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Old Stone / Lao shi, Canada/China 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 20, 2016

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The English title of the film suggests its theme indirectly: ‘old’ as in traditional and ‘stone’ as resistant to marking. The Chinese title is the name of the main character (Gang Chen), a taxi driver in a provincial Chinese city. The basic plot involves him in an accident that results in the victim, a motor cyclist, being taken to hospital and subsequently needing long term treatment. The situation now is that medical care in China requires medical insurance, rather like the USA model. Because of this there are accepted ‘procedures’ following accidents: these define who is liable for the costs. So, Lao shi, instead of waiting for police and an ambulance, takes the severely injured man in his taxi to the hospital. He then finds himself liable for the charges. The key moment show shim at the cashier window with  staff demanding payment before the life-saving operation can begin. And there is a queue of people behind Lao shi, presumably facing similar demands.

His actions create problems with his employers and with the insurance company who cover the firm. It also causes problems with the police: in the latter case this results in an interminable wait for an accident report. But the most serious conflict is with Lao shi’s wife, a budding entrepreneur who runs a nursery. The nursery operates on minimal resources but the wife is hoping to expand. As Lao shi continues paying for the hospital charges she emptier their joint account to preserve their savings.

Lao shi fares no better with the family of the injured man. He has come to the city from the countryside. Lao shi’s repeated phone calls to them only engender claims that they have no money to pay for the charges. Thus we follow Lao shi as he is caught in a vicious circle of payments with no assistance.

Matters come to a head when the victim is finally discharged from hospital and Lao shi realises that he is deliberately maintaining ailments so that Lao shi’s contributions to medical bills will continue. Lao shi now changes gear and sets out to end his involvement through either an ‘accident’ or murder. Predictably it is Lao shi, the victim hero, who in the end suffers an ‘accidental’ death.

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This is a bleak tale which emphasises the alienation of ordinary Chinese citizen in their market driven economy. The filmmaker was inspired by tales of actual deaths caused in order to avoid the type of situation that afflicts Lao shi. There is one telling scene where Lao shi witnesses an older woman who collapses in the street, but no passer-by will assist her because of the fear of the very situation in which Lao shi find himself.

The film has a noir quality. The story is told in flashback, we open with a sequence where Lao shi is following the now discharged victim, and the film recurrently cuts between that present and the past events. Much of the film is show in an observational, almost documentary, style. Many sequences also have a grainy look which contributes to the downbeat feeling. The film has a compressed plot and is tightly edited, coming in at only 80 minutes running time. The downbeat often low-key look has one exception. A recurring shot, quite lush, of green billowing tress. These rise above the setting where the final events play out.

With the noir feel and the sense of large-scale alienation the film is reminiscent of some other Chinese drams-cum-thrillers. In particular I was reminded of Blind Shaft (2003) set among the illegal coal mining workers: and The World (2004) set in a Theme Park in Beijing. In all three cases ordinary working people suffer the cost of China’s developing capitalist economy. Several of the reviews of this film refer to ‘a taxi driver battling bureaucracy’. And this is one aspect of the process we witness. But the main force is the drive to force ordinary Chinese people to pay the costs of the social care that the capitalist forces no longer meet. This is where the theme of ‘old’ or ‘tradition’ is important. Whatever the failings of China’s Socialist Construction things are far worse now that profit is in control.

The writer and director, Jonny Ma, is Chinese-Canadian and this is a China/Canada production. His other film, The Robbery (2010), was set in Australia. So this is an example of the developing global film industry and of Diaspora filmmaking. The film was screened at the Leeds International Film Festival and, to date, it seems to have only enjoyed screenings at other Film Festivals. That also is typical of his type of film product. But it deserves to get wider releases and distribution.

 

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Spring in a Small Town, (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn) China, 1948

Posted by keith1942 on July 14, 2014

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This film released was filmed at a Shanghai Studio and directed by Fei Mu; [one listed running time is 98 minutes. The current available version, distributed on a DCP by the bfi, runs 93 minutes and had English subtitles for the Mandarin dialogue]. The film was based on a short story by Li Tianji, and was produced by the Wenhua Film Company. It is variously hailed as ‘one of the most popular ‘ and again as ‘one of the greatest’ of Chinese films. In 2002 the film was remade by the China Film Group Corporation, financed by companies in China, Hong Kong and France, as Springtime in a Small Town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun). The film was directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang and the screenplay was written by Ali Cheng, based on the 1940 screenplay and the original short story. The remake follows the original film very closely.

In both films we have five main characters who are the almost total focus of the plot. There is the husband or ‘young master’, Dai Liyan; his wife or the ‘young mistress’ Yuwen [by an arranged marriage]; Liyan’s younger sister Dai Xui; a visitng friend and doctor Zhang Zhichen; and the older family retained Lao Huang. Liyan has inherited the family war-damaged property, and Zhichen is an old school friend. However the viewers soon realise that Yuwen and Zhichen also know each other and have had a romantic relationship in the past. The interaction is complicated by Liyan health, he has a long-term ‘weak chest’, and also by Xiu’s attraction to Zhichen.

The most obvious difference between the films is that the 1948 version is shot in black and white and academy ratio: the 2002 version is filmed in colour and in new academy ratio. Moreover, whilst the earlier version was mainly filmed in a studio and relied on a rather primitive sound system, the remake relies mainly on locations and has a rich sound palette. Also, the new film, despite following the early plotting, is at least 20 minutes longer. The latter film has a tendency to linger on the mise en scène. It also uses a much more mobile camera, and has a particular penchant for lateral tracking shots.

In terms of interpreting the story Spring in a Small Town offers the subjective memories of the heroine. The film opens with Yuwen’s voice over setting the scene and the film then goes into a flashback mode. So we see the characters and their actions and interaction from her point of view. This gives the film a particular dramatic emphasis. The voice over is most noticeable in the film’s opening half an hour; it diminishes to a degree after that. The 1948 opening is also leisurely as we meet Liyan, Huang and Yuwen and various spaces within the house and garden before we witness the arrival of Zhichen. Surprisingly the conclusion of the film does not return us to the voice of the heroine: the scene is accompanied by emphatic brassy music, all the more noticeable as this film is restrained in the provision of accompaniment.

Springtime in a Small Town completely eschews the narrative voice.The opening is shorter and sharper – we cut between Liyan, Yuwen and then Zhichen, and almost immediately are into the main plot. Without the voice over there is a more detached observation of the characters. I felt that this lessens the dramatic quality in the film: it also weakens considerably the possibility of the woman’s viewpoint. The characterisations by the two actresses – Wei Wei in 1948, Hu Jingfan in 2002 – are also rather different. Both actresses give a sense of the divided feelings that flow from Yuwen’s situation. However, Wei Wei makes the division more obvious and also projects a sensuous feeling towards Zhichen.

In both films the walls of the town are an important setting: we actually see almost nothing of the town itself. The 1948 film opens and closes with Yuwen on the walls. The other main characters also visit this site: and Yuwen and Zhichen have two trysts there. In the earlier film Xiu tells Zhichen that they are ‘the only place of interest here’. This point is missing in the new film. So that film relies more on the feel of the walls as a setting. Moreover, at the conclusion of the 2002 film we no longer see Yuwen alone on the walls – now she is in her room with her embroidery. This struck me as re-inforcing the shift away from her viewpoint.

The common point in both films is the lack of reference to contemporary events in wider China. The ‘war of resistance’ against Japanese occupation had ended, but the civil war between Guomindang and the Communist Party was already underway. But the 1948 film only mentions ‘the recent war’ whilst the 2002 film actually identifies ‘the war of resistance.’ Neither Yuwen nor Liyan have seen Zhichen for ten years – and it is clear that he has travelled extensively in the intervening years, and a line suggests that he has been near or in the front line.

It is worth noting that after liberation and the victory of the Communist Party that the 1948 film was regarded as ‘rightist’. It does not appear to have either had wide circulation or much attention in that period. In the 1980s the film was re-printed and distributed. And it seems that its reputation stems from that period. Examples of proclaiming it the ‘greatest Chinese film of all time’ were The Hong Kong film critics in 2002 and then at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005. Where that that situation differs from 1948 but is common to the 1980s is the triumph of the bourgeois reformist view over the socialist view.

The film was produced in Shanghai, where in the 1930s there were a series of great political melodramas: notable for their emphasis on communal action. This theme returns in 1949 in another Shanghai film Crows and Sparrows (Wuya yu Maque). I would rate that film over Spring in a Small Town, which I thought was itself the better of the two film versions of Li Tianji’s story. But one intriguing difference is an additional scene in the remake. The earlier film shows us Xiu dancing for Zhichen during an outing on the walls. In the new film we actually have a scene at the school were we see Zhichen teaching new dances to the school students.

My knowledge of Chinese culture and cinema is rather limited. But I did wonder if the 1948 version possibly offered a parable for the times. Liyan could be a metaphor for ailing and damaged traditional China: whilst Yuwen caught between that tradition and modernism represented by the doctor. These metaphors are reinforced by the references to ‘spring’ in the title and plot – a time of awakening, of new things. In which case the film would appear to come down firmly on the side of tradition and conservatism. This is a set of values that the new version would also seem to reprise.

 

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