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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 73

[73rd of 100]. It might as well be that we begin with Gong Li's face, in close-up: gimlet-eyed, controlled in her emotion, and impassive in her interrogation by the off-camera voice of her mother questioning her choice, as a university-educated woman, to become the fourth wife of a very rich man. "I've thought it over. Alright, I'll get married," she says. "What sort of man? Is it up to me? You always speak of money. Why not marry a rich man? Let me a concubine. Isn't that a woman's fate?" And with that brief, simply executed prologue, Zhang Yimou lays out the premise and the seed of conflict in this brilliant 1991 melodrama, set in 1930s China, of domestic skirmish playing out allegories bigger than itself. There will be this proud, educated, and beautiful woman compromising her ambitions for societal pressures to marry, especially in the hopes of upward mobility. There will be her entry to a closed-up world as she navigates, as a surrogate for the audience, a place steeped in ancient traditions, its mechanism governed by hierarchies fought for by its denizens through brutal machinations both subtle and swiftly violent. There will be her tentative relationships with the three other wives that came before her, each one a cipher, each one with hidden agenda, each one vying for the primacy of the attention of the master, their husband. There will be that master, whose face is largely unseen by us, but whose presence pervades the household politics, whose whims are the law, whose undisputed control is made literal by the lighting of red lanterns in the house of the mistress he has favored to spend the night with. The red lanterns become the beacon of each of the wives' day to day ambitions because along with them come privileges denied the others: carefully administered foot massages, the choice of food for the next day's lunch, the ear of the master for the night, and hopefully all the other nights. [Watching the film again, I couldn't help but see the devious psychological design of this closed-up system to favour the controller and always subjugating the controlled but no longer by direct oppression: it sets up a status quo where the controlled themselves police each other, even viciously, all for the small privileges extended to them by the one in power. Sounds like the world we live in right now controlled by tyrants.] Gong Li's fourth mistress stumbles through all these with the naivete of her class, the pride and haughtiness of her education, the sense of imperviousness of her gender. She makes friends, she makes enemies, she learns the household's traditions both banal and dark, she learns to game the system to her benefit and not always for the good. I like that the film makes her out to be no Pollyanna: she may be our protagonist, and we do root for her, but she can be petty, thoughtless, and careless -- and her actions in fact lay the groundwork for the film's tragedies. But the film, based on the novel by Su Tong, does not condemn her or judge her -- painting her in the end not as the purveyor of tragedy but as the tragic victim of a system that is inherently vile and unfair. Together with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine [which also starred Gong Li], this Zhang Yimou film was my entry to Chinese cinema when I began my cinephilia in the mid-1990s -- and it blew me away with deftness of its direction, the unshowy boldness of its central performances, the astounding beauty of its cinematography by Zhao Fei, the sad operatic score by Zhao Jiping, the biting political critique disguising itself as domestic drama. Critic James Berardinelli writes of it in that light: "Songlian [the fourth mistress] is the individual, the master is the government, and the customs of the house are the laws of the country. It's an archaic system that rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them." Zhang Yimou of course has denied the political overtones of the film -- but the Chinese government still banned it upon release, insisting that Yimou made the film as a critique of China's authoritarian rule. Beyond the politics, the film still works as engrossing cinema -- and I'm still of the opinion that this remains the apex of his filmmaking, the aesthetic culmination of his early works as a director in Red Sorghum [1987] and Ju Dou [1990], and as cinematographer for Tian Zhuangzhuang, Xie Xiaojing, and Zhang Jianya's Red Elephant [1982], Zhang Junzhao's One and Eight [1983], Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth [1984], Wu Tianming's Old Well [1986, and starring in it as well], and Chen Kaige's The Big Parade [1986]. His filmmography since then -- which includes The Story of Qiu Ju [1992], To Live [1994], Shanghai Triad [1995], Not One Less [1999], The Road Home [1999], Hero [2002], House of Flying Daggers [2004], Curse of the Golden Flower [2006], and The Flowers of War [2011] -- vary in quality, scope, and ambition [with 2016's The Great Wall being the nadir] but for sure they have never equalled the singular greatness of this 1991 film, even with the stylistic flourishes of Shadow [2018]. I've mentioned his contemporaries because while it is important to note that the film as the highpoint of Yimou's filmmaking, it is also one of the grandest outputs of China's so-called Fifth Generation filmmakers. They were an illustrious group that included Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zhang Junzhao, Huang Jianxin, Zhang Zeming, and Gu Changwei -- one defined by their matriculation at the Beijing Film Academy when Chinese authorities allowed its reopening in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution shut it down in 1965. [Except, it has to be noted, for Zhang Zeming, who studied film at the Pearl River Studios in Guangzhou.] They had in common their youthful, rebellious enthusiasm for the craft. They hailed from varied backgrounds, and were encouraged to experiment -- and out of this ferment was born a new style of Chinese filmmaking divorced from the pedantic realism of socialist cinema. According to Chinese film scholar Geoffrey Wong, “The Fifth Generation filmmakers broke new ground with brand new ways of storytelling and rich political allegories. They were bold in abstraction and symbolism, at times relying on images rather than dialogue for expression. Vast landscapes, ethnic traditions, and village lives are depicted in a way to articulate human conditions. The contrast between humans and the overpowering environment around them is something remarkable that the Fifth Generation brought out. Their films contain sophisticated reflections on the country’s history, culture and its evolution. These qualities mark a distinct departure from the conventional, social-realist filmmaking that preceded them.” They became a supernova in the 1990s, marked with constant collaborations with each other. But they soon made their separate ways as filmmakers, alas having formed no coherent film movement in China, and as a group they are rarely mentioned today. I see this 1991 film and its cousins not as nostalgia for a golden age, not as relics of a bygone group -- but as testaments of exuberant, rebellious filmmaking before the varicose sets in. What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich