The Monotony of Poverty: ‘Return to Burma’ Review 《歸來的人》影評

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KTV; Source: Return to Burma

For me this film doesn’t work for completely the opposite reason that another film by this director, Ice Poison, didn’t work. Whereas Ice Poison is centred around the rather hackneyed trope of “young man led astray by damaged young girl”, this film is rather unclear in its voice and direction.

The film is underlaid with a pseudo-neo-colonial gaze, as much of it is pure exposition aimed at a Taiwanese audience, what people earn in relation to wages in Taiwan, what the different smuggled Chinese imports cost etc. This is not an unworthy goal, given that South East Asian workers are reported to have faced substantial discrimination and exploitation when employed in Taiwan and China, but I’m not sure if this makes the film interesting beyond its Taiwanese context. Otherwise the kind of poverty that they suffer, although awful, is rather unexceptional: the struggle to find work and support oneself and one’s family.

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Temple; Source: Return to Burma

Not much happens in the film and I felt that, although the director might be aspiring to capture the fatalistic outlook of the characters in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films in the face of tragedy, the tragedies seemed too distant from the core of the film to give the impassivity of the protagonist any gravity in contrast. We hear his sister was kidnapped and forced to marry an older Chinese man, but she’s resigned herself to her circumstances and is wealthier than the rest of her family now, with two kids that she loves (interestingly Ice Poison shows us a woman who makes a different choice, in that she runs away from her husband in China and, long story short, she ends up in jail for drug-dealing (moral lesson: stay with your kidnapper?)). While I might criticize that sentiment, it underlines the desperate poverty of many of the people featured in his films. It’s also a common trope in the Chinese anti-modernist tradition, in which writers like Shen Cong-wen suggested that though tradition might seem overly exploitative or repressive of a certain group or class (i.e. women), the discretionary power inherent in traditional social relations tended to mitigate this harshness in everyday practice and that “modernity” could actually be more repressive in its lack of this discretionary power (see his short story 〈蕭蕭〉).

There is no real exploration of the political state of Myanmar (Burma) in the film (it occurs in the run-up to substantial political change) and the regime is largely invisible, other than the rather amusing pro-government songs that play, praising the new congress and a vague reference to strict anti-smuggling measures. This in a way reinforces the neo-colonial idea that the film is aimed solely at creating “Taiwanese guilt” for the way they take advantage of this poverty, which, although it may have some merit, doesn’t do anything to address any of the domestic causes of this poverty. Nor is there any exploration of the ethnic conflicts that have surfaced in the country over the last decades. This means that the telling of this story of poverty is so universal, that it would have had to take a more interesting narrative line or adopted a more interesting technique to keep it from being a rather monotonous retelling of what we’ve all heard before. I almost feel that Ice Poison was an attempt at breaking from this monotony by staging a romance, it’s just a pity that it felt so… staged.

 

 

Review of ‘Scars on Memory’ a documentary by Mickey Chen 陳俊志的《無偶之家,往事之城》 影評

f48a5bc55fab76e0d4d353a35bd60654The Chinese title of this documentary translates literally to “A home without a spouse, the city of the past.”  It is directed by Mickey Chen (陳俊志), who wrote quite a good biographical book Taipei Dad, New York Mom (《台北爸爸紐約媽媽》) a few years ago. I’m halfway through it, but I would recommend what I’ve read so far – as it is a touching account of a gay man’s life without being trite or shmaltzy. Continue reading

Film Review: No Man’s Land (2013) 影評:寧浩的《無人區》

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I heard about this film on the Sinica podcast, where it was described by a critic as a Coenesque dark comedy. When I heard Coenesque I was thinking Burn after Reading, The Hudsucker Proxy or Fargo, not No Country for Old Men, but the film resembled the latter more than the Coens’ out-and-out comedies. Despite this, I thought many aspects of the film were funny, especially the comparison between Lü, the hotshot Beijing lawyer and the ruthlessness and uncouth spite of the “simple” people of the West of China. For this reason the climax of the movie, in which Lü suddenly grows a conscience was a little forced for me, and took away from the idea that despite his education and his sophisticated life in the city, he is no different from the extortionists and bullies he meets in the West of China, even though he thinks he is, which had been the underlying premise of the film in my eyes up to that point. Sadly the director feels the main character needs redemption, and he sacrifices himself selflessly when he could have gotten away, which seems a little bit of a stretch for the character, as we know him, up to that point. The film has a little bit of the character of Yu Hua‘s ‘Leaving at Home at Eighteen’ (余華的〈十八歲出 門遠行〉) but all that grit is lost to the melodrama of the ‘brave self-sacrifice’ trope  that is typical fare in Chinese films and crime dramas.

The villain of the piece didn’t have any of the gravitas or psychological depth of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and by the end of the film we’re left confused as to his motives, as he neither seems purely motivated by money or psychotic enough for his desire to kill being about anything more than money, which results in a two dimensional traditional pantomime villain role, instead of the potentially more nuanced role i felt the character could have been given. The other characters from the west were more believable, including the comic scene where one of the falcon dealers is hammered to death by an innocent-looking mentally handicapped rest-stop resident.

The film is interesting in that it lends another, slightly more gritty perspective, to traditional American monster flicks, like Wrong Turn, or The Hills Have Eyes, except that the monsters aren’t some bizarre inbred mountain tribe, they’re just people driven by poverty or greed to survive. I thought that the discussion about the difference between animals and humans was another interesting aspect to the film, which I talked about in another film review here. It also came up in an interview with Professor Huang Zonghui of National Taiwan University here:

In this film, many of the characters featured are “animalized humans” as Cary Wolfe puts it, which makes the title a play on words – as in there are no people in this place, only animals masquerading as humans – they have been reduced to fighting for survival. One scene that highlights this, is the scene in which Lü is stuck behind a truck carrying straw, which results in a confrontation, in which one of the men in the truck pisses on Lü’s car, like an animal, displaying its superiority . What makes Lü’s emotional journey in the film a little incomprehensible is that his behaviour towards the denouement of the film is at odds with his insistence that the only difference between man and beast is that man can make fire. This is the moment in the film when I thought he was going to set himself alight, but ended up just setting the truck alight with him inside it. I wasn’t sure how his thought process turned towards redemption, as he had previously rationalized all his actions on the basis of survival. Why then does a country bumpkin girl’s attempt to save his life, stop him from abandoning her, when he had been deaf to her pleas before.

One possible explanation is that it is the only way that Lü can see himself as different to the falcon dealer, and as more than just an animal. The falcon dealer can thereby be seen as a mirror for Lü, in which he sees his true nature, from which the only escape is the final gesture of self-sacrifice.

Despite this rather forced ending, the movie is darkly comic in a good way at parts, which distinguishes it from Yu Hua’s short stories (which are simply dark without the comedy). 3.5/5

For Chinese speakers, you can read reviews by film critics Wang Mu and Zhou Liming here