Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gong Li and friends at the Louis Vuitton exhibit at the National Museum of China

Louis Vuitton opens an exhibit of its historical luggage and handbags at the newly renovated National Museum of China. The Wall Street Journal thinks its a big deal:
The French luxury giant, celebrating its 20th year in China, is unveiling special summer exhibit titled “Voyages,” which features the brand’s historical luggage and handbags, in one of the country’s most renowned museums. Having just opened its doors after an epic-long three-year renovation, the museum is one of the most highly-sought spots for the country’s tourists
If Gong Li makes an appearance at a fashion opening Yves Carcelle won't be far away. Here they could almost be posing for the top of a wedding cake.

Not sure if this is the best dress for her but since she didn't ask me...

Surrounded by stiffs in blue suits:

Someone just told a joke. Some people thought it was funny.

Zhang Jing is thrilled to see a hinged box.

Yuan Quan

Dong Jie

Images from Ifeng and Ifeng.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Gong Li in "Operation Cougar"

"Operation Cougar" is a bad movie, something I can tell without knowing a single line of dialog. The language spoken in Mandarin and the subtitles are in Chinese but it is clear from what is on the screen that a lot of talent was wasted on this one. It is an action movie--a plane is hijacked with both the People's Republic and Chinese Taipei (or the Republic of China, if you will) involved in rescuing the hostages.

Ge You, terrorist leader:

Gong Li, flight nurse. Not sure what she has gotten herself into:

There is very little action and a lot of talk and no matter what is being said by who to whom, extremely long speeches, of which there are many in "Operation Cougar" don't belong in an action movie. Meetings in Beijing and Taipei were shown, oddly enough as a long series of still images of the participants in the meetings, generally shot from odd angles. These stills were intercut with still more stills (someone should have remembered this was a motion picture) showing daily life in the two cities, apparently indicating that decisions were being made without panicking the population.

The action itself is poorly done. The frenzied confusion in the passenger compartment when the hijackers pull their guns is shown by Coke cans and plastic glasses being dropped and trod underfoot. Most of the rest of the action happens so far from the camera that it loses any value it might have, with one shocking and cruel exception. It is noisy, at least, with hundreds of rounds of ammunition fired.

Shocking situations arise, giving our heroine a chance to look shocked:

Gong Li wasn't really wasted in her role as a nurse--this was her second movie and she looked lovely and occasionally desperate or fearful as needed. Ge You is as intense and committed as any film actor working today. There must be some reason for an artist of his great talent to act in such a turkey but it wasn't clear from watching it.

It seems that there was a point to all this, and it wasn't to make an entertaining movie. From reviews and synopsis on the web it seems that showing the possibility of friendship and comradely cooperation across the Taiwan Strait was why it was made. The maxim "If you want to send a message, call Western Union" has been credited to various early Hollywood moguls, most often Sam Goldwyn. If those responsible for "Operation Cougar" were aware of it they would have made a very different movie. One would not think that Zhang Yi-Mou, Gong Li and Ge You could combine to make a movie this bad but they did. It is the only credit listed for screenwriter Cheng Shi-Qing and it was one too many since it looks like the principals simply shot and acted what he wrote.

There are two reasons to watch this movie. One is that if you are a Gong Li completist and are committed to seeing every second of her work onscreen. The other is if you like to keep lists of continuity faults; “Operation Cougar” is a rich vein to mine. The worst (or best) example is the plane that gets hijacked--while in the air it is a high-winged propeller driven craft but after it lands it has become a regional jet airliner.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sophie Ngan in "Electrical Girl"

Jane Fong (Sophie Ngan) is a woman with a dark secret—or, in reality, a light secret since her difficulty is that she generates a strong electrical current when she has an orgasm. That she has a healthy appetite for sex and is extremely attractive only adds the chance of death by electrocution to the usual concerns of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies for unwary lovers. In consideration of the dangers to her potential partners Jane decides live an almost celibate life, using a light bulb (incandescent only, florescent bulbs are too big) to satisfy herself while masturbating in her bath.

Sophie Ngan’s matter of fact explanation, while (almost) covered with bubbles in her bathtub, is funny and sexy and gets the movie off to a memorable start. Things continue at the office; Jane and her three office mates spend a lot of time in the break room talking about their sex lives. Since the subtitles were funny (intentionally so in this case) the original Cantonese must have had the audience rolling in the aisles. Unfortunately the rest of “Electrical Girl” doesn’t match the economy of narrative and easy going humor of the first fifteen minutes of this Category III sex comedy.

Hope for Jane arrives when a friend tells her that she had sex with a doctor in his office, a doctor she had consulted because of a pain in her shoulder. Jane makes an appointment with Doctor Y. W. Kong (Charlie Cho Cha-Lee) who, from the way her friend describes his bedside manner, may be the guy who can cure her. He doesn’t—the treatment is a failure—but on the positive side the doctor survives his encounter with Jane by wearing enough insulating material to survive a lightning strike although the intense energy she emits does singe him a bit and blows out the speakers of his state of the art sound system. To her surprise Jane sees the first four of the six numbers needed to win the Mark 6 lottery while having sex with Dr. Kong and decides that winning millions of dollars is worth electrocuting a few strangers.

Charlie Cho suited up for action:

True love finally arrives in the form of Leo, the new office manager. All of the office ladies find him very attractive and all of them are more than willing to work late with him but Jane is the one he always picks. To her consternation all Leo wants to do is work even when she makes it clear that she is available. Leo is impotent, a condition that he has accepted and possibly dealt with by working 12 hours per day. Or he thinks he is impotent but is quite the opposite when sleeping and dreaming of Jane. However the conscious Leo has no social or sexual interest in Jane.

Jane is frustrated and heartbroken by Leo’s indifference to her and quits her job to work in a brothel under the tutelage of Kingdom Yuen who plays a goofy Mamasan. This sets the stage for her to encounter several long time Hong Kong character actors and for various reasons, some funny, not sleep with them.

There is a bit of a reversal of gender roles in “Electrical Girl”. It turns out that the impotent Leo only needs some electrical therapy from the right girl to cure him—this is the kind of casual thwarting of audience expectations that Hong Kong directors do very well. Almost invariably it is the female who has sexual difficulty, especially the twinned opposite of male impotence, female frigidity (not sure if that is even a term much in use anymore). It just takes the right guy with the right attitude to fix whatever problem causes a lack of desire in a woman. Here Leo seems to accept his limitations as a lover but from his reactions clearly wishes to have a sexual relationship with Jane and she is just the girl to set him to rights.

Whether one likes “Electrical Girl” is completely contingent on how one feels about Sophie Ngan’s acting talent and sensuous beauty

Gong Li and Ge You in "Lifetimes"

The face that launched 1,000 DVDs:

“Lifetimes” is a wonderful movie that illustrates the cataclysmic events in China from 1949 to 1975 from the point of view of one family. It has a perfectly balanced five act structure with the first and last acts involving personal loss and triumph serving as bookends to the middle three which portray the sweep of war, revolution and party domination. The central characters are Fook Gwai (Ge You) and Ga Jan (Gong Li) a married couple who, after their marriage is shattered on the rock of his gambling come back together. They love, support and depend upon each other without reservation, staying together in the face of almost insuperable tragedy and despair and are the only characters who appear in each of the five acts.

The first act centers on Fook Gwai, his addiction to gambling and involves loss of property and of face. He can’t stop playing dice at the local gambling hall and, like all compulsive gamblers, can’t stop losing. His life is chaotic—his father hates him, his wife is wretched and he has to be literally carried home every night, drunk and unable to walk. He finally loses his ancestral home, a beautiful palace like place that shelters his parents and his wife and children. Not knowing how bad his losses are but realizing that Fook Gwai will not stop gambling the pregnant Ga Jin leaves with their daughter. He is almost undone by the twin hammer blows of impoverishment and repudiation by his family—not only does his wife leave but his father dies on the day the property is made over to Long’er, his wily opponent across the table. Fook Gwai manages to pull himself out of the depths enough to scrape a meager living by selling needles and thread on the street while selling his mother’s jewelry to afford a place for her to live. Ga Jin returns with their daughter and newly born son. Fook Gwai borrows the shadow puppet show that Long’er no longer needs and goes on the road to support his family. This act has a lot of exposition—almost all of the main characters, the underlying theme and the central images of the movie are introduced—but is so packed with pathos and action that it never drags.

Ge You, China's worst gambler:

Gong Li his long suffering wife:

The shadow puppet show is an image that ties every bit of the movie together. In the first act Fook Gwai shows that he can sing and play the accompaniment to the show on stage and is given the trunk full of puppets by his former adversary. He and his good friend Chunsheng are giving a show in a rural area when, in an unforgettable moment (in a movie full of striking images) a bayonet slices through the fabric upon which the shadows from the puppets are cast. This begins the second act with Fook Gwai and Chunsheng conscripted into the Kuomintang Army as laborers, pulling cannons over muddy roads. Their existence hangs by a thread—they are much less valuable than the pack horses they replaced and anyone who is hurt or ill is simply left beside the road to die. They encounter a tough non-com who is in the army only to find his brother. This new friend is invaluable, showing them the tricks to staying alive under such inhuman conditions. They keep from freezing by taking the coats and hats of the wounded who froze to death, find a dead officer’s canteen full of whiskey and generally keep an eye on each other. There are real limits to how the three of them can do for each other, though—they wake one morning left behind in a deserted camp with only a wasteland of dead men to keep them company. The camera pans across a frozen desert covered with bodies—it doesn’t linger but makes the point of the devastation of war and the chance occurrences that allow some to live while others do not. This image is followed by another just as striking, as the forward scouts of the People’s Liberation Army sweep across the plain, growing in number with each passing second. Fook Gwai and Chunsheng surrender (having been shown the proper way to do so) and change sides. Now part of the baggage train of the PLA, they are allowed to put on shows for the tired soldiers, in one scene—improbable but still very moving—playing to an audience of thousands.

The next two acts cover postwar and post-revolution China. Fook Gwai unites with his family—Chunsheng has stayed with the army as a driver—and try resume their lives. But things will never be the same again. This is shown almost immediately when Long’er, who took Fook Gwai’s home, is executed for being one of the landlord class—essentially for being rich. He is dragged through the streets to the execution ground and shot—“five bullets” according to Fook Gwai who shakily tells his wife of what happened. Once again the movie the randomness of life beyond the unconditional love of the family, making the point that if Long’er hadn’t taken the house, Fook Gwai would have been the one with five bullets fired into him and not a hero of the revolution with a certificate to prove it. This certificate, the only tangible thing remaining from Fook Gwai’s forced service with two opposing armies, is framed and hung on the wall. It is a striking image and becomes an important plot point.

This is the period of the Great Leap Forward, the poorly planned and disastrous Five Year Plan of collectivization of the countryside and an attempt to proletarianize the vast Chinese peasantry. The central image and the cause for horrible tragedy is the creation of backyard smelters throughout the countryside to turn scrap iron into steel so that China would not have to import it. What happened was that useful household implements collected from every household were melted into useless lumps of pig iron, just one example of how economic progress was reversed during this time. The town was preparing for a big event—the visit of the District Chief to inspect their smelters. Everyone was mobilized to turn out, even children who were gotten up from their beds to show the steel furnaces at the school. Their son, Xu Youqing—conceived before they lost their house, born while Ga Jin was living apart and now the most important person in the world to both parents—is killed in a freak accident involving the District Chief—Chunsheng, having advanced from PLA driver. The parents are devastated, Chunsheng is prostrate with grief, the boy’s sister, Xu Feng Xia is heartbroken. Even though younger, he has come to her defense when the local boys harass her—she is mute and partially deaf—and is her closest friend as well as her brother.

At her son's funeral:

The scenes in which the parents see Xu Youqing’s body are heartrending. This is the high point of the movie and both Gong Li and Ge You show grief, anger, disbelief and desolation. While it is great cinema, beautifully directed and acted it is almost painful to watch. The family was happy and loving one minute then torn apart with despair the next. Ge You won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance and both he and Gong Li ratcheted up the intensity seamlessly. It was impossible, at least for this viewer, not to be terribly moved by these scenes. To heighten the drama, Xu Feng Xia and Gin Ja are watching a performance of the shadow puppet show given by Fook Gwai when word comes of Xu Youquing’s death.

The fourth act takes place during the Cultural Revolution and is weakest part of the movie—which is by no means a condemnation but more an indication the power of the rest of the film. The central action is the marriage, pregnancy and death during childbirth of Xu Feng Xia. The shorthand here is obvious—Red Guards are bad, party hacks are bad, common people are good but helpless in the face of the new social conditions. The shadow puppet show makes its last appearance when they are forced to burn the delicate figures because they represent the old regime. The local chief, played more as a benevolent uncle than a Communist Party functionary, sets up the meeting between Xu Feng Xia and Wan Er Xi, a hulking but good hearted and charismatic Red Guard leader from a neighboring town. Wan Er Xi turns out to be the son-in-law from heaven. He is completely respectful of his new in-laws; he shows up to fix their roof and paint Mao murals on the walls, loves his wife without reservation and probably helps old ladies across the street in his spare time. He is accompanied by his Red Guard cohorts who seem more like the group down at the malt shop than menacing political thugs.

Proud parents of the bride:

The other side of the Red Guards is shown at the hospital where Xu Feng Xia is taken when she goes into labor—a group of self important students who have ousted their professors and are in charge. Ideological purity is more important than medical knowledge. All the students are women—one imagines that someone as careful as Zhang Yimou would not have this happen accidentally but I have no idea what (if any) statement he is making regarding the role of women during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Xu Feng Xia goes into labor and delivers a healthy boy. Wan Er Xi is congratulated by his fellows and the new grandparents are overjoyed until Xu Feng Xia begins bleeding badly. The Red Guard women are completely incompetent and she dies, cradled in her mother’s arms. There was too great a sense of inevitability in this act and the complete lack of professionalism shown by the hospital workers stretched belief a bit too far—a group of intelligent people working on a maternity ward would not panic when confronted with a sudden hemorrhage from a mother who had just delivered her first child. It would have been the kind of emergency that, even if they were unable to successfully deal with, would not have caused the alarm and terror that this one did. While this may seem to be a quibble, it was jarring because the rest of the movie was true to itself and its characters. This act had too much of a tacked on feeling.

The last act wraps things up quite well and even gives a hint of a decent future to come. The Cultural Revolution has passed and the family now consists of Ga Jan, Fook Gwai and their grandson with Wan Er Xi in slavish attendance. They visit the twin gravesites of Xu Feng Xia and Xu Youqing where the grandson shows he is remarkable well adjusted to the loss of his mother. He has been given a box of fluffy baby chicks to keep—both he and the chicks will mature after the movie ends and Ga Jan punctuates this by telling him that he will be shocked at how fast they grow. The ironbound trunk that carried the shadow puppets makes its last appearance in the last scene (almost the last shot). Fook Gwai pulls it from beneath Ga Jan’s sickbed as the new home for the chicks.

Finally a bedridden grandmother:

The actors were uniformly excellent. Ge You has a hypnotizing presence on screen. He is able to freight the smallest movement with feeling. Both he and Gong Li kept their acting reined in until the death of Xu Youqing so that their agony then was all the more striking. Ben Nui hit just the right tone as the town party chief, even when he was packing to be sent to a cadre school for reeducation. Tao Guo had a lot of great scenes as Chunsheng, going from buddy to enemy to forgiven old friend. The various child and teen actors were enthralling and Geng Miu did his best with an impossible role as Wan Er Xi.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Li Bingbing departs Cannes. (Almost) our last post from sunny southern France

Li Bingbing put sunglasses with lenses the size of dinner plates, pulled her hat brim low on her brow and said good-bye to the sun kissed shores of the Mediterranean for this year.

Here she seems to be saying (or thinking) "Oh, not again."

Clearly not very happy with things:

But she still manages a smile:

Whoever this is--the Chinese entertainment press or some poorly dressed but well equipped tourists--they don't rate a smile.

Out of here at last with a victory sign:

Pro tip: Pumps with platform soles and five inch heels not only make you taller but give your calf muscles a workout while you are just standing around:

Images from Sina.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kelly Lin and Anya appear for "The Devil Inside Me"

From a press conference the other day to hype "The Devil Inside Me". Kelly Lin looks great in a light summer frock although a bit surprised at the size of the bouquet she is expected to carry. Whoever told Anya she should wear that dress is no friend of hers. It drapes badly, is baggy where it should be tight and tight where it should be...less tight. The pattern is a real mistake, taking attention from her face and carrying the eye of the viewer from one side to the other, emphasizing her width. Both seem to be relaxed and having a good time.



Images from Sina and CRI.