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AFIDOCS Reviews Part One

Another Year at AFIDOCS. Four days of back to back documentary films in Washington, DC (and Silver Spring, MD, though we stayed downtown this year.) We’ve been going since 2014 and each year has a different feel. Mainstream Chick and I saw a few together, but quite a few films only one of us saw, so check back to see her takes, or head to the Cinema Clash Podcast for our post-fest discussion. This time the festival felt pared down, though there were some amazing films.  I was particularly interested in the films about women and girls and was not disappointed. There were a few happy surprises and I was left with a lot of questions and inspiration.

God of War Review

In this historical epic from China, you get it all – Samurai, Pirates, Shaolin Warrior Monks, battles galore, and kick-ass female fighters, too. Based on a true story, during the Ming dynasty (the 16th century) China’s coast was being invaded by pirates. They were pillaging and terrorizing the local communities and the Emperor was not pleased. He sent army after army to take them on, but they were usually out-manned and out-maneuvered. Then a young general by the name of Qi Jiguang risked his life and reputation on some outside the box strategies that his wise superior Yu Dayou allowed him to pursue. And they kicked those pirates out once and for all. God of War is a pretty faithful and action packed retelling of that story. Gordon Chan (known for Jackie Chan and Jet Li flix) directs, so you know it won’t be just a bunch of dialogue in subtitles.

Hooligan Sparrow

I love gutsy women and Ye Haiyan aka Hooligan Sparrow has got to be one of the gutsiest around. As a Chinese women’s rights activist she has put herself in serious peril over and over to get the government to treat women better. In this gripping documentary, American based Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang also puts herself in jeopardy simply by telling Ye’s story. She begins in the south of China on Hainan Island with a group of women who are protesting outside a school whose principal, accused of supplying six underage girls to government officials for sex, has been given a slap on the wrist. And this first encounter with the police (and their undercover thugs) and the women on the front lines of China’s women’s activism sets up the whole film. The filmmaker is questioned by police and becomes along with Hooligan Sparrow the object of constant surveillance and intimidation.

Wolf Totem

Wolf Totem is based on one of my favorite books of the last decade, so it had a lot to live up to. Sadly, it didn’t. I saw it on a small screen though, and could tell that on a big screen (or even better, the IMAX version) the landscape would be a powerful element in the story, perhaps even making up for some of the narrative deficiencies in the adaptation. The book is a semi-autobiography of Chen Zhen, a young Chinese college student during the Cultural Revolution, who is sent out to Inner Mongolia with one of his friends to civilize the nomads. He grows to respect the indigenous people, their way of life, and particularly the wolves. It is a tale of the massive environmental and cultural damage done by the Han Chinese in their misguided conquest of the Mongolian grasslands. As adapted and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, Seven Years in Tibet) though, the story is more about the wolves as fierce killers than as part of the life cycle of the place.

Free China: The Courage to Believe

This shortish documentary (61 minutes) tells the story of two people living on opposite sides of the earth who were both persecuted for their belief in Falun Gong, a modern Chinese spiritual practice that combines Buddhism and Daoism. It follows the stories of Jennifer Zeng, a Communist party member living in Beijing and Dr. Charles Lee, a US citizen of Chinese birth, both of whom ran afoul of the Chinese government all because they would not give up their belief in a peaceful practice that the Party deemed evil.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Without doubt Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese artist on the planet. His art is thought provoking, but his life, even more so. The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry gives us a closeup and personal view of the man, his art and the courage he has shown in speaking truth to power, a very dangerous thing to do in China. Filmmaker Alison Klayman was fortunate to be allowed access to Ai for three years, following him as he prepared for shows around the world, and as he stood up for the young victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

2010 Fall Movies

We’re moving out of the summer blockbuster kids’ movies and into the fall when traditionally a more serious adult roster hits the screens. This year? Well, there are a few that seem Oscar worthy, several with our favorite men headlining, a couple that look like real chick flicks and what just might be some nice comedies. See for yourself.

When Ruo Ma was Seventeen

This sweet coming of age story is almost worth seeing just for the scenery alone. Shot in southern China’s Yunnan province, When Ruo Ma was Seventeen uses the beautiful landscape of terraced paddy fields as a reminder that we are not in any place we know. It is far removed from our world. But Ruo Ma has lived here all her life with her old grandma, working these terraced fields with her fellow Hani (aka Xiani.) Now 17, she goes to town to make some money selling roasted corn on the street.

Perhaps Love 如果·愛

If you’re looking for a good musical romance in Chinese, “Perhaps Love” is your movie. It stars Asian heart throb Takeshi Kaneshiro and Superstar singer Jacky Cheung in a love triangle with Zhou Xun. The movie opens with Lin Jiandong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) arriving in Shanghai to co-star in a musical film with his old flame Sun Na (Zhou Xun) who is in a relationship with the famous director Nie Wen (Jacky Cheung). The musical they are all making together is about a young woman who loses her memory and is taken under the wing of a circus owner who falls in love with her, but her old love comes back for her and she is torn between the two men. Meanwhile in the real world outside the film, the actor flashes back to his romance 10 years earlier with his co-star and yearns to rekindle their flame. She is initially reluctant to the point of indifference to him, but his persistence pays off and their romances both on and off screen mirror one another.

The Road Home 我的父亲母亲 (1989)

“The Road Home” is a fantastic chick flick, a 3 hankie love story set in a small village in north China sometime during the Cultural Revolution though you’d never know that from the look of the village; it could be any time. It is the edge of nowhere,  surrounded by stunning scenery, gorgeously shot by director Zhang Yimou. The film introduces the beautiful young Zhang Ziyi who lept on to stardom in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” here playing a village girl who falls for the new school teacher who comes to her village.