Category Archives: Asian Films

When All Your Dreams Come True, But Your Heart Is Still Broken: Dearest, the Film

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Child trafficking is a huge problem in China: 20,000 to 200,000 children are sold every year. Sometimes, the biological parents sell their own children because they are unable to pay the fines for having 2 or more children. “Families ill equipped to pay penalties on top of the costs of raising a child—food, school tuition, etc.— sometimes opt to sell their offspring.” More often, however, children are stolen — snatched off the streets — and sold to orphanages or to wealthy childless families for adoption, sometimes for international adoption. The US State Department named China one of the world’s worst in child trafficking in 2017, and while the Chinese government acknowledges the problem, it refuses to release any statistics about its high abduction rates.

When children go missing, government officials often avoid investigating, or, worse, are complicit in aiding kidnappers by giving wealthy families who buy kidnapped children the appropriate legal documentation to explain the presence of multiple children in a country where the government has regulated births since 1980, and though the one-child-per-family law is now defunct, its legacy continues in high child trafficking rates. Worse, parents of kidnapped children are often persecuted as a “nuisance” and a “threat to social stability” for continuing to search for their children and for accusing the government of inaction and complicity in the kidnappings.

You wouldn’t imagine that a film about China’s child trafficking problem would be anything but grim, but director Peter Chan’s Dearest (Qin ai de, 2014), based on a true story of parents who are reunited with their kidnapped child several years later, turns the tables on viewers’ expectations by putting an ostensibly happy ending in the middle of the film. After the parents are reunited with their abducted child, the film becomes more gripping and powerful  as it explores the pain and heartbreak of everyone involved in child trafficking, from the grieving parents and the presumably guilty adoptive parents to the kidnapped children themselves. Though some of its subplot are irrelevant,  Dearest is one of the most scathing and brilliant stories of a painful and horrifying topic.

Huang Bo as Tian, Dearest ©

The first half of the film concentrates its story on the divorced parents. Father Tian (Huang Bo) runs a small internet cafe in Shenzhen and has many arguments with his ex-wife Lu (Hao Lei) over the best way to raise their three-year-old son Pengpeng (played by multiple child actors).

Hao Lei as Lu, Dearest ©

When Tian is distracted by a group of teen boys fighing in this store, he sends his son Pengpeng off to play with some neighboring children. The little boy gets distracted and tries to follow a car he thinks is his mother’s, and he gets snatched off the street (which is apparently a common way for kidnappers to abduct children in China).

Huang Bo as Tian, and Hao Lei as ex-wife Lu, Dearest ©

Somewhat reunited by their guilt and despair, parents Tian and Lu begin an initially fruitless search for their son. Since police and other officials are downright obstructive, the couple joins a support group for parents of missing children. Some of the most frightening scenes in the entire film deal with the way the group handles members’ grief, the violence that erupts in these grieving parents when they confront suspected kidnappers, and the terrifying “group-think” when these hopeless parents follow a truck they believe may carry kidnapped children wrapped in burlap bags in the back.

Zhao Wei as “adoptive” mother Li (kneeling), Dearest ©

About halfway through the film, Tian and Lu are told that their son has been located, and despite the fact that this seems as if it should be a happily-ever-after moment, Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy, who not only does not recognize them, but who fights to remain with his “mother,” Li (played by renowned Chinese actor Zhao Wei).

Zhao Wei as Li, Dearest ©

From that moment, the film becomes a more morally complex and painful examination of good and evil as it focuses more on the disingenuously naïve adoptive mother Li, who insists to officials that her now-deceased husband only brought home “abandoned children” whom he found, and as the film focuses on the children Li “adopted” and raised as her own.

Zhoa Wei as Li, Dearest ©

Even without my being fluent in Mandarin, it was obvious to me that the most powerful actor in the film was playing the mother who was accused of raising kidnapped children. After Li loses her son (who is, indeed, Tian and Lu’s son Pengpeng) and her daughter, whose parents cannot be identified, Li begins a legal battle to adopt the daughter rather than leave her to be raised in an orphanage with hundreds of other children.

two of the actors playing the kidnapped children in Dearest ©

The few sub-plots, such as that with the lawyer and his dementia-afflicted mother, distract slightly from overall narrative, but the film as a whole is gripping and intense. Knowing that the parents find and “rescue” their kidnapped son does not detract from the power of the film. Instead, the film becomes more gripping the instant it flips its protagonists and antagonists: when biological parents Tian and Lu literally kidnap the boy Pengpeng themselves and run from villagers who are trying to rescue him for his screaming “mother,” Li.

Some of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes involve not the parents but the two young children: neither remembers any mother but their “adoptive” one and neither can understand why they are no longer allowed to live together even though they are “brother” and “sister.”

Compelling and morally disturbing because it deals with both the victims and the offenders of child trafficking, Dearest won awards for Director Peter Chen and for Best Actress Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles, Dearest is available to rent ($1.99-2.99 SD/HD, free for Prime members) from Amazon.

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Worms and Vipers in a Gilded Tomb: Curse of the Golden Flower, the Film

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All that glisters [glitters] is not gold…
Gilded tombs do worms enfold
Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice

Apparently, royal families are similar no matter where or when they live. Despite their privilege, wealth, and power, many royals succumb to the basest of human emotions: envy, greed, hypocrisy, deceit. Living in gilded palaces, wearing elaborately expensive clothes and countless jewels, a royal can commit the same moral crimes as any base commoner: incest, adultery, betrayal, rebellion, murder. In Curse of the Golden Flower, director Zhang Yimou, who also co-wrote the film, examines a power struggle in the palace of China’s emperor in 928 C.E. on the eve of the Double Ninth Festival — the ninth day of the ninth lunar month — a traditional Chinese holiday also known as the Chrysanthemum Festival, originating from a folk-tale about a hero who defeated a monster on the ninth day of the ninth month. This day has become symbolically important in many Asian cultures because of its doubled-yang energy, which is considered potentially destructive.

Yin-yang symbol (Yin is the black side with the white dot in it, and yang is the white side with the black dot in it.)

According to the I Ching, a classic, ancient Chinese divination text, yin and yang represent the energies and principles of the universe, while the interaction of yin (negative, dark, and feminine) and yang (positive, bright, and masculine) influences the destinies of all creatures and things.

The relationship between yin and yang is often described in terms of sunlight playing over a mountain and a valley. Yin (literally the “shady place” or “north slope”) is the dark area occluded by the mountain’s bulk, while yang (literally the “sunny place” or “south slope”) is the brightly lit portion. As the sun moves across the sky, yin and yang gradually trade places with each other, revealing what was obscured and obscuring what was revealed.

When yin and yang energies are not balanced, when there is either too much shadow or too much light, the body can become ill, the universe is not in harmony, and seriously bad things can happen. The number 9 is considered to be a yang number, so the ninth day of the ninth month — a double 9 — has too much yang energy and is a potentially dangerous date, if only because the double yang energy is not balanced with sufficient yin energy. The Double Ninth — or Chrysanthemum — Festival is still considered potentially dangerous in Asian culture. To protect against danger, it is customary to drink chrysanthemum liquor, and wear the zhuyu [Chinese or Korean cornel dogwood] plant since both chrysanthemum and zhuyu are considered to have cleansing qualities and are used on other occasions to air out houses and cure illnesses.

Royal sons and Empress in Curse of the Golden Flower ©

The royal family in Curse of the Golden Flower is, in fact, concerned with clearing out and cleansing the royal house on the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival. The family is also desperate to cure the moral illnesses that seem to have infected its members. Instead of heroes destroying monsters as in the original folktale, however, Curse of the Golden Flower reveals that there are monsters in everyone, common and royal, and their interaction, no matter how well intentioned, is, indeed, dangerous.

The “cleansing” of the Chinese royal house in 928 C.E. is actually a power struggle between the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat)

Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

and his beautiful but severely unhappy wife, the Empress Phoenix (Gong Li).

Empress Phoenix (Gong Li), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Very early in the film, viewers learn that, with the help of the Imperial physician (Dahong Ni),

Imperial physician (Dahong Ni), foreground, Curse of the Golden Flower ©

who is also using his nubile daughter Chan (Li Man) to mix the Empress’ daily “medicine,”

Imperial Physician’s daughter Chan (Li Man), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

the Emperor is poisoning his Empress with a substance that will eventually drive her insane.

Is it because the Empress is having an affair with Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu), the emperor’s son from a previous marriage?

Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu) and Empress stepmother (Gong Li), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Is it because the Empress wants her own first-born son (the Emperor’s second son), Prince Jai (Jay Chou) to be the heir?

Prince Jai (Jay Chou), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Or is it because the Empress is fomenting a palace coup, embroidering tens of thousands of yellow chrysanthemums for the rebel army to wear?

The reason for the poisoning isn’t clear, as the royal couple’s discord is not clear, though that discord seems to be long-standing.

As if this conflict between the Emperor and his Empress weren’t enough, Crown Prince Wan wants to be “disinherited” by his father and wants to stop sleeping with his stepmother, if only because he is also having an affair with Imperial doctor’s daughter Chan and fears that his own royal social class will prevent their happily-ever-after union.

Imperial Physician’s daughter Chan (Li Man) and Crown Prince Wan (Ye Liu), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Now enter Imperial Doctor’s branded-in-the-face wife (Jin Chen), who is helping the Empress discover the “new ingredient” in her daily “medicine,” and who has her own secrets regarding the royal household.

Imperial Physician’s wife (Jin Chen), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

And just in case that’s not enough drama, let’s throw in a seemingly cheerful third son (Junjie Qin) who is becoming increasingly unhappy that no one in the family — Emperor/father or Empress/mother or warrior-big brother — seems to think him capable of doing anything of importance.

Youngest royal son (Junjie Qin), Curse of the Golden Flower ©

Verily, it’s a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

Some critics found the acting weak, claiming that the actors “alternated between venomous stares and wild, emotional outbursts,” or, worse, that the actors “[strained] their facial muscles with silent-movie enthusiasm and [did] everything but [shoot] flames from their eye sockets.” A few critics likened the film to melodrama and operatic delirium.

In fact, the only weakness in Curse of the Golden Flower is the film’s too numerous martial arts sequences. From the Imperial doctor’s humble wife and handmaiden daughter to the Emperor’s sons, from the vast competing armies to the Imperial assassins, everyone in this kingdom seems adept in the martial arts.

Everyone except the Empress, that is, and she’s the one who could have benefitted most.

At the time of its release, with a budget of $45 million USD, Curse of the Golden Flower was the most expensive Chinese film ever made. Its expansive budget is displayed in the film’s dazzling images: strikingly colored sets that are almost blinding, elaborately embroidered and beaded costumes, magnificent wall-hangings and carpets, glittering gold ornaments and jewels, sumptuous wigs, and extravagantly uniformed armies. The film’s production design brilliantly conveys the oppressiveness of opulence while its gorgeous cinematography becomes a metaphor for the splendor and beauty that can only temporarily disguise the underlying ugliness and moral decay of any autocratic regime, but especially one that is corrupted by incest, adultery, poisoning, rebellion, and murder.

In Mandarin with English subtitles, Curse of the Golden Flower is available for rent from Amazon ($3.99), Vudu ($2.99 SD or $3.99 HD), or for purchase from iTunes ($12.99).

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The Thief, the Liar, and the Lovers: Korea’s Complex Crime Film, The Handmaiden

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At first glance, Korea’s 2016 The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) seems to be a straight-forward imperialist drama. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and sumptuously directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the Japanese imperialists have become the ideal for the subjugated Koreans. Learn Japanese, dress in kimonos, and mimic the behavior of your oppressors, and you can escape the poverty and ostracism of Korean occupation.

The Handmaiden quickly shifts into a crime drama, however, as a group of Korean thieves, pickpockets, and con-men plan to infiltrate the home of a rich but secluded woman in order to steal her fortune. Just when you think you understand what is happening, however, The Handmaiden abruptly shifts its perspective, changing the focus of its storyline to become one of the most complex psychological thrillers ever made.

The story begins simply enough. A handsome Korean con-man who pretends to be a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo),

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

recruits a young, somewhat naïve pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri),

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of an isolated, reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-heea).

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

The heiress is betrothed to a strange, unimaginably wealthy Japanese-book collector, who is also her uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong, below R), and who also plans to steal the girl’s fortune himself.

Sook-hee’s job as handmaiden is to persuade the heiress Hideko to accept the Count’s marriage proposal and to elope since it is well known that the Uncle intends to marry his virtually captive niece himself. After consummating the illicit marriage, the faux Japanese Count plans to empty his new  bride’s bank account and have the heiress-bride Hideko committed to a lunatic asylum. In return for her help, the pickpocket Sook-hee can take whatever clothes and jewels she desires.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Given the wealth and personal obsessions of her Uncle, the heiress is continually isolated, but with her handmaiden as her chaperone, Hideko manages to have a bit more freedom with the Count, who is ostensibly giving her art lessons.

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

During the Count’s surreptitious courtship, Lady Hideko and Handmaiden Sook-hee find themselves drawn to each other — first as companions and friends, and then, tentatively and somewhat innocently, as lovers.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Just when you think you know how the film is going to develop, it suddenly seems to end, and not very pleasantly. It’s only Sook-hee’s perspective of the story that ends, though, because the film is not even half-way over.

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, and Cho Jin-woong as Uncle Kouzuki, The Handmaiden ©

Part Two continues the story, only now from Hideko’s perspective, where we learn that Lady Hideko is haunted by the suicide of her aunt, that her Uncle Kouzuki is a collector of rare Japanese books that are all pornography, and that he forces her to read said pornographic books to him as well as to his male guests, including the Korean-faux-Japanese Count. This isolation and abuse account greatly for Lady Hideko’s ennui and despair in the Part One, as well as for the Count’s interest in Lady Hideko: he wants the heiress’ fortune and the Uncle’s rare Japanese pornography collection.

Kim Tae-ri as Handmaiden Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Lest you now think that you have all of the characters figured out and that you are absolutely positive about the film’s final act, The Handmaiden “ends” again, with about 45 minutes remaining. You are now at Part Three, which shifts its storyline to the perspective of the faux Japanese Count, the Korean con-man whose world is about to be thrown into chaos by none other than Lady Hideko and her Handmaiden Sook-hee.

Because the film is clearly divided into three parts, with viewers being alerted to Parts One, Two, and Three with those words on-screen, this psychological thriller and crime drama is easy to follow despite its “fiendishly dense and complex” narrative. Intellectually challenging and satisfying, with a Hitchcockian seductiveness, The Handmaiden is a dramatic exploration not only of forbidden sexual desire but, more importantly, of the tyranny and potential cruelty of absolute power. Whether in imperialism, in male-dominated marriage, or in rigid socio-economic class distinctions, power can warp itself into persecution, injustice, and brutality, causing its victims to rebel and take their revenge.

Part neo-noir and historical drama, part “love story, revenge thriller, and puzzle film,” The Handmaiden is luscious and fascinating, marred only by its explicit lesbian sex scene in Part Two, which was handled much more artistically and tastefully in the first part of the film when much of the interaction was left to the viewers’ imagination, and which caused at least one critic to label the film as nothing more than a “male wet dream.”

The Handmaiden is in Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Available for rent from Amazon ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD, free for Prime Members), YouTube ($4.99), and iTunes ($14.99 purchase).

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When Clothes Destroyed the World: The Royal Tailor, the Film

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We’ve been here before: the King is unhappy; the King is lonely; for some reason unknown to us, the King does not like being king. True, he was the younger son and never expected to rule, but the King also does not seem to even like, yet alone love, his beautiful, loyal wife, and no one at the court knows why. Are we talking about England’s Henry VIII, who longed to be remembered to history for his military prowess but, instead, is known for his six wives, some of whom he divorced and some of whom he actually had killed? No, we are in Korea during The Kingdom of Joseon, literally, the “Great Joseon State,” also known as Choson (and transliterated as such in the film’s subtitles), a Korean kingdom that lasted for approximately five centuries, from 1392 to 1897.

women’s and men’s clothes (hanbok) of Joseaon (Chosun) dynasty [portrait painted by Shin Yun-Bok 1758?]

Much of modern Korean culture, etiquette, norms, and societal attitudes as well as the the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon. Korea’s 2014 film, The Royal Tailor (Sang-eui-won) examines the personal, political, and cultural struggles of one period in the Chosun dynasty by exploring a rivalry between two members of the Sanguiwon, the tailors responsible for creating the royal attire, and, by extension, the attire for nobility. The Royal Tailor is a sumptuous and intense exploration of how clothes can make a man, yet destroy a world.

Han Suk Kyu as Dol-Seok, The Royal Tailor ©

Dol-Seok (Han Suk Kyu) is the royal tailor, and he has served three generations of kings producing the traditional Korean hanbok. Though his designs are conservative, they are stunning with their elaborate embroidery on high quality silks.

Yoo Yeon Seok as the new King, The Royal Tailor ©

When the new king (Yoo Yeon Seok) announces the end of the mourning period for the deceased king, his older brother, he orders the Royal Tailor to make garments for the entire court. Dol-Seok, with his huge, in-palace workshop, is happy to oblige, and looks forward to being ennobled by this latest assignment from the King.

Park Shin Hye as the Queen, The Royal Tailor ©

Unfortunately, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and despite his impending coronation, the King is still not happy. Not with his crown nor with his Queen (Park Shin Hye), the widow of his dead brother, now the wife of the new King. Though beautiful and young, the Queen is rumored to still be a virgin. Because she has not produced an heir to the throne, her position is precarious and in jeopardy. Further, there are many members in court who want to ensure their own advancement by finding the new king a brand new wife.

Han Suk Kyu as Dol-Seok, The Royal Tailor ©

When the Queen’s ladies accidentally damage the King’s coronation robe, she begs the Royal Tailor to restore it. Unfortunately, the restoration must be done overnight, and the Tailor protests that it simply cannot be done in such a short period. Terrified of the King’s wrath and even more fearful of losing her position, the Queen turns to an outsider.

Ko Soo as Kong-Jin, The Royal Tailor ©

Enter the radically daring designer Kong-Jin (Ko Soo), who has a tendency to lie about in brothels with gisaeng (courtesans), who proudly model his provocative designs, and who knows nothing about the court or about royal etiquette.

The Royal Tailor ©

After the King approves of the “new” coronation gown, which was dramatically altered by upstart tailor Kong-Jin to save its undamaged pieces after the accident, the Royal Tailor Dol-Seok must accept this novice into his palace workshop.

Kong-Jin knows absolutely nothing about using patterns to make clothing. Instead, he draws all his ideas for clothes. He also has the strangest ideas about clothing: that it should be comfortable, and that it should fit the person who wears it. To Dol-Seok’s horror, Kong-Jin also loves bright colors, sheer fabrics, tight sleeves, and shorter hems.

Han Suk Kyu as Dol-Seok (top) and Ko Soo as Kong-Jin (bottom), The Royal Tailor ©

The ensuing rivalry between the two tailors, one championed by the King, and the other by the Queen, mirrors the power struggle between the two royals themselves, as well as among the nobility who wish to control the King.

Lee Yoo-Bi as Soui, the King’s Concubine, The Royal Tailor ©

When power-hungry aristocrats introduce the Prime Minister’s lovely young daughter Soui (Lee Yoo-Bi) to the King, he takes her as his Royal Concubine, and the war between the factions intensifies. As if that situation weren’t dangerous enough, the young tailor Kong-Jin finds himself irresistibly drawn to the lovely but very lonely Queen.

Ko Soo as Kong-Jin and Park Shin Hye as the Queen, The Royal Tailor ©

Although the film has some light-hearted (and anachronistic) moments when Kong-Jin dresses some nobles in more comfortable hanbok styles and begins to undermine traditional court fashion, The Royal Tailor is not a comedy. Instead, it is an intense study of power politics on national and personal levels: between siblings, between royalty and nobility, aristocrats and lower classes, educated and self-taught, men and women, young and old, the traditional and the new.

In Korean with English subtitles, the award-winning and critically acclaimed The Royal Tailor is a luscious, beautifully filmed examination of power whose (mostly historically accurate) costumes, sets, and cinematography gloriously mirror the sublime beauty and the terrible ugliness of all its characters’ actions.

Available for rent from Amazon ($1.99 SD – $2.99 HD) or free for Prime members.

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