Tag: chinese

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 Emperor and the White Snake

The Emperor and the White Snake (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

While out picking herbs in the mountains, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) falls from a cliff and into a lake when Green Snake (Charlene Choi), a demon that is more playful than mean-spirited, tried to scare him. Her sister, White Snake (Shengyi Huang), dives in to save Xu Xian and kisses him, unaware that she has casted a love spell.

When Xu Xian wakes up, all he is able to think about is the mysterious woman who came for his rescue. Meanwhile, two monks, Abott Fahai (Jet Li) and Neng Ren (Zhang Wen), are on the hunt for demons, either to kill or capture them so these creatures can repent in the temple for centuries.

Directed by Siu-Tung Ching, “Bai she churn shuo” is a bizarre mixture of fable and action because it is rooted upon a love story involving a forbidden love affair between a human and a thousand-year-old snake demon. Although there is a clash between tender moments and kinetic action, the former is amusing cornball while the latter is second-rate (but nonetheless appealing) special and visual effects extravaganza.

The way Xu Xian and White Snake, named Susu in human form, meet only happens in the movies. Susu is so smitten over her man that she does everything so that he (literally) falls over and ends up in her arms. Never mind that we are given no good reason why she has fallen in love with him other than the fact that she wishes to know how it feels like to love and be loved. It is like an adolescent pop song in pop-up form. I found it amusing and charming (and brainless and cheesy) in small dosages.

It is plagued with one-dimensional characters, from Xu Xian who is ceaselessly noble in his actions to Neng Ren who acts more like a clown than a monk on a mission. As a result, when the story reaches some of its dramatic arcs, the way the characters react to them are far from believable since emotions are forced to run from one extreme to the next. In order for a dramatic occurrence to feel real, even if it is constructed within the confines of fantasy, a reliable gradient is a requisite as to not come off silly.

I enjoyed that it is not afraid to go over-the-top with its visuals. During battle scenes, for example, stone structures are destroyed and the pieces are used as jagged weapons. Just when I thought I had seen it all, it turns tranquil lakes into violent whirlpools of doom, sound waves are utilized to incapacitate bat she-demons, and others best remain unmentioned as to prevent ruining the element of surprise. All of these are fun, but what I found most absurd are the talking turtle, rabbit, and rat—just in case it isn’t obvious that the entire thing is not to be taken too seriously.

“The Sorcerer and the White Snake” benefits from taking a whole enchilada of risks. I would rather watch a movie that looks ridiculous with elements that do not completely work (but some do) instead of boring usual tripe that showcases neither creativity with regards to what is up on the screen nor imagination on paper. It is a lot of things, good and bad, but it is also a good time because it has a sense of humor about itself.

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.