Tag: china

Ash is Purest White


Ash is Purest White (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a story of woman who gave five years of her life in prison all for her boyfriend. She is convinced that their love is so strong, he is certain to be there waiting for her when she gets out. But when she is finally released, he is nowhere to be found. Jia Zhangke’s gangster romance “Ash is Purest White” chooses to be far more observant and insightful about the big picture idea of love, what it means to us as observers, and what it signifies for its specific and well-written characters than a typical romantic film with the all too familiar plot and an exhausted dramatic parabola. At its core, the film is about human weakness and so we cannot help but be drawn to it like moth to a flame.

The story of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) takes place over sixteen years. Divided into three sections—before prison, release day and the following days, a decade after prison—each one is equally compelling and curious. I admired the way the writer-director wallops us over the head with time jumps and gives us time to orient ourselves instead of spoon-feeding us information by employing the usual title cards regarding how many years passed or what happened during the years not shown. It moves forward with conviction, confidence, and purpose. So following a major event, which is often surprising, we cannot wait to discover how might Qiao summon the strength to take a step forward in a world that inherently values men over women, both in terms of traditional Chinese culture and the underworld culture that she is only really marginally a part of—if that.

Although a gangster picture, it is drenched in melancholy colors, heavy atmosphere, and music—not of gunshots and bullets ricochetting but of ballroom music, disco, droning of electricity, mahjong tiles, the rain. Instead of overt violence, its focus is the violence within, what we consider as love does to a person who bought into it hook, line, and sinker. In order to appreciate the picture fully, it is required that we embody the headspace of Qiao.

There are many silent sections in the work that trusts the audience to observe: Qiao at contentment, survival mode, when required to be resourceful, to give and be selfish. Zhao creates a thoroughly believable character with every passing chapter. Also notice how Qiao acts or behaves differently depending on the person she is with. This is a character who cannot—not for one second—afford not to be the smartest, most adaptable, most resourceful person in the room. For good reasons.

Another special trait: it is a romance picture that poses the question of what happens after love fades. The answer is not apathy or feeling nothing at all. Zhangke makes a point that it cannot be described and so it must be shown. It is a prime example of why movies matter because sometimes words are not enough to describe a feeling or a specific situation. Qiao and Bin’s relationship is so complicated yet by the end of the story we have an appreciation of why their special connection evolved the way it did. It’s strange because the movie ends in an open-ended fashion but at the same time there is a finality to it, as if to say we have seen and known the characters well enough that whatever we think might happen next can happen.

“Ash is Purest White” is achingly beautiful, layered, without having to be opaque or obtuse with images, characters, or way of storytelling. It simply trusts that the viewers have the desire to see because we have our own definitions of what love is. So we take those definitions and measure them alongside or against what the movie is trying to show or say. It unfolds like a great novel; I wanted it to go on for another two hours.

The Farewell


The Farewell (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Amusing, bittersweet, and insightful in the most surprising ways, “The Farewell” shows rather than tells how a specific Chinese family chooses to take on the challenge of preventing their matriarch from finding out that she is dying of lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Take any one scene from this beautifully layered story and one can tell immediately that it is based upon writer-director Lulu Wang’s personal experiences because there is almost always at least one detail on screen that is honest, painful, funny, and real—often all at once. The storytelling is such a joyous experience because it feels as though the work is free from the shackles of the usual plot contrivances. We simply wish to know these characters as people.

Here is a film that takes on the subject of mortality and defines it through the scope of Chinese culture. It is not necessary that we agree with or support the aforementioned course of action. In fact, it acknowledges that in America, or the West, it is illegal to lie to a person when it comes to his or her medical condition. Required, however, is that we walk away from the story with an understanding, or at the very least an appreciation, of why in China, or in the East, it is, for the most part, an acceptable practice. To reveal this reason would be a disservice to the film, but Wang’s astute screenplay cuts so deeply into one of the main differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, the granddaughter of the matriarch being kept in the shadows regarding her stage four cancer. Having grown up in America, Billi does not think like a traditional Chinese individual—she is capable of it, but she is an American first. Her relatives in China see her as such. It is in her accent when she speaks Mandarin, how she carries herself, her clothes. Perhaps more interestingly, even her own mother and father (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma) consider her to be an American in spirit, not Chinese. It is why they decided that Billi should not come to China for her cousin’s wedding—a ploy for a family gathering so everyone can have a chance to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen)—in addition to her inability to hide her emotions. Naturally, American Billi chooses to disobey her parents to spend time with her grandmother.

It is a role that requires complex navigation. It isn’t enough to look sad. Awkwafina is seen as a rapper-comedian with a low tone of voice who acts crazy or kooky. She is a delightful surprise here because she embodies a real person who feels torn between her values and her family’s. In nearly every frame she’s in there is conflict behind those eyes and that is what makes the performance thoroughly convincing. In movies like “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” you look at her and you want to laugh. But in here, you look at her and you don’t know whether to give her a smile in the hope that it might uplift her a bit, to cry with her, to urge her to scream and let out her frustrations, or to give her a big hug. It is an inward, committed performance.

The work is interested in Billi’s relationships with those she loves. There are numerous memorable interactions with Nai Nai. She is kind, cute, energetic, generous, and capable of being tough when necessary. Zhao plays Nai Nai with effortless zest. She invites the viewer to look closely at the character and consider this person’s light being taken away by disease.

Another standout involves an exchange between Billi and her mother, how failure to show exaggerated emotions when a loved one dies is frowned upon in Chinese culture. Mrs. Wang despises this expectation because she would rather be honest about what she is feeling or going through. Unlike Billi, Mrs. Wang is not an outwardly emotional person. This exchange is important precisely because it reveals that the mother cares about how others perceive her. In this story, people can be strong and weak at the same time—just like how people are in life.

“The Farewell” is both a story of familial love and a story about the immigrant experience. It is told with elegance and searing honesty and so nearly every moment is earned. By the end, I wished to know more about the characters, particularly Billi and her situation as a young American struggling to make ends meet in NYC. It shows, quite simply, that life goes on.

The Karate Kid


The Karate Kid (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A mother (Taraji P. Henson) and her son Dre (Jaden Smith) moved to China for better opportunities. On their first day in China, Dre developed a crush on a girl (Wenwen Han) with a talent for music but a bully (Zhenwei Wang) just as quickly interrupted their conversation. It turned out the bully was not just someone Dre needed to watch out for around his apartment complex because they both attended the same school. The fact that the bully knew kung fu did not help Dre’s confidence. The film was without a doubt commercial and at times cliché, but I could not help but enjoy it. There were three elements I loved about it. First, the maintenance man (Jackie Chan) did not teach Dre kung fu until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the story. I thought it was a big risk because the film had the challenge of keeping the audiences interested. It was a smart decision because it successfully established why Dre was someone worth rooting for. For instance, although Dre was bullied, he was not afraid to fight back. Unfortunately, he did not have the technical skills to stand up against other boys who knew martial arts. I found it very easy to relate with Dre moving to a different country and having trouble fitting in. When I moved to America when I was twelve, to say that the transition was difficult is an understatement because I didn’t know the language well and I wasn’t fully equipped to adapt a new culture. So when Dre finally confronted his mom about how much he hated being in China, that scene had a special meaning to me. Second, Henson was pure joy to watch. I’ve mostly seen her in Tyler Perry’s movies so I knew that she was very capable of delivering angst and sadness. I was surprised that she could actually be funny. Every time she was on screen, I couldn’t help but smile because she injected a certain enthusiasm in her character, that everything in China was great, and she was ready to be strong for her son when the occassion called for it. Her facial expressions were priceless. Lastly, the scenes in the tournament made me feel like I was there. The build-up regarding Dre’s hardwork, the bullying, and honor at stake finally came to fruition. Even though Dre’s mentor consoled him that winning or losing did not matter as long as he earned the audience’s respect, I thought Dre had to win no matter what. I was so invested in what was happening, I couldn’t help but vocalize my thoughts. “The Karate Kid,” directed by Harald Zwart, worked as an interpretation rather than a remake. It did not have anything to do with karate (the filmmakers should have just named it “The Kung Fu Kid” to silence the haters–a simple solution) but I was entertained for over two hours.

The Last Emperor


The Last Emperor (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Last Emperor” told the true story of the last ruler of China from 1908 to 1967. Emperor Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone as the adult Pu Yi) was crowned when he was three years old. He was a ruler who was both powerful and powerless; powerful inside the Forbidden City but just another person outside its walls which had turned into a republic. Inside the city, the child was treated like royalty but wasn’t really taught how to rule properly especially when the adults inside the city knew that times were rapidly changing. I found the film a bit sad because even though the emperor had so much power, I felt like he was used as a tool so that others could hold onto their past. I’ve seen a number of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films but “The Last Emperor” was arguably the most visually stunning. I admired the way he used color to compare and contrast the past and the present. The past was colorful which was full of innocence where the emperor was relatively happy because his future was bright. The present looked dull, the color gray was everywhere because the former emperor was now considered as a war criminal. His future looked grim because he even though he desperately wanted to rule, he couldn’t because ancient practices did not seem to fit into modern times. The story was tragic because what Pu Yi believed to be his purpose did not necessarily reflect what was expected of him outside of the Forbidden City. Bertolucci then had a chance to explore China’s westernization and its role in World War II. As the picture went on, the ideas became bigger and the execution turned more elegant. I especially liked Pu Yi’s varying relationship between his two wives (Joan Chen, Vivian Wu) and one of the wives’ relationship with another woman who hated China and admired everything Japanese. An interesting observation involved Chinese people betraying each other was more painful than Japanese’s treatment of the Chinese. The issue of blood and loyalty also had a place in the story. However, “The Last Emperor” had one important weakness: Its ambition was a double-edged sword. While the story became grander the further we explored the rapidly changing times, the attention to important characters diminished. Perhaps it was on purpose because Bertolucci wanted to imply that, over time, Pu Yi was slowly being forgotten by his people. I understood that such a technique might have been on purpose but at the same time I found it unsettling because the film was supposed to be about Pu Yi’s personal journey. Nevertheless, “The Last Emperor” is worth watching. It had a critical eye and respect toward the Chinese culture without sacrificing historical accuracy. This was also one of the very few films actually shot inside the Forbidden City.

Manufactured Landscapes


Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

Director Jennifer Baichwal focuses her documentary on Edward Burtynsky’s photography regarding landscapes and connects it with how we continue to neglect our environment as we thrust ourselves into industrialization and globalization. This documentary is different from all the others I’ve seen because it has such an impersonal feeling to it. The narration is minimal so the film lets the images do the talking and it’s up to the audiences to direct themselves on what to think and feel. I have no problem with the issues that the movie is trying to tackle because I do agree that we treat the Earth as secondary instead of taking care of it for future generations. I also agree that it’s horrible that the poor are the ones affected by health hazards because of the mountains of poisonous metals that seem to go on for miles (we dump our computer parts in China–a fact that I didn’t know about). My main problem for giving the movie a mediocre rating is its style. At first I thought it was great: the movie started off with no dialogue as it shows rows upon rows of people working with their hands and with machines. The images are haunting, shocking yet very real all rolled into one. However, pretty much the whole movie is like that and it got redundant. In a nutshell, I got annoyed with the way it repeated itself. It tries to hammer the fact that we’re not taking care of the planet and that people are living in egregious conditions in China. I kept waiting for the moment when the picture finally took itself to the next level but it never did. A lot of critics liked this movie and I can understand why; it was informative and I learned from it. But it was one-dimensional because it didn’t introduce anything regarding groups of people who try to inform others to stop killing our Earth. It didn’t feel finished and it didn’t go full circle regarding its topic; in fact, it got stuck in one place and it seemed to not know what to do with itself. It’s unfortunate because it featured beautiful photographs from Burtynsky. With a little bit more editing and perhaps adding more scenes to elevate the concepts it tried to highlight, maybe I would have liked it a lot more. It certainly had potential but I can’t quite recommend it because it will most likely put people to sleep somewhere in the middle.

The Man with the Golden Gun


The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
★★ / ★★★★

It’s a shame that this film is just barely mediocre because it started off really well. It managed to introduce the three-nippled main villain named Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) and establish how dangerous he is within the first three minutes in a convincing manner. It got me really excited because I wanted to see him face off with James Bond (Roger Moore). If I were to make cuts and edits to this Bond installment, only about forty minutes will make it to the final product. The rest of the movie is junk and I find it unforgivable, especially when the movie takes place in exotic places like China and Thailand. Instead of taking advantage of the beautiful locales by telling an exciting and astute story, the filmmakers injected lackadaisical chase scenes one after another. Not to mention the fact that they brought back an incredibly useless and annoying redneck character from “Live and Let Die.” Rooger Moore is not my favorite 007 because he’s just so dull to look at and I just want to fall asleep when he speaks. He has no authority like Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. His charisma doesn’t do it for me either. The only stand-out scenes that saved this film are found in the last twenty minutes. Lee and Moore’s interactions are interesting not only because they constantly measure each other up, they also make the film spicy because their characters reach some sort of admiration and understanding for each other. I wish they met somewhere near the beginning of the picture and made them chase each other until the final scene. Instead, Bond gets into all kinds of side-quests that have absolutely nothing to do with the big picture. Unless you’re a die-hard Bond fan, skip this one because it has nothing special to offer.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
★ / ★★★★

When I read this film’s scathing reviews (to say the least), I thought people were just being way too hard on it so I still wanted to watch it. Despite people’s advice (and insistence) to stay as far away from this movie as possible, I still hoped that I would like it even just a little bit because I love the first two “Mummy” installments (they reminded me of the spirit of the “Indiana Jones” franchise). This time around, I’d have to agree with everyone else; this is as bad as they say it is. First of all, they replaced my favorite actor from the franchise: Rachel Weisz. I thought she was perfect as Evelyn O’Connell because she excels at being bookish-smart and rarely depending on chance in order to reach some sort of success. It means that she’s perfect for Brendan Fraser’s character, Rick O’Connell, because he’s too goofy for his own good (which often leads him to trouble) and only depends on luck in order to get the upper hand. Maria Bello, Weisz’s replacement, interprets the character so differently, I felt like she was Rick O’Connell’s unwelcome second wife. She’s one dimensional, not that strong, and lacks charisma. Not to mention she doesn’t have chemistry with Frasier. Moreover, even though Luke Ford as Alex O’Connell is nice to look at, I didn’t find him as witty and as plucky as the younger Alex O’Connell (Freddie Boath) back in “The Mummy Returns.” In fact, I found Ford as interesting as an inert plank leaning against a wall. Brendar Frasier, despite his best efforts and fun energy, was sidelined. To me, the focus of this film was the conflict between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li’s characters. Not only did the camera spend too much time on them (even though I really liked their martial arts scenes), the story is really about a thousand year old thirst for power and revenge. And somehow, Frasier and the gang managed to get tangled in its maelstrom. As for the film’s pacing, it didn’t really get interesting up until the forty-minute mark. In fact, I was kind of getting sleepy which is not a good sign because I love action-adventure films. I love watching characters travel from one place to another, seeing exotic locales, and winning at the end of the day. In this film, I didn’t really care about the characters because I never thought they were in any real danger. I literally rolled my eyes from when the Yetis appeared up until the end. Just when I thought that’s the worst of it, a dragon appeared… and then a giant monster that could bring down planes. In a nutshell, it just got too ridiculous. As much as I love the “Mummy” franchise, I’d have to urge everyone to skip this one and see something else–something that truly captures how it’s like to go on an adventure.