Friday, 6/15/2018

Chinese films at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN

View into the Chinese province

A geographic focus this year at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, and one that pervades various sections of the program, is China. Films from this country include works by a number of audacious young (screenplay) writers, along with ASH IS PUREST WHITE, the latest film by Jia Zhang-Ke, which is absolutely a highlight of the entire festival. Common to all these films is that they and their creators deliberately position themselves contrary to the cinematic mainstream. The result of this attitude is a collection of films, some of which are awkward, some avant-garde, none obliging, all with a powerfully driven vision of art and style. The fact that the plots of most of these films are set in provincial China, far from the familiar megacities, makes it possible to look behind the scenes, beyond the China we know.

The big name here is doubtless Jia Zhang-Ke, one of the best-known and most celebrated Chinese writer-directors. His international breakthrough ultimately came in 2006, when he received a Golden Lion in Venice for his masterpiece STILL LIFE, followed by an award for best screenplay in Cannes for TOUCH OF SIN (2013). Jia Zhang-Ke has become a frequent guest at large film festivals, not least at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN.

With his latest film, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, which is entered in the CineMasters competition, Jia Zhang-Ke has again delivered a masterful film, underscoring his status as a chronicler of his country. In this capacity, he has time and again dealt in films with China's development in the past 20 years and with the (societal) consequences of Chinese turbocapitalism. Jia Zhang-Ke makes the major changes happening in the country as well as to its people a major theme in his current film. This film takes the viewer on a journey through idiosyncratic imagery and the entanglements of organized crime. It is both a romance and a gangster movie, melodramatic and trendy at the same time.


Far-reaching processes of change are also a theme in Yue Dong's debut film, THE LOOMING STORM. The title can be understood literally as well as metaphorically. A storm is approaching that threatens to shake Chinese society to its core. It also rains torrentially. An amateur detective attempts to solve a series of murders in his home town. The result is a Chinese film noir, a police thriller with avant-garde elements.

Feifei Wang's FROM WHERE WE'VE FALLEN is also mysterious and opaque. Wang traces complex entanglements of destinies and desires that extend beyond class boundaries in his melancholy, erotic debut film. Events are set in motion by a man who happens to witness a neighbor plunging to his death. We are being watched incessantly in any case, and we like to spy on others as well. Movies are the ultimate voyeuristic medium, after all.

This is demonstrated impressively in DRAGONFLY EYES, an exercise in style by director and artist Xu Bing. Consisting entirely of found footage from surveillance cameras in urban spaces, Bing's avant-garde film evokes one of the most pressing issues of our time on a formal level as well as in its story.


Miaoyan Zhang's SILENT MIST deals with another such pressing issue in its very own way. The plot revolves around a series of rapes in a Chinese village and the lack of a suitable response by the villagers. Patriarchal structures pervade the community like silent mist. In long panning shots, the camera always observes from a distance, just as the people/characters/villagers remain at a distance to each other, and reveals the darker side of modern China.

Among these films, BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES II seems to be the exception. This (in the best sense of the word) classic historical martial-arts film by director Yang Lu breaks the calm that characterizes many of the other Chinese films this year. In a genre spectacle full of breathtaking visuals and aesthetics, set in the final phase of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, a palace guard suddenly finds himself involved in a deadly conspiracy.


Alongside these Chinese films, this year's program includes the Taiwanese production THE GREAT BUDDHA+ by Hsin-Yao Huang. While the People's Republic views Taiwan as part of China and thus a component of Chinese culture, Taiwan views itself as autonomous. Huang's film is a humorous indie grotesque whose plot takes place in a bronze statue factory and in which the director or his alter ego uses a voice-over to comment tersely on the story. This film deals not least with the division of Taiwanese society and with the issue of surveillance.

Fabio Kühnemuth

On Tuesday, July 3, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., a FILMMAKERS LIVE! discussion entitled "The Chinese Cinema Miracle: Film Authors from the Middle Kingdom" will take place with celebrated Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke (ASH IS PUREST WHITE) and young Chinese filmmakers Feifei Wang (FROM WHERE WE'VE FALLEN) and Miaoyan Zhang (SILENT MIST) in the Black Box at the Gasteig. With support from the central office of the Confucius Institute.