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Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Wo yao shang xue (written on the left) = I want to go to school. Wow an educational caption!

Director: Fang Gangliang
Writers: Zhao Dongling
Date: 2004

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Description: School, children, education, working student

Cast: Wu Xu, Ai Liya, Yang Shulin, Zhao Xue, Hu Zhixiao, Ren Huan, Guo Haowei

Crew of note:

Runtime: 91 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on a true story

summary
Wang Yan is a little girl in a little town in western China. Her school has just raised tuition from 20 yuan to 24 yuan and 80 cents, and unfortunately her family might not be able to afford to send her to school next semester. She figures that if she can earn it herself, she should be able to continue attending school. The little businesswoman works her way from eggs, to a pen, to a small lamb, to picking berries, all to earn enough money to go to school.

review
Like most, I hated school when I was a kid. Homework, boring classes, evil teachers, waking up early… aside from PE and lunch time (actually, basketball time), was there ever anything fun about school? Only the nerds ever wanted to go, and they were picked on relentlessly. Except during exams, then they were everyone’s best friends. I suppose when you live someplace where education is a basic and provided right, you end up taking it for granted. And maybe that’s why movies like Shang xue lu shang are alien enough to be unique and interesting at first glance, but also have the ability to feel familiar in its themes.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

PE is awesome is one of those universal themes

That’s how movies like this become successful: it is set in a foreign land, in a strange culture, in a world we’ve never been to before, and yet the story, characters and themes are able to resonate deep within us. They make sense, sort of, even though the film is as foreign as the language they speak. Luckily, cinema seems to work in a language that we all understand, and Fang uses it well. He works many long and wide shots of the the terrain to frame Wang Yan’s struggle, but remembers to keep us close for dear moments. The music punctuates key scenes, but never feels pandering or manipulative.

The cast of characters that surround the main character also add to the film’s great charm. Dagua and Erguo are adorable, like most little brothers are; the groom-to-be is a hilariously thrifty businessman; the teacher is supportive but has problems of his own; and her mother, though she does not approve of her plans at first, eventually gives in. Wang Yan and the people around her are richly drawn and real.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

A kid selling a blind man a lamb. Yes.

This is “Little Kid Overcoming Adversity” done right, and Wang Yan is the perfect protagonist for a movie like this. She is the best thing about the film, and even though the adversity she faces may not be especially severe or insurmountable, her positive attitude and hopefulness is welcome in a genre usually filled with tears. Unlike other movies that use sadsack children for quick sympathy and bathe their stories in that misguided “Depressing is Deep” mantra, Shang xue lu shang’s protagonist is optimistic and feisty while her story is lighthearted and a joy to watch. Her quest to earn that 24 and 80 is one part underdog story, one part meaningful, one part comedy, and 10 parts enjoyable. Okay maybe my math (and English) have gone down the drain, but you’ve never wanted to see a kid go to school more in your life.

conclusion
Okay so I probably can’t make a better conclusion than what I wrote in that last paragraph so I’m just gonna stop here and tell you to just read it again and go look for this movie. k?

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Donald Trump with a cap instead of a toupe

things to take note of
Wang Yan’s optimism
Lack of melodrama and predictable life drama

best moment
“Shan!”
Dagua, Ergua and Wang Yan running around
Making moneys

why you should watch this
Best child-wants-to-go-to-school movie evar

rating: 8.2

scorecard
Plot: A
Cast: B+
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Not One Less? But that one sucks

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Dou niu / Cow

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Oh wait I think it's a comedy. With a cow. And bombs.

Director: Guan Hu
Writers: Guan Hu
Date: 2009

Genre: Drama, War
Description: Anti-war, survival, man and beast, Sino-Japanese War, rural China

Cast: Huang Bo, Ni Yan, Gao Hu, Hua Zi… and a large cow.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 110 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Huang Bo’s Mandarin is difficult to understand because he is from the province of Shandong, where the film was shot.

summary
Niu’er, a slightly slow, slightly odd farmer in a remote Shandong town, is assigned the task of taking care of the town’s brand new 8th Route Army-provided Foreign Cow which produces more milk than their regular cows. He resents the task, but when he wakes up one day to find himself and the cow alone in the village, their tale of survival and friendship begins.

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Is it still friendship when the cow gets a little frisky?

review
At first I thought this was going to be a movie about a dude and his cow, in some small town, hanging out and doing nothing. I was sort of right, but I didn’t expect there to be explosions. Lots of explosions. And while that may be an exaggeration, I honestly didn’t expect this to be a movie about war (I tend to decide to watch movies without knowing anything about them). Come on, seriously. The cover has the face of a cow at a funny angle and a bunch of funny-faced peasants. And it’s about a COW. I don’t think you can blame me for being (pleasantly) surprised–which tends to happen really often, huh?

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

What?! I thought we were having beef for dinner?

After watching hours upon hours of Chinese Communist propaganda films from the 50s and 60s, I’d sort of gotten tired of the Sino-Japanese war. It had been a long time since seeing Guizi lai le, and really strong, poignant, intelligent war films from China just didn’t seem very common. Perhaps if I’d known this was going to be about the same war, I would have passed it off for later viewing. Luckily I didn’t, and decided to see it. And while it may not be as great as the aforementioned film, it comes pretty damn close. That’s a huge compliment, and I wouldn’t mind if you stopped reading right at that sentence to go look for the movie. Seriously stop reading and just get it.

The film’s greatest strength is its two stars, Huang Bo and the cow. It might seem a bit frivolous to say this, but their chemistry is fantastic. Credit has to go to Huang for his slightly deranged, out-of-touch, and tender portrayal of Niu’er, though I can understand that some people may be turned off by perceived over-acting, or simply because they can’t connect with such a weirdo protagonist. But it’s his strange character that makes his relationship with “Jiu” (the cow, formerly the name of his wife) work so damn well, and without it the film’s charm is lost. Their story of survival against the odds may not be epic in terms of distance or scope or body count, but the way they are able to transcend this interspecies barrier towards real friendship in the midst or war is a colossal achievement.

conclusion
War sucks, everyone knows that. But after the 100th movie about the same sucky war, with the same themes, same plots, and same ideas, the movies themselves tend to get sucky as well. That’s why when a film with a genuinely unique premise such as Dou niu comes around, you gotta take notice. Full of charm, affection, and pathos, this one is definitely not sucky. War still sucks though.

things to take note of
Huang Bo’s weird accent
Huang Bo is weird
The silliness of it all
The different groups of people they encounter

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Huang Bo is watching you not watching his movie. Tsk.

best moment
Up in the mountains, oh
A man and a cow is actually really sweet

why you should watch this
Best movie about a cow ever made? Possibly!

rating: 8.2

scorecard
Plot: B
Cast: B+
Cinematography: C+
Music: C+
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Guizi lai le / Devils in the Doorstep
Other black comedies set during war

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Sucks not to be part of the cool club

Director: Sômai Shinji
Writers: Kato Yuji
Date: 1985

Genre: Drama
Description: Ordinary life, highschool, growing up, coming-of-age film, desire, life

Cast: Mikami Yuichi, Kudoh Youki, Ônishi Yuka, Miura Tomokazu, Benibayashi Shigeru, Date Saburo, etc.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 1 hr 55 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Number 59 on Kinema Jumpo’s 100 Greatest Japanese Films

summary
In a high school somewhere outside Tokyo, a bunch of kids are growing up. One day a storm hits, and five of them get stuck inside the school at night while one takes an adventure to Tokyo.

review
I find it somewhat strange how difficult it is to find a review of this highly regarded film. 5 pages of results for both “taifu kurabu” and “typhoon club somai” only reveal 1 review: a thoroughly misguided NYTimes review from 1986, that likens it to a “more solemn… ‘Breakfast Club'”. What was this dude watching?

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Obviously not this movie

For a film considered among the best in Japanese cinema (in fact, number 59 on Kinema Jumpo’s list), there sure is very little about it in English. Yet I can understand this to some degree, because even I find it hard to say much about it. That isn’t to say that nothing in the film stands out to be remembered and discussed, but rather I am left with the question, “What else is to be discussed?” Sure, there are the conceits of cinema (such as the surprisingly articulate, philosophical, and detached Mikami), but for the most part, Taifu kurabu feels more like a documentary than anything else.

He shows you the world of these adolescents, in a common time, in a common place. Yes, the subject matter is difficult and maybe complicated; the events that take place are far from ordinary. Yet Somai treats his subject with such respect and sincerity that even the most sensitive scenes have a certain tenderness to them. Some will pan him for his “distance”, but not only does it show that said respect, but it also puts his characters in context, and allows a very meaningful emptiness to permeate the screen. The tenderness I speak of isn’t one that is manufactured by cuts, close ups and other cinematic techniques. Instead it is achieved because Somai allows everything space to breathe and time to build, settle, and linger in one’s memory. Those who demand a closeup don’t understand his intention. *

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Definitely not a common classroom

Maybe I am right to think that really, I have nothing to say about Taifu kurabu that isn’t pseudo-intellectual nonsense. Yet perhaps the desire to say something, to give this under-appreciated film a page just to say its name, is the best endorsement I can hope to give Somai’s creation.

conclusion
Japanese cinema has a great tradition of making ordinary life seem so meaningful and fascinating. Taifu kurabu might not be about the ordinary, but everyone will find something here that will remind them or their youth. It is not because of generality–Somai’s world is one of a kind–but rather, because of the sincerity and tenderness, and occasionally ire, that we all, Somai included, feel for our own youth that is extended towards these characters.

things to take note of
The characters’ conflicts and pains
How Somai shoots sensitive scenes
Do you see yourself in one of them?

Taifû kurabu / Typhoon Club (1985)

Well, I'm definitely not the naked embarrassed guy!

best moment
Let’s dance!

why you should watch this
Great coming-of-age tale
Discusses many issues we all had while growing up
Maybe you’ll find something that reminds you of your youth

rating: 8

scorecard
Plot: B
Cast: C+
Cinematography: B+
Music: C+
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Can’t think of anything now, but it isn’t hard to find good movies about ordinary people and their not-so-ordinary lives

Note: I just did a google search 10 seconds after posting this review, and this review is number 1 for “taifu kurabu review” and on the first page for “typhoon club review”. Good news, I guess, but also somewhat disappointing, internetland!

* If you insist on knowing what I’m alluding to, then fine I’ll tell you. It’s the underwear dance numbers. Somai shoots these scenes from afar, and offers no close ups. I’m pretty sure a ton of people will squint, and even offer a zoomed image of it as the film’s best scene, but that’s pretty sad.

Kokyô / Home From the Sea

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

Only a Japanese and Chinese DVD exist I think. Once again English people I'm disappointed

Director: Yamada Yôji
Writers: Miyazaki Akira, Yamada Yôji
Date: 1972

Genre: Drama
Description: Dumping rocks into the sea, the times they are a-changing, tradition, ordinary life, the importance of work, home

Cast: Igawa Hisashi, Baisho Chieko, Ryu Chishu, Maeda Gin, Ito Mayumi, Atsumi Kiyoshi, Ito Chiaki

Crew of note: Music by Satô Masaru

Runtime: 101 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia:

summary
Seichi and Minko are a husband and wife, captain and engineer team working a boat in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. They collect rocks from construction sites in the area, and dump them into the ocean with their rusty fickle ship. As Japan continues to develop its post-War economy, bigger businesses are opening up in the region, putting their livelihood in danger. Despite all his efforts, Seichi, proud of his work as a boat captain, is having difficulties making ends meet. His brother-in-law offers to introduce him to a shipping company in nearby Onomichi, but Seichi is hesitant; is he ready to uproot his family and move on, give up his work, his boat, and his home?

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

Not a shipwreck. That's actually their boat.

review
In the West, Yamada Yôji = Tasogare seibei / Twilight Samurai. This is inevitable, because its pretty much the only Yamada film to get much acclaim, to get any screen time outside of Japan. Actually, Tasogare Seibei isn’t even what Yamada is known for in his homeland. There, he is known as the director of Tora-san, a film series about some lovable oaf that went on for 48 films and 25 years. You really can’t be blamed if you’re surprised that Tasogare Seibei is his 70th or so film. Yikes.

Once starting his journey with Tora-san, Yamada films outside the series became somewhat infrequent, at least, compared with his amazing output for it. One of these, and perhaps one of his most memorable, is Kokyô / Home From the Sea. By the 70s, many of the most popular directors were either part of the Japanese New Wave movement or made Kaiju-eiga or Yakuza-eiga. Even pinku-eiga directors were more popular during the 70s. Traditionalists, concerned with the state of old, rural Japan, in presenting it as it is without the embellishments of Marxist theory or fancy film techniques, were, to my knowledge, not quite as common, or at least not as well known. But films like these, about the changing world and persons and families trying to keep up, are timeless; you could transport this tale to today or 60 years ago, and it would still be true, still be significant.

I always find these chronicles of small struggles–small according to the writers of epics and history books anyway–fascinating. At worst they are uneventful, generic and inconsequential. But at their best, they can be moving, unique yet familiar, and very very powerful.

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

In Japan, engineers are allowed to be cute

What I loved most about this movie is how elegantly it traces the difficulties of arriving at a decision. Where most films would focus on what happens after a decision is made–in comedy, a success, in tragedy, a failure–Yamada stops at the choice itself. The result, it seems, is not quite as important, not quite as valuable as the decision to endeavor. It’s not a cliffhanger or a truncated and incomplete story, as many of those used to more traditional story-telling, where the outcome is the true prize of the narrative, will feel. It isn’t to say that the outcome is irrelevant, of course it’s relevant, but it is how Seichi and his family come to their decision, and what they decide, that is truly meaningful here.

conclusion
I like blood, bombs and boobs as much as the next guy, but there is also something to be gained from this kind of movie. It might not be entertainment, it might not be arousal, but there is a kind of satisfaction that I don’t think the English language quite understands, is quite capable of expressing. In Japanese, there is such a thing as “mono no aware”, which I wouldn’t deign to translate or explain, but it is present in movies like this. I can’t say that I completely understand it yet, I doubt many people from anywhere do, but after seeing many great films like this, I feel like it starting to become something familiar, something I love.

things to take note of
The boat and how they work it
The relationships in the family
Ryu Chishu in a post-Ozu role. he looks.. really old?

best moment
The last day before doing what they decided
Slow motion rocks

why you should watch this
Dumping rocks in the sea will never look this beautiful or be this touching

Kokyô / Home from the Sea (1972)

Or be this dangerous!

rating: 8.3

scorecard
Plot: B
Cast: B
Cinematography: B+
Music: B+
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Dude, I gots tons of reviews about ordinary life already.

Hadaka no shima / The Naked Island

Shindô Kaneto - Hadaka no shima / The Naked Island (1960)

An upgrade over nude beaches? Sadly, no.

Director: Shindô Kaneto
Writers: Shindô Kaneto
Date: 1960

Genre: Drama
Description: Stuck on an island, not so ordinary ordinary life, same shit different day, tragedy of life, uphill climb, the difficulties of life, trying to survive, life, living on, Sisyphusian

Cast: Tonoyama Taiji, Otowa Nobuko, Tanaka Shinji, Horimoto Masanori

Crew of note:

Runtime: 95 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
A farmer’s family of 4 lives on an island in the Japan sea. Everyday they go to work, carrying soil and water from near the shores, and lugs them up the steep cliffs of their island. This is their life, everyday, for the rest of their lives.

review
Really, a poem more than a film, if that were possible; poetry in laborious motions. It is only fair that I admit, though, that the lack of dialogue can be a bit tiring for one’s attention, and it does take a certain attitude and disposition to do away with the contrivances of a seemingly imposed silence. The music tries to make up for it, and though a little melodramatic, it adds enough insight into each scene that dialogue is often hardly missed. The sounds of pikes cracking the ground, the blasting wind, the beaten shores, the flowing water, the chug of the motor… in fact there are few moments of absolute quiet, with the long spaces between the handful of words filled with ambient noises of their island.

The movie is shot with an almost documentary-ghost-observer like perspective. The intro and outro swoops are an interesting touch–almost like an introduction to National Geographic specials. There are many scenes to be admired, such as the boat scenes and the several long distance shots throughout the film. Documentary film making is supposed to show things as it is, with as little cinematic manipulation as conceivable. I don’t think such a thing is possible though (let’s not get into too theoretical a discussion), but Shindô truly tries to show the island naked of artifice. Again, not entirely possibly, but the effort sure is there.

This is, again (I seem to like reviewing movies like these), one with a very bare plot. The summary is pretty much it, with a few interesting events here and there. Though the looping and repetitive nature of the film feels tiresome, it does so to perfect effect because it is able to emphasize the redundant, never-ending cycle of their Sisyphusian lives. It is a difficult life, indeed, and Shindô is able to help us grasp that feeling of trappedness, the ennui of a tedious life of labor. Yet, at the same time, it is possible to understand the characters, their diligence in the face of a neverending task, and be affected by the great drama that Shindô shows us.

conclusion
With an economy of words like no other, this movie is able to move. Shindô uses this silence, this resignation to fate, not only to humanize his characters, but to empathize with them as well. The lack of dialogue may be a deterrent for some–and I concede that there are one or two moments when the moment absolutely called for words–but the movie’s charm comes from this reservation. What more can be said?

things to take note of
Shots from long distances
The sounds of the island
Facial expressions

best moment
Boat rides
Climbing the cliffs

why you should watch this
Poetry in motion–this phrase finally makes some sense
If you think your life sucks, think again

rating: 8.6

scorecard
Plot: B+
Cast: B
Cinematography: A
Music: B
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Imamura Shohei’s “Profound Desire of the Gods”, only with crazy thrown into the mix and in color

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