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Review: The Farewell

In this bittersweet dramedy based on a real story from the writer/director’s own family, Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) a struggling New York writer discovers that her Grandma (Zhou Shuzhen) back in China has cancer. It’s a huge blow since they’re really close, but Grandma doesn’t know and the family wants it to stay that way. But just so they can all see her before she dies, they concoct a wedding where everyone can get together with her back in Changchun. The Farewell boasts a fabulous ensemble cast in a story that while set squarely within its Chinese culture and location feels universal in its truths about family relationships and the lengths we’ll go to for someone we love.

Review: One Child Nation

Nanfu Wang has made a couple of my favorite documentaries of the past few years. Hooligan Sparrow followed a Chinese women’s rights activist’s journey and put both the subject and the filmmaker in danger. Her follow-up film I Am Another You took place in the US as she lived for a while with a charming young homeless man. In both films she was as much a part of the story as her subjects. In her newest film, which she co-directed with Jialing (Lynn) Zhang, she returns to China with her new baby to peel back the curtain on the country’s horrifying one child policy and the toll the decades long social experiment took on the women of China. From 1979 through 2015 the Chinese government decreed that women could only have one child, and to that end millions of women were forced to have abortions, be sterilized, or abandon their children to human traffickers. It’s a harrowing film as you hear the stories from many of the perpetrators who still think the policy made sense.

Quickie Review: Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh)

Following in the tradition of a spate of recent foodie flicks, Ramen Shop wraps a slight story in a culinary journey and has you drooling and wishing the film would be over quickly so you can get out to the nearest ramen shop yourself. This time around the story centers on a young Japanese chef Masato (Takumi Saitoh) whose father dies at the start of the film, sending him on a quest to find his culinary roots in Singapore. Dad met Mom there and there are a lot of unanswered questions about her and her family. She died when he was a boy, and his discovery of her diary among his father’s possessions, sends him in search of his uncle and the story of his mother’s estrangement from his grandmother. But all along the way there is a lot of cooking and eating mouth-watering food.

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.