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“The Flowers of War” 《金陵十三钗》 — Sweet and Sour Cinema Exclusive Review [Sweet & Sour Cinema]

Posted in China, Japan, Sweet & Sour Cinema, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review, Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 on February 5, 2012 by Zuo Shou / 左手

“The Flowers of War” 《金陵十三钗》 — Sweet and Sour Socialism Exclusive Review
by Zuo Shou

2012 Feb 5

The Flowers of War
Directed by Zhang Yimou 张艺谋

Starring: Christian Bale, Ni Ni 倪妮, Tong Dawei 佟大为

Viewed 2011 December, in Chinese mainland theatre with English and Mandarin subtitles

“In the dark history of human atrocity, one savage, inhuman chapter that is always missing from the textbooks in courses about the Pacific conflict in World War II [sic] is the Rape of Nanking. Except for the occasional documentary, this harrowing event has gone largely unexplored by filmmakers, yet it surges with historic value and the elements of heartbreaking drama. Ask history majors about what the Japanese did to…civilians…and all they know is Pearl Harbor, Bataan and the Death March. Now the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou has made a valiant and compassionate effort to enlighten the ignorant…

Rex Reed – “From the Withered Tree, ‘Flowers of War’ Bloom” (1)

Renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s latest offering, centering on the Second Sino-Japanese War invasion and genocide in Nanking (Nanjing), has been released amidst a burst of controversy. (I’ll address the controversies in a projected separate post’s analysis of the film’s defamation by certain corporate media.)

Zhang Yimou’s fictionalized take on the historic “Rape of Nanking” is an unconventional yet dramatically successful melding of the war genre and genocide melodrama. The film has been wrongly touted as an “epic” — perhaps due to the 140-minute length. What Yimou has rendered is actually a more minutely proportioned picture of resistance and redemption against the backdrop of an abhorrent episode of Japanese aggression in China, reflecting the scale of the novella which is the film’s basis.

I have had a qualified respect for Zhang Yimou, whom I’ve previously viewed as an intermittently brilliant film director whose cinematography at least is rarely less than formally perfect. My major criticism of his pre-2008 film work (with which I am only partially familiar), is that his films present a sophisticated superficial beauty somewhat alienated by an art-house chill: a lack of dramatic balance and warm humanity. His past films in particular had a glaring lack of comedic sense, with characters more like manipulated figures in an art gallery than dramatically living and breathing creatures. His wuxia action films, while framing characters exquisitely in martial motion, seemingly lacked the visceral “emotional content” that Bruce Lee strove for as an essential element of cinematic fighting in his own films.

Perhaps this is why Zhang’s true artistic masterpiece at this time is arguably not any film but the epic Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies, where his stadium-size visionary gifts were able to manifest in a sweeping gorgeousness almost wholly unencumbered by individual characterization.

After that gigantic presentation, Zhang changed up his cinematic style post-Olympics by radically scaling back the scope of his two subsequent films. The black comedy “A Simple Noodle Story” / aka “Legend of the 3 Guns” 《三枪拍案惊奇》 — released in the West as “A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop” — was a Sinicized remake of the Coen Brothers’ cinematic calling card “Blood Simple”. It met with negativity from foreign critics and underwhelmed the majority of Chinese audiences, who perhaps had sky-high expectations after Zhang’s stupendous Olympics triumph. I found it manifestly more memorable, and funnier, than its minor source material and enjoyed seeing Zhang work against expectations.

He followed that up with 2010’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree”, 《山楂树之恋》 which was a relatively twee but evocative “Love Story”-style tearjerker set in the Cultural Revolution. Given very good marks overall from the Chinese film-going public, it was basically ignored by Western critics, perhaps either through lack of international distribution or because it did not portray the Cultural Revolution period horribly enough to suit Western prejudicial tastes.

Zhang’s “The Flowers of War” production was internationally hyped as the most expensive Chinese film production in history (with an approximately $90 million budget) and interest was heightened domestically and abroad with the casting of Christian Bale as male lead (who is erroneously credited in some places as “the first Western actor to star in a Chinese film”.) Initially receiving mixed reviews from Chinese viewers, it’s come to be met with general approval by audiences (receiving an 8.1 rating out of 10 on the public Chinese website and will end up as one of the two top grossing Chinese films of all time.

I was originally intending to skip the film for various reasons. I’m not a fan of Christian Bale. I was very impressed, yet harrowed, by Lv Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” which I had re-viewed recently, and I really didn’t want to cinematically relive the Rape of Nanking any time soon. I was also rather put off by the commercial of the film that was running on the Chinese TV film channel, in particular a short sequence that seemed to be showing the graphic rape of a young Chinese by a Japanese soldier. However, it was the slew of derogatory news articles and reviews from Western sources coinciding with the release of the film in China, and Bale’s subsequent ill-considered personal publicity stunt orchestrated with CNN regarding a US-government-supported Chinese “activist” under house arrest, which made me want to see what all the fuss was about.

What I discovered was a wartime tale focused on sacrifice and martyrdom that, contrary to expectations, worked exceedingly well as it generated consistent dramatic energy through utilizing a rich spectrum of human response to atrocity. I found one its strengths to be a dynamic freshness that came from the risks Zhang took in pushing the dramatic credibility of the characters to extremes, and in bringing a sophisticated theatricality to the proceedings that has become almost extinct in this age of increasingly de-humanized blockbusters.

The battle scenes between the invading Japanese and the guerrilla-style resistance by remnants of the Chinese Nationalist soldiers in Nanjing which commence the film were extremely thrilling and showed the technical expertise of the (presumably expensive) foreign component of the crew; the sound design of these sequences was particularly outstanding. Featured in these scenes is the stoic and brave Tong Dawei, whose heroism elevates him to the level of a kind of Chinese Sampson.

Bale carries off his role well as a traumatized alcoholic scoundrel whose inner wellsprings of redemption are catalyzed by Japanese aggression against schoolgirls holed up in the tenuous refuge of a Nanking cathedral. Elsewhere I’ve read his character being defined as the film’s “Western Identification figure”; which is not untrue but also not a comprehensive definition. It should be noted that he is not “the hero” of the film, which is a complaint of those who justly dislike the cinematic stereotype of a single-handed “Western savior” of hapless foreigners (of which Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler in “Schindler’s List” is an apotheosis), although Bale’s character’s behavior is, at times, heroic.

The real “heros” are actually “heroines” in the film — the 13 prostitutes alluded to in the film’s Chinese title who, for the sake of repaying a moral debt, stand to suffer a fate worse than a “fate worse than death” at the hands of some despicable Japanese. Zhang claimed that a fresh aspect he wanted to bring to the oft-told (in China) story of the Nanjing Massacre is a female perspective, and it’s to his credit that he does this without the phony “Girl Power” posing that often passes for feminism in Western culture today, and which would be anachronistic anyway.

Zhang Yimou is famous for introducing previous unknowns in his films that go on to major film careers, the so-called “Mou girls”. So it’s with anticipation that one is presented with Ni Ni, who plays Yu Mo, the prostitutes’ leader. Despite being saddled with the need for her character to speak in broken English, newcomer Ni Ni is at least the dramatic equal of megastar Bale and radiates a poise, intelligence and sensual beauty that is undeniably impressive and promises an auspicious future in acting for her, particularly as she’s reportedly just in her early 20’s (I’d assumed from her demeanor that she was at least 10 years older).

The partial narrator of film is one of the plighted schoolgirls, typically framed as looking out of a cathedral’s stained-glass windows to the war-torn world outside, windows which are eventually pierced by Japanese bullets. She and her classmates represent inexperienced foils to Bale’s initial selfishness, the worldly, bawdy atmosphere of the diva-esque courtesans, and the rampaging amoral Japanese soldiers.

One of the ingenious things about the film is its sophisticated cinematic representation of sexuality, between the ugliness of rape, the attraction-repulsion of the sex trade, and essential human love. In particular Zhang is deploying realistic depictions of sexuality alongside elements of cinematically poetic neo-Freudian sexuality that has been lost in movies since Luis Buñuel passed on, for in “The Flowers of War” the virginal and post-virginal become creatively transposed. This is part of the success of the film, whereby the stereotypically dichotomous (some might say “virgin-whore”, although I don’t know if that’s an exclusively Western construct) male-originated mentality is obliterated and perhaps the epidemic sexual trauma of the Rape of Nanking can witness some healing through artistic creativity.

I have yet to find a critic who pointed out a particularly brilliant part of the film’s dramatization, which is the subtle contrast of two kinds of martyrs: the cathedral set evokes the passive martyrdom of Christ, who legendarily redeems humanity; the Christian ‘sanctuary’ of Nanjing is background to the ultimate fate of the hookers, whose (off-screen) martyrdom is contrastingly active; i.e. all 13 of them resolve to face death at the hands of the Japanese…armed. Note that both Christ’s and the Nanjing martyrs’ dramas happen in the context of imperial occupation…

The film is not without flaws. After some brilliant moments and the high gear of the initial street combat sequences, the film’s drama settles down in the cathedral and becomes a little set-bound, although never less than compelling on multiple levels. The combat sequences are so exciting and vividly realized, but are basically wrapped up less than one-half into the film. This left me wishing there was more “War” and a bit less “Flowers”. There’s also a sequence about a couple of prostitutes venturing out of the relative sanctuary of the cathedral on a foolhardy mission that is as stupid as any similar scenario from a slasher movie, and was a good excuse to go to the WC (the equivalent of looking away from the screen, perhaps). It’s also a bit of a head-scratcher as to where the huge budget went to; while the production design of a desolated Nanjing is never less than convincing, the comparatively large amount of time spent in the cathedral set leads one to assume the salary of Bale and the foreign technical staff contributions, particularly for the battle special effects, constituted a huge portion of the production cost.

However, these individual criticisms do not undermine the copious rewards for the viewer of the film. I had previously considered Lv’s “City of Life and Death” as the unsurpassable filmic representation of the Nanjing Massacre. However, in retrospect, that film’s intellectual art-house style of black and white bleakness and catalogue of horrors, however artfully presented, is signally lacking emotional catharsis — which mutes the characters’ acts of humanity and sacrifice. What Zhang has presented is more pitched to the masses; a blazingly unique and maturely heart-felt perspective of the Nanjing Massacre which dramatically amplifies the humanity in contrast to the inhumanity.

Zhang has said that his film is ultimately about peace, and I think it has much to teach us in light of serial genocides (usually overtly or indirectly sponsored by the US) which have continued globally since World War II, despite whitewashings and historical falsifications that linger and are unconsciously woven into the social fabric of the Western world and its client states. In some ways it holds up a exposing mirror to the ordeals of civilians which are the outcome of horrific wars of the 21st Century.

But mainly “The Flowers of War” is a brilliant symbolic testament to the Chinese victory over the Japanese in the 20th Century. Through the thrills and tears elicited by the art of Zhang and his cast, it’s shown that victims and survivors can turn the devastating and shameful experiences of wars of aggression into the blooming of a more sublime destiny. The Chinese can — perhaps they have — overcome the Nanjing Massacre. Though there was and is unbearable and unforgettable mass suffering at the hands of foreign aggressors, victory has come through the deep human love that conquers evil through acts of resistance and martyrdom. The future of that exponentially tragic historic incident is now: the New China which is the phoenix rising from the ashes of the Nanking Massacre, and the peace enjoyed by current (and hopefully future) generations of Chinese.

This film has literally not been out of my thoughts since I have seen it, in a way that is quite unprecedented in a life of cinema-going. In contemplating it I have not ceased to discern new perspectives and facets to the work. I think this is the definition of a classic. From my perspective it’s at least Zhang’s best film yet.



“Shaolin” [新少林寺] (2011) – Exclusive Review [Sweet & Sour Cinema / Sweet & Sour Cinema Exclusive Review]

Posted in Andy Lau 刘德华, Buddhism, China, Fan Bingbing 范冰冰, Hong Kong, Jackie Chan 成龙, Kung Fu 功夫, Martial Arts, Nicholas Tse 谢霆锋, Shaolin Temple 少林寺, Sweet & Sour Cinema, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review on September 9, 2011 by Zuo Shou / 左手

“Shaolin” [新少林寺] (2011) – Review by Zuo Shou 左手

Directed by Benny Chan

Starring: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Fan Bingbing, Jackie Chan

Review of Mandarin version, w/o English subs

[Qualifier: this reviewer is not fully fluent in Mandarin, which may affect the film appreciation]

Watching this film – the title literally meaning “New Shaolin Temple” – was a happy circumstance for this long-time martial arts film fan: a cinematic experience that surpassed expectations and reached epic significance.

The rich mythos of Shaolin Temple has been heavily mined in action films over the years, yielding several classics: “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” and “Return to the 36th Chamber” (both starring the inimitable bald-pated Gordon Liu], and Jet Li’s sensational debut “Shaolin Temple” and the sequel “Kids from Shaolin”.

With these classics in the back of my mind, “Shaolin” was looking just ok in the previews, the simulated Shaolin Temple sets having a kind of blah dusty-brown production design. [Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple” had the distinct advantage of being shot in the authentic environment.] The assignment of HK director Benny Chan had me feeling ambiguous, as he’d previously made some “OK” action movies. I find that while the martial arts in his films can be fine to outstanding, the direction and surrounding elements tend to be pedestrian. It also was weighted with leads getting on in years, Andy Lau and Jacky Chan (who is actually more of a guest star).

The film begins in a milieu of military internecine contesting. Set in a [pre-?] Republican warlord era, Andy Lau is the focus as an amoral officer who, along with his evilly-coiffed 2nd-in-command Cao Man [Nicholas Tse] conquers Chinese territory which includes the legendary Buddhist Shaolin Temple, home of Chinese kung fu. Lau desecrates the place in just the opening minutes.

The first thrilling action sequence is a rollicking battle atop horse-drawn carts jostling at high speeds, which coincides with Lau’s major reversal of fortune.

From this point, the film follows Lau’s redemption, which starts out in a rather lackluster manner. Comparing the scene where Lau cuts his own hair to surrender into monkhood is lackluster compared to the blazing masochistic passion of a similar scene with Gordon Liu in “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”. Also the plot and ancilliary characters seem to be just kind of plodding along, and one wonders if it’s going to be a good film after all.

Before you know it, it’s turned into something like Jacky Chan’s “Drunken Master II”, with slaves, a foreign plot to rob China of its priceless treasures, and Chinese running dogs facilitating the plunder. All of which is very much to the good; I can’t remember the last time an anti-imperialist theme was used so effectively in a Chinese action film.

Some strong action set pieces explicating Buddhist philosophy bring things up to the next level, and Jacky Chan suddenly is in the middle of the best comic relief action sequence – aided by a bunch of kiddie kung fu monks — that I’ve seen in years. An army attacks Shaolin Temple, and the film is very successful in showing the overcoming of firearms with fists and wit – something that’s usually just a laugh-out-loud proposition on the cinematic screen.

By the end the Temple blows up real good – really, the pyrotechnics are top-notch; the monks have adjusted their ethics dogma and armed themselves with slashing blades to dispatch the wolvish foreigners and their minions to hell, and Andy Lau is redeemed in an amazing scene, I can’t really think of a better representation of Buddhist salvation on cinema. In fact, considering all the films which have been based on Shaolin Temple, mostly they are concerned with the conflict between worldliness/violence and seclusion/pacifism. This one seems to me to have the best portrayals of Buddhism as redemption, making it probably the best overall allegory of the essence of Buddhism. I suppose it’s a credit to Lau that he can credibly pull off his character’s ultimate transformation.

The action by Corey Yuen and Yuen Tak is uniformly excellent without overdoing the wirework or CGI.

Honorable mention should be given to Fan Bingbing, who plays Lau’s warlord wife. While she’s basically a guest-star damsel in distress, she actually shows improvement as an actress, doing some decent emoting that transcends her recent transformation into eye-candy fashionista and cosmetics spokes-model. There’s also a resonant cameo by the actor who played Jet Li’s mentor in the original “Shaolin Temple”, here as the Temple’s abbot who gets a memorable stage exit.

Overall a film which verges on classic-hood, flawed by a mainly mediocre production design and lack of stronger directorial hand to tighten up the first half of the film. By the standards of 21st Century martial films, it’s a classic…

Film Business Asia’s review (by Derek Elley) rates the film 7 out of 10. “Potentially epic tale ends up as okay popcorn entertainment.”

Film Business Asia “Shaolin” review link:

“Wu Xia” [武侠] (2011) – Exclusive Review [Sweet & Sour Cinema / Sweet & Sour Cinema Exclusive Review]

Posted in Donnie Yen 甄子丹, Kung Fu, Sweet & Sour Cinema, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review on August 17, 2011 by Zuo Shou / 左手

“Wuxia” [武侠] (2011) – Review by Zuo Shou 左手

Directed by Peter Chan

Starring: Donnie Yen, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui

Review of Mandarin version, w/o English subs

[Qualifier: this reviewer is not fully fluent in Mandarin, which may affect the film appreciation]

This film created a lot of anticipation with its genre-encompassing title, career-peaking Donnie Yen as male lead and its plum casting of martial arts film bad-mutha Jimmy Wang Yu, the original “One-Armed Swordsman”.

The film mostly cannot rise to its own high expectation; however, there are some classic sequences, namely with some exhilarating Yen-choreographed fights in the film’s final third with the still-formidable Yu as well as a female old-school counterpart.

Director Peter Chan, a good but not great director in my opinion, makes an ambitious attempt in “Wuxia” to synthesize disparate stylistic elements into an action film. These include the martial arts excitement and tragic drama inherent in the “Wuxia” [“Martial Arts Chivalry”] genre; “Rashomon”-like replays of dubious events; film noir’s philosophy of life as whirlpool of evil; and finally old-school martial arts cinema tribute. The only aspect which Chan unqualifiedly succeeds with is the last, which perhaps is all that necessary for martial arts film fans. I give him credit for showing a deep passion and respect for the “kung fu” film classics, a quality which eventually carries the film over its artistic weaknesses.

The plot is rather simple and involves an unassuming small town artisan (Yen) drawn into a brawl with a pair of vicious bandits whom he inexplicably manages to dispatch, achieving heroic status among the locals. Detective Takeshi Kitaharo discerns the deepness beneath Yen’s still waters, and his investigations lead to a dark underworld.

Donnie Yen makes a problematic anchor for the film. This may make Donnie Yen fans howl, but in my opinion he is miscast in this role. He’s the top martial artist film actor today, a major star in his own right, and his fight direction in “Wuxia” is not to be faulted. However, he is one whose martial arts skills quite surpass his acting ability, which is mainly suited to either genial affability (his career-defining “Ip Man” role, which Yen himself described as a “geek…family man”) or limited-dialogue heavies whose fists do the talking (Jet Li’s prime adversary in “Once Upon a Time in China II”). In this film, he’s required to embody a character of the darkest depths, which seems to be an acting task quite beyond Yen; to be fair, perhaps the vagaries of the character would be beyond all but the most expert thesps. It doesn’t help that with Yen now being identifed with his own iconic “Ip Man” character, in this film he’s required to play almost the opposite, one with a depraved background — a kind of role he hasn’t touched for years (if not decades). Furthermore, recently Yen is doing a welter of TV ads simultaneously, from “Head and Shoulders” to analgesics and extension cords. This trivializes his image and makes a heavier role even more improbable for him to manage.

The second lead Kaneshiro Takeshi, doesn’t fare much better, as he is more of a matinee idol and Asian marketing device with his dual Taiwan-Japanese background than a solid acting talent. He’s also called upon to play some weirdly improbable scenes, including a masochistic one where he tortures himself with acupuncture needles in order to suppress his tendency to absorb the grief and pain he’s exposed to in his crime studies.

So for the the first 2/3 of the film, there’s basically one fight sequence played twice (the Rashomon effect – deployed more as gimmick than art), and besides the not-to-compelling cat & mouse game between the Yen and Takeshi characters and the nice Southern Chinese village scenery (an odd choice for a noir-esque plot), all that one has to sink their teeth into is the character of Yen’s wife Tang Wei. Her main attraction is her career redemption; she’s slowly rehabilitating her integrity after the nearly career-killing choice of her introductory lead role in Ang Lee’s tawdry and reactionary misfire “Lust, Caution”. Tang seems to be the only talented lead actor in the film, even if she’s only got one tiny scene to show what she can do.

It’s all somewhat superficial and contrived, and with an hour or so having passed one realizes how sparse the action has been, and wonders what is the point of it all. And where in the heck is Jimmy Wang Yu?!? Then elderly Jimmy shows up as a sinister Buddhist abbot, and with his appearance the film suddenly realizes its latent potential. With an unnaturally menacing subterranean voice and casualty-inflicting rings on every fleshy knuckle, he’s a truly intimidating martial arts Jabba the Hut in sable robes.

Except for one sidetrack, the remainder of the movie thrills in classic fashion with new-school (Yen) vs. old-school stars Kara Hui (“My Favorite Auntie”, “Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter” – here as a superb knife-fighter) and dominating Jimmy Wang Yu. The climactic battle’s finale is absolutely brilliant…

So in the end, I’m not really sure why they called the movie “Wuxia” as it doesn’t quite embody the “chivalry” that I think of as defining that genre. (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is probably the best-know example of that.) The film overall doesn’t reach the heights of earlier wuxia classics. However, when Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu are battling Donnie Yen in the final reel, it’s as good as it gets in the 21st Century martial arts flick world. This one is really for the genre fans, and the deeper your knowledge of the oldies which this film turns out being Peter Chan’s paean to, the greater the chance you’ll enjoy the multiple resonances. Just keep in mind that the lead-up to the really good stuff just might try your patience.

In the meantime, you might want to see the source of Jimmy Wang Yu’s legendary status; check out his auteur tour-de-force in the scrappy and sublime “One-armed Boxer vs. Flying Guillotine”.


I recommend Derek Elley’s fine online review of “Wu Xia” for Film Business Asia, he scores the movie 8 out of 10, saying “…Part period detective mystery, part martial arts drama, and part pressure-points manual, Wu Xia (武俠) is a sumptuously shot spin on the costume action genre whose only major weakness is a lack of narrative smoothness and tonal consistency…”

Full “Wu Xia” review from Film Business Asia site:

“True Legend” / 《苏乞儿》- Exclusive Review [Sweet & Sour Cinema / Sweet & Sour Cinema Exclusive Review]

Posted in Jackie Chan 成龙, Kung Fu, Sweet & Sour Cinema, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review, Yuen Wo Ping 袁和平, Zhou Xun 周迅 on May 21, 2011 by Zuo Shou / 左手

True Legend / 苏乞儿 -- Chinese poster (Source:

“True Legend”(2010)–  Review by Zuo Shou 左手

Directed by Yuen Woo-ping

Starring:  Chiu Man-Cheuk [Vincent Zhao], Zhou Xun, Andy On

Review of Mandarin, English-subtitled 2-D version seen in 2010

Releasing a review now, as the film currently has a limited release in the US.

“True Legend”, I’m sorry to report, is a true disappointment.  This film was a box-office flop in China, and even its classy bilingual website is now defunct as the film is released in North America.

Sadly, this film held multiple potentials that it just couldn’t fulfill.   Reknowned martial arts director Yuen Woo-ping was returning to the “Drunken Fist” style that was so iconic a few decades back in his legendary “Drunken Master” collaboration with young Jackie Chan.  Vincent Zhao was primed for a comeback.  David Carradine is seen in his final role (ok, maybe not too much promise in that).  There’s cameos by an array of martial arts film icons.  The story isbased on a colorful legend of an impoverished martial arts master, perhaps empowering in a time of global impoverishment when the poor have hardly been more invisible.  And 3-D martial arts!

Well, after this film’s release lets just say Steven Chow’s comical, Kurosawan assaying of the Su Qi-er legend “King of Beggars” is in no danger of losing its ranking as the top cinematic take on the subject.

Critics, in their enthusiasm to review this one, are overlooking that Yuen Woo-ping is just the director, not the action director here.  That should be enough to raise qualifiers, as his directorial efforts have been a decided mixed bag and sometimes dilutes his martial-arts-choreographing strength.   There are 2 action sequences that undoubtedly satisfy – one rolling on the edge of a waterfall and a (literally) ripping 2nd act chain-wrapped-fist-in-the-face brawl that still ends too abruptly –  but in my opinion they don’t make it a good film.

Still from "True Legend" w/ Andy On, Vincent Zhao ( /

The film’s major fault here is in the screenplay, which takes risks required to juice up the  the martial arts film genre (mainly in a conceptually interesting, if cinematically flat, extended sequence dramatizing the internal psychic struggle that great talents and / or substance abusers could go through).  Yuen Woo-ping does seem to have some noble conceptual intent involving the highs and lows of seeking martial arts perfection.  But while cheer-worthy, these risks undo themselves in a progressively deflating sequence of events that approaches dramatic absolute zero in a Heilongjiang East-West battle of no apparent significance and which is lamer than those seen in any number of recent productions (the Ip Man films, for instance) which tend to wind up in an “international” martial arts arena. Continue reading

“City of Life and Death” 《南京!南京!》(2009) — exclusive Sweet & Sour Cinema review; includes trailers with English subs [Sweet & Sour Cinema / Sweet & Sour Cinema Exclusive Review]

Posted in Anti-fascism, China, Fascism, Japan, Sweet & Sour Cinema, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review, World War II on May 14, 2011 by Zuo Shou / 左手

Still from "City of Life and Death". Photo credits: Kino International

“City of Life and Death” (2009)  —  Review by Zuo Shou 左手

Chinese title:  《南京!南京!》 [Translation:  Nanjing!  Nanjing!]

Written and Directed by Lu Chuan

Starring Liu Ye, Guo Yuanyuan, Fan Wei

TRAILERS:  From, U.S. trailer with English subtitles; Hong Kong trailer with Chinese and English subtitles and different format (I like the HK trailer better, but the video resolution is a little poorer)

May 13, 2011

I’m publishing a review of this film now, about 2 years after it originally appeared in Chinese cinemas, as it’s just gone into limited release in the US in mid-May 2011.  The only location I know it’s showing at this time is New York City.

In the several years that I’ve been in China, this is not only the best film that I’ve seen in a Chinese cinema, it’s best film I’ve seen period.  It’s not only a classic Chinese film, it’s a classic of world cinema.  While I’m not familiar with director/writer Lu Chuan’s highly-regarded Mountain Patrol:  Kekexili, I find that he has shot right to the top of world’s most prestigious film directors’ list with this 4-years-in-the-making masterpiece.

The infamous rampage of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers in the (former) Chinese capital of Nanjing in 1937 is considered one of the most heinous and concentrated incidents of genocide in the 20th century.  Just as many Nazi sympathizers and other falsifiers of history attempt to deny the Nazi genocide of the Jews, to this day Japanese ultra-rightists and -nationalists try to dismiss the reality of the Nanjing Massacre (as well as other WWII atrocities in China) as an elaborate Chinese hoax.

First off, I will qualify that given the subject matter, this film contains strong stuff and it’s unrated in the US for a reason.  Besides a cinematic cataloging of violence against both Chinese soldiers and civilians, it depicts the literal “Rape of Nanking”, which involved the kidnapping of Chinese females to serve as “comfort women” or sexual slaves to Japanese soldiers.  The film is one-of-its-kind in China in that despite the strong images of physical and sexual violence shown, government censors allowed it to be shown in Chinese cinemas, presumably because of the vital subject matter and overall superior craftsmanship.  (Chinese mainland cinemas basically have a “one-size-fits-all” censorship policy, under the rationale that if it’s not suitable for all ages, it shouldn’t be publicly screened.  This puts Chinese theaters’ typical content threshold around what would be rated “PG-13” in the USA.)

“City of Life and Death” should be termed as “based on a true story”, mainly as presented through the eyes of a wide-eyed Japanese conscript named Kadokawa.  Using an episodic format, it weaves together authentic testaments to Japanese war crimes from multi-national witnesses to create an altogether compelling and unforgettable documentary-style re-creation of history.

The film draws comparisons to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” for many reasons.  Both depict genocide to varying degrees of graphic-ness.  Both are shot in luminous, masterly black & white, which perhaps on the one hand heightens the sense of witnessing a documentary from a pre-Techincolor era and on the other takes the edge off the blood-spilling.  Both feature pivotal representations of historical German Nazi businessmen (in this film, Siemens’ AG China representative John Rabe, whose wartime diaries constitute a major documentation of Japanese crimes in Nanjing) who came to protect people whom their fascist ideology would otherwise direct them to despise or destroy.  What’s more, a sequence of urban warfare in “City of Life and Death” owes an obvious debt to the standard-setting hyper-realistic combat cinematography featured in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”.

It is to Lu Chuan’s credit that his film unequivocally surpasses the template of “Schindler”.  Despite its seminal photo-realistic exploration of Nazi anti-Semitic genocide, “Schindler” is saddled with glaring political and creative flaws:  e.g. the sentimental stereotyping of Jewish people as saintly sacrificial lambs to the fascist slaughter, or the Zionism that permeates the project.  In the final analysis, “Schindler” is a prequel, unwitting or not, which sets the stage for a new oppressive and criminal historical cycle of fascistic Israeli atrocities and dehumanizations.

Reviewers pick up on the fact that Lu Chuan “humanizes” the Japanese Imperial Army soldiers and their culture, presenting them as something more than the “Japanese devils” of yore  —  although the devils are certainly there running amok.  However, this is no “Das Boot”, Wolfgang Petersen’s “German Nazis are people too” reactionary cinematic watershed of the ’80s.  What Western reviewers are universally missing that is so essential to the dramatic success of “City of Life and Death” is the humanization of the Chinese, who are not merely stock propaganda victims.  The citizens of Nanjing behave in gradients along the full spectrum of humanity:  with both strength and weakness, resistance and collaborationism, self-sacrifice and mass abject cowardliness.  The last aspect is shown in a remarkably directed early confrontation between a stampede of Chinese Nationalist Army deserters and loyal Chinese troops trying to block them at the city gates, before the Japanese enter the besieged city.

“City of Life and Death” is a must-see, a virtuosic cinematic rendering of stunningly rich panoply of human experience within a WWII crucible of fascist aggression.  See it on the big screen if you can, but do see it; otherwise you’re depriving yourself of a chance to grasp a critical event in the history of China  —  by that I mean both the film itself and the undeniable “Nanjing Massacre” it dramatizes  —  an anti-fascist siren of warning for the ages.

“Gallants” Review – this blog’s exclusive [Film Business Asia / Sweet and Sour Cinema Exclusive Film Review]

Posted in China, Hong Kong, Kung Fu 功夫, Sweet & Sour Cinema, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review on February 4, 2011 by Zuo Shou / 左手

DISCLAIMER:  Film viewed without English subtitles by this reviewer, who is semi-fluent in Chinese.  Furthermore, I’m writing this several months after viewing it (late Spring 2010).

“Gallants” (打擂台) review

by Zuo Shou 左手

This kung fu confection had the best trailer of 2010, with a distinct “Old School” martial arts film flavor and some apparent wit, so I was rather interested to see it.

In my part of China, this film was in and out of theatres in 2 weeks, maybe less.

As the film began, I was disappointed that it wasn’t in Cantonese, which was one of its unique selling points:  “we won’t dub it in Mandarin for the mainland”.  I later discovered that results varied for audiences on this language factor depending which part of the mainland they saw the film in.

The film was pitched as humorous throwback to HK’s action film heyday, and indeed the stars and many supporting roles are 70’s action heroes now at senior ages, including David Chiang and Leung Siu-lung (梁小龍, still quite amazing several years after his comeback in 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle 功夫).  A bit of amusement can be had playing “name that performer” as familiar faces from the genre appear.  There’s also several funny touches  –  Bruce Leung was sporting an authentic-looking 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics T-shirt (?!?) at one point.  However, “Gallants” is not really a comedy and it’s not really a full-fledged actioner either, so its marketing must be termed as rather misleading. 

Regarding the kung fu, the action can’t be faulted; it’s very sharp and even clever at times.  However, it is sparse and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen the film’s kung fu repertoire.  The other thing is that while it might sound amusingly nostalgic to have kung fu cinema stars battling in old age, it must be said that while these guys should be complemented for staying in shape, their days as martial arts leads are quite far behind.

The film has at least two laugh-out-loud scenes, including a kind of parody of the grueling training sequences that used to be obligatory in martial arts genre films.  But it’s more complex than just a knockabout comedy; the film is ultimately aiming for a kind of bittersweet, elegiac tone that comes from looking back at a beloved art form’s former peak.  While it does succeed in capturing that tone somewhat, at other times it lapses into arid, or ambiguous, melodrama; I’m especially thinking of the film’s rather artsy “Pyrrhic victory” climax.

I give the film credit for not making some cheap and easy choices that a Hollywood production might.  The “sifu” who emerges from his decades-long coma would probably have been impressed into a “fish-out-of-water” cliche in a US film; “Gallants” doesn’t go there.  The film also gets credit for daring to not to have a lobotomized Hollywood happy ending…a consistent strong point of many HK action films.  Finally, it’s rather remarkable that a couple of young directors/screenplay writers made what is fundamentally a meditation on aging.

So while “Gallants” wasn’t quite what I was expecting, this little film did resonate enough with me despite its faults to give it qualified approval.  The more knowledge you have of the Shaw Brothers’ era martial arts films and their ilk, the greater the possibility you will enjoy it.


Film Business Asia reported that the Hong Kong Critics’ Society award this year for Best Picture went to “Gallants”, and “Gallants” Teddy ‘Robin’ Kwan was awarded Best Actor.


“Gallants” review excerpt [Film Business Asia]

Rated 6 out of 10

by Derek Elley

15 May 2010

…Gallants is a good idea weakened by a loose script and a lack of strong dramatic structure.  It’s more a film of small pleasures – including…dusky teahouse interiors and…nostalgic production design – than the film it promises to be at the start.

Full Film Business Asia review here

“Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” – Sweet & Sour Cinema’s exclusive review [Sweet & Sour Cinema]

Posted in Andy Lau 刘德华, Jet Li 李连杰, Li Bingbing 李冰冰, Sweet & Sour Cinema exclusive flim review, Tsui Hark 徐克 on November 7, 2010 by Zuo Shou / 左手

by Zuo Shou 左手

November 7, 2010

Andy Lau as Detective Dee and Li Bingbing in "Detective Dee & the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" (Photo: Film Business Asia)

Tsui Hark, the Hong Kong “New Wave” action auteur of the Film Workshop studio who’d been in a decline for at least a decade, finally stages his comeback with the intriguing “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, which proved to be the most popular film release on the Chinese mainland during the competitive 2010 October 1 “National Day” holiday period.

The good news is that with “Detective Dee” Hark approaches, while not perhaps fully reclaiming, the heights of his own ’80s-’90s peak when he was producing and directing classic Hong Kong action films that repeatedly set new standards for the genre, especially that of wuxia.

It also seems like with “Detective Dee” he’s finally been provided with the production resources to realize his protean, inimitably Asian imagination.  While Hong Kong action/fantasy buffs have long been enchanted by his creative visions, a constant hindrance to more universal success was the obvious limits in his production’s quality set by a mix of small budgets, Hark’s own prolificness and typical on-the-fly directorial style.  Here everything looks as it should for audiences used to glossy CGI surfaces, with the only nitpick being some video/digital fuzziness in the outlines of some spinning figures in action scenes.

The plot involves the presumptive Empress Wu Zetian [Carina Lau], a historical character here presiding over a fantastical Tang dynasty who frees the titular political prisoner and problem-fixer Dee [Andy Lau] and restores a previous stripped judicial rank (“Imperial Commissioner”) to help her solve the case of some spontaneous human combustions in her court.  The deaths seem linked to the construction of a skyscraper-high statue of the monarch herself in female Buddha (Guanyin) guise, the completion of which is being rushed to coordinate with her official assumption of the Imperial Throne and which seems to be creating a lot of stress among both the court and many subjects unhappy with the Empress’ somewhat dubious claim to supreme authority.  Indeed, Detective Dee has his own issues with her; it was his opposition to the Empress years ago that resulted in his being stripped of office and imprisoned…

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