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Entries in Asian cinema (54)


Tribeca: Golden Bear, Black Coal, Thin Ice, Great Movie

The Chinese industrial revolution has been very good for a lot of people. It just so happens that many of them are not the laborers and villagers that personified the nation of one billion people for centuries. It’s perhaps ironic that this capitalist boom has been so good for the nation’s filmmakers – political upheaval being a common factor in many a nation’s cinematic resurgence – and the dichotomy between rich and poor has allowed filmmakers like Black Coal, Thin Ice’s Diao Yi’nan to prosper and foster global recognition. It’s this same reason than Jia Zhangke has risen to the stature that he has, frequently hailed as China’s greatest filmmaker, or certainly on his way to being so, after little more than a decade of festival and arthouse prominence.

The works of Jia Zhangke linger over the proceedings of the Berlin Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice. That director’s ability to wrap engaging stories of human loneliness, loss and heartbreak in evocative political contexts and the themes of his home country is what has made him a mainstay on the festival circuit. When reviewing Jia’s last film, the exceptional A Touch of Sin, from the New York Film Festival I called him the “pre-eminent cinematic purveyor of modern day China”, and the noir-inspired anger that permeated that film is there again in Diao Yi’nan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice.

This film, shorter and likely more accessible than Zhangke’s most high profile titles, is imbued with a wicked sense of humor that allows its more dark and gruesome elements to never suffocate the viewer. While the murder investigation that kicks off immediately over the opening credits eventually leads to grotesque discoveries of body parts and personal revelations as well as an act one blood bath shootout in a hair salon, it’s actually much less dour and gruesome as one may expect. That sly humor continues throughout right up to the final sequence, a final sequence that will likely go down as the best film ending of the year with its swirl of fireworks (the film’s original title, Bai ri yan huo, translates as “daylight fireworks”) and comical firemen playing over the climax of a crime story.

The plot of Black Coal, Thin Ice is standard film-noir: there is a body, a boozing detective (Liao Fan), a femme fatale (Gwen Lun-Mei, whose working class looks will temporarily make you forget that in the 1930s she’d be played by someone in the Barbara Stanwyck school of dangerous beauties), a secret, a double-cross, and all sorts of other nastiness. Bathed in gorgeous greys and neon, this is a stunningly attractive movie with several sequences that made my eyes pop in particularly a transition from 1999 to 2004 in an underpass and a snow-covered freeway is novel and beautiful. Cinematographer Dong Jinsong’s work actually reminded me of Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis and Roger Deakins’ work on Fargo in the way he manipulates the snowy landscapes into a series of dark, yet beautiful tableaus.

Whatever it was that the Chinese censors saw (or, more aptly, didn’t see) in Black Coal, Thin Ice that allowed it the cinema release that Jia Zhangke wasn’t afforded with A Touch of Sin, I’m glad Chinese audiences have been able to watch yet another fine example of their ace film industry. It almost feels like a coup for the Tribeca Film Festival to get the chance to screen Diao’s film so soon after its double win at the Berlinale (it also won Best Actor for Liao) and audiences would be mad to not seek it out. And while you’re at it, make a bleak, but beautiful double feature with A Touch of Sin. They’re two peas in a pod with their mounting tension, impressive use of music and textural imagery to create mood, and refreshingly exciting looks at a modern day China. 


Cannes Watch? The "Return" of Gong Li & Zhang Yimou

Speculating about what might be at Cannes is not something I do so as to prevent the envy but the reunion of director Zhang Yimou with his most beloved muse Gong Li is definitely something to consider. Together they made six international hits, four of them Oscar-nominated (Raise the Red LanternJu DouShanghai Triad, Curse of the Golden Flower), the first two are among the best Chinese films ever made.

Their seventh collaboration just released first stills and a nearly wordless teaser (embedded below).

The film is planning a May premiere at home so Cannes would make sense. The film is based on the novel "The Criminal Lu Yanshi" by Yan Geling about a long term prisoner (Chen Daoming) who, upon release, returns to his wife (Gong Li) who no longer recognizes him. The film also features Miss Chinese Toronto winner (2009) Candy Chang. There's a whole name for young actresses who break through within Zhang Yimou's filmography "Mou girls" (given the global fame of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi) so she might be one to watch. 

It sounds like the English movie title is yet to be determined, alternately listed as Coming Home, The Homecoming, or Return, depending on where you read about it. Here's the teaser...


Asian Film Awards: Snowpiercer, The Grandmaster, and More

The youngest of film awards for Asian cinema (they have quite a few) is the Asian Film Awards which are now in their 8th year. Unlike the prestigious Golden Horse which (mostly) goes to Chinese language cinema, these encompass just about anything Asian: Japan, China, India, South Korea, The Phillipines and so on. Their best picture nominees this year:

The near misses, we assume, are Ilo Ilo from Singapore (Oscar submission last year) and Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father Like Son from Japan (the one Spielberg might remake) since they did well with nomination tallies in major categories.  If you're interested you should look at their official site because they smartly include photos of everyone - you can even see what the cinematographers, editors and costume designers look like.


But who did Zhang Ziyi vote for?

I know you. You woke up this morning desperate to know what Zhang Ziyi's Oscar ballot looked like. I am here, as ever, to improve your day with answers and actressness.

The Chinese superstar wasn't* nominated for  Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) or Memoirs of a Geisha (2005, around the time AMPAS invited her to join) despite plentiful US media attention. (I imagine teen and early 20something readers aren't super familiar with her since it's been 9 years since she was a regular fixture in the US entertainment press???) The Grandmaster raised her profile a bit again and she obviously helped the costumes and cinematography to their Oscar nominations on account of good god she's photogenic.

She discussed her ballot with fans on her Weibo account  though she was cleverly vague about whether she was talking votes or predictions (AMPAS members aren't supposed to reveal their actual votes).

She wrote [translated for TFE - thanks Tony!]:

Quite a chaotic year. Voted without taking any precursor awards into account. Some simple predictions based on experience and personal feeling.  

Best picture: Gravity. Animated feature: Frozen. Not just great movies but both female-centric.  Blanchett best actress. J.L. best supporting actress. Leto best supporting actor. For best actor I loved Matthew's performance but voted for DiCaprio, he deserves this no matter what.

For art department and cinematography I'm rooting for the home team of course. Good luck to them. A tip: Mr. Sunglasses** will walk the red carpet


In the spirit of Zhang Ziyi's social media sharing you know you want to share this ballot on Facebook or twitter

*As I've stated numerous times Asian actors don't have much luck with the Academy or Hollywood. They don't get invited to present very often at the big show, you rarely seen them in color blind casting decisions, and they rarely get nominated for Oscars even when they have a high profile year like Ziyi or Gong Li before her. In fact, no Asian has ever been nominated for Best Actress (unless you count "Dark Angel"'s Merle Oberon who was half Indian but hid her heritage in the less diverse Hollywood of the 1930s)

** "Mr Sunglasses" would be her director Wong Kar-Wai


Berlinale Wraps: Uma, Prizes, Foreign Film Oscar Hopefuls

Richard Linklater with his Silver BearOne of these years we will make it to the Berlinale! The festival closes today and things go quiet on the megawatt festival front until Cannes in May (though festival season never really ends what with regional festivals everywhere and Tribeca, which we'll cover, in the Srping).

Early English language punditry assumed that Richard Linklater's 12 year spanning Boyhood (my review) or Wes Anderson's reportedly delightful Grand Budapest Hotel would win but english language press always assumes that about American pictures. James Schamus jury thought otherwise, though they honored both with prizes, giving the Golden Bear to the Chinese noir Black Coal, Thin Ice. In fact, a lot of prizes went to Asian cinema this year.

Awards, Umas, and Oscar hopefuls after the jump...

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