A pair of films by two acclaimed direc­tors re­cently hit Chi­nese screens, and though they are very dif­fer­ent they share a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties, says Raymond Zhou.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@chi­

Com­mer­cially vi­able or not, these are noble en­deav­ors from vet­eran film­mak­ers and we should be thank­ful that they still have a place on the big screen.

The pair­ing of Ang Lee and Feng Xiao­gang did not start this sea­son when Billy Lynn’s Long Half­time Walk and I Am Not Madame Bovary pre­miered in China one week apart and both direc­tors shared a pro­mo­tional event at Ts­inghua Univer­sity. Four years ago, Feng’s Back to 1942 fol­lowed Lee, in that case

Life of Pi, also by only one week, which re­sulted in a wave of un­planned com­par­isons of the two movies and the brains be­hind them — com­par­isons that were not fa­vor­able for Feng.

As far as I am con­cerned, it all started in the sum­mer of 2006 at the Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val where I was moderating a fo­rum and both Lee and Feng were the toasted guests.

Lee had just come off the Os­car glory of Broke­back Moun­tain and was go­ing to make Lust, Cau­tion in Shang­hai and Feng was grad­u­at­ing from his first epic The

Ban­quet and launch­ing into bat­tle mode with Assem­bly.

At the podium Lee was a paragon of hu­mil­ity and Feng was any­thing but.

It is hard to find two film direc­tors more dif­fer­ent in tem­per­a­ment and artis­tic vi­sion. But strangely they may have more in com­mon than first meets the eye, when it comes to their lat­est films.

Both their re­leases are very per­sonal sto­ries with lim­ited mass ap­peal even though they are adapted from crit­i­cally acclaimed nov­els.

And they have both used tech­nolo­gies that are dar­ing even for ac­com­plished old hands.

What re­ally strikes me as au­da­cious is the level of im­mer­sion they ma­nip­u­late with these tech­nolo­gies.

In Lynn, the for­mat of 3-D, 4-K and 120 frames per se­cond puts the au­di­ence in the cen­ter of ev­ery­thing, so close that many com­plained of be­ing un­com­fort­able with the lack of rea­son­able dis­tance.

It re­minds me of im­mer­sive theater where an au­di­ence mem­ber may stand next to an ac­tor and almost touch him.

Yet, the movie is very in­ward­look­ing, a ru­mi­na­tion on the pro­tag­o­nist’s world-view with very lit­tle out­ward ac­tion. It is almost like Sav­ing Pri­vate

Ryan but with the open­ing and clos­ing bat­tle scenes deleted, leav­ing only the de­bate on the val­ues of one life vs eight lives.

It may be counter-in­tu­itive to use the tech­nol­ogy of im­mer­sion for such a cere­bral sub­ject, in this case much more com­pli­cated than in the Spiel­berg movie, but that is where Lee’s in­ge­nu­ity— or folly, de­pend­ing on how you view the end re­sult— lies.

He seems to have trans­ported view­ers to a talk­fest. And that, I be­lieve, is also the root of its com­mer­cial fail­ure.

Lynn would have worked per­fectly as a play.

For Bovary, Feng de­signed a cir­cu­lar frame and com­ple­mented it with square and rec­tan­gu­lar ones. This in­stantly cre­ates a dis­tance be­tween the story and the au­di­ence, in that the au­di­ence would feel they are look­ing at a tra­di­tional Chi­nese fan or through a win­dow.

On a sub­lim­i­nal level, the cir­cu­lar scenes all take place in the pro­tag­o­nist’s ru­ral home­town, sig­ni­fy­ing a cul­ture of the rule of con­sen­sus, and sub­tly morph to square city scenes where the rule of law should be the norm.

In Chi­nese par­lance, square and round of­ten stand in for rules.

Feng’s film is a story about the ab­sence of such rules.

Both movies chronicle a per­son’s jour­ney, along which a dozen or more sup­port­ing char­ac­ters ap­pear and fill up a tableau of the pro­tag­o­nist’s world.

Billy Lynn is a Texas teenager whose in­tu­itive ac­tion in Iraq turned him into a na­tional hero and who dis­cov­ers the murky un­der­cur­rents that drive the hero busi­ness.

I don’t have a prob­lem with a Bri­tish ac­tor play­ing a Texan, but some­how I feel all the char­ac­ters in this movie are fil­tered through the prism of the coastal elites.

Hav­ing lived in Texas, I could not help squirm at what I sensed were card­board car­i­ca­tures. The pha­lanx of of­fi­cials in

Bovary left a sim­i­lar im­pres­sion on some view­ers, but I tend to dis­agree.

They are among the big­gest strengths of Feng’s film, which is ex­tremely acute in ob­ser­va­tion of China’s bu­reau­cracy.

The male stars — yes they are all male — de­liv­ered top-notch per­for­mances of re­straint and au­then­tic­ity. Yet, I won­der how a fe­male of­fi­cial would re­act to a fe­male pe­ti­tioner.

Fan Bing­bing as the only fe­male char­ac­ter di­verges sharply from her reg­u­lar bomb­shell roles and gives a ca­reer-best per­for­mance.

But she is in a thank­less po­si­tion be­cause the real ac­tion of the movie is in the re­ac­tion of the of­fi­cials rather than the end­less pe­ti­tion­ing of the fe­male lead.

Both movies are per­haps too so­phis­ti­cated for the mass mar­ket.

But Feng knows how to sell a movie bet­ter than Lee.

He seems will­ing tomake com­pro­mises as long as he gets to re­tain the core mes­sage.

Lee, on the other hand, lets his work do the talk­ing for him.

His round of pub­lic­ity gigs res­onated with the con­verted only.

His movies may need an­other push from post-screen­ing analy­ses, which are usu­ally not on the cir­cuit of stars and direc­tors.

Com­mer­cially vi­able or not, these are noble en­deav­ors from vet­eran film­mak­ers and we should be thank­ful that they still have a place on the big screen.


Ang Lee (cen­ter, left) and Feng Xiao­gang meet at a re­cent sym­po­sium in Bei­jing. Lee’s Bil­lyLynn’sLongHalf­timeWalk (left) and Feng’s IAmNotMadameBo­vary (right) both pre­miered in China one week apart this month.

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