Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chinese Movies Without Martial Arts

I decided a few days ago that I want to start writing movie reviews again. I wrote a couple at Lion's Den some ways back, and I've been itching to do it again. In the future, I'll review the Vengeance Trilogy, recent films like Juno and Beowulf, and, eventually, Miyazaki's complete works for film. For now, though, I'll be giving my attention to a pair of Chinese films: Raise the Red Lantern and The Emperor and the Assassin.

Gong Li as Songlian
In Raise the Red Lantern, Gong Li plays Songlian, a young university student in the 1920s. Her father's untimely death leaves her family without any income, forcing her to abandon her studies and leaving her with little choice but to become the fourth wife of a wealthy landowner, who we know in the film only as the Master (Ma Jingwu). Each of his four wives has her own house and servants, and each night the Master indicates which wife he wishes to spend the night with by lighting a red lantern above her door.

By family custom, the four wives are meant to eat together every night and interact harmoniously, though it would be more accurate to characterize their relationships as civil, at best. First Mistress (Jin Shuyuan) is indifferent to Songlian; she is old and has an adult son, but the Master is only interested in his younger wives. Second Mistress (Cao Cuifen), Zhuoyan, has a young daughter; she immediately befriends Songlian and warns her about Meishan (He Caifei), the Third Mistress, a former opera singer and the mother of the Master's younger son. Immediately upon arrival, then, Songlian enters an insular world of subtle competition for the favour of the Master. Meanwhile, Songlian's servant Yan'er (Kong Lin) is not without her own motives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all is not what it seems in the house. Songlian uncovers dark secrets and betrayals, affairs and hopeless dreams. In describing the film, it almost sounds languid and talky, yet director Zhang Yimou crafts each scene with such care and eye to detail that a superficially simple scene can take on harrowing drama. After Songlian's arrival at the Master's house, the entire film takes place within its many courtyards and walls. Throughout the camera looks down from the roof into the courtyards, lending a claustrophobic feel to the setting. Of particular note is how Zhang depicts the Master; he is seen only in wide shots, his voice heard, but his face left unseen. His presence is always noted, yet he is deliberately remote, someone whose favour is sought by the four women as an end in itself. There is no love here, just the competition. Without spoiling the twists of the plot, the film's ending is at least doubly tragic, but the greater tragedy is the situation itself.

The performances, not just by the incomparable Gong Li but by the other actors as well, are note-perfect and subtle. It's no wonder that Raise the Red Lantern is often hailed as Zhang Yimou's finest work. His distinctive visual style is evident throughout; the camera work is eye-catching but not distracting, with wide, medium, and close shots chosen carefully for each scene, lending the film a sumptuous visual appeal. It's simply riveting. It's unfortunate, then, that Zhang Yimou has spent much of the past several years making a martial arts "trilogy" of sorts: the decent Hero, the uneven but serviceable House of Flying Daggers, and the simply abominable Curse of the Golden Flower. While each of these films allowed Zhang to paint within increasingly colourful backdrops of costumes and sets, none made use of his strengths as a filmmaker, namely the bringing together of brilliant craftsmanship and authentic drama that is so exemplified by Raise the Red Lantern.


I had meant to review The Emperor and the Assassin in this post as well, but I believe I'll save that for another day, either tomorrow or later in the week.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Return

I'm back in Waterloo after a very welcome and needed respite in Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax. Thus far I have little work to do, which has given me time for much needed cleaning around the apartment. But that's fairly boring to read about it, isn't it? There's been much in the news in the meantime. First, regarding Acadia, there is much good news:
The president of Acadia University is calling it quits, more than a year earlier than expected.

Gail Dinter-Gottlieb announced Friday she was resigning from the Wolfville school’s top job effective Feb. 29. The university had expected Ms. Dinter- Gottlieb, who receives an annual salary of $244,377, to stay until the end of her term, in June 2009.

"It has been a genuine privilege to lead Acadia University through a time of tremendous change in the post-secondary education sector," Ms. Dinter-Gottlieb said.

"I believe Acadia’s reputation is well-deserved and I have enjoyed working with our wonderful students and alumni, our faculty and staff and our network of supporters."

"I’d say it’s a surprise for the Acadia community at large," university spokesman Scott Roberts said Friday

Ms. Dinter-Gottlieb, who has been president since 2003, told the university’s board of governors at its August meeting that she did not want to have her contract renewed.

At the time, she said she was tired of commuting to see her husband, a researcher and faculty member at the University of Buffalo.

Mr. Roberts said Friday her early departure has to do mainly with "family and other personal reasons."
A while ago I started a Facebook group calling for Dr. Dinter-Gottlieb's resignation, so I'm pleased to see her leave well ahead of the end of her term. Her time at Acadia has been marked by two acrimonious faculty strikes, administrative upheaval and disarray, the departure of most of the senior administration, and significant declines of enrolment. To whatever extent she can be held directly responsible for these events, they did happen under her watch, and my hope is that Acadia will soon have a new president who can set a sound direction for the future in conjunction with faculty.

Meanwhile, plans for high-speed rail between Windsor and Quebec City are being made:
Ontario and Quebec are reviving old plans to run high-speed trains between Quebec City and Windsor, Ont., the premiers of both provinces announced Thursday.

Dalton McGuinty of Ontario and Jean Charest of Quebec said they will spend $2 million to study the project and expect to have a report ready in a year. It will focus on the development of a high-speed rail system linking major cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The federal government has agreed to participate in the study, the premiers said, speaking at a joint news conference in Ottawa.
As a frequent rail traveller, this is most welcome news. Assuming this project goes forward, however, it would be years and years before it was complete. The cost, pegged at $23 billion, might seem steep, but as a point of comparison the subway extension planned in Toronto to York University and beyond to Vaughan will cost $3.5 billion. In any case, I'm starting to love train travel - the more (and the faster), the better!


I can add yet another politician to my previous list of those I've seen while travelling: former NS premier John Hamm. He's pretty tall in person.