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TIFF Cinematheque - Century of Chinese Cinema

30 Jun 2013

TIFF Cinematheque presents – Century of Chinese Cinema

TIFF Cinematheque presents a whole range of Chinese films from China, Taiwan an Hong Kong in place of Summer in France and Italy this year.   The films include several different themes from the Golden Era of the 30’s and 80’s up to gangster films of the20’s such as INFERNAL AFFAIRS that went on to become Hollywood’s remake of Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED that won the Oscar for Best Picture.

The series runs from June the 5th to August the 11th.

For the complete list of films, ticket pricing and screening dates, check the TIFF website at:


Courtesy of TFF Cinematheque, screeners and hence capsule reviews are provided for a total of 21 films outlined below.  This article will be updated frequently to include more reviews as this critic views the films.

These films will bee capsule reviewed.  Please check this page for daily updates.

SONG AT MIDNIGHT (1937)                                Golden Era                  Jun 30

SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN        (1948)             Golden Era                  Jun 25

RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1961)           New China                  June 9

THE LOVE ETERN (1963)                           New China                  July 13

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)             New Directions           June 16

KEKEXILI MOUNTAIN PATROL (2004) New Directions           June 11

VIVE L’AMOUR (1994)                               New Directions           June 20

A CITY OF SADNESS (1989)                                  New Waves                 July 1

ACTRESS (1992)                                           New Waves                 June 22

RED SORGHUM (1987)                               New Waves                 July 14

THE BLACK CANNON INCIDENT (1985)           New Waves                 June 1

THE HORSE THIEF (1986)                          New Waves                 June 29

THE STORY OF QIU JU (1986)                  New Waves                 July 14

YELLOW EARTH (1984)                             New Waves                 June 7

DUST IN THE WIND (1986)                        New Waves                 June 9

36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978)        Swordsmen,                June 22

A BETTER TOMORROW (1986)               Gangsters and June 8

A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)                           Ghosts                           June 15

FIST OF FURY (1971)                                      “                              June 14

INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2002)                                       “                              June 7

POLICE STORY (1985)                                    “                                          June 13           


(in the order of the list above)       


Directed by Jin Xie


            RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN has the feel of a propaganda communist movie right from the heroic folksongs to the romantic look of the communist troops liberating villages from the evil tyrants.  But propaganda movies can turn out quite entertaining as well – the British oldie WENT THE DAY WELL? and this little known Chinese gem being prime examples. This film is set in the 1930’s when warlords and rich landowners were ruling the oppressed poor.  A housemaid, Wu (Xijuan Zhu) has been beaten and jailed by villain Na (Qiang Chen) after trying to escape several times.  She is rescued by the leader of the first female army, Hong (Xin Gang Wan).  He frees her and she joins and becomes an important leader in the RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN.  The film has lots of exciting battle scenes done without special effects.  With solid performances and excellent period atmosphere, director Xie’s film, propaganda or not, turns out to be quite compelling and entertaining at the same time.  The audience is also spared any ridiculous romance between Wu and Hong, making the film pure action drama.


Directed by Wong Kar Wai


Wong Kar-Wai has been the Asian director to watch after his odd and stylized camerawork amazed critics in "Chungking Express".  IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE was originally to be shot as a low budget quickie, but the film ended up with a 14-month difficult shoot. The film is a period piece.  It is 1962 in Hong Kong. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) move into an apartment building. They discover that their respective spouses are having an affair. They become friends, face the facts and something deeper develops. The times change. There is more room for Wong to display his bag of tricks without getting into too much trouble with plot or structure. These tricks show up as the dance of a swaying ceiling lamp, a steaming kettle in the background of a scene with Mrs. Chan in the foreground or the slow-motioned drizzle of water on the street amidst Wong's favourite Latin tunes.  The Chinese culture and period atmosphere are vividly captured.  Buying noodles by going to the store with a tiffin carrier, the courtesy offered by apartment neighbours and the mah-jong games are typical of the Chinese lifestyle at the time. And the dim lighting (many scenes lit by the ancient lamps), wardrobe (Cheung in dozens of beautifully made 'cheongsams') and sets underscore the effect.  Wong knows exactly what he wants and he captures the mood and period of the lovers, with his camera that works like an extension of his inner being. Enjoyment of "In the Mood For Love" can be summed up in Maggie Cheung's line after she pays a compliment on her boss' tie, "You notice these things when you pay attention". The camerawork, techniques and storytelling that director Wong experiments with more than engages - it astounds and amazes.




Directed by Lu Chuan


            A remarkable documentary styed action drama set in the harsh mountain ranges of Tibet, this film feels like a Chinese western, the type made by Sierra Leone.  The drifter in the film is a journalist who joins the mountain patrol hired by the government o stop antelope poachers.  But the poachers have murdered one of their won, so there is a personal vendetta involved.  The patrol drive out to the perilous terrain where they meet up an corner their enemy.  The film’s characters are as harsh as the terrain and what is seen on screen is totally expected in story or atmosphere.  Though the audience is clearly put on the side of the patrol, director Lu also offers the poacher’s points of view.  But what is missing is the Tibetan/Chinese conflict since the film takes place in Tibetan territory with Chinese characters.



VIVE L’AMOUR (Taiwan 1994) ***


Directed by Tsai Ming-liang


            VIVE L’AMOUR is the film that shot director Tsai and his muse Lee Kang-sheng) to fame.  The minimalist story concerns 3 urban drifters, real estate agent Mei (Yang Kui-mei) a street vendor, Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung) who has an affair with her and gay cremation salesman, Hsiao Kang (Lee).  There is sex among the three in what is basically a very slow moving bedroom farce (or condo farce for that matter since most of the action takes place in a to be bought condo space).  Director Tsai has the uncanny ability to garb his audience with segments in which nothing happens – Hsiao Kang breaking open a watermelon with a pen knife, an extended crying scene at the climax, to mention a few.  Whether audiences will favour this art film is difficult to predict but what is on display here is originality, lots of emotion and very little dialogue.


Directed by Huang Jianxin


            An efficient quietly humorous satirical comedy executed without much aplomb but one that gets its message across nonetheless quite effectively.  For a film coming out of communist China, it is a wonder this film did not get banned considering that the theme stresses the ineffectiveness of the party’s bureaucracy.  THE BLACK CANNON INCIDENT is the missing Chinese chess piece that goes missing in the hotel of Chinese engineer and German interpreter Zhao (Liu Zifeng).  His telegram to the hotel to find the missing piece is intercepted by the party and taken to be soothing fishy and looked down upon, as the cost of the telegram is higher than the piece itself.  Zhao is demoted and moved to another region while the German Mr. Hans (Gerhard Olschewski) returns to work.  Mr. Hans requests the service once again of Zhao who had worked with him before.  The party refuses to do so, until the mystery of the chess piece is solved.  Mr. Hans is stuck with an incompetent nontechnical interpreter that results in costly broken machinery.  All the incidents are filmed without much fanfare, but feel authentic as if really happening in real time.  At the end, the stubborn get their come-uppance while the mystery of the missing chess piece is resolved.



THE HORSE THIEF (China 1986) ***


Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang


            Director Tian’s (THE BLUE KITE) epic family drama about a horse thief and his family is set across the vast barren plains of rural Tibet.  The simple story involves the said thief, Norbu who is ousted by his tribe for his crime.  His son’s death that he attributes to his wrongdoing embarks him on  quest for redemption.  He meets and begs to be taken in with the Buddhist monks who also reject him.  Tian’s film is shot with minimal dialogue but with the stunning cinematography of the scenery making up for the simple narrative.  The film has a religious feel about it as it contains a lot of scenes with Buddhist ceremonies. 



YELLOW EARTH (China 1984) ***

Directed by Chen Kaige


YELLOW EARTH is the first film by Chen Kaige (THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN) and shot by cinematographer Zhang Yimou before Zhang went to made hits like THE STORY OF QIU YOU, ZU DOU and RED SORGHUM.  Chen’s later films have always been problematic narrative-wise, so YELLOW EARTH with a very loose narrative seems to suit the director best.  Most of what transpires is told though images.

A soldier is sent to outer regions of Central China to collect folk songs from the poor, so that these can be written for moral boosting songs for the soldiers.  His travel brings him to a family in which he meets 14-year old Cuiqiao forced to marry an older man against her wishes.  He also connects with the slightly dim younger brother.  Cuiqiao wishes to join the female army but escapes crossing the yellow river at the end of the film.  The film contains lots of folklore, but these sound really strange to foreigners.

DUST IN THE WIND (Taiwan 1986) ***

Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Critically acclaimed early Taiwanese film from Master Hou Hisao-Hsien about a

story of a young couple from a village in the northern-east part of Taiwan.  The boy, Ah-yuan goes to the capital of Taipeh to work after graduating from junior high school so he can earn money to send home. The girl, Ah-yun follows him the next year and they work hard to earn enough money to marry.  Then Ah-yuan gets the draft to spend three years in the military while the girl marries someone else.  Although Ah-yuan regrets (extended scene of him crying) what happened he does not blame Ah-yun.  Director Hou  givrs atmosphere and mood more emphasis than the narrative.  For example the information of the news of Ah-yun marrying someone else comes in the scene in a billiard room.  Ay-yuan’s military friends are playing pool and relay this information to each other while Ah-yan throws up in the back room.  The result is a film difficult to the point of annoying to follow, but this is more than made up by the film’s rich texture displaying the way of life of the rural Taiwanese.

A TOUCH OF ZEN (Taiwan 1971) *****
Directed by King Hu

A TOUCH OF ZEN is the best swords saga ever made.  I should know as I grew up watching all the 70’s swordsplay flicks from Golden Harvest and Shaw Studios.  A TOUCH OF ZEN from Master director King Hu (DRAGON INN, SPIRIT OF THE MOUNTAIN) contains all the elements that make a perfect period actioner from the costumes, music, atmosphere, props and lighting.  The fight in the bamboo grove with the rays of sunlight shining through the trees is nothing short of spectacular as the night scenes by the dilapidated temple where just enough light is present to expose the characters’ faces.  Though basically an action film, the first fight scene does not occur till well into the first hour.  Director King Hu’s film is strong on narrative with sympathetic, identifiable characters like Ku (Chun Shih), a mamma’s boy who finally shows his true heroic colours after falling in love with a female fugitive, Yang (very popular actress of the time, Hsu Feng).  The females in the audience will also fall in love with this strong female character.  The climatic showdown at the end, full of suspense, action and special effects will leave audiences at the edge of their seats.  Ultimately, all this ties down to a love romance in which love conquers all.  The film won critical when first screened at Cannes and became the first Chinese action film ever to win a prize at Cannes.


Directed by John Woo


            John Woo’s films are all style and show.  When someone is being shot or beaten up, the guy has to jump up in or turn a few rounds before falling down.  Subtlety is not his strong point or a strong narrative.  If one can accept those flaws, Woo’s A BETTER TOMORROW can be quite the delight.  Two brothers (Shaw Organization Studios’ Ti Lung sporting the most horrible haircut by a lead and Leslie Cheung) are on opposite sides of the law.  Their father dies as a result on the bad one’s bad activities and the cop cannot forgive the other one.  That is about it for the storyline.  Films from Hong Kong are normally available in two versions, Cantonese and Mandarin.  This film version dubbed in Cantonese is observable at one point when the choir is singing in Mandarin, as they cannot dub the song into Cantonese.  Lots of shouting, jumping and violence in what is a typical John Woo movie! 




Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak


            Arguably the best cop movie ever from Hong Kong and one that spun off two sequels INFERNAL AFFARIRS 2 and 3 and the Hollywood remake THE DEPARTED that went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  The film opens with the training at a police academy where on display are the recruits who are surprisingly all exceptionally good looking.  Two graduates are hired for life, one as a mole for the police to work in the Triads (Tony Leung) and the other, Lau (Andy Lau) in the police force itself while really an employee of the Triad boss.  Directors Lau and Mak take their work with dead seriousness, paying attention to detail from the execution of police procedures to the staging of busts and drug deliveries.  The result is a film so tense and involving that the audience easily overlooks the thin storyline.  The audience is brought to identify with both moles, no matter which side they are on.  The two moles are unaware who the other is and are ordered to flush the other out.  The film is also riddled with Buddhist messages such as continuous hell being the worse of hells.  But the film is more emotion than action packed with the audience faced with a compelling film from start to finish.



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