Youth (芳华, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

youth posterOn the surface of things, one might be forgiven for thinking that Feng Xiaogang, “China’s Spielberg” – the director of such fluffy hits as If You Are the One and the prestige picture The Banquet, might not be the one to look to for nuanced takes on the state of his nation but, as he proved with the irony filled I am Not Madame Bovary, there has always been a persistent resistance in his superficially crowd-pleasing filmography. The exact nature and extent of that resistance is however harder to assess. Youth (芳华, Fāng huá), Feng’s latest historically probing epic, made headlines when its mainland release was blocked at short notice immediately before its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and in some respects it’s easy to see why it may have raised an eyebrow or two at the censor’s board. A literal story of “youth” and the various ways that the concept becomes romanticised even when one’s own coming of age took place in otherwise difficult times, Feng’s film is also the story of modern China, baptised in the fire of the Cultural Revolution only to finally succumb to the consumerist one 15 years later.

Narrated by bystander Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), later a successful author apparently looking back on her own “youth” with a writerly eye, the tale begins in the early 1970s with two pillars of the arts division of the People’s Liberation Army. Suizi informs us the the protagonists of this story are Lui Feng (Huang Xuan) – a model soldier, and Xiaoping (Miao Miao) – a poor girl mercilessly tormented by everyone throughout her entire life. Xiaoping’s birth father has long been languishing in a re-education camp but as she’s taken her step-father’s name, Liu Feng assures her that he’s kept her bad class background off her record and will make sure no one else knows about it.

Performing propaganda ballets, the arts division is at its zenith at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The troop as a whole enjoys extreme privilege – they are well fed and cared for, evade the dangerous front line work many other members of the armed forces are subject to, and receive the respect due to them as the embodiment of a revolutionary ideal. They are, however, still guilty of the various hypocrisies coded into the system. Though many of the dancers have family members with “bad class backgrounds”, undergoing re-education or otherwise better not mentioned, the top guys and girls are the ones with parents high up in the party who use their untouchable status to paper over cracks in their own development with inherited superiority.

Lui Feng is perhaps an aberration. Nicknamed “Lei Feng” – a mythical figure created for propaganda purposes to embody the “ideal” revolutionary soldier in his selfless dedication to his comrades and communist virtues, Lui Feng is indeed a model party member whose goodness and kindness know no bounds. Unlike Lei Feng, however, he is a real man of flesh and blood not some far off and untouchable god. Having sanctified him in this way, the collective has effectively raised Lui Feng up to an unfair and unattainable ideal and is then “betrayed” on realising that Lui Feng is a man with a man’s hopes and desires. Lui Feng’s transgression is inappropriate to be sure but also somehow innocent in its naivety and his counter betrayal by the system to which he has dedicated his life all the more difficult to bear because of the unfair deification his better qualities have earned him.

Xiaoping meanwhile, who expected only betrayal, betrays the system through passive resistance in resentment of the way it has treated her friend. “Abandoned” by the collective which is the arts troop, Xiaoping exiles herself from a society she thinks has little need of her yet she then continues to serve it fully as a frontline nurse. The “youthful” idealism of Lui Feng and Xiaoping is tested as they find themselves caught up in a far off war while their former comrades dance around with wooden swords on a painted stage. Wounded in body and mind, the pair continue onwards even as their nation conspires to leave them behind.

Shifting into the ‘90s and then the 21st century, Feng’s messages become muddier and harder to grasp. In one sense what is celebrated is “youth” itself which, in this case, happened to take place against the backdrop of terrible events (albeit it ones from which many of the protagonists save Lui Feng and Xiaoping were largely shielded) enabling the growth of a generational family destroyed by a change in the political wind. It is however hard not to infer that everything was better during the turbulent ‘70s in which the delusion of innocence, if not its actual existence, was easier to bear than the soulless march into the future of Coca-Cola signs, Transformers toys and fathers who never come home because they’re too busy making money. Feng’s heroes are the ones who exiled themselves from the reality of China as a modern economic superpower, holding fast to their innate senses of honour and justice, yet in this Feng does to them exactly what he criticises his society for doing – he makes them martyrs, mythologises them as embodiments of revolutionary ideals, a pair of real life Lei Fengs all over again. In telling a story of how the revolution betrays and is betrayed, Feng makes the heroes emerge damaged but unbroken, chaste children trapped by the “innocence” of the pre-capitalist age, but whether their survival is victory or defeat remains unclear. 


Youth is currently screening at selected cinemas across the UK courtesy of CineAsia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

I am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

I-Am-Not-Madame-Bovary-posterFeng Xiaogang, often likened to the “Chinese Spielberg”, has spent much of his career creating giant box office hits and crowd pleasing pop culture phenomenons from World Without Thieves to Cell Phone and You Are the One. Looking at his later career which includes such “patriotic” fare as Aftershock, Assembly, and Back to 1942 it would be easy to think that he’s in the pocket of the censors board. Nevertheless, there’s a thin strain of resistance ever-present in his work which is fully brought out in the biting satire, I am not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián).

Truth be told, the adopted Western title is mostly unhelpful as the film’s heroine, Liu Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), is no romantic girl chasing a lovelorn dream to escape from the stultifying boredom of provincial bourgeois society, but a wronged peasant woman intent on reclaiming her dignity from a world expressly set up to keep people like her in their place. Feng begins the movie with a brief narrative voice over to set the scene in which he shows us a traditional Chinese painting depicting the famous “Pan Jinlian” whose name has become synonymous with romantic betrayal. More Thérèse Raquin than Madame Bovary, Pan Jinlian conspired with her lover to kill her husband rather than becoming consumed by an eternal stream of romantic betrayals.

Xuelian has, however, been betrayed. She and her husband faked a divorce so that he could get a fancy apartment the government gives to separated people where they could live together after remarrying sometime later. Only, Xuelian’s husband tricked her – the divorce was real and he married someone else instead. Not only that, he’s publicly damaged her reputation by branding her a “Pan Jinlian” and suggesting she’s a fallen woman who was not a virgin when they married. Understandably upset, Xuelian wants the law to answer for her by cancelling her husband’s duplicitous divorce and clearing her name of any wrongdoing.

Xuelian’s case is thrown out of the local courts, but she doesn’t stop there, she musters all of her resources and takes her complaint all the way to Beijing. Rightfully angry, her rage carries her far beyond the realms a peasant woman of limited education would expect to roam always in search of someone who will listen to her grievances. When no one will, Xuelian resorts to extreme yet peaceful measures, making a spectacle of herself by holding up large signs and stopping petty officials in their fancy government cars. Eventually Liu Xuelian becomes an embarrassment to her governmental protectors, a symbol of wrongs they have no time to right. These men in suits aren’t interested in her suffering, but she makes them look bad and puts a stain on their impressive political careers. Thus they need to solve the Liu Xuelian problem one way or another – something which involves more personal manipulation than well-meaning compromise.

Bureaucratic corruption is an ongoing theme in Chinese cinema, albeit a subtle one when the censors get their way, but the ongoing frustration of needing, on the one hand, to work within a system which actively embraces its corruption, and on the other that of necessarily being seen to disapprove of it can prove a challenging task. Xuelian’s struggles may lean towards pettiness and her original attempt to subvert the law for personal gain is never something which thought worthy of remark, but her personal outrage at being treated so unfairly and then so easily ignored is likely to strike a chord with many finding themselves in a similar situation with local institutions who consistently place their own gain above their duty to protect the good men and women of China.

A low-key feminist tale, Xuelian’s quest also highlights the plight of the lone woman in Chinese society. Tricked by unscrupulous men, she’s left to fend for herself with the full expectation that she will fail and be forced to throw herself on male mercy. Xuelian does not fail. What she wants is recognition of her right to a dignified life. The purpose of getting her divorce cancelled is not getting her husband back but for the right to divorce him properly and refute his allegations of adultery once and for all. Xuelian wants her good name back, and then she wants to make a life for herself freed from all of this finagling. She’s done the unthinkable – a petty peasant woman has rattled Beijing and threatened the state entire. Making oneself ridiculous has become a powerful political weapon. All of this self-assertion and refusal to backdown with one’s tail between one’s legs might just be catching.

Adding to his slightly absurdist air, Feng frames the tale through the old-fashioned device of an iris. Intended to recall the traditional scroll paintings which opened the film, the iris also implies a kind of stagnation in Xuelian’s surroundings. Her movements are impeded, her world is small, and she’s always caught within a literal circle of gossip and awkward, embarrassing scenes. Moving into the city, Feng switches to a square instead – this world is ordered and straightened but it’s still one of enforced rigidity, offering more physical movement but demanding adherence to its strict political rules. Only approaching the end does something more like widescreen with its expansive vistas appear, suggesting either that a degree of freedom has been found or the need to comply with the forces at be rejected but Xuelian’s “satisfaction” or lack of it is perhaps not worth the ten years of strife spent as a petty thorn in the government’s side. Perhaps this is Feng’s most subversive piece of advice, that true freedom is found only in refusing to play their game. They can call you Pan Jinlian all they please, but you don’t need to answer them.


I am not Madame Bovary was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Back to 1942 (一九四二, Feng Xiaogang, 2012)

back-to-1942-poster08Review of this (slightly stodgy) war time starvation drama up at UK Anime Network.


Feng Xiaogang might not exactly be a household name in the West but at home he’s one of China’s most bankable directors. Dubbed the Chinese Spielberg (perhaps a little reductively) he made his name with a series of crowd pleasing comedy films that had audiences queuing ‘round the block in expectation. In recent years, he’s moved away from the comedy genre in favour of big budget, Hollywood style dramas centred around historical events like the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake in Aftershock or the Civil War themed Assembly. Back to 1942 sees him step back even further in time to one of China’s great hidden tragedies, the great Henan famine of 1942.

In 1942 China was in a precarious political position as it faced the ongoing Japanese incursion and came under increasing pressure to align itself with Japan’s enemies as part of the wider global conflict. A serious drought could not have come at a worse time as ever dwindling resources were pulled in several directions at once. The story here concerns the landlord, Fan, who had originally a sizeable grain store set aside to feed his family and retainers. However, after his village is raided by bandits he too is forced to travel westwards in hope of finding better supplies. Along with his wife, pregnant daughter-in-law, daughter and servant as well as another family from the village he faces increasing hardship as he tries to find food to survive. Meanwhile an American journalist employed by TIME magazine has got wind of the story and is trying to get something done about it but to no avail. The government has the war effort as its top priority – what does it matter if a few peasants die as long as the army remains well fed.

Politically speaking, you can get away with talking about ‘unpleasant’ historical events assuming that they happened before the communist revolution. The finger here is pointed quite squarely at Chang Kai-shek and his nationalist government who are portrayed not only as unfeeling and self interested but also as ineffectual when it comes to the business of conducting war with the Japanese. Indeed, at once point Chang suggests simply ceding Henan to the Japanese rather go to the expense of defending this barren stretch of land. Though it is clear he is aware of the extent of the famine, he does little about it until eventually sending “emergency supplies” to “the disaster area” to try and alleviate the damage to his reputation and diplomatic relations with other powers when news of the famine finally reaches them after the conflict. Though the local governor appears genuinely concerned and does his best to get help for the starving people (even if it’s only to alleviate the ridiculous burdens placed on them to supply grain for the army even though there is none) he is hamstrung by the top heavy hierarchical system.

No help is going to come from the government for Fan and his family. They might have been bigwigs once but now they’re in the same boat as everyone else – forced on a virtual death march through the arid land desperately trying to find anywhere that will yield to them the resources to survive. Bodies litter the landscape as the weaker succumb to starvation, donkeys and pack horses are eaten and finally wives and children are bought and sold in the hope of surviving a few hours more. Make no bones about it, Back to 1942 is almost two and a half hours of pure misery as one tragic yet inevitable event follows on the next. Unfortunately, Feng has laid the gloom on a little thick in this understandably bleak tale. The tone never wavers and somehow the constant nature of its sorrows fail to engage as they take on a sadly predictable air. Despite the obvious potential of the story, there’s precious little actual drama and the performances fail to capture the audience’s sympathies as Fan & Co. forced into increasingly degrading acts trying to ensure their own survival.

However, Back to 1942 was an expensive production and you can see all of that money on screen as the battle and action sequences rival those of any Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever reservations there may be with the plotting, it always looks good and you could never accuse it of skimping out on its production design. The only minor criticism may be that the performances of non-Chinese actors feel significantly under rehearsed with Tim Robbins’ priest being the obvious example as he struggles with a strange accent and unclear position in the narrative. Adrien Brody fares better as the idealistic reporter but still fails to convince. The film doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself when it comes both to the role of religion and of other powers active in China at this time and though neither of those ideas are at the forefront of this film, they muddy the waters in ways other than intended by the filmmaker.
An often beautifully photographed film Back to 1942 is also a cold one and given its depressing subject matter something of a chore. The famine that struck the Henan region in 1942 and subsequent (non) reaction to it from the powers at be is indeed something that should be addressed and brought to light in the modern world but perhaps it doesn’t need to be in such a blunt fashion. The film is long, and wearing but ultimately fails to connect with the viewer in a non cynical way making its drawn out proceedings a little on the tedious side for most viewers. Those with a taste for sentimental melodramas with high production values may find a lot to enjoy with Back to 1942 but those who prefer a more nuanced drama will likely leave disappointed.