21 January 2021.
When I think of the rich span of Chinese cinema (first film made in 1905), the creator that comes to mind is the prolific director Zhang Yimou who first started as a cinematographer in 1982. The excellence of his countless films are a testament to both China’s grandeur and its troubled, tumultuous history, and have deservedly won him innumerable awards from top festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Venice, though they were sometimes banned in China on political grounds. He nevertheless was chosen as the artistic director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
A few of his finest films, often with the renowned Gong Li as heroine :
RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991), the sumptuous, mysterious tale of four concubines vying for the favour of their master in a luxurious but tightly controlled compound.
RAISE THE RED LANTERN
THE STORY OF QIU JU (1992) is about a peasant who is mistreated by the village elder. When the peasant’s wife demands an apology and does not get it, she takes her complaint to the city and becomes mired in inept bureaucracy in her search for justice.
THE STORY OF QIU JU
TO LIVE (1994) is the story of a family trying to survive after the husband loses their fortune in gambling, and tries his luck as a labourer, an actor and a soldier, with the Cultural Revolution as a backdrop. Powerful.
HERO (2002), Zhang’s glorious martial arts epic set in ancient China was a departure from his more gentle, socially-minded works. It proved to be both a critical and popular success.
A contemporary of Zhang Yimou was Chen Kaige, whose best film, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (1993), was a worldwide hit, about a strange love triangle set in a Chinese opera house, where the female roles were often played by men. As is the wont of Chinese cinema, it was lavish, enigmatic and controversial.
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE
The next great director, Ang Lee, came from Taiwan, but has made most of his films in the U.S. His filmography is incredibly diverse, starting with his joyous Taiwan-based EAT, DRINK, MAN, WOMAN (1994), which told of a close knit but evolving family who loved to cook and eat; to Jane Austin’s delicate SENSE AND SENSIBILITY with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant; the sexually free, yet barren tragedy, THE ICE STORM; or the surprisingly tender western about homosexuality, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which took best director at the 2005 Oscars, with more awards at the BAFTAS, Golden Globes, etc, etc. He went on to make such different films as the brilliantly choreographed martial arts opus, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), and the surreal adventure tale, LIFE OF PI. All very successful and richly awarded.
EAT, DRINK, MAN, WOMAN
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, a sublime romance by the famous Hong Kong-born director, Wong Kar-wai, entranced critics and audiences at the 2000 Cannes festival. Its haunting soundtrack mingled with the cool beauty of its protagonists who seemed to float through dark hallways and undefined relationships made for an unforgettable experience in a love affair. It was simply poetry in motion. It swept the French, German, British and European awards for best foreign film that year.
And finally, the superb ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE (or THE ETERNALS) by Jia Zhangke from 2018, is a panoramic view of modern China through the trials and tribulations of a woman who gives her complete allegiance to her lover who is a a sort of mafia leader in an industrial area of China. This is breathtaking reality in its most intimate yet global view of an emerging China.
ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE
Each of these very different films is a masterpiece in its own right. Get ready to download.
Superb **** Very Good *** Good ** Mediocre * Miserable – no stars
Neptune Ravar Ingwersen reviews film extensively for publications in Switzerland. She views 4 to 8 films a week and her aim is to sort the wheat from the chaff for readers.