Tag Archives: Chinese film

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 10, 2021

There are new series on Disney+, Netflix, and Amazon, but the new movies this week are on more niche platforms like MUBI and Shudder. I’d urge everyone to take a look at these smaller streaming services. MUBI features a great curated selection of independent, classic, and foreign films. It’s this last category where they bring in movies that you really don’t get a chance to see anywhere else. It’s still not easy in the U.S. to see the low-budget, independent, or experimental movies from other countries that push cinema as a whole forward.

Shudder picks up a lot of low-to-mid budget horror movies, but competes for these with streaming services that know there’s a solid audience for them. They can’t outbid a Netflix or Hulu for these, so their newer films can be a mix. What I’d really recommend them for is a selection of classic horror films that show the evolution of the genre spanning across decades.

There are also great options that aren’t featured this week. OVID TV has become one of the best and most interesting platforms for featuring documentaries made in recent years.

Most of these are relatively inexpensive, too. MUBI runs $11 a month, OVID is $7, Shudder is just $6, and each has some version of a free trial.

I’d also like to highlight Kanopy. Kanopy is free through many universities and public libraries. If yours takes part in the service, all you need to watch is a university log-in or your library card. It includes many new and classic movies, the library of A24, a portion of the Criterion collection, the list goes on. They have a Directed by Women category that includes films as new as this year’s “Shiva Baby”, “Shadow in the Cloud”, and “Carmilla”, and films from recent years such as “The Assistant” (my pick for best film of 2020), “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, “The Farewell”, “Clemency”, “Lady Bird”, and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”. The service’s focus on film history means they also boast films like Larisa Shepitko’s Soviet-era “The Ascent”, Ida Lupino’s 1953 thriller “The Hitch-Hiker”, even Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette-animated films from the 1920s. It’s an amazing resource across the board, and because Kanopy is designed to be used for academic services, it’s incredibly well-organized.

Take a look at these other services, because that’s where you’ll find so much that’s glossed over or skipped entirely on the more popular ones.

OK, that’s enough of my spiel, let’s get to this week’s new series and movies by women:

NEW SERIES

Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (Disney+)
showrunner Kourtney Kang

Lahela Kamealoha picks up the torch of Doogie Howser as a wunderkind starting her medical career while she’s still a child. The show takes place and is shot in Hawaii.

Showrunner Kourtney Kang has previously written and produced on “How I Met Your Mother” and “Fresh Off the Boat”, two of the best sitcoms of the last two decades.

You can watch “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.” on Disney+.

On the Verge (Netflix)
showrunner Julie Delpy

Julie Delpy, Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Jones, and Alexia Landeau star as women facing midlife crises in L.A.

Showrunner Julie Delpy is best known as the star of the “Before Sunrise” trilogy opposite Ethan Hawke. She also became co-writer of the latter two in the series: “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”. Both earned Oscar nominations for their writing. Delpy has also written and directed a number of French, often multilingual films. This includes a nomination for France’s national film awards, the Cesars, for writing “2 Days in Paris”.

You can watch “On the Verge” on Netflix.

Pretty Hard Cases (Amazon)
showrunners Tassie Cameron, Sherry White

Competing detectives from two different departments team up in a buddy comedy. The series comes from Canada. It also features a rare live-action role for Tara Strong, whose voice you’ve probably heard if you’ve even glanced at an animated series in the last decade. (One of her most recent roles was as Miss Minutes in “Loki”.)

Tassie Cameron and Sherry White have produced a number of Canadian shows together.

You can watch “Pretty Hard Cases” on Amazon.

NEW MOVIES

Martyrs Lane (Shudder)
directed by Ruth Platt

Leah is a girl who lives in a clergy house. Many are helped there throughout the day, but leave at night. That’s when she’s visited by a girl who appears to be an angel, but might not be all that she seems.

This is Ruth Platt’s third film as writer and director.

You can watch “Martyrs Lane” on Shudder.

Mama (MUBI)
directed by Li Dongmei

We see life in a rural Chinese village during the 1990s, recounted through the eyes of a 12-year-old. The film is a semi-autobiographical recounting of the last days of writer-director Li Dongmei’s mother.

This is her first film.

You can watch “Mama” on MUBI.

Fucking with Nobody (MUBI)
directed by Hannaleena Hauru

Hanna loses a filmmaking opportunity, so she begins a parody romance on Instagram. The Finnish film helps lead a recent trend in Scandinavian film of examining the falsities inherent in social media.

Hannaleena Hauru co-writes, directs, and stars. This is her second film in all three roles, after 2018’s “Metatitanic”.

You can watch “Fucking with Nobody” on MUBI.

Omo Ghetto: The Saga (Netflix)
co-directed by Funke Akindele

Leftty leads her group in a gangster comedy that became the highest grossing film in Nigerian history.

Funke Akindele co-directs and stars as Leftty. She won Africa’s continental award for Best Actress at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009. This is her second time directing.

You can watch “Omo Ghetto: The Saga” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

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Fight Scene Friday — “The Grandmaster”

by Gabriel Valdez

Ziyi Zhang. Much shade is thrown her way. “She’s a dancer by training,” goes one criticism, which conveniently ignores the by-now years of martial arts training she’s undergone with masters most of us could only dream of tutoring under.

Another criticism reminds us she’s no Michelle Yeoh, as if there can only be one female movie martial artist at a time. And, for that matter, if we’re talking purely practical martial arts skill, Jackie Chan’s no Michelle Yeoh either.

I often hear: she couldn’t actually win that fight. Well, this is probably true for half of movie martial artists. I’m not going to judge which ones could and which ones couldn’t, and that includes Zhang, but if that’s your schtick I’m pretty sure at least half the people who fly in kung fu movies can’t really do that either.

The simple reality is that Zhang is one of the best movie martial artists working today, and she fuses dance with martial arts to realize a balletic choreographic style that is relatively new in much the same way Jackie Chan’s fusion of stuntwork and martial arts once was. Being such a unique talent allows directors to frame their stories around her.

One such film was The Grandmaster, which I ranked as the second best film of 2013. The Grandmaster tells the tale of Ip Man, the Chines historical figure and cultural hero who would later go on to train martial arts cinema’s formative light: Bruce Lee.

Most recountings of Ip Man are mythologized to an egregious extent, but that’s what every culture (including ours) tends to do with historical figures. There are a few things that are intriguing about The Grandmaster‘s retelling, however:

First off, this is director Wong Kar-wai’s only real entry into martial arts cinema. He tends to make movies about love, alternating frame stories, and crime melodrama. His movies are utterly beautiful, almost like moving paintings, as you can see from the scene above.

Secondly, while The Grandmaster as a title seems to refer to Ip Man, the narrative leads you to believe that the grandmaster being spoken about is Ziyi Zhang’s character, Gong Er. She has even defeated Ip Man in a contest of kung fu. She is a woman, however, and so cannot inherit the traditions or certifications of a Chinese martial arts school. Because of China’s attitude toward women, the style her family practiced dies with her, while Ip Man’s style is free to live on through him. In this way, The Grandmaster is an absolutely searing refutation of gender politics in China, and a portrayal of all that’s been lost through China’s focus on patriarchy, privileging men while devaluing women, and focusing on the birth of sons over daughters.

In the scene above, midway through the film, Gong Er confronts Ma San, who has murdered her father and stolen the school’s certifications – and therefore the right to continue teaching the style – for himself.

What’s unique about the choreography is the use of slow motion to focus on the precision of hand movements. Most schools of kung fu focus on rhythm through a precision of hand movements, arm placements, and accompanying steps. The position of a hand can dictate the entire attitude of a movement. By slowing the choreography down, we’re able to see the intentions of key strikes, where they hit and miss. It translates the intention behind each move and how each character shifts attitude in order to counter the other’s. It’s derided by some American critics for being too focused on aesthetic, but the truth is the fight is communicated in terms of each character’s internal strategy better than most full-speed fights.

It stands not just on its scenery and art design, not just on the unique aspects Zhang brings to choreography, but as a fight that plainly communicates how moves are strung together according to this particular martial arts philosophy.

And it’s just one of several such scenes that make The Grandmaster one of the most unique and important martial arts movies ever made.

Bits & Pieces — Production Design, “The Curse of the Golden Flower”

Bits & Pieces is a new series that will focus on overlooked technical and cultural accomplishments in under-seen films.

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Production Design, “The Curse of the Golden Flower”
Production Designer – Huo Tingxiao
Art Director – Zhao Bin

Costume Design – Yee Chung Man

by Vanessa Tottle and Gabriel D. Valdez

Upon its release in 2006, The Curse of the Golden Flower was the most expensive Chinese film ever made. Director Zhang Yimou, who began his career making sensitive dramas, was coming off two martial arts epics (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers) that had proved so successful they’d even garnered multiplex screens in the United States.

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The Curse of the Golden Flower is an adaptation of Thunderstorm, a Chinese play published in 1934. Its closest Western comparison would be The Lion in Winter. Both concern a royal family’s internecine conflict, centering around a mother and father on the verge of war and the three sons vying for their affections and inheritance of the kingdom.

The plot is complex and seedy – it involves poison, insanity, assassination, and secret lovers. Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Gong Li (Farewell My Concubine), often regarded as China’s best actors of their generation, star as the Emperor Ping and Empress Phoenix.

Most importantly, Golden Flower is among the most beautiful films ever created. The costume and set design are a synaesthetic’s dream come true.

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The film’s accomplishment is in Zhang’s use of set design to translate opposing themes. The movie’s central sequence, for instance, involves one army massacring another in the Emperor’s expansive courtyard, filled with pots of golden flowers for the annual Chong Yang Festival. Bodies are clearly shown piled up, the courtyard a mess of blood and debris. With the manpower at the palace’s disposal, however, it’s the work of a few hours to clean up the bodies, replant the flowerpots in perfect lines, and carry on with the festival on schedule, pretending nothing had ever happened. All evidence has simply vanished.

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To Chinese authorities, who had the ability to censor the film if they saw something they didn’t like, it was a moment that spoke to the power and importance of unity. The replanting of the flowerpots represents the country’s ability to continue on unscathed. Despite a long history of war and suffering at the hands of neighbors and Western powers, the sequence hints that China is an idea continually reborn, always meant to be. To enough of the authorities, the flowerpot sequence symbolizes China’s strength, destiny, and resiliency while glorifying its sheer manpower.

To Western audiences and many Chinese viewers, the moment spoke to the dangers of empire and censorship. The same sequence is a stark and shocking reminder about the dangers of centralized power and how easily voices of criticism are erased from history. The notion of a massacre so quickly covered up is something viewers idealistically (if not always practically) oppose. To many audiences, the flowerpot sequence calls out and criticizes Chinese decisions to jail opposing voices and make political opponents vanish.

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In fact, the entire movie is shaped in metaphors that simultaneously criticize the very same power structure they reassure. The victor feels inevitable the entire film. Some audiences interpreted this as a show of strength, while others interpreted it as the inevitable horror of politics, an echo of imperialism in the modern state of things.

The original play, Thunderstorm, is about how wealth and class shame corrupt a successful Chinese family. It’s needless to say why it’s considered a classic in a country that is, at least in name, Communist. Zhang’s period approach to this story keeps this theme intact. For all surface intent, the story is about the futility and tragedy of rebelling against the norm. Throughout, however, Zhang’s design team undercuts and turns this message on its head. Rebellion may be tragic, but its act in Golden Flower takes everything meaningful away from the ruling class. It poses a China bitterly divided between an upper-class government rejoicing at the spectacle of its own power and a poisoned, strong-armed culture struggling to take charge of its fate. In the end, Golden Flower suggests this leads to mutually assured destruction.

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For this alone, The Curse of the Golden Flower is a unique accomplishment in cinematic history. It’s overlooked as one of the best films of the last decade and is overshadowed – popularly and critically – in Zhang’s own canon by the stunning martial arts sequences of Hero and the operatic sensibilities of The House of Flying Daggers. Golden Flower may have some martial arts sequences, but it’s really a talky drama. In the West, we’re not used to devoting our viewing time to Eastern drama.

Golden Flower is a more valuable film than either of those others. It creates one of the most overwhelming senses of place seen in cinema. The images posted here are beautiful, but they have nothing on the film in motion.

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In his earlier Hero, Zhang ends the movie with a character sacrificing himself for the unity of China. The sacrifice made censors happy, while it played as a tragic and disagreeable decision to audiences. It forced viewers to question whether the individual sacrifice, a fundamental concept of China’s Communism, was truly worth it. In Golden Flower, Zhang found a way to amplify that feeling, to make an entire film out of a Chinese classic that expands that bittersweet moment of doubt into a haunting, lingering thought that follows you out of the theater.

And they slipped it all past the censors. This is what a good design team can do.

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