt for the word "twice" -- thanks to the pop cultural power of the 1967 James Bond movie with that title.  As it so happens though, there have been at least three films out there entitled You Only Live Once, including Fritz Lang's second American feature -- the oldest by a long chalk, seeing as it dates back to 1937.  
 
Considered to be an early film noir classic, this offering revolves around a public defender's secretary who falls for a convict, marries him after he gets out of jail and resolves to stick with him in bad times as well as good.  As essayed by Sylvia Sidney, Joan is perky and apt to be Pollyannaish.  Despite much of the world having concluded that Eddie (played by Henry Fonda) is an unreformable criminal and one of life's losers, she manages to see good in him.
 
Buoyed by her faith in him, Eddie tries to go on the straight and narrow.  But right from their honeymoon (where the owners of the inn where they were due to spend the night turfed them out because they didn't want a (former) jailbird on the premises) on, it's patently clear that much of the world is unwilling to give him the breaks that most other part people get, and he could use.    
 
Although Sylvia Sidney is first billed, Henry Fonda is the beating heart of You Only Live Once.  You really feel for his character, particularly after he gets wrongly accused of murder and gets condemned to death.  The way he rails at the injustice of it all, and his character's bitterness, really bites.  
 
As it so happens, I ended up viewing this movie on the same day as Execution in Autumn, another film whose main male character was a man condemned to death.  It's tempting to ascribe the two works' different character arcs and general stories to cultural differences.  At the very least, it's interesting that I can't imagine that Taiwanese tale having a Hollywood equivalent even while You Only Live Once is just one Hollywood work inspired by the real life story of Bonnie and Clyde.
 
And perhaps it's because I've seen so many "lovers on the run" movies that the latter part of You Only Live Once actually is the less interesting to me than what went before.  My sense too is that this film suffered from having at least 15 minutes cut from the original version due to its unprecedented violence.  Thus, as it stands, even while I do think that this offering has stood the test of time -- so much so that I was actually surprised to realize how old it in fact is! -- I still came away from my viewing less satisfied than I think I could have been (and would have been if Fritz Lang had been allowed to more completely realize his vision for this work).  
 
My rating for this film: 8.0

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Lawfare in Hong Kong and exile to escape it

  
Hong Kong's outlook often feels more cloudy, and 
darkening by the day, these days :(
 
There are so many court cases involving political prisoners in Hong Kong these days.  Yesterday saw Jimmy Sham appear before High Court judge Esther Toh once again for a bail hearing -- and saw him denied bail one more time by her.  Wednesday (tomorrow) will see Claudia Mo, another of the 47 pro-democracy camp politicians and activists charged with subversion for having organized or participated in last July's primary elections appear for her bail hearing before the same judge.  
 
And Friday will see the sentencing of the seven veteran pro-democracy leaders (including the likes of lawyers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, and media mogul Jimmy Lai) found guilty of having organized and/or participated in the August 18th, 2019, unauthorized protest march that was lauded at the time for being peaceful in nature.  (It's still three days away but I'm already majorly dreading what that day will have in store.)
 
Today's headline legal news involved Joshua Wong -- who, lest we forget, is currently serving a 13 and half month jail sentence -- being sentenced to another four months in prison after pleading guilty to joining an unauthorised assembly on October 5th, 2019, and violating the anti-mask law he was protesting againstIn addition, veteran pro-democracy campaigner Koo Sze-yiu -- who's been imprisoned on 10 different occasions already -- Koo Sze-yiu, was found guilty and sentenced to five months in prison for his part in the same anti-mask protest.  
 
As it so happens, 75-year-old Mr Koo was just released from prison last week after serving time for desecrating the Chinese national flag.  At his previous trial, it was learnt that he has stage four rectal cancer and that he had told the presiding magistrate: "Don’t sympathise with me, don’t pity me, don’t be kind to me, because I won’t be kind to the Chinese government"; and, sadly, the two judges he's most recently come up before have indeed not done so.     
 
Today also saw the jailing of a 60-something retiree for three and a half years for throwing petrol bombs at a police residential quarters in Sheung Shui last year.  His lawyers had told the court that he had done this because he was disturbed by the clashes between police and protesters since 2019 and wanted to show he was on the side of young people. 
 
It has been reported that over 10,200 people have been arrested over the protests that began back in March 2019 with a peaceful, authorized march involving some 12,000 people.  Looking at the Hong Kong Free Press' photo-essay of that event, it's shocking to see how many of the faces in that crowd are now behind bars -- and one must think that bookseller Lam Wing-kee is by no means the only person who was there that day who now is in exile.     

In recent days, confirmation has been received of former legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok having moved to Canada with his family and Joshua Wong's former Demosisto colleague, Nathan Law, having been granted asylum by the United Kingdom.  And for confirmation that ordinary Hong Kongers too are leaving Hong Kong, check out this moving video by camera gear reviewer Lok Cheung, who I thought was going to tear up at the end of the video when he bade Hong Kongers ga yau, and sure did make me do so.

Execution in Autumn is a Taiwanese cinematic gem that deserves to be better known (Film review)

 
Not all the screenings at this year's Hong Kong 
International Film Festival were sold out ones
 
Execution in Autumn (Taiwan, 1972)
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Chinese-language Restored Classics program
- Li Hsing, director
- Starring: Ou Wei, Tang Pao Yun, Ko Hsiang Ting, Fu Pi Hui
 
The way the story of Taiwanese cinema is often told, the sense one gets is that it only got serious, and seriously good, after the likes of Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao Hsien and Ang Lee came onto the scene.  So I went into the screening of Execution in Autumn, a film made even before Taiwanese screen sweetheart Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia made her film debut, with not the highest of expectations -- even though I did know that it had won several Golden Horse awards (including for Best Feature Film, Best Director and Best Lead Actor).

After having viewed this 1972 work though, I definitely would be up for checking out more movies directed by Li Hsing (who actually has four Golden Horse Best Director awards to his name and also was presented with the the Lifetime Achievement award in 1995).  Set in Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) China, Execution in Autumn is a thoughtful and moving social commentary about how loving elders are not always right -- and can end up damning their descendants when they overly privilege them at the expense of others.  And although this is not apparent for a good part of its running length, this period drama also turns out to be a touching love story and an affecting tale of redemption that left me in awe of how well made it was.
 
The film begins by informing its audience that autumn was the traditional time decreed for executions in ancient China and we soon find out that its main character, Pei Gang (played by Ou Wei), has been sentenced to death for the murder of a woman who had claimed to be pregnant with his child and two men involved in the attempt to blackmail him on this matter.  The last male of an illustrious family's line, he might have got away with it -- thanks to the family's matriach and his grandmother (Fu Bi Hui) bribing one of the government officials at his trial -- but Pei Gang's absolute lack of repentance gets the judge deciding he needed to be severely punished.    
 
Determined to perpetuate the family bloodline, Pei Gang's grandmother sets about getting a devoted ward of the family, Lian’er (Tang Pao Yun), into the prison to sleep with him.  This involves the assistance of the prison warden (Ko Hsiang Tin) who, as he observes the interactions between Pei Gang and his grandmother, begins to see his deceased son in his combustible prisoner who actually learns more from hard knocks than pampering -- and, against the odds, actually grows as a man in prison even as his time on earth nears premature completion. 
 
One of the things I really like about Execution in Autumn is how, by the end of it, you come to see even its most flawed characters as being far more human than one dimensionally bad.  On a related note: this work also is really good in revealing layers to each of the principal and even supporting characters.  Thus it is that Pei Gang comes across as a man who, for all of his sins, is deserving of love; Lian' er is shown to be no mere sacrificing wallflower (like one might expect of characters like hers in tales of old); the grandmother to not just be an arrogant aristocrat overly used to getting her way; and the prison warden to possess great empathy along with ethical standards.        
 
My rating for this film: 9.0

Monday, April 12, 2021

More Hong Kong government missteps in the battle against the Wuhan coronavirus

If only things were that simple...
 
 
 
 
As it so happens, Hong Kongers have the option of getting either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Sinovac vaccine.  Based on their efficacy rates, it should be a no-brainer which one people should choose.  And, if one factors out political considerations, it's hard to understand why the government has even bought and is administering Sinovac vaccines to people here.

 
 
 
I guess Carrie Lam and co didn't think of them as they don't fall into those categories.  Put another way: she and her government don't seem to consider these people who are unlike her to be worth considering or caring about.  And then she -- who really seems to go from blunder to blunder in the fight against the Wuhan coronavirus, as with so much else - wonders why people don't consider her a trustworthy leader of Hong Kong!  Or maybe she -- who has taken off her mask (literally as well as figuratively) in recent weeks -- really doesn't give a damn anymore.