Showing posts with label movie review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movie review. Show all posts

Friday, October 6, 2017

Comment on Wolf Warrior 2

I added my two cents to the cinema hit from China in Quora.

Some go to the movies to be intellectually stimulated, some just for the entertainment. Belonging to the latter category, I found WW2 quite entertaining.
The movie opens with a 007 like action, except all taking place under water—a new twist. Near the beginning of the movie, the hero got into a drinking contest with a big burly black guy. All the beer they can chug-a-lug wouldn’t do the job, so then the hero whips out bottles of Mao Tai. Down the hatch goes the white lightening and sure enough, down goes the black guy. Since that free product placement, sales of Mao Tai in China have gone through the roof.
As for tidbits that could be considered as propaganda:
  1. As US navy was leaving the coast of the embattled African country, the PLAN was streaming toward the shore to rescue the Chinese workers in factories built by Chinese companies.
  2. There was a tag line that goes something like this: A PRC passport won’t get you to anywhere you want to go, but will bring you back from wherever you might be.
  3. The government and the rebels stopped shooting to let the Chinese convoy pass because “they are our friends and we will need them after the fight is over.”
A farfetched coincidence is that the hero and the numero uno bad guy had a personal vendetta involving the loss the love of the hero’s life. So the hero is consoled by getting the beautiful heroine at the end and he gets to beat the sadistic bad guy, who happens to be an American mercenary, to death.
So after the Chinese expats and their fellow African workers were safely on board the Chinese naval ships, both sides of the revolution presumably went back to fighting happily ever after.
What’s not to like in a movie like that?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Review: ‘Nirvana in Fire,’ a historical drama from China

This item first appeared in Asia Times.

In my college days, one of the activities that bound the community of Chinese students whether from Hong Kong, Taiwan or the US was the circulation of wuxia novels to be enjoyed by those able to read Chinese. Mostly published from Hong Kong and Taiwan, this genre of stories portrayed heroes and heroines with mastery of martial arts and a peerless sense of chivalry. They would go around the country, which they called jianghu, righting wrongs and injustices, defending the weak, fighting corrupt officials and battling all kinds of evildoers. In stories with historical settings, the kung fu masters were volunteer defenders of their kings against usurpers and barbarians.
Many of the popular stories were serialized and published in daily installments by the newspaper or in weekly wuxia magazines. The story lines were always intricate, complex and non-linear. When the story was gripping, the reader would be hooked and held fanatical vigils at the newsstand to snatch each installment as it appeared in the newsstand. The length of some novels was of biblical proportions. Popular authors, such as Harvard grad Jin Yong, became multi-millionaires.
On YouTube
Nirvana in Fire official poster
Nirvana in Fire official poster
I was recently doused with nostalgia as I watched the 54 episodes of Nirvana in Fire on YouTube. I don’t know how Lang Ya Bang in Putonghua became Nirvana in Fire in English. But I found the Mandarin version gripping and entertaining and reminded me of my youth when I was an avid reader of wuxia anthologies.
The story supposedly took place in the 6th century Liang dynasty, one of the short-lived regimes in China’s history that coexisted with many other contending kingdoms in an era known as Northern and Southern dynasties—with the Yangtze River as demarcation, it was itself an indicator of a divided China. It was one of the chaotic periods in China’s history, and thus a convenient setting to take liberties with history.
Nirvana told a story of massive betrayal that ambushed a loyal army of 70,000 and how one lone survivor returned to painstakingly plot the step-by-step liquidation of the traitors and complicit court officials, and to eventually achieve ultimate redemption more than 13 years after the massacre.
The story opened with an ancient take of a thoroughly modern idea that information can be monetized and distilled from big data. It seemed a mysterious organization collected information sent from the four corners of China via messenger pigeons and employed a room full of clerks to compile and organize the amassed data. It was known as the place to inquire for answers to any question, rendered to those willing to pay the fee.
Two contending princes of the Liang court sent emissaries to Lang Ya Shan wishing to know the best master strategist available to help each overcome the other and ascend the throne. The answer to both princes was the same: Namely, find someone by the name of Mei Chang Su. And the tale unfolded from there.
Unlike Hollywood portrayals of super heroes from comic books, none of the characters were two-dimensional cutouts. Just the opposite, each character was attributed with a certain psychological profile and personality that gradually became clear with succeeding episodes. The Chinese subtitles made it easy to follow the dialogue and thus the plot development as exhibited by the thoughts and schemes of various protagonists.
Dazzling sword fights
With impressive cinematography of the imperial court and countryside, beautiful costumes, dazzling sword fights and superb acting from a large cast, the story unfold bit by delicious bit, meticulously paced but never dragged. Going from one episode to the next was just like scarfing down one installment of a wuxia story and then on to the next.
Actress Liu Tao plays Mu Nihuang
Actress Liu Tao plays Mu Nihuang
The script paid careful attention to details. Over the 54 episodes, inconsistencies were rare. Each character had logical reasons and motivation for his/her actions. The dialogue was subtle and nuanced abetted by sophisticated acting. It was a terrific TV serial that put Chinese culture on display.
Two examples came to mind. Early in the story, the survivor, Su Zhe, who lost his martial prowess on the battlefield, came back 12 years later as a physically frail, scholarly counselor. He amazed everyone in the court when he boasted that he could train three 12 year-old boys with no prior exposure to martial arts for five days to array in powerful proprietary formations that could defeat the reigning kung fu master. Later in the story, while Su and the crown prince were waiting for reports of the outcome of various skullduggeries orchestrated by them, Su lit and used the burning of a single joss stick as the ancient form of a Chinese hourglass. Those touches were drawn from classic stories of martial arts.
The episodes contained elements of greed, betrayal, loyalty, suspicion, love, revenge, lust for power, implications of genocide, jealousy, honor, integrity, murder, cruelty, kindness, generosity and mixtures of these qualities in conflict and contradiction. The closest hint of sex was when the star-crossed couple held hands and on rare occasions tearfully embraced. The underlying theme in Nirvana was the Chinese tradition that one’s most sacred duty was to honor one’s ancestor and protect the reputation of the family name.
Battle scene from Nirvana in Fire
Battle scene from Nirvana in Fire
Korean version
The twists and turns of the story enthralled not just the audience in China but also captured a global following. The Korean version of the serial has captured prime time viewing in South Korea, reversing the usual export of TV drama from Korea to China. The YouTube and other video versions are being viewed around the world.
China has rapidly evolved to become the most important market for movies and television programs second only to the US. Indeed, to capture major market share in both countries, a conglomerate like Wanda has been making major investments in America such as buying AMC, one of the major chains of cinema theaters in the US as well as taking major stakes in Hollywood studios to help them produce movies that will appeal to the Chinese audience.
Certainly with Wanda’s knowledge of the Chinese consumer taste, their investment can steer its Hollywood partners away from the vapid series of Kung Fu Panda 1, 2 ad nauseam into producing movies of substance that would appeal to the more sophisticated Chinese palate.
Nirvana for US audiences?
Similarly, by owning the largest or nearly largest chain of movie theaters in America, Wanda is in the perfect position to introduce quality productions such as of the Nirvana genre to the American audience. I am guessing that the American audience would welcome a change from the super heroes that require huge leaps of faith and drastic suspension of reality and from the stomach churning gore of fantasy monsters and walking dead.
In a recent debate on whether China or India has more effective tools to wield soft power around the world, the pundit arguing on behalf of India asserted that Bollywood movies from India emanate soft power to a greater degree than anything in China’s toolkit. I believe the powerful stories of the Nirvana genre would capture audiences around the world far more effectively than movies from India that entertain the audience with sudden bursts of song and dance.
For readers interested in a sample of Nirvana in Fire, the first episode with Chinese subtitles can be found on YouTube,
or with English subtitles below*:
*Sine my original post, I've been told that the English subtitle version has been removed.
As indication of the worldwide popularity, there is yet another site that offers the serial in eighteen different languages including English,

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zatoichi's legacy is beautiful

When I was more or less a young man, I was introduced to the Japanese screen character, Zatoichi. The basic premise of Zatoichi films was that though blind, he could see right and wrong with faster clarity than the sighted; with heightened sense of hearing, he ably compensated for not seeing as he cut down his opponents in massive scale; and, with his bow legged gait and plain face, he was decidedly unheroic.

On a recent flight to Asia, I was surfing through the menu of films selections when "Ichi" caught my attention. The film began with a woman in rags stumbling alone in a blinding snowstorm. It was not immediately apparent that she was connected to Zatoichi.

As the story unfolded, the woman turned out to be a beautiful blind young girl who had been kicked out of the “goze” troupe. In medival Japan, goze troupes went around northern Japan entertaining gatherings with their singing and while strumming the shamisen. In flash backs, it was revealed that the manager of the troupe who was male and not blind had raped her. When he tried again, she accidentally killed him with her sword sheathed in her cane.

The movie actually started with her wandering in the countryside and ended up in a temple. One of three members of gangsters had sex with another blind goze woman and did not pay as promised. When she protested, they beat her and then they saw Ichi and started to harass her with obviously evil intentions. This is when a young good looking samurai came along and offered money to the gangsters in exchange for leaving Ichi alone.

Make long story short, the young samurai, Toma, had a psychological block and cannot pull out his sword from the scabbard and Ichi had to killed the three gangsters herself. The villagers thought it was Toma who killed the gangsters that had been terrorizing them. The rest of the gang of bandits too thought it was Toma who killed their comrades.

Ichi has been searching for a blind masseur (the film implied that this was Zatoichi but never said so) who raised her and taught her how to fight. She wanted to know if he was her father. Banki, the gangster leader, before defeating her and taking her prisoner told her that the blind masseur was the one person he wanted to meet who had died of natural causes.

Toma who was hired by the village to defend them was a colossal disappointment because he never could pull his sword from the scabbard. Banki was rejected by society because of his severely disfigured face. Everybody suffered from psychological problems.

There was a final bloody, sword-play confrontation between the villagers led by Toma and Banki and his gang. Of course, having fallen in love for Ichi, Toma was finally able to unsheathe his sword but the climatic ending is typically Japanese and not western.

The cinematography was exquisite and the story line more complex than the old Zatoichi stories. I hope we will see more of Ichi in the future.