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.
Back in the 80s the BBC broadcast two series of ‘The Chinese Detective’ with David Yip in the central role of John Ho, a keen policeman in London’s East End who has to solve crimes as well as battle the racism of his bosses.
It was a time when new police dramas were appearing, each with an ‘angle’ that made them distinct. The angle for this series is obvious but the distinction of being British Chinese did not last much beyond the first few episodes. There was a running sub- plot about clearing the name of Ho’s father who had been wrongly convicted of a crime years before. The suggestion was that his father took the blame because of his minority status.
In most episodes, and in series two there was no other Chinese face to be had, and very few faces characters that were not white- strange, really as this was London’s East End!
I had seen David Yip on stage a few years before and it was great to see him as the first British Chinese actor in a lead role. I watched the episodes again many years later as a box set and loved seeing the old East End scenes, in the years before the area was transformed. The idea of a maverick police officer, ignoring procedures and protocol to solve a crime is somewhat tired now, and may have been then, but it was still an enjoyable experience to revisit old times.
‘The Chinese Detective’ 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?
In London and visiting Soho so I went along to Carnaby Street were it meets Berwick Street to see the Soho Mural. This work of art dates back to the 90s but it was restored in 2006. It was created by community members who wanted to celebrate the district and its unique place in London history.
On the mural are people who lived, worked and played in Soho. The Chinese influence is recognised as are local venues such as the London Palladium and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Liberty’s distinctive Tudor style shop is also depicted. The dominant figure is Saint Anne; the local church is named after her. Her wide skirt forms the background on which the Soho personalities are painted. Karl Marx, Dylan Thomas, George Melly, Casanova and William Blake have all made it onto the mural.
The dogs and hares are there to remind us that this used to be a hunting area.
This book by the estimable investigative journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai is an exploration of our modern times and in particular the growth of support for far right groups. In an attempt to understand the current mood in Britain, especially in towns like Luton, she set off to meet supporters and others who were connected to the EDL. ‘Tommy Robinson’ is central to the exploration as it is he who styled himself a ‘defender’ of the white working class. In her travels she returns several times to the town where there is a large multi-cultural population.
Pai is excellent when trying to get to the heart of what motivates people who want to defend ‘our way of life’. She doesn’t actually get to the bottom of it as questions that she poses so acutely are often left unanswered. It is a recurring theme that EDL supporters can articulate what they are against (people of different faiths, countries, backgrounds) without being able to state what they are fighting to protect. There is a mythical land somewhere in the past that many say they wish to reclaim but my elementary arithmetic worked out that this was before most of the interviewees were born.
As a person from an ethnic minority herself, her entry into what could be hostile territory is brave. Somehow, her Chinese ethnicity makes her different from the other ‘others’ (mostly Muslim) who cause the EDL to rise up.
I was pleased that the strong anti-racist and anti- fascist seam of British working class life was mentioned and that Pai did not accept some of the manufactured answers she was given. Most supporters of the modern far right claim not to be racist. The fact that anti- Islamic rhetoric has been made easier by western governments since the war on Iraq provides interesting contextual background to the rise of people defending traditional values. Her interviews with people who joined but then left the EDL show that there is hope for uniting our society.
I think Hsiao-Hung Pai is always worth reading. ‘Angry White People’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the novel ‘The Orientalist and the Ghost’ by Susan Barker when I read it last year so I was keen to read her latest, published in 2015. ‘The Incarnations’ has a central spine of a story concerning taxi driver Wang and his relationships with members of his family including his wife and daughter and father and step- mother. Someone is leaving him strange messages in the form of written stories, though, and through these stories we learn a lot about Chinese history.
We know a few things from the start: Wang has fallen into the job of taxi driver and life is a bit of an effort for him; his relationships are all fraught; his early promise has not been realised. The messages discomfort him, not only because he doesn’t know who sent them but because they claim an intimacy he rejects.
Each ‘story’ told within the novel comes from a different era. We go from the Tang dynasty to the upheaval of the cultural revolution in the 60s. Each story is also about two people, how they meet and how they part. As the writer suggests to Driver Wang, he is one of the two. The writer is the other!
Finding out who the writer is occupies Wang’s time and contributes to his feelings of victim hood and, just like Wang, the reader is left guessing until the end. My knowledge of Chinese history needs increasing but the novel was engaging. I admire Susan Barker’s ambition and look forward to her next book.