Thursday, September 18, 2008

[Youth in Chinese Films After 49] Electric Shadows (梦影童年)

Film Reels Are Sexier Than Potter's Wheels

During last year's visit to the Hong Kong International Film Festival, it gave me an opportunity to take in first hand and provide for some exposure to Chinese films, specifically those that were made in China. Amongst those that I've seen, I was blown away by the quality of storytelling and craft, and had wondered how soon after would I have the chance to watch something from China again, since our local cinemas don't really bring them in for mass consumption. Hence, this film festival was like a godsend, putting together some classics of the past, together with contemporary offerings from the new generation of directors. The Festival name might be a mouthful, but its objective is no doubt succinct - to introduce us to the magic of Chinese cinema once again.

Electric Shadows (a literal translation of the Chinese characters for movies) opens the festival, and by and large I've heard some really good things about it. The DVD has been available for some time already, but procrastination meant not picking it up, so having it screened as the opening film was no excuse anymore to miss it. And it's no surprise that I fell in love with director Xiao Jiang's first film, which is one with such a compelling story and fine acting, I would think one would likely have a heart of stone not to like it for some reason.

The film's opening introduces us to the character of Mao Dabing (Xia Yu), a water delivery boy who spends the bulk of his wages watching movies in the cinemas. I chuckled at this obvious identification, of someone spending his free time at the movies, and being completely lost in them as a form of escapism from the mundane repetitiveness and perhaps loneliness in his day job. While we follow his point of view for the most part at the beginning, that perspective shifted to a mute girl he encounters, who for no reason pounded his head with a brick, and destroyed his company sponsored bicycle. Persuaded to help her look after her fish while she has to inevitably get detained by the authorities, Dabing thought that he had reached seventh heaven when her apartment turned out to be one huge home theatre.

From there, the pace picks up, and we're transported to some 30 years back into the Cultural Revolution, and rewinds a little bit to the earlier generation. Electric Shadows has a bit of everything, even though some might like to compare it to Cinema Paradiso, I thought that this film had merits to stand on its own two feet despite the obvious comparison. It is its own movie, and while episodic, it never felt disjointed or had portions out of place, but gelled together seamlessly to weave an epic adventure of the story of a young girl Ling Ling, born at an outdoor cinema, and had cinema to be her companion during her formative years. As always, it's the mothers, here Jiang Xuehua (Jiang Yihong) an actress wannabe, who played a huge role in her appetite for films, and for her philosophy to lead a life with their heads held high because of her single parent status, leading to Ling Ling being quite a feisty little girl.

It was a time where film screenings were communal in attendance and experience, in small towns where close knit villagers have that as common mass entertainment. Electric Shadows managed to capture the social and cultural climate of the times, and best of all, had a tremendous number of clips to snapshot various cinematic oldies and gems that you would be tempted to check out should you have the opportunity to do so, one of which is Shining Red Star which will be screened this Saturday. Against this backdrop, Ling Ling leads quite an eventful life, where the pace catapults with the introduction of Mao Xiaobing (Wang Zhengjia), a scruffy kid from out of town whose mischievousness brings trouble, but for their love of movies which brought them together to be best friends forever, even though he prefers the action genre where he can make-belief he's the star of the show.

Electric Shadows is such a charming film that you'd find it hard to believe it's actually a first film, balancing drama, comedy and tragedy even with great aplomb, although there were some series of coincidences in the events and charaters that you'll find it easy to ignore for the whole movie to work. It's strength also came from the wonderful cast who brought their likeable characters to life, and you cannot find better chemistry between the cast members even when some of them take up the same characters albeit for different age groups. You'll feel for mother Xuehua in her resignation to the bad hand Fate had dealt her, you marvel at the dedication of Pan Daren (Li Haibin) the projectionist, you laugh and cry at the antics of the children, especially those of Xiaobing and Bing Bing (Zhang Haoqi) the kid brother who seemed to possess such maturity in his innocence.

It's been a long time since I was moved so immensely moved by a single film, and I'm glad that Electric Shadows shone brightly through and cemented its place in my mental list of all time favourite movies. With amazing cinematography and locales, and a score as performed by the China Philharmonic Orchestra, this is a must watch, a truly exquisite film to sit through, well worth your time and one for repeated viewings. I'm getting the DVD!


Director Xiao Jiang was in attendance at today's screening, for a Q&A session with the audience moderated by Maggie Lee, Asia Head Reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter. What follows is an extract of the discussion, and naturally, some massive spoiler warnings should be in place:

Q: How was the casting done, as the children somehow resembled the grown up cast members, especially for Dabing/Xiaobing?
Xiao Jiang (XJ): We actually found the child actor for Xiaobing first, and it turned out by coincidence that he somewhat resembled the actor for the grown up role, who is Xia Yu, a famous actor in China.

Q: Where were the locations in China that the film was shot at, and I felt that the film had a lot of coincidences left unexplained
XJ: It was filmed in the north-western part of China. The story is told over 30 years, and a lot of things were left unsaid. Maybe I should have filled the gaps because a lot of audience had asked me the same question. It's probably my fault as I had no time to explain them all.
Member of audience: I felt that the magic binoculars could be used to explain the series of coincidences, since after all, it's magical!

Xiao Jiang shared that the film was based on some memories of her youth, and that it was following the life of a little girl, with her mom, a good friend, then her new dad and brother. It's a film ultimately representing the point of view of a little girl as she grew up. She also shared a dilemma these days, especially with the world economy doing not so well, that it also has an impact on the film industry in China, where it will be difficult to find investors, and to not make a commercially successful film might be detrimental. A balance has to be found and struck in making films that are socially responsible too. They are definitely at an era different from that in Electric Shadows.

Regarding a query on her new film, she had recently released a film called PK.COM.CN which starred Jaycee Chan. There was also a little girl in the audience who had her mom ask why Bing Bing had to die and was quite taken aback by his fall from atop a roof, and it was somewhat amusing that Xiao Jiang had to convince her that it was all part of movie magic and the work of editing that made it seem like it was a fall, where in fact the child actor had leapt into cushions.

(Maggie Lee) Q: How did you find and choose all those old films featured in the movie?
XJ: These were the films I grew up with, so the selection was easy as they were the ones I loved. It was quite difficult to get the rights to the films, as we had to approach the different film studios all over China. Luckily I have a good producer who got permission to screen excerpts of the films at a low price. Since the film was like a tribute to Chinese cinema, the studios were also supportive in helping out.

Q: Why did you have to include the tragic death scene of the little boy falling off the rooftop?
XJ: This was a real incident that happened during my childhood, and it was an important part of my memory that had to be included in the film.

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