Sons of Women. Films reviewed: Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Boys from Fengkuei, Flowers of Shanghai, PLUS Seventh Son

Posted in Cultural Mining, Fantasy, Movies, Realism, Taiwan, Uncategorized, Witches, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on February 6, 2015

JZlDk2_cafe_lumiere_dir_CJ_29_cmyk_o3_8519520_1421267395Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien was born in Canton, China in 1947. His family fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists when he was just an infant. Since then he has emerged as one of postwar Taiwan’s most famous directors (along with Ang Lee and Tsai Mingliang).

His movies tell a fragmented history of his country, one story at a time. He deals with ordinary, working-class people, often dislocated and trying to make their way. His characters struggle with differences of 0gOqw3_City_of_sadness-1_o3_8520087_1421267398language, status, age, class and money. But his films also includes love, sex, jealousy, conformity and insecurity.

Most of his films take place in Taiwan, though there are some exceptions, such as Flight of the Red Balloon (France) or Café Lumière (Japan). The times range from the 19th Century (Flowers of Shanghai), to the 1940s (City of Sadness), to the present day, or even in three eras simultaneously (Three Times).

Some critics call him one of the most important and influential wjZpZJ_GoodMenGoodWomen_(CMIA)_o3_8520899_1421267449directors, anywhere, comparing the style he helped pioneer – the Taiwanese New Wave — to movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. He’s known for his minimalism, slow pace, long takes and an avoidance of quick editing and obvious special effects.

More often than not, he sets up a nicely-arranged tableau and lets the action take place within that frame. Sort of like a stage play but within a shifting proscenium arch.

Well, there’s a retrospective playing this month in Toronto called Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. It was put together by Richard I. Suchenski, Amber Wu and Teresa Huang and is on a world tour. The series projects pristine prints, rarely seen.

This week I’m looking at two of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies. One’s an early film about good men, the other a later film about good women. And, in keeping with my commitment to highbrow/ lowbrow films, I’m also reviewing a fantasy-drama about a medieval guy who hunts for witches… but ends up falling in love with one.

k5DQ0E_BoysfromFengkuei_o3_8519490_1421267388The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)

Three small-town boys — Ah Ching and his two friends — live in a tiny windswept island off the coast of Taiwan. They should be doing their homework but they’d rather be outside gambling and carousing. But after a big fight goes wrong they flee to an abandoned seaside shack. They make their way to Kaohsiung, a big city on the main island. But they soon find life in the big city is not what they expected. They get poorly paid jobs, and their money making ventures – like selling tapes on the street – don’t earn them much money. Their parents expect them to return home to work at an easy factory job. And they soon find themselves victims of conmen, gangsters and sophisticated city folk. But can they find true love in the big city?

I found this movie fascinating, not just because of its realistic coming-of-age portrait of life in Taiwan. It also goes against what I thought was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s directing style: slow, stationary, and dominated by long takes of seated conversations. This movie has fights and chase scenes, crowds and a lot of movement. As programmer Richard I. Suchenski pointed out in his introductory lecture on Hou (Jan 29, 2015), The Boys of Fengkuei fits closely within his oeuvre. It shares the long takes, carefully composed scenes and the stationary, framed shots of his later films.

1jQw4R_FlowersofShanghai_(CMIA)_o3_8520678_1421267414Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

It’s late 19th century Shanghai. Rich men hang out in the entertainment parlours, gambling, drinking, smoking opium and courting the courtesans there. These entertainers the so-called flowers of Shanghai. are known for their beauty and poise. They are carefully trained from an early age, brought up inside the houses. They have their own servants, and answer to the middle aged “auntie” the Madams who rule the business. They cultivate relationships with the rich men who visit them gradually saving up the money they earn. Eventually, they either marry their favourite boyfriend or purchase their independence outright and set up their own businesses. This line of work was one of the few allowing girls to advance from penniless orphan to rich, powerful and socially advanced woman.

The scenes alternate from the men all drinking and dining at a common table to the interiors of the individual houses and the women behind closed doors. The stories are simple: women in rival houses competing for the lovesick but fickle male patrons; discussions of their worth and wealth — both the businessmen and the women; and anger over arranged marriages and love.

In this movie the camera slowly pans back and forth but almost never cuts away from the scene in each brothel. The lighting has a golden glow, generated from the oil lamps on set (portraying scenes without electric lighting). What I found most fascinating was the language – you rarely get to hear dialogue spoken in Shanghainese – another example of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s commitment to realism. This is a beautiful film but like many if his movies, one that requires concentration and commitment to appreciate.

And on a entirely different note…

Seventh Son Ben BarnesThe Seventh Son
Dir: Sergei Bodrov

It’s the dark ages in Europe, a time of dragons, knights and witches. Tom (Ben Barnes) is a young man who slops the pigs at his remote family farm. There’s gotta be something better than this, he thinks. So when Gregory – an odd man with a pointy yellow beard – comes by seeking an apprentice, Tom jumps at the chance. Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is a knight and (like Tom) is the seventh son of a seventh son which gives him special powers and a sense of commitment. He’s an arrogant, foul-mouthed alcoholic. He’s also a Spook, a man who fights the creatures of darkness. He promises to teach Tom how to fight these demons and witches. Tom can’t wait. But before he leaves, his mother places a special charm around his neckIMG_0924.dng that she says will protect him from evil.

The first witch he encounters is Alice (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) – a beautiful young woman. And when they first hold hands sparks fly… literally! A blue flame shoots out from their hands. Hmmm… But what he doesn’t know is she works as a spy for Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Mother Malkin is the evil queen a witch who can turn herself into a dragon. And when the red moon rises, something that happens only once a century, she and her evil cronies plan to take over the world. Will the knights beat the witches and slay the dragons? Or will Tom be slain like all the other apprentices that proceeded him? And what about Alice… is she a good witch or a bad witch?

Julianne Moore Seventh SonThe Seventh Son is an OK fantasy with a very predictable plot too much CGIs, very long battle scenes, and bad Twilight-style romantic element. There are at least four cliffhangers in this movie – and I mean people literally hanging onto or falling off of cliffs. I guess that’s what you get with 3D and IMAX as the main attractions. Jeff Bridges emotes wildly,  Julianne Moore is wonderful as the evil queen, while Ben Barnes is a dull leading man. Most interesting thing is the sets. The women (a.k.a. the evil Seventh Son Jeff Bridgeswitches) live in a celebration of Orientalism, replete with Persian rugs, lapis lazuli tiling, and geometric screens. They recline on pillows beside incense burners. The men all dress in rough-hewn burlap and carry rusty swords. The battle of the sexes told in 100 minutes in 3-D.

Seventh Son opens today in Toronto—check your local listings; and the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Good Men, Good Women continue all this month at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Go to tiff.net for times.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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