Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Movies reviewed: Aftershock, The Ditch, All About Love, I Wish I Knew PLUS Rendezvous with Madness & Scott Pilgrim

This week I’m looking at four movies from China (and Hong Kong) that explore its history, and in some cases, break the boundaries as to what is allowed in Chinese film.

Aftershock (唐山大地震)
Dir: Feng Xiaogang

In 1976, right at the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, there was a huge earthquake in northeastern China, Tangshan, Hebei Province, that killed a quarter of a million people. But this movie isn’t really about the earthquake or the aftershocks that followed – it’s a drama about what happens to a family that was living there.

Mom and Dad are a young couple with twin kids, a boy and a girl named Feng Da and Feng Deng. Mom favours the boy a little but loves them both. The parents sneak out to a truck to have sex in the hot air, just when the earthquake hits, with buildings collapsing all around them. Kids are trapped inside and when the building comes down, they’re both still alive but stuck in the rubble under a concrete slab. The men helping move the cement say mom has to choose one kid only – if they lift it, one will be crushed, the other will live. The twins can hear everything. And in a panic, Mom says “save the boy”. But the girl gets out too, and is adopted up by a childless couple from the People’s Liberation Army, (who are there to help in the aftermath of the quake.)

That’s the set-up for the movie – what happens to the lost daughter, her amputee brother, and their always grieving mother, is a 30-year-long melodrama about the paths their lives took as China (like the city of Tangshan) rebuilds, modernizes, and gets richer. Both of the twins end up in Hangzhou… why? I guess because it’s a prettier city to have in a movie than Tangshan.

This movie is a blockbuster in China. It’s a good tearjerker – though not the thrilling disaster movie I thought I’d be seeing. It gets a bit schmaltzy at times, and more than that, all the scenes involving the PLA are a bit over the top; the 1976 scenes with the rosy cheeked girls in pigtails, and the windswept red flags looked like they were modeled on Cultural Revolution posters. With lots of nostalgia, but not a hint of irony. Similar scenes, set in present day China, were also rather propagandistic. Still, it’s not a bad movie; you feel for the feelings of the mom, the son, and the daughter. The acting was generally good – especially the twins (Zhang Jingchu and Chen Li) and the girl’s stepfather (Chen Daoming, whom you might recognize as the Emperor in the movie Hero). Though other scenes, with the mother screeching or weeping at the camera were a bit much. And it gives a nice outline of the changes in China over the past three decades, while steering completely away from any political issues. (Jia Zhangke’s fantastic movie Platform, that took place over the same 30-year period, seems to have inspired the much more mainstream Aftershock.)

The Ditch
Dir: Wang Bing

A very different take on Chinese history is a new movie called The Ditch, that takes place around the time of the anti-rightist campaign and the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It paints a much grimmer portrait. And grim it is.

This is a period of Chinese history that isn’t written about much, and rarely (if ever) portrayed in movies. A bit of historical context: In 1956, there was a movement in China in which the government encouraged artists, intellectuals and students to speak out, and to freely voice their differences and opinions. “Let a hundred flowers bloom” they said. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” And that’s what eventually happened. But right after that, there was a huge crackdown on anyone who had voiced criticism of censorship, poor living conditions, or of the Communist Party itself.

And they ended up cracking down on half a million people. The movie, The Ditch, deals with what happened to the ones sent to a particularly heinous labour camp in the Gobi desert. It’s an isolated, deathly poor camp without actual buildings. The inmates literally live in a hole in the ground, a sort of a tunnel, where they slept when they aren’t being worked to death digging a ditch in the middle of nowhere. Life is miserable for them, they can barely stand up, and they survive on the watery gruel they’re given to eat (while the party members are shown happily gorging on plump white noodles and meat.) Then, at some point, the prisoners are told, sorry, no more food at all. Ask your relatives to mail you some or else, you can find food outside. So they start eating any desert gerbils they can catch, and whatever seeds they can find in the dirt.

You get to know the beleaguered inmates – like an engineer who in the Hundred Flowers movement questioned whether “the dictatorship of the proletariat was the right way” (oops!); a man branded as being from the “landlord” class, even though he’s never had enough money to taste braised pork belly; and the various other professors, writers, scientists and former Party members. The most moving part is about the fate of one man whose wife comes in from the big city to see him.

This is an extremely harsh portrayal of life in the prison camps, (sort of a gulag archipelago for the Chinese), showing their cruelty, the degradation of the prisoners, the desecration of the dead, and even the rumours of cannibalism among the starving men. I have a feeling this movie (which played at the Toronto Film Festival), might not be widely shown in China, if at all. It was allowed to be made there, though, on locations very near to the actual camps. The Ditch is a very hard movie to watch, but a moving one nonetheless, and one of great historical significance. And it’s a credit to the sophistication of Chinese cinema that movies like this are being made at all.

All About Love (得閒炒飯)
Dir: Ann Hui

…is a Hong Kong romantic comedy drama about another topic rarely dealt with in Chinese films – a love story between women.

Macy and Anita, who were once a couple, get back together again at a pregnancy group.

But they also have to deal with the earnest and caring sperm donors who got them both pregnant. Do they stay together as a couple? Macy is holding on to a pair of dancing shoes, to return, like Cinderella, to her true love, so that they may someday dance a tango together again.

Do they keep the babies? And what role will the men (well, one’s actually a very young man) play in their lives? One still has a crush, and the other thinks he’s been tricked. There’s also the question of their lives as feminists in Hong Kong, and whether Anita can keep her job after facing sexual harassment in her conservative workplace – she becomes a virtual prisoner there, confined to a conference room.

All about love is a very light romantic farce, but one that deals with an important topic. I found the movie kind of corny (like many romantic comedies), and a bit muddled. I like Ann Hui’s previous movies better than this one, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

I Wish I Knew (海上传奇)
Dir: Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke is one of the best Chinese directors of his generation, and I think it’s even safe to say he’s one of the best directors… period.

I Wish I Knew, is a documentary that shows Shanghai, warts and all. Before 1949, and expecially in its heyday in the 1930’s, Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East, but also as Sin City, replete with filthy-rich bankers and entrepreneurs, gamblers, mahjong players, drunkards, opium-addicts, gangsters, prostitutes and foreigners. Post revolution, the government went to great pains to declare Shanghai “all cleaned up”, but Jia Zhangke has reclaimed the sordid past (and present) as part of what gives Shanghai its mystique.

Using a beautiful silent model, I wish I knew takes you on a city tour, interviewing the very people (like a son of a gangster, an entertainer, and an MSG mogul) that used to be taboo.

He only deals with professions that are in some way international, glamorous, edgy, artistic or in some way both interesting, and specific to Shanghai. And, for the most part, the people he interviews speak in Shanghainese, not in standard Chinese. Interspersed with the talking heads are clips from great movies — by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wang Kar-wai, and others — that give recreations of periods in the city’s past.

While not one of Jia Zhang-ke’s best films, this is a great documentary view of China — and the city of Shanghai — in a way you rarely get to see it.

Also opening tonight is a very interesting film festival, Rendezvous With Madness, which looks at how mental health and drug addiction are portrayed at the movies. Interesting screenings are followed by Q&A discussions with the filmmakers and people in the field of addiction and mental health. I’ll be talking more about this next year: Check out .

Also playing, tonight only, is Scott Pilgrim vs the World. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a fun movie, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, set in downtown Toronto. Since the movie features local landmarks like Lee’s Palace, Honest Ed’s, and the Beguiling, it makes sense it’s playing at the Bloor. And guess what? Bryan will be there at the screening… and it’s completely free! So show up early if you want a seat.

Just to review, today I talked about four Chinese movies, Aftershock, now playing, check your local listings; All about Love and The Ditch, which played at the Toronto Film Festival this year, and I Wish I Knew, which opens next week, Nov.11, at the TIFF Lightbox. (Check times at

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