This is a fine picture from a writer-director making her début. Jenny Lu began in the industry in 2011 and graduated from assistant/second director to make first a short and then this feature. She benefited from film festival support in developing the script and production. I’ve read some quite uninformed reviews from ‘professional’ critics and one excellent and perceptive review by IMDb ‘user’ Joe Bevan which I recommend.
The Receptionist brings together a number of familiar scenarios and references several key films (which Jenny Lu might not have seen – I’m not suggesting she borrowed ideas or that her script is not original, merely that it is recognisable). Tina (American-Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley) is an Eng Lit graduate in London searching for a job (it isn’t clear if her degree was in Taiwan or the UK). Her search becomes more urgent when her boyfriend loses his first job as an architect’s assistant. Tina must find the money to pay the rent and some to send back to Taiwan. Eventually she is forced to take a job as receptionist/dogsbody at a small brothel set up in a suburban house somewhere in London. This reminded me of the film Personal Services (UK 1987) inspired by the real-life case of Cynthia Payne in the Streatham street where I delivered the Christmas post in the 1970s. Tina’s brothel is an undertaking by ‘Lily’, a Taiwanese madam and her two workers SaSa (also Taiwanese) and Mei (Malaysian Chinese). Soon after Tina starts work, Anna (from rural China?) also starts work. What follows is part tragedy and part comedy with a mixture of brutality and humanism. Despite what some reviewers convey, not all the men who visit the house are ‘disgusting’. Some are and the violence and misogyny are there on screen. But some are sad older men who appreciate the welcome they receive. The real humanity though is expressed between the women, who despite the pressure and the squabbles over money do care for each other, despite protestations of indifference. The film’s final section deals with Tina’s eventual return to Taiwan where she becomes involved in clearing up and renewing her home town after the impact of a typhoon.
In some ways the film works as a chamber piece in the claustrophobic setting of the brothel. The claustrophobia is emphasised by the curtains and sealed up windows necessary to stop the smells and sounds of sex work reaching the neighbours. Symbolically it is represented by the worms which die in the back garden/yard – they “can’t live too long cut off from the earth” as one character puts it. (These looked to me like brandling worms which don’t live in soil but are found in compost heaps or any pile of rotting vegetation.) The function of this chamber narrative is to stimulate the women to reflect on their individual lives, their families and their ‘journeys’ which for the three younger ones are most wrapped up in migration. We don’t learn much about Lily (except that she has become pragmatic above all) and I would have liked to know more about SaSa. I think she could become the central character of another complete narrative. I wonder why Jenny Lu set her film in the UK? Her film set me thinking about several other films I’ve seen over the last few years. Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990, dir. Clara Law) is one of the earliest, following Maggie Cheung’s difficult journey to the US and her husband’s subsequent attempt to find her there. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006) tells the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay and A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013) deals with Chinese migrants living a marginal life in the United Arab Emirates. I was also reminded of Lilting (UK 2013) a micro-budget British film about a Chinese diasporic character by British-Cambodian-Chinese director Hong Khaou which though a very different kind of narrative has a similar power to expose an audience to life for migrant characters.
Alongside Teresa Daley, director Lu has assembled a fascinating cast for The Receptionist. Sophie Gopsill as Lily is a Hong Kong-born singer who has appeared in many opera houses and theatres in South East Asia and in the UK where she has lived for several years. SaSa is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi an accomplished and celebrated actor who first worked in Taiwan for Edward Yang in the early 1990s and then for Tsai Ming-liang. More recently she was the lead in Exit (Taiwan 2014) in a very different role in which she was equally good. Teng Shuang who plays Anna appears to British-Chinese? She trained as a lawyer but decided to pursue her love of acting. After shorts and theatre work this is her first feature. It’s also a first feature for Amanda Fan, an experienced Taiwanese actor whose previous credits have all been in Taiwanese TV series. The Taiwanese-UK connection is carried through in the production by editor Hoping Chen, whose career began in Taiwan and who then studied at the National Film and TV School in the UK and edited another form of migrant film in Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013).
I hope audiences aren’t put off by the setting of The Receptionist or its ’18’ certificate. I think is a very worthwhile first feature and I hope we get to see more films exploring the migrant experience. The film is showing at the Regent Street Cinema in London on August 14 with a Q&A. Well done to Munro Film Services for getting The Receptionist into UK distribution.
This film was screened several times in the Official Section at Leeds International Film Festival. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. This is a stunningly beautiful film. Note it opens in black and white and then changes to colour. And whilst the bulk of the film is in Academy ratio [1.37:1], there are two sequences (of only two shots each) in widescreen ratio [1.85:1] .
If you know the earlier films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Three Times (2005) Zui hao de shi guang or The Puppetmaster (1993) Xi meng ren sheng, you will know what to expect. Some of the audience in the Victoria [Room at Leeds Town Hall] presumably were excepting a typical martial arts film: they left early. The UK marketing uses the martial arts genre in the publicity, which is a mistake. Apparently similar marketing and responses took place when the film received a mainstream release in China. This is a slow, artful film with a fairly opaque plotline: it has parallels in terms of plot with Hero (Ying xiong 2002). Moreover, for a western audience, I think it takes some time to identify the separate characters, especially when for much of the time they wear the formal clothing of the period. In addition the film moves around in different time periods, but without the usual signing of flashbacks.
How well you manage depends on the manner in which you view films. One friend managed most of the characters and plot at his first screening: impressive. I managed the basic characters and plot at my first screening but it was only the second time round that I followed the whole coherently. Another friend was a neither informed or impressed: and his complaint was about the paucity of subtitle information in English and the difficulties produced in identifying characters in the numerous long shots.
Rather than describe the plot, the main point of which is relatively simple, it may help to describe those I believe to be the main characters: (based on the descriptions on Wikipedia).
Shu Qi as Nie Yinniang, the eponymous assassin
Chang Chen as Tian Ji’an, cousin to Nie Yinniang, formerly betrothed to her, and military governor (Jiedushi), ruling Weibo Circuit.
Zhou Yun as Lady Tian, Tian Ji’an’s wife. (Belongs to family of a separate Provincial ruler.)
Satoshi Tsumabuki as the mirror polisher. (Unidentified by name, the character’s title action is easy to miss: he appears late in the film when there is an attack in woods and he comes to the rescue.)
Ethan Juan as Xia Jing, Tian Ji’an’s bodyguard
Hsieh Hsin-Ying as Huji ( her name means ‘orchid’), Tian Ji’an’s concubine and a dancer
Ni Dahong as Nie Feng, Nie Yinniang’s father and Tian Ji’an’s provost
Yong Mei as Nie Tian
Fang-Yi Sheu as Princess Jiacheng and her twin sister, the princess Jiaxin turned Taoist nun
And there is an older whiskered character who I believe is Jacques Picoux as Lady Tian’s teacher: he appears twice sitting in his study.
The opening segment of the film is in black and white Academy. This is a prelude to the main story and we meet two key characters; Yinniang and Jiaxin. Then the film changes to Academy colour. The setting in Weibo and the main characters here are carefully introduced. Whilst the plot deals mainly with a series of actions involving these characters, the context is tensions between the Imperial Court and provinces on the periphery, like Weibo, and who will exercise power. But there is also personal conflict, partly motivated by personal experiences from the past, and partly motivated by the power conflicts at the court and, from a distance, Imperial / provincial relations. The two sequences in New Academy seem to be a suggestion on a central metaphor of the film. We see a zither, an instrument that recurs the last time that we see Jiaxin, perhaps a confirmation of this.
For me the film holds ones attention completely: it was a pleasure to watch it twice. It has an immaculate mise en scène and a distinctive sound track. There are few of the action sequences beloved in martial art films. But there are many formal settings where what is left unsaid seems as potent as what is said. And there are also informal settings of personal interaction, but never really informal. The film uses decor, mirrors, light and shadow, candles and lanterns, gauzes and even smoke to offer settings with subtle variations. If the interiors tend to the strictly formal, there is something of the same sense in the exteriors, which are also beautifully captured.
One must pay compliments to the production team working under the director.
Music by Giong Lim
Cinematography by Ping Bin Lee
Film Editing by Chih-Chia Huang . . . (edited by)
Ching-Song Liao . . . (as Liao Ching-Sung) (editing director)
Production Design by Wen-Ying Huang
Costume Design by Wen-Ying Huang . . . (as Hwarng Wern-Ying)
Sound Department Shih Yi Chu . . . sound, Duu-Chih Tu . . . sound, Shu-yao Wu . . . sound
Special Effects by Ardi Lee . . . special effects
The camera work relies to a degree on long shots and fairly long takes. In both interiors and exteriors there is both deep focus and deep staging: there are lovely moments when an outline or a shadow emerges in deep field. The camera movements are varied but the most common are slow and slight dollies, with slow pans and tilts in interiors. And there are some fine tracking shots in the exteriors.
The editing is often elliptical, which can make for difficulties in following the developments, but this enables the film to draw the parallels between the complex interactions among characters. The soundtrack is also a treat. The music is sparse but very evocative. There is the slow playing of drums and percussion. There is zither music. And, over the end credits, some exhilarating music from flutes or bagpipes. But for much of the time we enjoy natural sound, including bird songs and cicadas.
And the production design is truly impressive. One review thought the film was ‘too pretty’. In fact, it is ornate, as it would seem were the Chinese courts of the period. The settings, especially the interiors, provide a great canvas for the cinematography.
Hou immersed himself in reading and research for the film. In quotes in the Festival Catalogue he notes the subtlety and complexity of the period.
“For example, there were different ways of taking a bath, depending on whether you were a wealthy merchant, a high official or a peasant. I also looked into the story’s political context in some detail. It was a chaotic period when the omnipotence of the Tang Court was threatened by provincial governors who challenged the authority of the Tang Emperor: some provinces even tried to secede from the Empire by force.”
We actually see the preparations for a royal bath. Reviews have tended to praise the style of the film, but some also express reservations about the plotting of the story and even the sheer physical attraction of the settings right through them film. The film though, focuses on a particular social segment, one with great wealth and privilege. And we only see the peasants mentioned by Hou briefly, though in an important sequence.
The film was shot on Kodak 35mm and has been transferred to DCP via 4K. However, I think most audiences in the UK will only be able to see it in 2K. Even so it does look and sound good. It runs for 107 minutes and crams a lot into that space.
On the surface this is a gentle comedy about young teenage boys in downtown Taipei. It is slow-paced, observational and sometimes very funny. ‘Lefty’ is a gangling schoolboy and the leader of a ‘gang of four’, each of whom is struggling to find the money to pay their school fees. One day he notices a bronze figure in a school store-room, a full-size statue of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Lefty quickly works out that he could sell the statue and make enough to fund all four boys through school. He plans the ‘heist’ in meticulous detail and the gang is all set – only to discover that someone else in the school leading another group has exactly the same intention. Despite attempts to negotiate a truce, the two gangs eventually compete to steal the statue in a long and engaging set piece. If this was just a heist narrative it would offer standard genre entertainment. But I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t so surprising since the writer-director is Yee Chih-yen whose 2002 film Blue Gate Crossing was both a critical and commercial success.
Throughout the narrative there is a focus on the relative poverty of the boys in the gangs. At one point Lefty and his opposite number (who refuses to give his name until the final reel) compete to show that they are the poorest and therefore the ones who should be allowed to steal the statue. Later, all of the boys claim they are poor because there is a long history of unemployment in their families. This is one aspect of the social commentary of the film. Sun Yat-Sen is known as ‘the father of the state’ in Taiwan and still has a profile as a leader who prepared for the ‘people’s revolution’ in the PRC. The two groups of boys struggle to take the prize for themselves even though by joining forces they would stand a much better chance of success (the statue is actually very heavy and difficult to move). Is it too much of a leap to suggest that this is might be a commentary on the history of ‘two Chinas’ since 1949? When they fight each other they achieve little, but together they could complete the task effectively.
I enjoyed the film and found Lefty to be an engaging character as played by Zhan Huai-Yun. I was also impressed by Chen Pa-tu’s cinematography, especially the lighting of night-time streets. Why is it that in East Asian films generally, night-time streets seem so much less threatening than in the West?
The idea of thieves hiding behind joke-shop masks is not new but the ones in this film seem original. They are the cheapest in the store and they make the skin itchy. They appear to be modelled on an anime character – I thought of a Japanese ‘Minnie Mouse’, which seems somehow appropriate. The Japanese influence on Taiwanese school culture is also evident in what looks like a Kendo martial arts school glimpsed in the opening scenes.
Salute! Sun Yat-Sen is one of the films scheduled for VOD and DVD release by a new UK distributor, Facet Film Distribution. The release date is July 27th and the DVD can be pre-ordered from Amazon. The two founders of the company, Victor Huang and Edison Cheng are Londoners with a passion for East Asian films and their website and Facebook pages are useful resources for news and ideas about East Asian cinema. I wonder what chance they have of success. Taiwanese films in the UK have been mostly limited to the arthouse successes of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang (and earlier Edward Yang) and even these have often struggled to get UK distribution. Ang Lee’s early Taiwanese films did manage to get some form of release but it has been a real struggle for contemporary popular films. I’ve very much enjoyed the two I’ve been able to see – You Are the Apple of My Eye (Taiwan 2011) and Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008). I’m certainly going to look out for new releases from Facet.
Here’s the trailer for Salute: Sun Yat-Sen:
This is just to remind you that some of our new posts are now appearing on The Global Film Book Blog. Recent posts include Cape No. 7 (Taiwan 2008), Boomerang Family (South Korea 2013) and Jack Strong (Poland 2014).
France / Taiwan / People’s Republic of China, 2004. Colour, with English subtitles.
The screening at the Leeds International Film Festival was accompanied by an introduction from the director and scriptwriter Tsai Ming-Liang [with a translator]. This was an engaging little talk as the filmmaker expressed his pleasure in visiting the Hyde Park Cinema. It reminded him of ‘a special kind of memory’ from his youth. He also won my approval by saying that he preferred his film to be seen in the 35mm format rather than on DVD. He did warn the audience that the film contains some shocking scenes, dealing with sex and violence. But he promised there would also be the pleasure of some beautiful ‘old Chinese music.’
The film is set in modern Tapei in Taiwan. Currently there is both a severe water shortage and a glut of watermelons. The former is expensive and rare, the latter ubiquitous. At the start of the film there is a scene with two of the main characters, an unnamed young woman and Hsiao-Kang. They are involved in a fairly explicit sex scene, with a watermelon as a crucial prop. Later I realised that they were actually performing for a pornographic film. Such scenes recur throughout the movie. At times we see the girl and Hsiao-Kang separately trying to achieve a climax: the only time he succeeds is unintentionally, when he has to ‘withdraw’ whilst filming. Presumably it is against porn ‘rules’ for the male protagonist to actually ejaculate in the female. Meanwhile, there is a third main character, another young woman, Shiang-Chyi. She spends much of her time collecting plastic bottles, which she films with water at every available opportunity. It transpires that Shiang-Chyi and Hsiao-Kang are old acquaintances. [It seems that both appeared in earlier films of the director, and apparently this film picks up on these]. When not involved in porn film-making Hsiao-Kang visits Shiang-Chyi’s apartment, but they do not get round to having sex.
Late in the film Shiang-Chyi finds the unconscious girl porn star by the lift in her apartment block. She drags her into the apartment. Unable to rouse her she watches a porn DVD and recognises both the girl and Hsiao-Kang acting in the film. The porn film director appears and Shiang-Chyi helps him carry the still unconscious girl back to the apartment used for filming. Here she watches as Hsiao-Kang has violent sex with the comatosed girl whilst the crew film them. A sudden cut changes the action to Hsaio-Kang having oral sex with Shiang-Chyi through a wooden lattice. He appears to ejaculate into her mouth. The film ends.
The early sex scenes, [which appeared to me to be actual sex] were quite funny to watch. But gradually the recurring scenes became as repetitious and monotonous as actual porn movies. Quite possibly this is a deliberate ploy. However, the final scene, with the limp, unconscious girl being pummelled and pumped by Hsaio-Kang struck me as quite appalling to watch. This also seemed to be the response of the watching Shiang-Chyi. But the sudden cut to oral sex between her and Hsiao-Kang seemed to completely displace that, both in terms of plot and of any critical comment on the action. There is some point made here: Hsiao-Kang achieves the orgasm which he was singularly denied earlier in the film. What that might intend I am not sure?
I struggled to find some sort of salutary point of view in this film. There are possible interpretations that could have the film commenting on pornography, sex as a commodity and even the repressive social situation in which these event occur. But the film’s overall tone and presentation fail to make that point. The interesting context regarding the contradictory rise and fall of water and melons also seemed to fade away in the later stages of the film.
The festival catalogue reproduces comments on the film that run, “a surreal, erotic and outrageous musical drama and one of Tsai’s finest films.” If I can comment on these in turn.
I did not find any surrealist sensibility in this film. The Surrealists saw the world of dreams and the unconscious as an alternative reality. But I failed to discern such an alternative here. I did not even find the film erotic, pornography rarely is. The best surrealist art shocks but it also illuminates issues like sexuality.
And I did not think the film was really a musical. There are a number of musical interludes offering both song and dance, but they are insertions into the film, the songs do not seem to dramatise the characters or their situations. The songs were in Chinese, but they all appeared to be ‘remakes’ of popular North American songs from the 1950s, with new lyrics. The final number, The Wayward Cloud, is actually a version of The Wayward Wind, which I remember from my youth. [The music and original lyrics have been running through my head ever since].
I have not seen any of Tsai Ming-Liang’s other films, so this may indeed be his best work. But I find it really inferior to the films of other major Taiwanese filmmakers. Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, 1991, restored to its original version in 2009) deals with youth, sexuality and alienation, and is at times genuinely disturbing. But I found its comment on relationships and violence much more powerful than this film. And if I can refer to a genuine surrealist film, Belle de Jour, (Luis Buñuel, 1967) deals with sex as commodity and fetishism, but subversively.
The director is quoted in the catalogue on his work and film; “sex has prominently featured in my films. I am the first Chinese director to shoot masturbation . . . Sex to me is completely normal thing, but in Chinese communities it is a taboo . . . When I was making The Wayward Cloud, I felt that society’s attitude to sex had matured thanks to video, cable TV, the Internet, where porn is in abundance.”* Whilst I can sympathise with objections to sexual taboos, I do not think that easily available pornography is a step forward. The director does not explain what was the function of ‘shooting masturbation’. And I remain unclear as to why there was so much explicit pornographic material in The Wayward Cloud. I find it disturbing that the film’s conclusion offers the transition from effective rape to what appears to be consensual oral sex. My response presumably sounds moralistic. I note that pornography tends to present itself as amoral, and that this film [perhaps not intentionally] appears to do the same. The filmmaker’s comments suggest that he believes that merely revealing what was forbidden offers a critical stance. I would suggest that the presentation and the context are crucial to a critical standpoint. The presentation in this film does not seem very different from actual pornography and the context fades away as the film develops.
I first got interested in the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ director Hou Hsiao-hsien back in the 1980s when he was making films that explored the recent political history of the island through a series of family melodramas. I remember taking a friend to the NFT to see a new film by Hou in the London Film Festival. I think it must have been Daughter of the Nile (1987) which tells a tale about young people in Taipei. I remember that my friend was not impressed and I found it difficult to defend the film. I thought about that experience again when I saw Millennium Mambo. I realise now that I was unprepared for Daughter of the Nile which in some way was a precursor of Millennium Mambo.
As the title suggests, this is a film set around the millennium, told by a young woman from ten years in the future so it’s a bit weird to watch it now. There is little plot. Vicki (Shi Qi) is a stunningly beautiful young woman who appears to have drifted into a slacker mode living with her boyfriend Hao-Hao in Taipei. They fall out and she has a relationship with Jack, an older man who is some kind of criminal, works in a bar as a hostess and at one point travels to Hokkaido with two brothers who have a Japanese mother.
The film has four formal elements that are perhaps more important than the narrative content itself. Firstly, the experience of watching the film is ‘disturbed’ and perhaps made more dream-like, through a dislocation of the voiceover and the image track. The narrator tells us about events which are not on screen at that moment but which will appear some time later. This sense of confusion is compounded by a camera that is fixed much of the time and peers into the couple’s apartment, into bars and restaurants etc. so that much of the ‘action’ is in long shot unless characters move up close to the camera. Further confusion comes from the deliberate lack of focus at the start of some scenes so that the screen shows only shimmering colours which move behind a distorting lens. Even within scenes, the field of focus is so shallow that characters seem trapped in a woozy environment.
The shimmering colours are also present through deliberate design of costumes, lighting and interior decor. The camera shoots through flimsy curtains, hanging mobiles of reds and greens and blues, window frames and doorways. Vicky wears bright reds or white. The lighting in clubs and bars (and seemingly the apartment) uses ultraviolet (?) so that, for instance, Vicky wears a white bra or tee-shirt that literally glows in the dim surroundings. Finally, running throughout much of the film is a music track of ambient/techno music, mainly by Lim Giong. As you can tell, this isn’t my scene and I don’t know quite how to describe it!
This clip from the opening of the film demonstrates the hypnotic quality of the camerawork, setting, voiceover and music:
We do learn a little about Vicky’s past – she and Hao-hao came to Taipei from Keelung – and Vicky makes a second visit to Japan when Jack travels there attempting to solve a problem in his criminal activities. The Japanese sequences are visually different, mainly because the camera strays outside onto the streets (and peers at the rushing trains – an Ozu moment perhaps?). The town in Hokkaido is holding a film festival and there are many beautiful posters of classic and not-so-classic films (Jean Gabin v. Charles Bronson?). In Taiwan all the ‘action’ is claustrophobic and every shot is of an interior – or perhaps the balcony of the apartment.
I guess that Hou’s films are the ultimate test of cinephilia. Whereas in his earlier historical melodramas there was something for the average art cinema fan to chew on, in these films the pleasures on offer are limited to formal questions and teases about questions of narration and narrativity. The film seems to be a challenge to viewers. Does it have a metaphorical purpose? I’m not sure. (Hou himself has commented that young people, especially young women, seem to live their lives much faster now. Perhaps the film is a reflection on time – as the young woman sees it?) At times I was bored and frustrated and then angry with the abusive Hao-hao. Vicky is a seductive creation (seemingly on the verge of smoking herself to death) and I probably enjoyed the scenes with Jack the most, although the trips to Japan were also inviting. Shi Qi is undoubtedly a star (she also appears in Hou’s later film, Three Times) and I was interested to find out more about her from various fansites (such as shuqi.org). I hadn’t realised that she started in soft porn modelling and films in Hong Kong and that at one point she was in the running for the role in Crouching Tiger that went to Zhang Ziyi. I hope she gets challenging roles in the future.
I think that I would like to show this film to film students in order to discuss how Hou creates its hypnotic feel combining music, images and editing. The cinematography is by Mark Lee (aka Lee Pin-bing) whose work I now realise I have seen several times before (and look forward to on several upcoming movies). All the time in Millennium Mambo I was thinking about Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (HK 1996) which shares not only elements of the visual style, but also allusions to youth culture and criminality. I notice now that Mark Lee was an assistant to Chris Doyle on that shoot and that he later shot Wong’s In the Mood For Love. There is an interesting blog on the audio work in Millennium Mambo here.
The comparison with Wong Kar-wai is interesting. Wong’s films are for me more entertaining and Hong Kong is a more familiar milieu. Hou seems more for cinephiles in some of the films. However, I’ve got a couple more of Hou’s films to view in the next few months and I’m aware of the cult status that Millennium Mambo seems to be developing from the YouTube comments. You can follow our other Hou entries via this tag.
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
With Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Di Mei Certificate 12A 135 minutes.
In colour, aspect ratio 1.66:1. With English subtitles.
Screenplay: Chu Tien-wen, A Time to Love inspired by Tai Ai-jon, Ms Gin Oy. Director of Photography: Mark Lee Ping-bing. Supervising editor: Liao Ch’ing-song. Production designer: Hwarng wern-ying. Music: Lin Ciong, LiKuo-yuan, K-B-N.
The film features three stories, all starring Shu Qi and Chang Chen, and including Di Mei in supporting roles.
The first, A Time for Love, is set in 1966. Shu Qi plays May, a snooker-hall girl. Di Mei is her mother. And Chang Chen is Chen, a military conscript on leave.
The second, A Time for Freedom, is set in 1911. Taiwan, [then Formosa] was under Japanese control. In Mainland China, after a revolution, Sun Zhong Shan proclaimed the Republic of China. Shu Qi plays a courtesan, Di Mei is the ‘madame’ of the house, whilst Chang Chen [Mr Chang] is a republican.
The third, A Time for Youth, is a contemporary story set in the world of techno-rock and clubs. Shu Qi is singer Jing, who suffers from epilepsy and partial blindness. Di Mei plays her aunt and Chang Chen [Chen] is a motor-biking photographer. Jing also has a girlfriend, Blue (Chen Shih-shan).
Though Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film focuses on love stories, it also alludes to the political history of Taiwan. This is most overt in the second story, set in the tumultuous year of 1911. But there are also references in the other stories. Hsiao-hsien’s earlier films have also addressed Taiwan’s chequered history. A City of Sadness (Beiqing Chengshi, 1989] dealt with events in the late 1940s, when following the Civil War the mainland Guomindang government evacuated to the island. The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Tongnian Wangshi, 1985) was set in the 1950s and followed the life of a mainland family who had emigrated to the island.
At various stages in it history the Island, formally known as Formosa, was occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and then Chinese. China ceded it to Japan after the war of 1895. This meant the island people were excluded from the great democratic revolution in Mainland China of 1911. The Island remained under Japanese control during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Japanese invaded both China and Korea. And it remained occupied during the Pacific war from 1941 to 1945. It was recovered for Mainland China in 1945 by the Nationalist Guomindang Government. Conflict ensured and there was an island rebellion in 1947, which was brutally suppressed. When the Guomindang lost in the Civil War to the revolutionary Chinese Communist movement, it retreated to Taiwan. With US support they retained the title Republic of China, and benefited from US aid. Despite US propaganda about ‘democracy’ it was an authoritarian regime with little direct democracy. The détente between China and the USA in the 1970s undermined Taiwan. It lost its UN seat and later the US annulled the mutual security pact. The island’s political system gradually opened up though it was only in 1990 that mainland Guomindang members ceased to dominate the parliament. In 2001 the ban on trade and communication with Mainland China was partially lifted.
It is worth observing the mise en scène in the film: and Mark Lee Ping-bing’s lighting and photography are finely crafted. The selection and organisation of camera shots also show that Hsiao-hsien uses distinctive techniques. He particularly favours the long shot and the long take. The editing of the overall film [as opposed to shot-to-shot] is also distinctive. The arrangement of the stories is not chronological, and a parallel breach of chronology also occurs within the stories. Indeed each story has its own distinctive set of techniques and style.
The sound design produces an evocative track, and music plays a key part in this. Each story has a particular and appropriate song. And the music has both diegetic [part of the story] and non-diegetic [accompanying the story] functions.
The following contains plot information and comments on techniques. I should say that when I first saw the film, at the 2006 Göteborg Film Festival, I found an important part of the pleasure was the way the film surprises viewers.
A Time for Love
The setting in various snooker halls crosses over with Edward Yang’s film A Brighter Summer Day (1991). However, those in this film are not especially seedy and are the locale for a romantic story. The film opens with a shot of May watching Chen play billiards, [the following scenes the game is snooker; the director in an interview refers to pool halls, but we never see that game]. Only later we realise that this shot is out of sequence. Chen only meets May during the course of the film. The mood of the story is partially set by two classic popular songs – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Rain and Tears. The latter song actually has a diegetic function as Chen mentions listening to it in a letter to May. But, like the classic Platter’s track, it also provides a commentary on the developing relationship.
A Time for Freedom is set in 1911 and presented in the silent film format of that period. The use of a dubbed soundtrack was due to technical limitations, but the style that the director has produced is the result of inspired choice. As with the original silent films, dialogue is imparted by title cards and there is accompanying music. In fact, in two scenes which more or less bookend the story, the accompanying music is a traditional song, which the courtesan is actually performing. But this is entirely appropriate, as alongside early experiments in sound there were also silent presentations where live music was synchronised to the cinematic image. The mise en scéne and the music become especially poignant as the courtesan’s situation mirrors that of Taiwan, left alone and outside the great democratic revolution that swept Mainland China.
A Time for Youth is the most ambiguous of the three stories and the trickiest to follow.
Jing is a singer with two relationships, one with Chen and one with Blue. A key scene shows Jing returning to her flat, where she left Blue earlier. Blue has awakened and found Jing gone. She types a message on the computer:
I’m fed up hearing your lies, fed up waiting for you.
I love you more than you love me.
You’ll regret this. I’ll kill myself like your ex-girlfriend.
Jing returns. She lights a cigarette and looks round the flat. She read the message left by Blue. There is an off-screen sound and Jing goes and looks on the balcony. She sits on the bed smoking. Her emotions are difficult to decipher. The viewer is given no further information. I wondered about this scene, and only when I saw the film again was I convinced that the sound we hear is Blue jumping from the balcony. Thus the sequence seems to use a comparatively rare technique, a plot point made by a sound cue.
I have now seen the film three times, appropriately. I still find it an exceptionally fine film, and well up to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s high standards. It also crosses over with the work of Edward Yang; several of the cast have also featured in his films. Yang’s films also make interesting use of sound tracks. This seems to be a particular skill among Taiwanese filmmakers.
The film is still available in 35mm in the UK. And has been released on DVD by Ocean-films.
Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, Taiwan, 1991. Director Edward Yang, who died in June 2007. In Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles. Colour.
The film has been restored to its original 237 minute length. This version was seen only briefly in the UK. The version seen in the BBC top ‘100’ was the shortened version, which only runs for 3 hours. The shortened version appears to have had mainly subsidiary scenes that refer to supporting characters edited out. The main story is still clear in this version, but the complete film fills out the world of school and gang cultures.
This is clearly an epic film to watch, but one that amply repays the time spent. Yang shares some characteristics with his fellow Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The latter’s Three Times (Zul Hao de Shiguang, 2005) covers a slightly later period in its first story, A Time for Love. The long shot and the long take dominate the film. Yang frequently uses slow pans that allow a viewer’s gaze to survey the settings in which events occur. And the narrative follows an elliptical course, becoming quite complex as it cuts between a number of major characters. It opens, a title informs us, in September 1960.
The following contains plot spoilers.
The central characters in the film are Xiao Si’r (Zhang Zhen) and his family, which includes and an elder brother and three sisters. His father is a civil servant who migrated to the island when the Guomindang fled the mainland after losing the Civil War with the Chinese Communist Party.
One recurring family incident concerns a valuable watch belonging to the mother which the sons ‘borrow’ in order to pawn and raise money. A key early scene concerning the watch is missing in the short version.
Si’r attends a ‘night school’, in Taipei. Taiwan appears to have had an unusual arrangement of schools in this period, with less privileged pupils attending some daytime and some evening classes. Much of the action occurs in the school and we see a variety of classes and actions there. Examinations and tests are frequent.
The other important, though unofficial, institution is the youth gang. The films focuses on the rivalry between the Little Park Gang [which includes Si’r and his friends] and the 217 Gang, which is from a working class district. The youth gang culture actually afflicted the island in this period. And the violent climax that resolves the film was also based on an actual incident that the director remembered from his youth. An opening title suggests that the gangs are a manifestation of young people’s insecurity, resulting from their parent’s own insecurities after fleeing the mainland for the Island.
The film’s primary focus is male. Si’r close friends are Cat [Wang Qizan] and Airplane [Ke Yulun]. And there is an uneasy relationship with Sly [Chen Hongyu], the substitute leader of Little Park Gang. The original leader, Honey [Lin Hongming], had to go into hiding following a fatal incident. At school Si’r acquires another friend Ma [Tan Zhigang], who comes from a more affluent military family. He has been moved to the school after an earlier and violent incident at another institution.
Another key character is Ming [Lisa Yang], a girl pupil at Si’r school with whom he gradually develops a relationship. She was originally the girl friend of Honey, and appears to have other relationships as well. But the films masculine focus includes a critical perspective. Ming tells Si’r that, like all her boyfriends, ’you want to change me’ for selfish reasons. All these characters are affected by the ups and downs in gang conflicts.
The screenplay that Yang wrote with three colleagues, both evokes and comments on the troubled times that followed the Guomindang’s arrival in Taiwan. The defeated nationalist party instituted an authoritarian state, though one that went unremarked by its US allies even as they denounced ‘totalitarian’ Mainland China. In the film Si’r father [Zhang Guozhu] is the victim of a secret police interrogations whose purpose is never clearly explained. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yang’s films explore the impact of the Taiwan’s chequered history on its inhabitants. Both are now able to explore the repressions and conflicts that for years were not publicly recognised.
The complexities of plot and character mean that an audience has to work to follow events and developments. One of the pleasures of a second viewing was I was able to explore the film more fully. Also, seeing the full-length version for the first time I noted scenes that previously been missing, and which filled out some of the characters and their situations. Yang has a real mastery of mise en scène, and the long takes enable one to note the settings and the many visual motifs that help construct the film.
One of these is light. The film opens with a shot of a solitary light bulb. Early in the film Si’r acquires a torch, which he then carries for most of the rest of the film. He pinches the torch from a film studio that he visits one evening. Just before the film’s climax he returns and inadvertently leaves the torch. And the lighting and blocking in the film constantly reinforce this theme. Torchlight, candlelight, power cuts and blackouts are spread across the film. Much of the film is shot in twilight or at night. Some scenes, with large blocks and shadows, reveal only little of the action. Sight and watching is another motif: characters frequently stand and observe other characters. Si’r himself has an eye ailment for which he receives injections at school.
One of the arresting images in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times was the snooker hall in the sequence A Time for Love. Similarly in Yang’s film a snooker bar is an important setting. But this is a seedier and darker site than in the later film. The most violent confrontation between the two gangs takes place here.
The film also has a fine soundtrack. One frequently finds oneself listening to accompanying sounds like bands, firing ranges, bicycles, doors and so on. The film uses music to comment on the narrative. The film’s title is taken from Elvis Presley’s song, Are You Lonesome Tonight, which is sung up by one of Si’r friends, Cat, after Si’r elder sister [Wang Juan] has transcribed the lyrics. The song re-appears in the final sequence of the film, and is clearly ironic.
A Brighter Summer Day is an extremely fine film that is certainly worth a viewing. I can think of considerably shorter films that seem to take a lot longer on screen. Its complexities are beyond a relatively short review. For example the film studio that appears briefly in the film offers an interesting commentary on film itself. In his last visit a disillusioned Si’r shouts at the director [Danny Dunn] that he cannot tell ‘real from fake’.
The World Cinema Foundation is dedicated to the ‘preservation and restoration of neglected films from around the world’. The moving spirit in the Foundation is Martin Scorsese. Other noted filmmakers on the Board include Souleymane Cissé, Abbas Kiarostami and Wong Kar-Wai. The restored films are premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. www.worldcinemafoundation.net
They are also screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The latter is an archive festival held annually in the city of Bologna. The festival covers world cinema from the early silents up until recent productions. http://www.cinetecadibologna.it/cinemaritrovato.htm
Still courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato.