Thursday, April 12, 2007

China 07

First chance this week to get to screenings in the China 07 season (10 years since the handover of Hong Kong). At Cornerhouse on Wednesday I watched Judou in the cinema for the first time since the early 90s. Somebody appears to have found the original UK 35mm print lurking in the ICA basement. The projectionist told me that it was 'fragile', but apart from the usual scratches at reel ends it played fine and the colours were just sensational. Judou is one of the most visually spectacular films I've ever seen and one that depends to a large extent on colour grading, especially the reds for which Zhang Yimou is famous. According to various sources, this was one of the last films to use the original Technicolor process. I don't know if this is true, but its rare to see anything like Judou today.

I'd skimmed through a VHS copy before the screening in order to prepare some notes for my introduction, but I sat and watched the film all through, mesmerised by its beauty and promising myself a Zhang Yimou feast. I've just bought some DVDs from The Chinese DVDs of Red Sorghum and Shanghai Triad are terrible with poorly dubbed sound and awful colour (thankfully Apple's DVD player lets me tweak the colour) -- but they are very cheap. The 'digitally remastered' Hong Kong DVD of Raise the Red Lantern is excellent.

It was intriguing to go back and watch one of the early collaborations between Zhang Yimou and Gong Li in the same week that The Curse of the Golden Flower opens in the UK. I'm looking forward to the opening, though I'm a little apprehensive after Gong Li was wasted in Miami Vice last summer.

Today I joined Keith to watch The Arch (Dong fu ren) in Bradford. We both enjoyed the film, but were a little puzzled by the season's notes (presumably written by Mark Cousins). They tried to suggest that this was a film which heralded a new direction for Chinese Cinema in 1970 -- essentially pre-dating the breakthrough of Yellow Earth in 1984 (or "pre-figuring the modernity that was to come"). I'm not sure about this. The Arch is certainly unusual and I'm not sure I've seen many films from Hong Kong/Taiwan of this vintage in order to make comparisons.

The Hong Kong print we saw was in good condition and at first I thought it was going to be a fairly slow romance set in that indeterminate past (the notes say the Ming Dynasty) often featured in Hong Kong Cinema. But as it got going it soon became evident that it was indeed a melodrama with a familiar central figure played by Lisa Lu (an actor with a long list of Hollywood credits), a woman who is driven to desperation by the rules of patriarchy which prevent her from having an emotional/sexual life in middle age (40!). Without reading the notes beforehand we both felt that this was a film with elements of Indian and Japanese cinema and possibly influences from further afield as well. A black and white melodrama in 1970 already feels slightly old-fashioned and the various devices that the notes suggest are 'pre-figuring modernity' are all more associated with 1950s and 60s cinema: freeze frames, use of soft focus/blur and what seemed like optical special effects that would not have been out of place in the 1920s.

The production context of The Arch is difficult to research. (One of the other audience members told us that the dialogue was Mandarin. At least one of the web references I was able to follow claims it as Cantonese. My ear is not reliable and I don't understand either language, but by the sound I would have guessed Cantonese.) It was written and directed by Cecile Tang (Shu Shuen) who, according to IMDB was 29 when she made the film. She then made four more Hong Kong features in the 1970s. The film was produced independently and was apparently photographed by Subrata Mitra, famous as Satyajit Ray's cinematographer in Bengal in the 1960s. This isn't corroborated on IMDB but perhaps explains why some of the shots looked familiar. The editing is attributed to Les Blank, a well known American independent filmmaker with a string of credits as director, cinematographer and editor. Overall, the film appears to be a conventional melodrama presented in a hybrid style. It obviously depends on audiences, but I saw several shots (the departure of the daughter across a lake, for example that could have come from Mizoguchi and the use of visual devices that reminded me of early Kurosawa. I don't think the Yellow Earth connection is valid, but programming the film alongside Judou and Two Stage Sisters as part of the evolution of Chinese melodrama makes sense.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

On the beach

It's been difficult to avoid Ian McEwan's new novella, On Chesil Beach in the last few weeks. An extract in the Grauniad, rave reviews in both the Grauniad and the IoS, McEwan himself on Radio 4's Start the Week and now a serialisation on Book at Bedtime.

My first reaction was to think "I've heard this story before somewhere" and indeed I had. David Leland's film adaptation of Angela Huth's novel, The Land Girls (1998) includes a scene in which a young middle-class woman (a banker's daughter played by Catherine McCormack) gets leave to meet her boyfriend, a young naval officer (played by a then unknown Paul Bettany). Their unhappy night together in 1940 is spent in a hotel in Southampton after they have walked along a shingle beach. OK it isn't specifically Chesil Beach, but since the film is mainly set in Dorset, it may as well be. The Land Girls is one of my favourite films and unjustly ignored, probably because it's actually a good British melodrama with a sad ending. The idea of the shingle beach as a metaphor for an uncomfortable encounter is the crucial point. Of course, the ultimate usage of Chesil Beach as metaphor comes towards the end of Powell & Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949) when David Farrar has to defuse a new type of German bomb on the beach (this time it is Chesil Beach). Needless to say, he is also in a rocky relationship with the wondrous Kathleen Byron.

Just by coincidence, I've also just read a paper on American Graffiti (US 1973) in a new Routledge book entitled 'America First: Naming the Nation in US Film', edited by Mandy Merck. The paper by Barry Langford discusses the way in which the film explores the white middle-class world of Northern California. The film is set in 1962, but already seems nostalgic for the 1950s. McEwan's novella is also set in 1962, presumably at the precise moment, as several reviewers have pointed out, quoting Philip Larkin, "before the Beatles first LP" when sex was yet to be invented.

I've never really taken to McEwan's writing. I remember a Wednesday Play, The Imitation Game (1980) that I quite enjoyed, probably for the wartime setting, but mostly I've avoided the other films made from his novels. I did read both Atonement and Saturday, but although I could see they were 'well-written', I still found them cold, without characters that moved me. It will be intriguing to see how Atonement works out for mass audiences as a 'big' British movie with Keira Knightley as star later this summer. Since I can't remember anything of the plot, I might well enjoy the film.

I guess I'm probably increasingly bored with the middle-class characters that McEwan seems to prefer. In her Grauniad review of On Chesil Beach, Natasha Walter rebukes McEwan for the political stance towards anti-war protestors taken by the protagonist in Saturday (the couple in On Chesil Beach meet at a CND rally). But she then states that you can't criticise literature on the grounds of the author's politics. Sorry, but I do. I didn't take to the surgeon in Saturday and I'm not attracted to the male character in On Chesil Beach. (I disagree with Walter on several of her general points about McEwan's writing, but overall I admire her approach to reviewing generally -- it's often a relief to see that she's on a Newsnight Review panel.) I'm also a little unsure about the whole notion of what '1962' represents. The critique of American Graffiti as too hermetically sealed is pretty convincing and I guess that in the UK too the social as well as the political world had begun to change by the late 1950s. All those rough working class lads seemed to manage to consummate their marriages and affairs in the novels of Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and John Braine well before 1962.

Monday, April 02, 2007

BBC4 Roots showing

I managed to catch most of a BBC4 programme celebrating the 30th anniversary of the screening of the mini-series Roots, based on Alex Haley's book, and I'm glad I did. The programme neatly fitted into the current series of programmes marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. I didn't watch the series all the way through in 1977. In those days I was rarely in during the evening, being at meetings, at work or the movies. However, I saw enough to know how it worked and I was well aware of it as a cultural phenomenon. What intrigued me most about the BBC4 programme was the use of a clutch of high profile 40 something British actors and writers to tell us about their memories of the programme as young schoolchildren. The likes of Adrian Lester, poet Lemn Sissay and actor/writer Kwame Kwei-Armah all spoke about how the programme had been a revelation since they had not learned enough about the slave trade in the classroom to understand what their own identity meant. Indeed Kwame Kwei-Armah changed his name from the 'slave name' of Ian Roberts, partly because of his experience of watching Roots. This set me to thinking about how much I knew about the experience of slavery and where I had learned this.

We certainly did cover the 'triangular trade' in secondary school history (but not by age 10-11 as the interviewees attested). I think I must have picked up most of my knowledge from popular literature, film and television and certainly a great deal from Jamaican music. I've got to acknowledge that it was coming across Bob Marley and the Wailers in the early 1970s that really got me interested in Jamaican history and led me towards Marcus Garvey and the powerful music of Winston Rodney aka Burning Spear. Sometime before 1977 I must also have got into Walter Rodney the Guyanese historian, probably through meeting Black activists in London.

One thing I certainly learned from the BBC4 programme was the extent of Alex Haley's success as a journalist and writer. I'd forgotten that Haley was the journalist to whom Malcolm X told his story and which produced a book that went on to sell millions of copies as 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X'. I bought that book sometime in the mid 1970s and it had a big impact on my teaching. I remember the fuss over the release of the film Mandingo in 1975 (a melodrama about sex and race championed by Movie magazine), but I don't suppose that even that controversy penetrated far into the popular imagination of the period. That was the achievement of Roots. I wonder how the mini-series would do today? And I wonder too, how much today's students really know about the history of slavery? Do they have time (or the inclination) to look for the literature and the music that tells the personal stories that carry the emotional power of a Roots? More on this please BBC4.