This film about film is an interesting exploration of gender in Chinese cinema by director Stanley Kwan Kam-pang. The sub-title, ‘Gender in Chinese Cinema’ sets us up for a documentary of interviews and film clips around gender fluidity in films by Chinese directors.
Many of the films are ones I am familiar with such as ‘Farewell My Concubine’ and ‘Vive L’amour’ but there were others that have now been added to the list of films to hunt down. Interestingly, many of the directors and actors deny any connection between their work and the idea of being gay, and even deny the work having gay themes. Leslie Cheung answers questions about so frequently being cast in effeminate roles as recognising in himself a certain degree of vulnerability.
Kwan presents the film in ‘chapters’ starting with his own experiences as a child, being taken to the male bath houses by his father and ending with his interview with his mother when he asks her if it concerns her that she has a gay son. Between, we see images of male bonding from martial arts films and others and images of masculinity in both men and women. The Chinese Opera is a rich resource for crossing gender norms and this is explored, yet it seems, in the late 90s at least, that Hong Kong and Taiwan were more open to expressions of homosexuality than mainland China. It may have changed!
It comes across as something of a period piece itself, now, but the documentary, narrated by Tony Rayns, is worth watching for the signs that things are shifting in cinema.
In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This British- Italian film from the 80s is the type of film they don’t make any more, or at least they don’t make them in the same way anymore. The most amazing thing about this film is the scale; all crowd scenes were done without any special effect, just human beings!
It is the story of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, from his ascent to the throne to his fall at the hands of the Chinese Communists. He was imprisoned and re-educated so that he could take his place in the new China. One of the themes the film covers so well is the transition from one form of prison to another, the Forbidden City being as much of a cage as the one he later found himself in.
Bernardo Bertolucci directed the film and co- wrote it with Mark Peploe but the producer Jeremy Thomas, the British independent producer who saw the project through to completion despite many obstacles. It was the first western film authorised to film in the Forbidden City and, despite the subject matter, was supported by the Chinese government, at least in the sense that they did not ban it.
John Lone played Puyi as an adult and Peter O’Toole appeared as the tutor to the young emperor. As the film is told in a series of flashbacks we see the way political forces have always determined the course of Puyi’s life. From the start of the twentieth century through to 1967, when he died, we see how one life reflects political changes.
The film won nine American Academy awards as well as the 1989 BAFTA for Best Film. ‘The Last Emperor’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book by Benjamin Law takes a look at how different Asian societies treat and view gay people. As a gay man himself, he sets off to experience different societies from Bali’s tourist directed gay services to Japan’s popular culture exposure of gay people. The result is a book that is funny at times but ultimately serious in its assessment at how the gay minority presents itself in different places and how it is viewed.
The journey starts in Bali which offers services to the gay tourist, including resorts that are exclusively for gay clientele. Around these resorts young Balinese gather as sex working can be lucrative; not all of the young men are gay themselves, it is a ‘day job’… or more often a night one.
The journey moves on to take in China, Japan, Malaysia and India. It is interesting that each country has a different expression of gay culture. In China the view of the authorities is apparently neutral but most gay life is online and a lot of self censorship goes on to avoid being shut down. In Japan, gays are out in the open but it seems that the more flamboyant, the better. As Law shows, in the end it seems that the great Japanese public accepts gays as long as they are feminine and in the entertainment industry. Trying to be out in any other way is still hard.
Benjamin Law is an Australian and he travels as a gay man who has no trouble with his identity. This book is a reminder that some places have a long way to go but it also demonstrates the power of the human spirit. Even in the hardest places, he found people who were not going to hide their sexuality.
‘Gaysia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This BBC radio series of oral histories was excellent and not only because the estimable Bridget Kendall presented it. Each programme is a short exploration of one episode from the early years of the Cold War using interviews with people involved. Use is also made of archive recordings.
The series covers events from 1946 until 1962. I understand that a further set of programmes covering the 60s to 80s will be broadcast next year.
This is the type of programme the BBC does so well: short but informative with space for the people involved to offer reasoned judgements with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, this is a series that is only possible now that the Cold War has ended.
The obvious episodes are here, including the Berlin Air Lift, the Korean War and Hungary 1956, but there are also aspects of the era I was less informed about such as how important the Greek Civil War was to both sides and how worried America and its allies were (including the Catholic church) over the 1948 election in Italy when the Communists looked close to victory in democratic elections.
These are fascinating programmes. They are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?