Mainland China

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇傳說之法海)

sorcerer and white snake

The Legend of the White Snake is a centuries old story that is varyingly about good and evil, religion and superstition, and plain old immortal love. It’s the stuff of movies, and there have been many (notably Tsui Hark’s 1993 Green Snake). This 2011 effects-laden martial arts adventure draws on all of these. In trying to appeal to everyone, however, it fails to truly satisfy anyone. Sorcerer lacks a consistent tone and wraps several films into one.

Parts of this sweeping whirlwind though stir up the emotions with an unsuspecting deftness. I didn’t expect a blockbuster with big box office dreams to turn on the feels, but at least one of the major plotlines resonates with the source material. At the heart of the story are Suzhen (Eva Huang), a beautiful white demon snake, and Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a simple – and human – herbalist. They fall in love after she rescues him from a lake with a deep, almost otherworldly kiss of life. He thinks he’s dreamed the encounter until she reappears to him in human form.

It seems odd that such an enchanting creature would be so drawn to a humble medicine man and the story jerks forward a little too quickly. But Huang has an ethereal presence that wants to belong in an untarnished landscape like Hangzhou’s West Lake, where the story takes place. The setting evokes a distant fairy tale, and Suzhen desires Xu Xian’s love with such purity and earnestness that one feels the story can’t take place anywhere else.

Their romance is set against a bigger, noisier backdrop though, one literally clanging and crashing with gongs. Jet Li plays Fahai, a monk determined to rid the world of demons. He captures them in all their frightening female forms – and it is women who start all the trouble. Disguised as nymphs and enchantresses, they gently pluck their instruments while looking coyly askance or slink out of bamboo forests wearing bed sheets like some fantasy porn, only to reveal themselves as squawking bat demons. Luckily there is a man to catch these murderous creatures. Fahai eventually deposits them into a large stone medallion, a purgatory of sorts, where demons meditate on their evil ways until they sufficiently repent and are released.

Fahai operates according to strict moral absolutes, which makes him feared and effective but which also leaves him struggling to justify his entire belief system after something happens to gray the line. Li, with his stern demeanor and calculated movements, exudes physical and moral discipline. When Fahai is forced to confront his own fundamentalism, there is an honesty that complements Suzhen and Xu Xian’s devotion.

What doesn’t align as well is a subplot involving green snake Qingqing (Charlene Choi) and her playful attempts to win over Fahai’s acolyte, Neng Ren (Wen Zhang). Once again, Choi is cornered into her default role. Despite being an adult woman, she reverts to her Twins act of yore, flirting and giggling like she’s an eighteen-year-old child bride. It’s distracting and discordant and can only be a self-serving ploy to win a younger demographic. It does match some of the jaunty slapstick, like when Suzhen brings Xu Xian to meet her demon family, animals who transform rather poorly into humans (and Hong Kong all stars). But this goofy, New Year’s-esque tone is a confusing artistic choice that just seems out of place.

The film runs into more problems with its subpar effects. Sorcerer thinks it’s destined for great, international things. A martial arts fairy tale, especially one fronted by Jet Li, might appeal to audiences beyond Asia, but not when it’s propped up with cheap effects that don’t match the epic scale the movie is going for. The opening scene features a fierce fight in the snowy mountains between Fahai and a demon played by Vivian Hsu. The two look like paper cutouts flying across static backdrops in puppet show. A later battle with a bat demon involves such a flurry of CGI that it’s hard to tell what is going on. Focusing the effects on a few choice scenes might have tightened the story rather than spreading it so thin.

Hong Kong trailer:

International trailer:

“Promise” (許諾) by Eva Huang and Raymond Lam:

Released: 2011
Alt Title: It’s Love
Prod: Chui Bo-Chu 崔寶珠
Dir: Tony Ching 程小東
Action: Tony Ching 程小東; Wong Ming-Kin 黃銘健
Writer: Charcoal Tan 張炭; Tsang Kan-Cheung 曾謹昌; Szeto Cheuk-Hon 司徒卓漢
Cast: Jet Li 李連杰; Eva Huang 黃聖依; Raymond Lam 林峯; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Wen Zhang 文章; Vivan Hsu 徐若瑄; Jiang Wu 姜武; Miriam Yeung 楊千嬅; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Lam Suet 林雪; Song Wenjia 宋汶嘉; Angela Tong 湯盈盈
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2016

American Dreams in China (中国合伙人)

american dreams in china

America is where dreams go to die, at least this is what writers Zhou Zhiyong and Zhang Ji will have you believe. A country full of cheats and swindlers, it’s where hard work and talent just lands you a job as a bus boy. But in the 1980s, that didn’t matter; America was the place to be, especially if you were a college student in China. Eager young things flocked to the embassy in hopes of winning that golden ticket – a student visa.

The movie opens with three friends trying to secure that coveted stamp of approval. The timid Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) fails and Wang (Tong Dawei) forfeits his place so he can stay behind with his American girlfriend. Only Meng (Deng Chao) passes, and he bids a tearful farewell. It’s an unspoken truth that he will not return. His destiny is set; there is no failing in that land of opportunity.

But the movie is not Chinese Dreams in America, so there is a reckoning to be had. The friends’ desire to transplant themselves in the U.S. and reap the bounties of the American Dream merely sets the scene for Meng’s disappointing return and their eventual success as owners of a large tutorial center, in China. It’s an aspirational film to the core, but unlike recent entries from the Mainland, this one doesn’t depend on shiny baubles. The characters don’t sport designer clothes or cruise around in their S-Class. In fact, the costumes are hideously taupe and extra effort is made to obscure the stars’ good looks. The film instead tempts its audience with the belief that anyone with a dream and a bit of hard work can make it in China. Call it Horatio Alger with Chinese characteristics.

Loosely based on New Oriental, China’s largest “educational services” company, Cheng and Wang create their own learning institute and call it New Dream, which functions as an obvious motif and, intentionally or not, a nod to the “Chinese Dream.” After their failed bids to study in the States, the two characters are resigned to a life with little social standing or economic mobility. They do what they can to gain some respect and earn a buck but seem to always be treading water. A minor transgression forces Cheng to find new work, and he begins teaching English out of the nation’s first KFC (the irony!). Soon his classes grow so large that he has to set up shop at an abandoned factory, enlisting Wang in the process. To sweeten the rags to riches story, the building has no electricity or roof. If you’ve been to Beijing in the winter, you know that’s dedication.

That the venture succeeds beyond their wildest dreams, is a foregone conclusion. The film employs enough flashbacks and flashforwards, particularly in the first half, to give you a mild case of whiplash, and the device isn’t even necessary since the trajectory is pretty clear. Nevertheless, we see early on that the three musketeers go from poorly coiffed drudges to tutor rock stars, something that actually exists in Asia. Cheng makes the least subtle leap from one end to the other, and while Huang shows a few probing moments of despair, he doesn’t really justify his character’s shoutiness once he’s at the top. Tong and Deng, however, turn in more subtle performances with more difficult parts. Tong’s is more likable, but he’s careful not to make Wang into the film’s attention-grabbing comic relief. The emotional core seems to lie with Deng, who doesn’t so much barrel through his shattered hopes as he does pick up the pieces with quiet, unflinching focus.

If American Dreams had ended with a triumphant closing shot of the company’s stadium rally, it would be no better or worse than any other film about some small potatoes making it big. But in an obvious ploy to rouse the home team (the movie made a cool USD$86.5m at the box office), the filmmakers cap their project with New Dream being sued by American education officials for stealing test preparation materials. Depending on which side of the Pacific you’re standing, this could be a satisfying middle finger to the U.S., an acknowledgement that the American century has passed and that an ascendant, more culturally attuned China will no longer be bullied. Or it might be a somewhat dishonest dig at America’s lack of fair play without acknowledging China’s own dearth of equal opportunities.

Released: 2013
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛, Jojo Hui 許月珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛
Writer: Zhou Zhiyong 周智勇; Zhang Ji; Aubrey Lam 林愛華
Cast: Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Deng Chao 鄧超; Tong Dawei 佟大為; Du Juan 杜鵑; Daniel Berkey; Claire Quirk; Tong Lei 佟磊
Time: 112 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Panda Express (熊猫大侠)

panda express

Panda Express is only excusable if you’re at a suburban mall and Sbarro’s run out of sausage slices. Under no circumstances should it be consumed otherwise, in any form, including that of the cinematic variety. This moribund Chinese New Year film barely registers a pulse let alone anything suggesting excitement and quite frankly is an insult to holiday films, a feckless Chinese subgenre that already sets the bar pretty low.

The problem does not lie in the story so much as in the telling of it. The plot is digestible and follows the prescribed formula of similar road comedies, but Panda Express is majestic in its dullness. A low-on-his-luck darts seller in the Song Dynasty, Wang Laoji (Liu Hua), has always dreamed of being an armed escort. He gets his chance when an official mistakes him for one and entrusts him with the task of safely delivering a panda. He is to complete the journey within ten days, when there will be a party for the general (Ren Quan). Laoji jumps at the opportunity and sets off on his merry way.

He is soon waylaid by a lady highway robber (A Duo) who wants more than his money; she wants him in her bed. But a Mongolian bandit (Shi Ning), eager to get his hands on some panda meat because he thinks it will make him invincible, interrupts their courtship. A pair of assassins (Li Yu and Li Xiaochuan) also wants to get ahold of our furry friend and makes more trouble for Liaoji, as does Ahao (Deng Jiajia), a sergeant overzealous in her pursuit of animal smugglers. She initially suspects he is part of a smuggling ring until her heart leads her to another conclusion.

The film chugs along at a steady if not exactly express pace for about forty-five minutes, allows for a colorless interlude, and then picks up again when Liaoji finally reaches the town and the feted general reveals himself to be a warmonger. There’s a bit with dancing pandas – that is, middle-aged men donning fuzzy black and white onesies and attempting low-impact jazzercise moves. It’s a scene one might actually spy in China on your average Saturday afternoon walk in the park.

As for the cuddly star of the movie, it is of course not an actual panda but someone in a twenty thousand yuan costume custom-made in Hong Kong. The outfit is a good step above college mascot quality and occasionally squeaks like an oversized carnival prize, but it’s a bit lean and lacks the fluff factor to win the audience over. (I want real pandas, dammit!) In fact, most of the movie adopts the exaggerated comedy styling often found in Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year films, where kitsch and frivolity count. But unlike the better representatives of this genre, Panda Express doesn’t register a laugh a minute, however cheap and unearned, nor does it amp up audience affection. Liaoji’s growing attachment to his cargo will elicit a few “awws,” but it’s all passing sweet.

The superior theme song “Dreaming” (朝思暮想) by the superior Jane Zhang:

Released: 2009
Prod: Chris Liu 劉晶; Li Xiang 李湘
Dir: Wang Yuelun 王岳倫
Writer: Gao Fei 高飛
Cast: Liu Hua 劉樺; A Duo 阿朵; Shi Ning 施寧; Deng Jiajia 鄧家佳; Li Yu 李彧; Li Xiaochuan 李小川; Ren Quan 任泉; Pace Wu 吳佩慈; Li Changyuan 李昌元; He Jiong 何炅
Time: 90 min
Lang: Mandarin, some Mongolian, various dialects
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Trail of the Panda (熊貓回家路)

trail of the panda

There’s no getting around it. Pandas are adorable. A-dor-a-ble. Few things can turn my heart into mush like the sight of a chubby little panda cub tumbling down a hill and calling out for its mum like a squeaky toy. I am powerless in the face of these cuddly black and white fuzzballs, and I might as well admit that the sudden surge in oxytocin levels is threatening the integrity of this review.

And this is probably just the reaction Disney is hoping for. The studio’s second film tailored to Mainland audiences, after The Secret of the Magic Gourd, it banks on the universal appeal of China’s greatest, and fluffiest, national treasure. Well, it works, because even if the storytelling is lacking at times, Trail of the Panda has all the right ingredients for a heartwarming, family-friendly film.

It begins in the forests of Sichuan. A twelve year old boy (Daichi Harashima) is orphaned after a fire, and Old Chen (Zhang Qi), a lonely bachelor, takes him in. One day, they play host to a visiting scientist, Feng (Feng Li), who learns that a mother panda has given birth to twin cubs. He reasons that the mother will abandon one and that it will have a better chance of survival, and make a great research subject, if it is brought to a reserve. Feng sets off to capture one of the cubs but loses the trail in a rainstorm.

The boy, Lu, discovers the panda the next day and decides to keep it hidden from Feng and Old Chen. But nursing the injured cub back to health proves to be a tricky task. The cub, which he names Pang Pang, is a finicky eater and Feng’s sniffer dogs have picked up its scent. Despite his difficulties, Lu finds that Pang Pang is the perfect companion. Mute since his parents’ death, he finally opens up to the lost animal, who returns his affections with a playful and friendly attachment he’s never experienced before.

His devotion to Pang Pang makes this film special, and not just because shots of Harashima’s cherubic, rose-tinted face buried in a velvety pile of panda fur registers off the cute scale. Lu feels just as abandoned as his new playmate and wants nothing more than to hold on to their friendship. But his loss helps him recognize that he must help Pang Pang find its way back home. Harashima deserves a lot of credit for the integrity he brings to his character. He’s proven before, most notably in 2003’s Lost in Time, that he can turn on the waterworks both as an actor and in his audience.

The film also gets a lift from the relationship Lu has with Old Chen. This is depicted in glances rather than showy action or long tracts of dialogue, which is fitting for a quiet man who hasn’t quite figured out what kind of relationship he has with the boy. Zhang doesn’t get a flashy role, but he makes a big impact as the only person in the world who cares about Lu.

The film can be forgiven for a few narrative flaws, which cause some scenes to jump unexpectedly to the next plot point. Sichuan’s stunning landscape also seems to be underutilized, with filmmakers relying too heavily on close-ups and unimpressive green screen work. These decisions are understandable, however, as the devastating 2008 earthquake struck during production and destroyed the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve where many scenes were filmed. (The panda that played the mother died in the quake.) Overall, Trail of the Panda remains a solid effort and one that relies on more than fluffy animals to carry it through.

Alt Title: Touch of the Panda
Released: 2009
Prod: Elliot Tong 唐銘基
Dir: Yu Zhong 俞鍾
Writer: Jennifer Liu 劉偉儀, Jean Chalopin
Cast: Daichi Harashima 原島大地; Zhang Qi 張琪; Feng Li 馮礫
Time: 88 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Lucky Dog (耳朵大有福)

Lucky Dog

The Chinese title translates to “those with big ears have luck,” and its questionable whether the title character possesses either. Old Wang (Fan Wei), the just retired railroad worker, finds that he has a lot of time but not so much money. His grown children have moved away, and his wife (Cheng Shubo) is in the hospital and looks to be there for awhile. Thus, the prospect of going it alone after 40 years of routine might appear daunting. Old Wang, however, takes it all in stride in this bittersweet and unassuming film from first time director Zhang Meng.

Set against the backdrop of China’s fading industrial northeast, Lucky Dog offers a portrait of the everyday. It’s a movie that better approximates the average lives of most citizens than the many aspirational films on the wider market. The visual canvas bears the marks of the stagnant rust belt – scuffed walls, dingy rooms, crumbling building sites. But it’s this earthy milieu that allows the film’s roving hero to give color to his surroundings.

Most of the story takes place in the 36 hours following Old Wang’s retirement, during which time he does nothing spectacular. In a Leopold Bloom sort of way, he wanders around town by bike, running into old friends and complete strangers and chancing upon the odd and the ordinary in between visits to his wife. He has his interest piqued first by a roadside fortune telling machine doubling as a comic picture booth. Then he stumbles onto a community dance session that gets interrupted by the authorities before trying his hand at driving a bicycle rickshaw. He even manages to try out for a Chinese opera troupe.

He finds, or rather the audience does, that there is no shortage of people ready to take advantage of him or others. Even his own children exasperate him. A visit from Old Wang’s daughter and son-in-law ends badly when their marriage troubles spill over, ruining what was to have been a quiet retirement celebration. His son also appears nonchalant about the way he intrudes onto his father’s life.

Yet through it all, Old Wang goes on, without judgment. He isn’t a relentless optimist though, and the film is better for it. Zhang is careful not to romanticize his work, thus saving it from becoming another trite, quirky tale. Old Wang churns with real frustration and anger. Though his relationship with his daughter is only shown briefly, the scene offers a fine portrait of the character and points to the quality of filmmaking.

Zhang’s unobtrusive camera lingers over Old Wang’s preparations, allowing his scene and its emotions to ripen. Old Wang sits in his thermal underwear carefully peeling apples and filling a bowl with seeds. When his daughter arrives stone-faced, he knows she’s on edge but chooses not to chasten her and even gently encourages her to dress more warmly because of the cold. The scene is full of unspoken and some uncomfortable moments, achingly acted by Fan.

Neither Old Wang nor Zhang turn away, and this is what makes the character and film so appealing. People are often content to avoid what they dislike or what disturbs them, but Lucky Dog, and Old Wang in particular, sees and accepts, sometimes grudgingly, discomfort. One gets the sense that rather than backing away from a grubby windowpane, Old Wang would rub clear a spot in order to peer in, and then move on – unlike the emotions conjured from this film, which stay.

Released: 2008
Prod: Liu Chun 刘春
Dir: Zhang Meng 张猛
Writer: Zhang Meng 张猛
Cast: Fan Wei 范伟; Cheng Shubo 程树波
Time: 96 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2014