The Golden Horse Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent of the Oscars, sprang a few surprises when the fifty-fifth round of nominations were announced on Monday. On the one hand, it’s probably to be expected that Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, “a rather flamboyant but fascinating psychodrama,” according to Shelly Kraicer in Cinema Scope, would lead—with twelve. But among the other nominees for best feature is the melancholic, dreamlike Long Day’s Journey into Night, which also scores a best director nomination for its young director, Bi Gan, as well as nods for best cinematography, original film score, and sound effects.
“Debate will inevitably rage” over the “high-profile titles that received less recognition,” predicts Variety’s Patrick Frater, noting first and foremost that Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, which premiered in competition in Cannes, has received only one nomination: Zhao Tao is up for best actress. Over the next few days, the New York Film Festival will present Long Day’s Journey, Ash, and a third Chinese-language film, Ying Liang’s A Family Tour. In all three films, decisions made and actions taken in the past weigh heavily on the present.
When Long Day’s Journey premiered in the Un Certain Regard program in Cannes, it wowed critics not so much for its convoluted story tracking a former casino manager’s (Huang Jue) return to Kaili, his hometown in China’s Guizhou province, where he goes chasing after his former lover (Tang Wei), but as a sensory experience. About halfway in, the film switches to 3D for a single take that lasts nearly an hour. “Good luck finding a filmmaker who better exemplifies Godard’s fridge-magnet-ready inspirational quote that ‘it’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to’ than Bi, only twenty-nine years of age and fêted by cinephiles worldwide for his hypnotic 2015 feature-length debut Kaili Blues,” writes Steve Macfarlane at Slant. “Like that film, Long Day’s Journey into Night plays gorgeously as a swirling mood piece, an epic rumination on memory and loss.”
Two outstanding pieces on Bi appeared in print this summer. Writing for Film Comment, Dennis Lim argues that the director is “interested in cinema’s potential to create mental space as well as to convey physical sensation (it’s telling that his list of ten favorite recent movies includes both Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity). His ambitions are further crystallized in Long Day’s Journey into Night, which has a clearly demarcated two-part structure, the first half an achronological mosaic, the second a nocturnal dream.”
Introducing his interview with Bi for Cinema Scope, Blake Williams, director of last year’s 3D sensation, PROTOTYPE, begins with a consideration of directors who transform cinema into a sort of dream state. He notes that Long Day’s Journey “borrows from—even pays homage to—Bi’s fellow Somnambulists: the bifurcated structures of vintage [Apichatpong Weerasethakul]; [Wong Kar-wai’s] languorous rhythms and clocks (still stopped, as they were in Kaili); the decayed, tear-crusted interiors of [Tsai Ming-liang’s] Stray Dogs (2013). It’s also forthcomingly indebted to cinema’s Old Masters: to Tarkovsky’s train beats and gliding glassware, and Hitchcock’s roaming, jade-stained all-timer. In other words, Bi bears his cinephilia quite proudly, and does a commendable job of not simply stopping at the doors of his cinematic ancestors.”
Whether or not the single Golden Horse nomination for Ash Is the Purest White actually does spark a raging debate, the film has been making headlines for other reasons over the past couple of weeks. For one thing, the version that was screened in Toronto is six minutes shorter than the one that premiered in Cannes. That’s not news in and of itself. Directors often tweak their films once they’ve seen how they play in front of an audience. But this particular six minutes happens to have included cameo appearances by Feng Xiaogang, the director of domestic hits such as Cell Phone (2005) and Youth (2017). As Patrick Frater reports, Feng may have been cut because he’s been accused of tax evasion, along with Fan Bingbing, the star of his next film, Cell Phone 2. Fan, an international celebrity, hasn’t been seen in public since July 1 and has been inactive on social media since July 23. Both Fan and Feng have denied the accusations.
Ash, which opened in mainland China on September 21, is not only Jia’s most expensive project yet but also already his highest-grossing film. And it hasn’t pleased everyone, of course. For What’s on Weibo, a site that covers the hugely popular Chinese social media platform, Miranda Barnes reports on an amusing exchange between Jia and Hu Xijin, editor of the tabloid daily Global Times. In response to Hu’s warning to his readers that Ash is a bit of a downer, Jia offers his “apologies for not making you feel all warm and fuzzy during the mid-autumn festival.” He also gives Hu a little advice: “Accept diversity and this world will be more beautiful.”
Spanning seventeen years from 2001 to the present, Ash follows Qiao (Zhao Tao) into the underworld of her small-time gangster boyfriend Bi (Liao Fan). It’s an “ambitious, multi-generation-spanning story,” writes Kyle Pletcher for Kinoscope, “although it would be a disservice to suggest it’s merely a melodrama, a gangland tale, a tragic romance, or any of the various genre registers it flirts with. It’s a fusion of all of these, to its benefit and occasional detriment.” Writing in this summer’s issue of Cinema Scope, James Lattimer suggests that Ash “feels like a career summation,” incorporating “the rapid-fire martial-arts stylings of A Touch of Sin (2013); the backdrop of Datong familiar from Unknown Pleasures (2002); the three-part structure and repeated pop songs from Mountains May Depart (2015); or the exquisite melancholy of 24 City (2008), to name just a few.”
Noting that Jia is working for the first time with cinematographer Eric Gautier, Amy Taubin, introducing her interview with Jia for Film Comment, emphasizes the range of visual texture, “from DV to Digibeta to HD video to 35 mm to the high-end Red camera, and yet the changes in the image are never notable for themselves but become the means to show the transformation of his filmmaking and of China itself.” But there’s at least one vital constant throughout the filmography. “Even as Jia’s films have evolved aesthetically, and grown in their thematic ambitions and temporal sprawl, Zhao’s exceptional performances have kept them anchored in a sense of emotional immediacy,” writes Sam C. Mac at Slant. “This is Zhao’s finest showcase to date—for the way she uses grace, intelligence, and humor with a dexterity that’s perfectly suited for the register of Jia’s aesthetically and thematically diverse film.”
Ying Liang may not be as well-known to international audiences as Jia, but the New Yorker’s Richard Brody calls him “one of the greatest living filmmakers.” So while we can celebrate his return—A Family Tour is Ying’s first feature in six years—we can also sense the loss of the films he might have been making since he felt it necessary to exile himself from the mainland to Hong Kong when Chinese authorities attempted to bury his last feature, When Night Falls (2012). As Brody describes it, A Family Tour is “a story of artistic urgency and personal conflict, the effort to maintain family life while evading the terrifying grasp of a tyrannical government.”
Filmmaker Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) also happens to have made a film called When Night Falls. She, too, is living in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, but she also has a husband, festival programmer Ka-ming (Pete Teo), and a young boy whom her mother has never seen. When her film is invited to a festival Taiwan, Yang arranges to have her mother, Chen (Nai An), take a tightly regulated tour of the island; Yang and her family follow the bus in a taxi and steal private moments with Chen at stops along the way. “As with Ying’s other films, A Family Tour consists mostly of patient master shots, which here allow for the long-separated Yang and Chen to gradually engage with each other, and begin to bridge the distance that’s been imposed upon them,” writes Sam C. Mac. “The brilliance of Yang’s aesthetic is a balance of poeticism and realism, the sustained illusion of documentary verisimilitude despite the deliberate craft of Yang’s incisive screenplay.”
For Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, A Family Tour is a “compelling, beautifully nuanced study of exile and displacement” and “one of the bravest, most informative and persuasive films I’ve ever seen on this important subject, as well as one of the most elegantly crafted of recent Chinese movies.”
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