Friday, April 07, 2006

Inscrutable Chinese and their films: a Bihari Perspective

Over the past three years, I have had a slow introduction to Chinese films from Hong Kong and mainland China which has been very revealing and instructive for even a film junkie like me. As kids in Darjeeling we were used to watching a number of movies in a slow week at school or during outings. In an eight hour outing that we had on one Sunday a month we could at the maximum mix one Hindi film and two English films if you thrown in the meals we were always desperate to savour before getting back to the confines of mossy bread and water thin margarine offered as breakfast. The movies over the ten years that I spent there were dominated by B and C grade Hollywood products in the early years these were largely Vietnam war movies, a number of blue films commensurate with my growing up years and in later years an increasing number of Hindi films.

Amidst all the above dominating categories of movies watched there were a number of East Asian/Asian films we watched and which were clearly dominated by the unique genre that was produced in Hong Kong. Jackie Chan was the clear star in the sheer number of movies and a uniquely sweet-nice-soft/tough guy character he has made immortal. Within this category too, there were a number of non Jackie Chan martial arts movies which we managed to fit in due to the vagaries of someone else’s decision making or more correctly due to institutional interests. It was in the year of someone else’s Lord 2004, that a buddy from the Film Institute of India, Pune ripped a number of foreign films DVD and gifted it to us film starved/wannabe’s at JNU. In this pack of about a dozen films there was one called, In the Mood for Love, which at first sight I was not very keen on watching, trying to get my fill of French, Spanish and the cinema from Brazil (City of God).

The evening we decided to watch this film was one of those long loo-y (hot summer winds from Rajasthan carrying dust and laziness) evenings. My companion was a man now suffering or selling coffee in a Starbucks Café in London who maintains a blog called Londonistan. At first sight or even on repeated occasions not the perfect film companion, not a film junkie by any yard or standards. Yet that fateful evening, we were transfixed, mesmerized and bowled over by the sadness or the melancholy that the film exhibited. It was love at first sight, the most amazing and beautiful cinematography, a tribute to colonial Hong Kong (the film is set in the 1960’s) and the most eclectic and soothing musical score. I have mentioned the two things which first hit me, the camerawork and the music. On repeated viewings, I recommended the film to all and sundry and with a vigour and energy that most might find nauseating but uniquely me. The next few things about the movie that caught me were the lead actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. I loved the movie, I was shaken from the belief that I had seen a lot of world cinema. On watching In the Mood for Love, I realized that education was just beginning. The 1999 movie is directed by Wang Kar Wai, by then a big name in the West, who was also based in Hong Kong and his films are said to be a never ending love affair with Hong Kong. The film is a innocuous yet guilt ridden flirtation that two neighboring married spouses indulge in when they realize that there respective partners were having an affair with each other. The film won Tony Leung the best actor award at Cannes and the film was adjudged the best film of the year.

After a gap of a year, a visit to Taipei and meeting new people from East Asia, I learnt more about Wang Kar Wai’s other films. In the latter part of the year 2005, I was gifted a DVD of 2046, the sequel to In the Mood for Love made in the year 2004. I watched it, I enjoyed it but it did not evoke as strong emotions as the previous one. But the movie did was intensify the melancholy that had begun in the first film and I made an effort to try and understand the two films as one single whole story and then it made beautiful sense. 2046 is in many ways Wang Kar Wai’s tribute to Hong Kong, his lead actor Tony Leoung and the poetic beauty of In the Mood for Love. There are two facts when can mention about 2046 the name. First, Hong Kong will pass into full Chinese control in the year 2046. Second, it was a hotel room in which the previous movie’s couple together wrote martial arts stories. The sequel continues from where In the Mood for Love finished of the lead character Mr Chow divorced and also abandoned by his second love moves to Singapore. From the middle class world that he inhabited in the first film, Mr. Chow now lives in the fringes of society when he returns to Hong Kong after a couple of years subsisting on his production of martial arts stories that the newspapers love. His companions are prostitutes, gamblers and drunkard murders and Mr Chow is weighed down by his past moving from one woman to another and in his efforts to escape his pain, we are exhibited to how the past is such a difficult thing to live with. 2046 in that reading is a chronicle of living with your past, of escaping it and of the futility of all the effort. Both the films are love stories as we know them to be. The first film is probably the most imaginative and the freshest I have ever seen and the second is a commentary on the follies and the baggage that romantic relationships weigh on each one of us. Mr Chow is played by Tony Leung in both the movies and from a cuckold husband in the first part to the flirtatious and superficial Mr Chow in the second, he captures in his sad brooding face a complexity of feelings, emotions and evolution, I have not seen on the screen earlier.

That is Tony Leung as Mr Chow the cuckold husband ultimate cool smoking guy from In The Mood For Love.

That is Tony Leung as Mr Chow the smooth womaniser from 2046.

Thus, my mild flirtation and the interest it invoked in me continued. Prior to this I had also watched two other Chinese films which deserve a mention. The first was Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger which was directed by Taiwan born Ang Lee (feted by the Oscar Committee for his Brokeback Mountain in the year 2006) and Hero, a colorful and visually brilliant though politically a minefield movie directed by the only mainland Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, whose films I have seen. Due to particularistic influence from friends, I persisted with my Indian paced exploration of Chinese films. Thanks to internet technology and to more specifically P2P software sharing I managed to download three Chinese films in the past two months. The first which I have watched is Zhang Yimou’s, The Road Home (1999), in which Zhang Ziyi was introduced. It is a visually opulent tale of a simple village story somewhere in China prior to the Cultural Revolution . A most beautiful movie in a taste that also resonates in Clint Eastwood’s work, like taking a gulp of wine in the mouth and rolling it over and taking in little sips while the taste reveals itself in the slow process. It is a simple tale told in a flash back about a village girl’s love for the village school teacher appointed by the Maoist Chinese state. My reading of the film reveals a strongly political condemnation of the anti-cultural bankruptcy of the Great Cultural Revolution when older traditions, practices were dubbed bourgeoisie, feudal and having no place in the new classless China. However, I do not read any politics beyond it, cause the state in any form does not intervene in the film and in that sense, it is a mild and yet a resonating protest against the Cultural Revolution.

The other two films that I have downloaded are Wang Kar Wai’s , Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild. The romance continues and after watching the shoddily made, Memoirs of a Geisha, I am in love with the character Hatsumomo played by Chinese actress Gong Li. A few enquires and internet searches reveals that Gong Li is a regular feature in Zhang Yimou’s films and the lead Chinese actress of the generation before Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri of Memoirs of a Geisha).

Gong Li is Enchanting.

The Bihar Connection

Apart from myself there is another Bihar connection to this phase of my fascination with Chinese films. The man who captures the visuals in Wang Kar Wai’s movies is an American born white guy Christopher Doyle who considers himself an Asian, has a Chinese name and lives in Hong Kong. Doyle was also the cameraman for Hero and The Quiet American. Doyle before he turned to what one supposes is his first love, Cinema was an engineer who was deputed to supervise an irrigation (?) project in Bihar in the past. This are all the reasons why life is so fascinating, ain’t it?

Last Word

The success of Chinese films in the West and the fact that they are leagues ahead of anything that the Hindi film industry has tried to provide as a cross over is self explanatory. The best of Bombay comes nowhere near what Hong Kong, Taipei or Beijing produce. They do what they do best while our brethren in Bombay are trying to do what they don’t do best, for example Shekhar Kapur and his bull shitting. It has been about ten years since Kapur shifted to Hollywood or wherever and he has two films to show. About Elizabeth which Kapur directed, a critic had this wonderful thing to say, that while watching the movie, he got the impression that in every shot, the smartie pants director was trying to prove how clever he was, attracting attention to himself! No one ever heard of Four Feathers, the Kapur film which died probably on release. In every visit to India, that I suppose is faithfully covered by Delhi Times, Kapur comes and talks nonsense of his plans to make Indian movies global (beyond what it already is) and his name dropping collaborations and the such trite ideas. Someone should advise Shekhar Kapur to doing what he does best, to make the movies he wants to make and let the rest happen on its own if it has to. Isn’t this more simple sounding and has more chances of success?

Bonus Picture from In the Mood For Love


Carina said...


Great review, Satya! As always...

I have this song from the soundtrack of "In the Mood for Love". Very good. I'll sent it to you soon, ok?

Be good! :)

aya said...

Can't you wait till you watch the Chunking Express???

I think that the underlining theme has been the same in all Wan Kar-wai's picture. Don't you think so? You could actually see those continuting same messages in all his films.

It might be true that In the mood for love and 2046 are more sophisticated than Chunking Express. But for me, the impact of the film on my life, which took place more than ten years ago, is still vivid and cannot replace by any other films so far.

There is no appropriate words for me to express my feeling towards his film.....I just can't. So,I will just stop here. But let me just say that WATCH CHUNKING EXPRESS PLEASE!

abhay k said...

Hi Satya,
You r doing a great job buddy, Keep it up!
with best wishes!

satya said...

thank you abhay bhai..aapka aahsirwaad hai...

xanjukta said...

Aashirwad hai .... kameen...
beta, tu to goa se wapas aake bare gul khila raha hai... bahut likh dala ... yaar commendable... lekin mera ashirwad bilkul tere saath nahin hai...
hehehe!!! reference clear hai!

p.s. will take me some time to comment on ezikiel though... i vaguely remember the peom... didn't make much of an impact perhaps....

satya said...

xanjukta, yeah it was in the Class Ten book of poems that ICSE prescribed for us. I think ours was the last batch that had it. The lines in the poem, especially this one..."Everyday I am reading TImes of India...." was something very nice and telling about the I did a google search and found it.

otherwise you know I am not the poetry kinds in any manner.

Dark said...

Hey, I protest! I refuse to accept that I was "transfixed, mesmerized and bowled over by the sadness or the melancholy that the film exhibited"!!!

You've certainly been prolific of late.


satya said...

well yeah, mr dark. i get the hint.
you should have been thrilled by the historical mention and fame by association.

Dark said...

yeah, right... (=
I haven't had the time to see a movie in this country yet. When that happens it'll be historical.

Witch Speak said...

Lovely post.

Christopher Doyle is Australian born actually, not American. Have you seen his work in 'Rabbit Proof Fence'? It is a film about the lost generation of the Aborigines, a more poignant story than the recent 'Australia' where the sets and cinematography, although magnificent distract you from the story.