Review: ‘Ascension’ (2021), a cinéma vérité documentary of the different layers of consumerism in China

June 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

“Ascension” (2021)

Directed by Jessica Kingdon

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place various parts of China, the cinéma vérité-styled documentary film “Ascension” features an all-Asian group of people at work and at leisure in this examination of how capitalistic consumerism works in Communist China.

Culture Clash: In a culture where the government enforces Communism/socialism and consumers embrace capitalism, the Chinese Dream is presented as an aspirational lifestyle of attaining wealth through hard work, but the dream remains out of reach for most people and is accessible to a small, elite percentage of the population.

Culture Audience: “Ascension” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in minimalist, “slice of life” documentaries about contemporary China, with no interviews, narration and analysis.

A worker at a WM Doll factory in Zhongshan, China, in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

How does a system of capitalistic consumerism work in China, a country controlled by a Communist government? The cinéma vérité-styled “Ascension” shows different layers of this system and lets viewers make up their own minds about it. It’s a documentary that’s more than just a compilation of “slice of life” footage, because the movie is presented as a mosaic of a culture.

People in the movie are rarely identified by name and absolutely no one interviewed for the film. Therefore, don’t expect any deep analysis or commentary about what’s in the movie. However, just like a mosaic, it’s up to viewers to look at all the different segments that are presented and see what the big picture is.

“Ascension” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prizes for Best Documentary Feature, while “Ascension” director Jessica Kingdon received the festival’s 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. It’s a documentary whose storytelling style is not going to be everyone’s liking, especially for people who prefer documentaries to tell as much as show. showing. “Ascension” take a more subtle “show” approach and doesn’t try to make anyone a star of the movie with manipulative editing.

In order to fully appreciate “Ascension” (directed by Jessica Kingdon), it helps to have this synopsis from the movie’s production notes: “‘Ascension’ is an impressionistic portrait of China’s industrial supply chain that reveals the country’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. The documentary portrays capitalism in China across the levels of its operation, from the crudest mine to the most rarefied forms of leisure.

“Accordingly, the film is structured in three parts, ascending through the levels of the capitalist structure: workers running factory production, the middle class training for and selling to aspirational consumers, and the elites reveling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary Chinese Dream remains an elusive fantasy for most.”

Once viewers know that “Ascension” has a specific structure, it gives a better context to watching the documentary. Otherwise, for people not really paying attention, the movie might just come across as a bunch of random footage of contemporary life in China. The movie filmed in 51 locations across China, according to the “Ascension” production notes.

Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell provided the movie’s often-stunning cinematography. (The visually majestic outdoor scenes are the documentary’s cinematography highlights.) And the music by Dan Deacon is very atmospheric—sometimes dreamlike, sometimes jarring, sometimes haunting.

“Ascension” begins with a prologue quote from a poem titled “Ascension,” written in 1912 by Kingdon’s great-grandfather Zheng Ze: “I ascend and look far into my heart, only to find everywhere already razed.” It’s perhaps the only clue in the movie about what Kingdon feels is being presented in this documentary’s view of contemporary China: The constant hope of the Chinese Dream (the aspiration to reach the heights of luxury through hard work) is often crushed under the weight of dead-end jobs.

The “factory worker” level of “Ascension” begins with a montage of company recruiters trying to entice people on commercial streets to work at low-paying factory jobs. They use microphones so that their voices can be heard above the noises of the crowds. The places looking for employees can be anything from well-known corporate companies to small businesses.

In this documentary, a phone manufacturing company and a pen factory were among those with recruiters on the streets. A big selling point used by many recruiters is telling potential employees that people can sit while doing the job, since many other blue-collar jobs involve standing for long hours. The salaries mentioned are, on average, 16 yuan (or about $2) per hour.

Also on these streets are large electronic signs with a variety of slogans that read, “Sense of Worth,” “Chinese Dream” and Work Hard. And All Wishes Come True.” But do these wishes really come true? It depends on what those wishes are and who has those wishes.

“Ascension” then gives viewers glimpse in to the types of factory jobs that are the backbone of China’s economy. It’s why so many people around the world have at least one item with the label “Made in China.” The factory locations filmed in this segment of the documentary include a garment factory in Shenzhen; WM Doll (a sex doll company) in Zhongshan; a factory that processes cooked chicken; and a factory that makes pill bottles.

At the WM Doll factory, two female workers focus on how to repair the shoulder of a mannequin. At the garment factory, workers make pants and go through a quality assessment process. Workers at another factory are seen having a cafeteria-styled lunch.

The “middle-class” level of the documentary is the one where people have the liveliest personalities. Rather than having jobs where they’re expected to be “worker bees” and “drones,” there’s a lot more emphasis on being successful entrepreneurs. It’s at this level that the Chinese Dream seems more attainable, and that optimistic hope is more evident in the workforce.

One of the more memorable highlights of this middle-class segment is footage from Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, a two-day workshop where the motto is “Monetize Your Personal Brand.” The female leader of the workshop is energetic and enthusiastic in her pep talks and advice on personal sales: “Buying is a choice, one we don’t have to make,” she says. “Why should people buy from you? Because you’re a brand.”

She further notes that people will buy from those whom they like and trust. “We’re in a fan economy era. If you have a large fan base, you have everything.” At the conclusion of Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, participants have a “graduation” ceremony, where they get framed completion certificates, go in front of the room, and say their company name and profit goals. The goals are predictably high, with people saying that they want to make millions within the next five years.

“Ascension” also shows how China is part of the boom of entrepreneurs who want to get rich through social media. Just as it is in Western countries, “influencer culture” is huge in China. A woman is shown livestreaming a product demonstration for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company, so that she can sell athletic shoes. Another woman, who’s a beauty influencer, takes selfies and does a makeup tutorial.

At a flight attendant training program (where all of the participants are women, except for one man), the emphasis is on etiquette and physical attractiveness. Someone who’s not shown on camera says in a micophone to the class: “There’s a saying that every Chinese woman is a pretty Chinese business card. So every Chinese woman, let’s present the prettiest image of China!” When the class completes the training, the graduates pose for a group photo.

The documentary also shows training sessions for jobs that usually attract men. There’s footage of International Butler Academy in Chengdu, where potential butlers are shown how to do proper housekeeping duties, such as bedsheet preparation. Waiters are also shown training at Windows of the World, an upscale restaruant in Shenzhen.

At Genghis Security Academy in Bejing, training looks very similar to a police academy, since the trainees are armed with guns. In a military-styled line of standing trainees, one man makes a mistake, and the instructor shouts at him and kicks him. As further punishment, this trainee is ordered to do push-ups in front of the other trainees.

A documentary about consumerism wouldn’t be complete without footage of people spending money. “Ascension” includes scenes from New South China Mall in Dongguan and New Century Global Center in Chengdu. People are shown gathered at a water park in New Century Global Center. There’s also footage of a computer video game arcade, populated almost entirely by males in their teens and 20s.

The “elite” segment toward the end of the documentary is also the shortest segment. There’s footage of a dinner at Windows of the World, with three men and two women, who are in the late 20s or early 30s. They are all presumably wealthy. One of the women says, “I like the U.S. … because of the freedom.” One of the men says in response, “Personally speaking, I’m a patriot [of China] … China is a global player now.”

This confidence in China’s economy is also expressed at JALA’s annual conference in 2020. (JALA Group is a leading cosmetics enterprise in China.) “Ascension’s” footage of this conference includes a speaker who tells the large audience of hundreds who are gathered for the speech: “Chinese brands must win!”

As much as “Ascension” shows about the Chinese economy and workforce, the documentary can get viewers to think about what’s missing from the movie that would be in a documentary about the American economy and work force. An American documentary would have complaints of employee burnout or exploitation; the minimum wage as it relates to being a “living wage”; employee contracts; taxes and tarriffs; labor laws, etc. The point is that the American Dream and the Chinese Dream might have many things in common, but the freedom to speak out against flaws in the system is another story.

Review: ‘My Love’ (2021), starring Greg Hsu and Zhang Ruonan

June 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Greg Hsu and Zhang Ruonan in “My Love” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“My Love” (2021)

Directed by Han Tian

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2006 to 2021, the comedy/drama film “My Love” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage boy in high school falls in love with a fellow student, and for the next 15 years he tries to have a romance with her.

Culture Audience: “My Love” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in romantic stories that are sweet, sometimes whimsical and very sentimental.

Zhang Ruonan and Greg Hsu in “My Love” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

The romantic comedy/drama “My Love” takes viewers on a 15-year saga of a young man pining for a young woman whom he thinks is the love of his life. It’s a series of ups and downs in a love story that sometimes pours on the schmaltz and cutesiness too much, but the ending leaves no doubt that “My Love” is not a completely stereotypical romantic movie. The performances by the lead actors are charming enough to sustain interest when parts of the movie get a little too repetitive.

Directed by Han Tian (who co-wrote the “My Love” screenplay with Zhang Ying Jiao Tingting), “My Love” is based on director Lee Seok-Geun’s 2018 South Korean film “On Your Wedding Day.” In “My Love,” socially awkward Zhou Xiaoqi (played by Greg Hsu) and coolly confident You Yongci (played by Zhang Ruonan) first meet in 2006, when they were both about 17 years old in high school. The movie takes place in unnamed cities in China, and was filmed in the cities of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Xiamen and Zhangzhou.

The story is told as a narrative flashback from Zhou Xiaoq’s perspective. It’s shown at the beginning of the film that as a man in his early 30s in the year 2021, he is now a swimming coach at a local high school. And the flashbacks begin in 2006 and are shown in increments by year.

It’s love at first sight for Zhou Xiaoqi the first time that he sees You Yongci at their high school. But the first time they make eye contact, it’s under humiliating circumstances for Zhou Xiaoqi: He’s getting beat up by some of the school bullies outside. Zhou Xiaoqi makes brief eye contact with You Yongci, and he’s instantly smitten. She barely seems to remember him when they talk for the first time.

You Yongci, who is an aspiring fashion designer, has recently transferred to the school and she’s able to make friends. Zhou Xiaoqi is somewhat of a nerd, but he does have something going for him which doesn’t make him a complete social outcast at school: He’s one of the better athletes on the school’s swimming team. And he hopes to impress You Yongci by winning swimming competitions.

Zhou Xiaoqi doesn’t get very far with You Yongci during the high school years of his courtship of her. He makes it clear from the beginning that he wants them to date each other, but she puts him in the “friend zone.” He respects those wishes but lets her know that he’s ready to romance her if she changes her mind.

Predictably, there are a few arrogant bullies on the school swim team who want to upstage and embarrass Zhou Xiaoqi. His biggest rival is a guy named Shark. And they think that You Yongci is out of Zhou Xiaoqi’s league.

There are some scenes of swim meets where You Yongci is there to cheer on Zhou Xiaoqi. At one of the swimming competitions, Zhou Xiaoqi is bullied and taunted again, but You Yongci races to his side wth a popsicle and briefly pretends that she’s his girlfriend to boost his confidence and to make his bullying teammates jealous.

As the two teens get to know each other better, Zhou Xiaoqi finds out that You Yongci has a shameful family secret: Her father physically and emotionally abuses her mother. And because of that, You Yongci and her mother constantly move to get away from You Yongci’s father. He usually finds them and the abuse starts again.

Zhou Xiaoqi offers to be there are a protective friend for You Yongci, but she refuses his help, mostly because she’s embarrassed about the domestic abuse in her family. And one day, Zhou Xiaoqi finds out that You Yongci has abruptly moved away with her mother again and hasn’t left a forwarding address. And none of the people at the school know where You Yongci went.

It’s now 2008, and Zhou Xiaoqi has been living an aimless life while still living home with his parents. He still thinks about You Yongci a lot. It’s implied that Zhou Xiaoqi doesn’t date very much or doesn’t date at all because he still thinks that You Yongci is “the one that got away.”

But one day, Zhou Xiaoqi is elated to find out, through a photo posted on social media, that You Yongci is enrolled at a university. Finding a purpose in life, Zhou Xiaoqi announces to his parents that he’s enrolling in the university. They’re thrilled that he seems to have found some goal in his life.

When he gets to the university, Zhou Xiaoqi comes across another obstacle in his attempt to court You Yongci. She has a boyfriend named Chen Chen (played by Guo Cheng), and he’s the star of the university’s soccer team. You Yongci is on the university cheerleading squad.

In order to be close to You Yongci, Zhou Xiaoq joins the cheerleading squad too. He’s the only man on the squad. And so, many of his male peers tease him about it. And it leads to more embarrassing situations where his masculinity is questioned.

Zhou Xiaoq’s actions seem stalker-ish, but he has such a harmless personality that viewers will probably be rooting for him, even though he puts himself in situations that make him look pathetic. You Yongci appreciates the attention that she gets from Zhou Xiaoq, but even she gets irritated occasionally with his lovesick behavior. And there’s tension and jealousy over You Yongci’s relationship with Chen Chen.

What will it take for You Yongci and Zhou Xiaoq to get together? And will it ever happen? And if it does, how long will it last? Those questions are answered in the movie. But it’s enough to say that the entire time that Zhou Xiaoq and You Yongci know each other, he’s constantly insecure that he isn’t good enough for her.

A lot of the antics that Zhou Xiaoq resorts to fall into slapstick comedy territory. Others are straight out of romantic drama stereotypes. Yes, there’s a frantic race to catch up to someone in the rain to tell that person something before it’s too late. Yes, there’s a medical crisis when Zhou Xiaoq gets a serious injury. And yes, there’s a big wedding in the movie. (None of this is spoiler information. It’s all in the movie’s trailer.)

These over-used tropes would be insufferable, but the last third of the film is really the best. And the wedding scene might not be what a lot of people think it will turn out to be. Even though the movie takes place over 15 years, there is barely any attempt to age the actors portraying Zhou Xiaoq and You Yongci. It’s a little bit of a distraction that the characters look the same at 17 as they do at age 32. But the gradual emotional maturity of the characters, not what they look like on the outside, is what counts the most in how these actors play their roles.

“My Love” is not the type of film that will be considered one of the greatest romantic movies of all time. But it’s exactly what it appears to be: an entertaining and mostly lightweight diversion. The movie’s greatest message is that it will make people think about how long it’s worth pursuing a dream and if that dream is really the best thing for the person who’s holding on to it.

CMC Pictures released “My Love” in select U.S. cinemas on May 7, 2021. The movie was released in China on April 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Cliff Walkers,’ starring Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun, Ni Dahong

May 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zhang Yi in “Cliff Walkers” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Cliff Walkers”

Directed by Zhang Yimou 

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1930s China, the dramatic film “Cliff Walkers” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, wealthy and government spies.

Culture Clash: Four Communist spies, who are on a mission to rescue a former prisoner who witnessed war crimes by Japanese invaders, are betrayed by a traitor and try to stay alive during various deadly threats.

Culture Audience: “Cliff Walkers” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in riveting spy thrillers told from a historical Chinese perspective.

Liu Haocun in “Cliff Walkers” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Cliff Walkers,” the first spy movie from celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, tells a captivating and thrilling tale (inspired by real events) of four Communist spies in 1931 China. The spies face life-threatening obstacles not only from their own ranks but also from the Japanese who invaded China during this time period. Much more than the usual “cloak and dagger” story about spies, “Cliff Walkers” has plenty of emotional resonance by realistically showing the heart-wrenching toll on the family lives of spies when these espionage agents go into this line of work.

“Cliff Walkers” (formerly titled “Impasse”) is the first feature-film screenplay from Quan Yongxian. He was previously a writer for the 2021 Chinese drama TV series “Cliff,” which was about spy couple working in Harbin, China. “Cliff Walkers,” which also takes place primarily in Harbin, is an apt title for the movie, since the main characters are constantly on the precipice of danger.

The suspense in this thriller doesn’t let up and will also keep viewers on edge. And although there’s some raw violence in the movie, this isn’t an over-the-top “Mission: Impossible”-styled spy flick where the spies also happen to be stunt masters. These espionage agents have to use their wits more than physical tricks to help them get out of predicaments.

Taking place in 1931, “Cliff Walkers” has a brief written intro explaining the historical context of what is going on while the story is happening. Japan has invaded China, resulting in secret camps where Chinese people are tortured. The puppet state Manchuku in China was controlled by the Japanese during this time period.

In the midst of this political and human-rights turmoil, four Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spies have returned to Manchuku from the Soviet Union. These four espionage agents are doing a secret mission called Operation Utrennya. The operation’s purpose is to rescue a former prisoner named Wang Ziyang, who escaped from the Japanese-operated killing grounds Beiyinhe in China that was evenutally bombed by the Japanese. Because of what he experienced and witnessed, Wang Ziyang could expose war crimes (such as human experimentation) committed by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731.

The four spies happen to be two couples: quick-thinking and empathetic leader Zhang Xianchen (played by Zhang Yi), a former journalist; Wang Yu (played by Qin Hailu), who is Zhang’s even-tempered wife; Chu Liang (played by Qin Hailu), who is younger and more impulsive than Zhang; and Xiao Lan (played by Liu Haocun), who is Chu’s chameleon-like girlfriend. In the beginning of the story, the four comrades have split into two groups, as decided by Zhang. Group 1 consists of Zhang and Lan. Group 2 consists of Yu and Liang.

During freezing snowy weather, their caper begins. And, of course, there are immediate problems. A betrayal within the CCP spy ranks leads to the deaths of certain people early on in the story. And this traitorous ambush sends Zhang and Lan on a frantic quest to Harbin, in order to warn Yu and Liang about the betrayal while also trying to stay alive. Meanwhile, a fellow CCP agent named Zhou Yi (played by Yu Hewei) has his loyalties tested, since he is embedded with the enemy.

It wouldn’t be a spy story without a chief villain. And in this story, the villain is Gao Bin (played by Ni Dahong), a sadistic enforcer of the Japanese invasion. He represents the type of citizen who will be a traitor if it means he will be in a position of power. The Chinese spies willing to fight for their country have poison pills (kept in a mtachbox) that play a signficant role in the story.

Adding to the drama, Zhang and Yu are separated from their two kids who have become wayward street urchins. Their daughter is 8 years old, while their son is about 5 or 6 years old. At one point in the movie, Zhang is told that the children were last scene begging near the Modern Hotel. It just so happens that the Modern Hotel is where Lan goes with soem trusted allies to hide out.

What makes “Cliff Walkers” different from many other spy movies is the heartbreaking storyline of two spy parents (Zhang and Yu) who have been separated from the children and are trying to reunite with them, while the parents also having to fulfill their government responsibilities in their line of work. If they abandon their jobs, they are at risk of being punished and perhaps permanently separated from ther children. It’s a stressful and life-threatening tightrope that’s pulled in man different directions throughout the story.

Zhang’s portrayal of the spy whos shares his name is one of courage and humanity. It’s not an overly flashy role, but there are action sequences where Zhang the spy shows impressive combat skills. Lan is the other character who has many physically challenging action scenes. Frequently, she is the only woman with any power in the room. And she uses that power wisely.

While making “Cliff Walkers,” director Zhang Yimou went for as much realism as possible. According to some production information from the movie’s U.S. publicist: “Historical locations in Harbin were 100% rebuilt just for the film, such as the city’s central street, Asia Cinema and Martyr Hotel which were completely recreated in 1930s style. Lead actor Zhang Yi grew up in Harbin and in fact lived on a street that was one of the rebuilt filming locations. During filming, he was able to find his parents’ old house there and video chatted them to show them how accurately recreated it was.” And the freezing, snowy weather wasn’t faked for the movie.

The accurate production design and the striking cinematopgraphy make “Cliff Walkers” an visually intriguing movie to watch. But the movie wouldn’t work as well, if not for the success it has at maintaining a tone of urgency and suspense, thanks to the absorbing screenplay and well-paced direction. “Cliff Walkers” is not a movie for people who are negatively triggered by scenes of violence and torture. But for people who can handle on-screen depictions of the realistic cruel inhumanity that’s inflicted during political oppression, then “Cliff Walkers” offers a compelling look that is filled with despair and hope, just like real life.

CMC Pictures released “Cliff Walkers” in select U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021, the same day that the movie was released in China.

Review: ‘A Writer’s Odyssey,’ starring Lei Jiayin, Yang Mi and Dong Zijiang

February 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lei Jiayin in “A Writer’s Odyssey” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“A Writer’s Odyssey”

Directed by Lu Yang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the fantasy/action film “A Writer’s Odyssey” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A desperate man, who’s been searching for his missing daughter for the past six years, gets caught up in a murder plot and an alternate world that are connected to what a young novelist is writing for his latest book.

Culture Audience: “A Writer’s Odyssey” will appeal primarily to people who like immersive, eye-catching action films that have twist-filled plot developments.

Yang Mi in “A Writer’s Odyssey” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

It’s not just the graphic violence that makes the fantasy/action film “A Writer’s Odyssey” geared to adults. At the core of a movie is a time-traveling mystery that is wrapped up and eventually unraveled in layers, making it a somewhat convoluted story that very young children will have a hard time understanding. But the movie is worth a watch for anyone who’s up for a story that examines issues of grief and revenge, while taking viewers on a frenetic ride in this otherworldly enigma.

To fully understand “A Writer’s Odyssey” (directed by Yang Lu), it helps to know in advance that the movie switches back and forth between two different worlds. In the “real world,” a disillusioned and bitter man named Guan Ning has been on an unrelenting quest to find his daughter Tangerine, who disappeared six years earlier when she was 6 years old. Meanwhile, a young author named Kongwen Lu (played by Dong Zijian) has been writing the latest book in his fantasy novel series, which follows a heroic teenager who is also named Kongwen.

Kongwen Lu’s writing come to life in the movie, and it’s all presented as an “alternate world,” where monsters exist, there are armies of robot-looking mutants, and humans look and act like warriors—or at least potential warriors. In this “alternate world,” whatever Kongwen Lu writes happens on screen. But there comes a point in the movie where what happens in the “alternate world” has an effect on people in the “real world” and vice versa.

“A Writer’s Odyssey” opens up with a thrilling action scene that introduces Guan Ning as the protagonist who finds himself unexpectedly caught between these two worlds. He’s lying in wait in a mountainous area and throws a rock at the windowshield of a freight truck driving below on a winding road. The rock breaks the window, which causes the truck to crash. There are two men sitting in the front of the truck, and they suffer minor injuries.

While the driver is briefly unconscious, Guan Ning shouts to the other man about his missing daughter Tangerine: “Six years ago in Liaoyuan, you kidnapped her. Where is she?” Guan Ning and the thug end up fighting. The driver then regains his consciousness and hits Guan Ning with a pipe.

Guan Ning runs to the back of the truck, opens the door, and sees several children locked in cages, but Tangerine is not one of them. The kids in the cages all look to be about 6 to 8 years old, while Tangerine would be about 12. And the next thing you know, police arrive, the two thugs run off, and Guan Ning is arrested for suspected kidnapping and child trafficking. He protests and says he’s an innocent father who’s looking for his daughter.

In another big fight scene, Guan Ning manages to escape from the back of the police squad car. He runs to the nearest car on the street. It’s a black car that has a mysterious woman dressed in black leather in the driver’s seat. Even though Guan Ning has never met her before, she knows who he is. Her name is Tu Ling (played by Yang Mi), and she tells Guan Ning: “You’re our valued business partner.”

Tu Ling also tells Guan Ning that she knows that his life revolves around finding his missing daughter. She comments that she also knows that he used to be a banker, but after Tangerine disappeared, he quit his job, sold his house, and divorced his wife. Guan Ning is suspicious of Tu Ling, who offers to hide Guan Ning from the police if he will do some favors for her.

Guan Ning is reluctant, but then Guan Ning says that she has information that could lead to him finding his daughter. And so, Guan Ning goes with Tu Ling, who takes him further down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies. It’s enough to say that whenever a mysterious stranger makes an offer that’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Tu Ling has a ruthless boss named Li Mu who has a murderous agenda that’s eventually revealed. Meanwhile, the alternate world created by Kongwen Lu begins to collide more with the real world until it becomes obvious that there’s a power struggle going on that involves the supernatural. Meanwhile, Guan Ning is forced to make a decision that could mean the difference between sparing someone’s life and Guan Ning getting killed, or killing someone else and saving his own life.

All of the actors do moderately good jobs in their performances, but Lei Jiayin has to show the widest range of emotions. There are some predictable flashback scenes of Guan Ningin in happier times with Tangerine, with these scenes blatantly tugging at viewers’ heartstrings. The mystery behind her disappearance isn’t handled in a completely predictable way, which makes “A Writer’s Odyssey” more than a typical fantasy/action flick.

“A Writer’s Odyssey” is based on Xuetao Shuang’s book “Assassinate a Novelist.” There are seven people credited with writing the movie’s screenplay: Xuetao Shuang, director Yang Lu, Shu Chen, Xiaocao Liu, Haiyan Qin, Lu Yang and Yang Yu. With all these screenwriters for the movie, the plot sometimes seems overstuffed with ideas and bloated by “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. And the total running time for the movie (130 minutes) is a little too long.

It’s obvious that a great deal of this movie’s budget was spent on visual effects, which are intricate and sometimes stunning but won’t be winning any awards. The violence is often bloody and cruel, while the choreography works very well in most of the action scenes. At times, “A Writer’s Odyssey” looks like a big-budget video game, but the movie has more humanity than a video game in handling the mystery at the center of the story. Underneath the brutal fight scenes and dazzling visual effects is a story of how a parent’s love for a child can lead someone to go to extreme and desperate actions.

CMC Pictures released “A Writer’s Odyssey” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021, the same day that it was also released in mainland China, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Singapore.

Review: ’76 Days,’ starring Yang Li and Tian Dingyuan

December 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

A COVID-19 patient (center) accompanied by two nurses in Wuhan, China, in “76 Days” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“76 Days”

Directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu and Anonymous

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Wuhan, China, the documentary “76 Days” features an all-Asian group of medical professionals, patients and family members who were affected by the COVID-19 shutdown when the city was the epicenter of the virus.

Culture Clash: The documentary chronicles what the crisis was like for four overwhelmed hospitals, which had to turn patients away due to overcrowding and prevented people from visiting patients due to the medical dangers of spreading the virus.

Culture Audience: “76 Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an inside look at how Chinese medical facilities and staffers handled the COVID-19 crisis at the beginning of the outbreak.

A doctor and a COVID-19 patient in Wuhan, China, in “76 Days” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the subject of numerous documentaries and news reports, with many focusing on what went wrong during this worldwide health crisis. The impactful documentary “76 Days” doesn’t have a political agenda, nor is it interested in placing any blame on why the virus spread to devastating proportions. Instead, the film is an unflinching look inside four of the hospitals in Wuhan, China, during the 76 days of lockdown that that city experienced when it was the COVID-19 epicenter.

Directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu and a Chinese news journalist who wants to remain anonymous, “76 Days” is filmed in the best format for this subject matter: completely cinéma vérité, with no archival footage, no interviews with talking heads, no voiceover narration, no re-enactments and no animation. The film is so minimalist that there isn’t even any music to trigger certain emotions.

The lockdown in Wuhan (a city of about 11 million people) began on January 23, 2020, and ended on April 8, 2020. Production of the documentary began in early February 2020. To get access inside these hospitals during the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the “76 Days” directors had to follow the same safety protocols as everyone else in the hospitals. (Wuhan Red Cross Hospital is one of the medical facilities in the documentary. )

According to the production notes for “76 Days,” Chen and the anonymous co-director are both news journalists who filmed the actual footage. Wu (a Chinese filmmaker who splits his time between living in the U.S. and China) stayed in the U.S. during filming, and he did the editing for the film. Although there is some footage of people outside of the hospitals, the majority of the film takes place in a hospital setting.

Wu explains in the “76 Days” production notes: “In production there were many discussions about what aspects of Wuhan’s city life to cover, and whether and how much to contrast the Wuhan stories with the increasingly global pandemic stories. Once I started editing, however, I quickly realized that the strongest footage was that shot in the hospitals. And since the worldwide media were already reporting extensively on the chronology of the pandemic’s evolution, I decided to tell our story in the barest fashion possible, to focus on the individual experiences and forego any illustration of the bigger environment that these personal stories happen in.”

He adds, “A few of the hardest-hit hospitals only allowed reporters and filming crews thoroughly vetted by the authorities. But that strict control was not applied uniformly to all hospitals or throughout the entire lockdown period. Early in the lockdown when the situation was dire and chaotic and there was a severe shortage of medical supplies, many hospitals actually welcomed media exposure to help them look for help. Some of the medical teams sent from elsewhere in China to support Wuhan were also open to being filmed, partly due to their desire to have their own images documented in this historical moment.”

All of this information is important context to explain the filmmakers’ choices in what is shown and what is not shown in the documentary. What viewers won’t see are bodies being taken out of hospitals, people dying on camera or other images that would be considered too disturbing or exploitative. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any raw and emotional moments in the documentary, but there’s a real sense that the filmmakers wanted to respectfully show the toll that the COVID-19 crisis took on not just the patients but also the health care workers on the front lines.

The opening scene is one of those painful emotional moments in the film: A female hospital employee in a hazmat suit wails and sobs because her father has died in the hospital and she wasn’t able to say goodbye to him. She is comforted by co-workers, but they also have to deal with the reality that she can’t take time off from work because the hospital is overwhelmed and understaffed.

One of her co-workers tells her to try to pull herself together: “What will you do if you fall sick? We all have to work in the afternoon.” It’s a situation that’s experienced by untold numbers of health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic: Not only do they have the enormous pressure of trying to save lives, but they too could be dealing with a loss of a loved one who died of COVID-19.

Another poignant moment is when a middle-aged male patient is shown having an emotional breakdown over his COVID-19 diagnosis because he is afraid of dying. As he sobs to someone about it over the phone, whoever is on the other line doesn’t seem to be very sympathetic, because the person tells him to stop crying because the doctors must be tired of seeing him get emotional. Through the tears, the man insists that he’s still a good Communist and loyal to the Community Party.

There are only two people in the documentary who are identified by name: a nurse named Yang Li and a doctor named Tian Dingyuan. Everyone else is “anonymous,” but there are certain people who featured more prominently than others. The way the documentary is edited, viewers get to see what happens to these featured individuals at various points during the lockdown.

Yang mentions all the ID cards, phones and other personal possessions of dead patients that are stored in containers in a certain part of the hospital. The loved ones of the deceased have to be notified to claim these possessions. And toward the end of the film, Yang is the one who’s shows doing this very emotionally difficult task. In one scene, she breaks down in tears when she goes outside to meet the daughter of a dead female patient and hand over the patient’s possessions. She makes a sincere apology for not being able to save this mother, and her daughter ends up crying too.

Tian is also shown to be a compassionate hospital worker. While speaking with an elderly man who is a COVID-19 patient, the patient says of the health care workers who treat the patients: “It’s so dangerous being in contact with us. You are all fearless soldiers.” The doctor replies, “Stay strong. Your wife is waiting for you.”

One of the memorable patients who gets the most screen time is an elderly man in his 70s who keeps complaining about being confined in the hospital. He’s feisty and constantly talks about how he can’t wait to leave the hospital. At one point, he tries to leave the hospital on his own around 10 p.m., but he’s confused because he thinks it’s daytime. The hospital workers gently detain him before he leave the hospital, since he’s still under quarantine.

This patient survives, and an interesting thing happens when he’s ready to be discharged: He says he doesn’t want to leave the hospital. Why? He reveals: “My hometown is too backward.” And he says of the dwelling where he lives: “There are already too many people under one roof. And they like to pick on me.”

It’s an example of how the stories of these COVID-19 patients and hospital patients in general can be much more complex than they first appear to be. This patient who at first seems to be a cranky old man who hates being in the hospital turns out to be someone who is hurting in other ways that a hospital can’t necessarily fix. This documentary only focuses on in-patient care, but it will make people wonder about what happens to COIVD-19 patients after they leave hospitals and how they will be cared for during their outpatient recoveries.

Also featured in “76 Days” is footage of a few pregnant women who gave birth while having COVID-19. Fortunately, their babies survived, but the babies had to be quarantined from the parents. One young couple couldn’t bring their baby daughter (their firstborn child) home for a period of time that’s not stated in the movie but it’s implied to be at least two weeks. The documentary has some brief footage of the couple at home as they prepare to bring their daughter home.

When they arrive at the hospital on homecoming day, the wife comments to the husband that she hopes that their daughter is pretty. The husband says that she should be more concerned with their daughter being healthy. The wife replies confidently that she knows their daughter is healthy and it would be great if she’s also pretty. When these new parents finally get to bring their child home, there are the expected tears and emotions.

Early on in “76 Days,” the problem of not having enough room for patients is shown when a female nurse and a male co-worker have to literally barricade themselves behind a door, where people are frantically pounding to get inside. The nurse has to yell that only people with COVID-19 symptoms are allowed inside, and only a few people at a time. It’s an order that many of the people outside aren’t too happy with, but they have no choice, since many hospitals hit hard by COVID-19 had to have the same policy.

Even though some groups of people are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, the virus doesn’t care who it infects. Yang makes this comment: “Rich, poor, revered or despised—fate befalls all.” There will continue to be debates over the politics and solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic. And even though “76 Days” takes place in China, the documentary insightfully shows how compassion and the challenging pandemic effects on patients, their loved ones and health care professionals have more similarities than differences around the world.

MTV Documentary Films released “76 Days” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 4, 2020. Paramount+ will premiere the movie on March 4, 2021. Paramount Home Entertainment will release the movie on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Mulan’ (2020), starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Ron Yuan, Gong Li and Jet Li

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yifei Liu in “Mulan” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Mulan” (2020)

Directed by Niki Caro

Culture Representation: Taking place in ancient China, the fantasy film remake “Mulan” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, the military and royalty.

Culture Clash: A young woman with superhuman athletic powers disguises herself as a man, in order to fight in China’s Imperial Army, and she experiences sexism as a woman and dangerous conflicts while in combat.

Culture Audience: “Mulan” will primarily appeal people looking for family-friendly movies with a message of female empowerment, but fans of the original “Mulan” might be disappointed by the remake’s lack of humor.

Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li in “Mulan” (Photo courtesy of Film Frame/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Disney’s re-imagining of its numerous classic animated films has continued with the 2020 live-action version of “Mulan,” which is a very different take on the original 1998 animated “Mulan.” The 2020 version of “Mulan” should be commended for not doing an exact story replica of the original movie, which was the biggest criticism of Disney’s 2019 remake of “The Lion King” that basically did a more technologically updated animated copy of the 1994 classic “Lion King.” Does the remake of “Mulan” have anything groundbreaking? No, but that’s okay if you want to see an escapist film with a positive message about self-confidence and not letting bigotry get in the way of being who are and pursuing your dreams.

The 2020 version “Mulan” (directed by Niki Caro) took some creative risks by retooling the story into a serious action film instead of being a musical with comedic elements, which was the format of the original “Mulan.” But by changing the film’s tone, this “Mulan” remake ends up being a lot more generic than the original version, because the original “Mulan” depicted the characters as having much more distinct personalities. Although the “Mulan” remake is not a depressing movie, there’s very little humor to be found in the story. Much of the charm of the original “Mulan” came from the humorous characters (especially the miniature dragon Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy) and how they interacted with Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen in the original film) in her journey to becoming a warrior.

There are no musical numbers, wisecracking sidekicks or talking animals in the 2020 version of “Mulan.” However, the basic story is essentially the same: A young woman named Mulan in ancient China seems fated to follow a traditional life of being a wife and mother. But something happens that changes the course of her destiny: China is attacked by invaders and goes to war, so Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists in the army so that her father (who has health problems) won’t have to fight in the war. (In the original “Mulan,” the Huns were the war villains; in the remake, the Rourans are the northern invaders.)

In the remake of “Mulan,” this heroine and her family have known about her “superpowers” or “chi” since she was a child, whereas in the original “Mulan,” it took a while for a fumbling and awkward Mulan to become skilled in combat fighting. Because this metamorphosis is removed from the remake, Mulan (played by Yifei Liu) essentially starts off as a superhero, who has to hide her “chi” powers in order to not be vilified as a witch. (In the original “Mulan,” the family surname was Fa, while the family surname is Hua in the remake.)

In the “Mulan” remake, Mulan has a younger sister named Xiu, who’s about four or five years younger than Mulan. Xiu’s only purpose in the movie is to show that Mulan now has a younger female who looks up to her from an early age, whereas in the original movie, Mulan was an only child. (In the “Mulan” remake, Crystal Rao plays the young Mulan, Elena Askin plays the young Xiu, and Xana Tang plays the adult Xiu.) A scene near the beginning of the film shows Mulan, at around the age of 11 or 12, dazzling Xiu with her graceful nimbleness and athletic abilities.

It’s also established early on in the movie that Mulan inherited her chi from her stern but loving father Zhou (played by Tzi Ma), a military veteran who wears a leg brace from an injury he got during a war. (In the original movie, Zhou’s health problems were from natural causes of old age.) Just like in the original movie, the “Mulan” remake has Mulan’s mother Wuwei (played by Rosalind Chao) as essentially a passive supporting character, because Mulan’s father is the parent who has more influence on Mulan.

The patriarchal sexism that Mulan battles against is still the main underlying conflict of the story, while the war is the obvious external conflict. In the movie, Zhou tells Mulan when she’s a child: “Your chi is strong. But chi is for warriors, not daughters … Soon, you’ll be a young woman, and it’s time to hide your gift away, to silence its voice. I say this to protect you. That is my job. Your job is to bring honor to the family. Can you do that?”

In this Chinese society, girls and women are told that they bring honor to the family by finding the right husbands to marry. In the original “Mulan,” there was a feisty and humorous grandmother who was desperate to see Mulan get married. As is the Chinese tradition, Mulan had to see a matchmaker to assess her qualities as a future wife and to discuss possible suitors who would be a good match for her.

There’s no grandmother in the “Mulan” remake. Instead, there’s an uptight, judgmental and humorless matchmaker (played by Pei Pei Chang) who tells Mulan that a good wife must be “quiet, composed, graceful, elegant, poised, polite, silent and invisible.” At first, the matchmaker gives Mulan her approval, by saying that Mulan has all of these qualities. But then, a wayward spider ends up on the table during the meeting, thereby causing a mishap that leads to Mulan’s extraordinary athletic ability becoming exposed.

The matchmaker is horrified that Mulan isn’t a demure and weak young woman, and so she humiliates Mulan by declaring to the family in full view of people in the town square that Mulan has brought dishonor to her family. Soon after this debacle, representatives from China’s Imperial Army come to the area to declare that each family must volunteer an adult male to serve in the war.

Zhou volunteers, since he is the only adult male in the family, but Mulan is worried that because of his leg disability, he won’t be able to survive the war. When she expresses her concerns to her father, Zhoe shows his patriarchal ego when he lectures Mulan: “It is my job to bring honor to this family. You are the daughter. Learn your place!”

The original “Mulan” had a somewhat iconic scene of Mulan cutting off a lot of her hair in order to disguise herself as a man. There’s no such hair-cutting scene in the “Mulan” remake, which is the movie’s subtle but feminist way of saying that this version of Mulan isn’t going to cut her hair for anyone. Instead, the movie abruptly shows Mulan with her hair in a bun, and she’s already disguised in her armor and taking her father’s lucky sword before she leaves home without her family’s knowledge or consent. The family figures out what happens when they find out that Mulan and the sword have disappeared.

Since the remake doesn’t have any scenes of Mulan fumbling her way through learning combat skills as a new soldier, her discomfort mainly comes from trying to hide her superpowers and her real gender, as well adjusting to being in an all-male environment for the first time in her life. In the original “Mulan,” Mulan used the name Ping as her male alias, whereas her male alias in the “Mulan” remake is Jin.

Mulan/Jin is immediately picked on by a soldier named Honghui (played by Yoson An), who wants to be the alpha male of the new recruits. Honghui’s bullying tactics are a way to test people on their physical and emotional strength. And because he’s singled out Mulan in their first encounter, it’s the obvious cue that he’s going to be Mulan’s love interest when he founds out her real gender. (It’s not a spoiler that Mulan’s true identity is eventually revealed, since it’s in the movie’s trailer and it’s a well-known part of the movie’s plot.) However, people looking for a romantic love story won’t find it in this movie.

Mulan/Jin and Honghui eventually become part of a tight-knit clique of other soldiers that includes macho Yao (played by Chen Tang); romantic Ling (played by Jimmy Wong); mild-mannered Po (played by Doua Moua); and goofy Cricket (played Jun Yu), who’s sometimes the butt of the group’s jokes. Other members of the Imperial Army are Commander Tung (played by Donnie Yen) and Sergeant Qiang (played by Ron Yuan). Commander Tung tells the soldiers that stealing, desertion and consorting with women are punishable by death, while dishonesty is punishable by expulsion.

The “Mulan” remake has definitely more of a female focus than the original, not just because it does away with Mulan having a male sidekick but also how it portrays the movie’s villains. The head of the Rouran invaders is Böri Khan (played by Jason Scott Lee), who gets a lot less screen time than his (literal) wing woman Xianniang (played by Gong Li), a powerful “witch” who can shapeshift into a hawk.

The purpose of Xianniang (a character that wasn’t in the original “Mulan” movie) is to show a parallel between her experiences of being an outcast in China because she’s a powerful woman and the similar experiences that Mulan could go through if it’s revealed that she’s a woman with superpowers. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is when Xianniang and Mulan cross paths as enemies, but Mulan finds out that they have more in common with each other than Mulan would like to admit.

Mulan thinks Xianniang is foolish for aligning herself with a “coward” like Böri Khan. But Mulan is also in service of men who are in charge, so is Mulan’s situation all that different? The decisions made by the men in charge of the Imperial Army, including the Emperor (played by Jet Li), ultimately decide whether or not Mulan will be accepted for who she is or if she’ll be vilified and cast out from society. The outcome is extremely predictable, but this is a fantasy film that’s not trying to pretend to be historically accurate.

The screenplay for the 2020 remake of “Mulan” was written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, and was inspired by the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan.” Some people might say that the “Mulan” remake is more “feminist” than the original “Mulan,” because Mulan is aware of her superpowers from an earlier age, she doesn’t have a “Prince Charming” type of romance, and because the movie has the addition of the powerful female character Xianniang. The filmmakers of the “Mulan” remake seem to understand that feminism isn’t about male-bashing but about people of any gender not being discriminated against because of their gender.

The real world doesn’t always work in a fair and unbiased way, but the message of the movie that’s very realistic is that people can’t overcome gender discrimination obstacles by themselves. In order for real change to be made, enough people (include the right people in power) must make those changes. And if a woman can fight in an army of men, there’s no reason for her to not be able to rescue them too.

Visually, the “Mulan” remake is not a masterpiece, but it gets the job done well in all the right places. The main way that the movie lags is how the personalities of the characters are watered-down from the original “Mulan” movie. All of the actors in the movie do the best with what they’ve been given, but there doesn’t seem to be much depth to any of the predictable characters of the film, except for tormented soul Xianniang.

It’s implied that Xianniang pledged allegiance to Böri Khan because he was the only person who offered her a sense of belonging and family after she became an outcast. He uses her insecurities about being alone in the world to continue to manipulate her emotionally and maintain her loyalty. The “Mulan” remake obviously wanted a more serious tone than the original “Mulan,” so the movie could have benefited from a deeper exploration of this complicated alliance between Böri Khan and Xianniang.

The “Mulan” remake delivers exactly what you would expect from this type of Disney film. The inspirational story, engaging visuals and well-choreographed action sequences are good enough to make this a crowd-pleasing movie for the intended audience. However, many scenes in the remake of “Mulan” look derivative of better-made war movies that have been filmed in a much more majestic way. And if you’re looking for a movie worthy of several Oscar nominations, then this “Mulan” remake is not that movie.

Disney+ will premiere “Mulan” on September 4, 2020. From September 4 to December 3, 2020, the movie has an additional, one-time fee that allows Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. to see the movie on demand for an unlimited time during the Disney+ subscription. As of December 4, 2020, Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. do not have to pay this additional fee to see the movie. Information on additional fees for “Mulan” might vary in countries where Disney+ is available.

Review: ‘Denise Ho — Becoming the Song,’ starring Denise Ho

July 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Denise Ho in “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Denise Ho — Becoming the Song”

Directed by Sue Williams

Some language in Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in China (and partially in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom), the documentary “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” has mostly Asians (and a few white people) discussing the life of pop singer/activist Denise Ho.

Culture Clash: Because she is an outspoken activist against China’s Communist control of Hong Kong, Ho has been banned from China and has lost the majority of her star income due to this ban and because sponsors have dropped her.

Culture Audience: “Denise Ho: Becoming the Song” will appeal primarily to Cantopop fans and people who like documentaries about social activists.

Denise Ho in “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

How many politically outspoken celebrity entertainers would continue to be as outspoken if it meant that they would lose the vast majority of the income that they’ve been used to getting? This hypothetical question is the reality that singer Denise Ho has been living since 2014, when Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests against China’s Communist control ignited a political awakening in her that resulted in her being banned from China, the main source of her income. The compelling documentary “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” takes an up-close look at Denise Ho’s journey of stepping out from behind a manufactured pop-star image and showing the world her true self, even if it means she has to sacrifice a lot of money and personal safety.

Skillfully directed by Sue Williams, “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” has the expected biographical details of Ho’s rise to stardom, but the movie gets a lot more interesting when it covers Ho’s social and political activism. Several people are interviewed for the film, including Ho; her mother Janny Ho; her father Henry Ho; and her brother Harris Ho, who is a keyboardist in Denise’s band.

Also interviewed are Asian history specialist Geoffrey Ngo of Georgetown University; John Tsang, former private secretary to Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong; Victoria Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame; Margaret Ng, a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council from 1995 to 2012; Jelly Cheng, Denise’s production coordinator; singer Kiri T; and John Tsang, who was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 2007 to 2017.

Born in 1997 in Hong Kong, Denise spent her formative teenage years in Montreal. Coming of age in Canada had a major influence on her, she says in the documentary, because being in a democratic country that is socially liberal, compared to many other countries, made her realize how precious and crucial the freedoms of a democracy are.

“Canada changed me completely,” Denise says in the film. The emotional impact of her time in Montreal can be seen in a scene in the documentary where she is performing her song “Montreal” in front of a theater-sized crowd, and she breaks down in tears several times before she can begin the song.

Denise’s biggest celebrity idol was Cantopop singer Anita Mui, an entertainer known for her elaborate costumes and unapologetic feminist sex appeal. Denise said that she was so obsessed with Mui that she would even do things such as cut out Mui’s name from newspapers and magazines, just so she could add it to her collection of Anita Mui memorabilia. Denise says that in the 1980s, Mui was bigger in Hong Kong and China than Madonna was.

Denise and her parents say that Denise was fairly shy when she was growing up  and didn’t really show an interest in being a professional entertainer. That changed when Denise was about 15 years old, and she got chance to be a singer in a group of young people doing a charity performance on TV. Denise says that having a solo in the performance boosted her confidence and that’s when she knew that she liked being in the spotlight.

Despite winning a nationally televised talent contest in 1996, Denise’s career stalled because she didn’t get a record deal right away. She eventually signed to Capital Artists, a record company that she says didn’t really know what to do with her. The contest gave Denise a chance to meet her idol Mui, and Denise (though a lot of persistence) eventually became one of Mui’s backup singers.

Mui became an important mentor to Denise, who released her first EP (aptly titled “First”) in 2001. It became an instant hit, with confident anthems, such as “Thousands More of Me” and “Home of Glory.” After Capital Artists shuttered, Denise signed to EMI, where her career continued to flourish, with hit songs such as  “Angel Blues” and “Goodbye … Rosemary.”

But tragedy struck, when Mui died in 2003 of cervical cancer, at the age of 40. Denise said she felt “lost” without her mentor. She adds, “After Anita died, I felt the burden of picking up what she left behind.” Denise continued to have hits, but her on-stage persona was very much in the same mold as Mui.

Denise says of living in the shadow of Mui: “For 10 years, I tried to live on her legacy in the very wrong way, I guess. It was very mixed feelings. I am still very honored to be her disciple, but I really wanted to build my own uniqueness.”

Production coordinator Cheng remembers a performance in 2013, when Denise sang Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and literally shed her costume and sang the song as herself, not as an Anita Mui tribute act. It was a turning point in Denise’s career.

At this point, Denise’s metamorphosis included being more publicly vocal about social issues. In 2008, she did an album called “Ten Days in the Madhouse” and the independent documentary titled “The Decameron,” which focused on mental-health patients struggling to survive in Hong Kong society. Although the movie flopped, she says that it was an important learning experience for her.

Then, in 2012, Denise came out as a lesbian during the annual Hong Kong Pride Parade. She never tried to hide or deny her sexuality when she was famous (some of her song lyrics were love songs to women, and one of her biggest hits was the gay-themed “Lawrence and Lewis”), but she never publicly declared her sexuality until she officially came out of the closet during this Pride event. In doing so, she became the first openly gay female pop star from Hong Kong. In the documentary, neither Denise nor anyone else talks about any of her past or present love interests.

In 2014, she joined in the Umbrella Movement’s pro-democracy protests (mostly involving students and other young people) against the Communist government of China, which gained control of Hong Kong after the territory was under British rule from 1841 to 1997. The Umbrella Movement gets its name because protestors use umbrellas to fight off violence and water-hose deterrents from police officers. The key issues of the movement’s protests are the Chinese government’s changes to any democratic laws, civil rights, and political processes that the people of Hong Kong had previously had for centuries.

Denise became a public figure speaking out against Communist China and participated in the protests in 2014. She was arrested and eventually banned from China, where she says she made about 80-90% of her income, through live performances and sponsorship deals. Over the next two years, major corporate sponsors, including Pepsi and Lancôme, cut ties with her. Her record-company contract was not renewed. She says that she also received several direct and indirect threats to stop speaking out about her political beliefs.

According to Denise, several businesses (including former sponsors  based in Western countries) that will no longer work with her have blacklisted her not necessarily because he Chinese government told them to but because these companies have decided to “self-censor” by distancing themselves from her because she’s been labeled as too controversial.

“Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” includes footage of Denise, who is now an independent artist self-financing her own tours, doing performances in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. At the height of her music career, she was headlining stadiums in Asia. As an independent artist, she now headlines theater-sized venues.

The movie includes Ho’s first-ever performance in New York City, where she did a show at Town Hall in October 2019. By contrast, the documentary shows the last time that Ho headlined a stadium was in 2016 at Hong Kong Coliseum, for her series of Dear Friend concerts, which was financed mainly through crowdfunding.

Also included is footage of Denise on the streets of Hong Kong with protestors when the Umbrella Movement street protests surged again in 2019. Even if her social activism has come at a high financial cost to her, it’s clear that she at least now feels free to be completely herself and commit herself to a higher purpose than just money and fame.

Under the matter-of-fact direction of Williams, the documentary isn’t overstuffed with too many political talking heads, but keeps the focus where it should be: on Denise Ho and how she is living her life. The movie doesn’t portray her as a martyr but as someone who understands that her political activism has come with a cost to a lot of comforts that she previously had. And it’s clear that Denise thinks the sacrifice, although sometimes difficult, has been worth it.

In the documentary, Denise doesn’t express any regrets about being an outspoken and very involved social/political activist. She gives a lot of credit to her immediate family members (who definitely stand by her) and Buddhism for helping her stay emotionally healthy. Denise says that Buddhism is “where my confidence and optimism come from.” And she has this final thought on what the future might hold for the causes she’s fighting for: “One of my strongest beliefs is that humanity always wins.”

Kino Lorber released “Denise Ho — Becoming the Song” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Ask No Questions,’ starring Chen Ruichang, Jason Loftus, Lisa Weaver and Liang Zihui

July 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chen Ruichang and Jason Loftus in “Ask No Questions” (Photo courtesy of Lofty Sky Entertainment)

“Ask No Questions” 

Directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli

Culture Representation: The documentary “Ask No Questions” interviews a racially diverse (Asian and white) group of people about how China’s government-controlled media handled the 2001 story of five people who appeared to set themselves  on fire in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Culture Clash: Several people interviewed in the documentary say that the self-immolation incident was staged by the Chinese government in an effort to discredit the religious practice Falun Gong.

Culture Audience: “Ask No Questions” will appeal primarily to people who  are interested in documentaries that explore conspiracy theories about governments.

A photo still from “Ask No Questions” (Photo courtesy of Lofty Sky Entertainment)

On January 23, 2001 (Chinese New Year’s Eve), five people caught on fire in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in an apparent suicide pact among seven people. This horrifying incident made worldwide news and then faded from public consciousness. However, the documentary “Ask No Questions” (directed by Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli) revisits this tragedy by coming to the conclusion that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 was probably staged by the Chinese government, in order to make the religious practice Falun Gong look like a dangerous cult belief.

“Ask No Questions” co-director Loftus (who is the film’s narrator and on-camera investigator) admits up front that he is very biased, because he’s a longtime practitioner of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), which he describes as a spirituality-based belief system that encourages meditation-oriented exercises. Loftus believes that Falun Gong is a misunderstood religion that the Chinese government has unfairly banned in China. Therefore, this documentary isn’t really an objective investigation as much as it is the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers trying to prove a conspiracy theory.

The Chinese media reported that seven Falun Gong believers had traveled from the Henan province to Beijing and were involved in this self-immolation incident: Wang Jindong (adult male), Liu Chunling (adult female), Liu Siying (Liu Chunling’s then-12-year-old daughter), Hao Huijunl (adult female), Chen Guo (Hao Huijunl’s then-17-year-old daughter), Liu Yunfang (adult male) and Liu Baorong (adult female).

Liu Chunling died on the spot, while Liu Siying died a few months after being hospitalized. Liu Yunfang and Liu Boarong, who did not set themselves on fire, faced very difference consequences: Liu Yunfang was named as the mastermind of this self-immolation incident, and he was sentenced to life in prison, while Liu Boarong denounced Falun Gong and escaped punishment.

Three other people who were not at Tiananmen Square that day were charged with helping the group, and they were sentenced to prison: Wang Jindong got a 15-year sentence, Xue Hongjun received a 10-year sentence, and Liu Xiuqin got a seven-year sentence.

Loftus asks this question about himself in the beginning of the film: “How does a small-town Canadian kid get involved in a struggle between the Chinese government and an Eastern spiritual group that was largely unknown in the West?” He then explains his background: Loftus became interested in Eastern religions and philosophies when he was a teenager. He read numerous books on these subjects, and he discovered Falun Gong at the age of 16.

By 1998, Loftus was practicing Falun Gong. By 1999, the Chinese government had banned Falun Gong. And by the time Loftus reached college age in the early 2000s, he was in China protesting the Chinese government’s ban on Falun Gong. It’s important to know this background because Loftus didn’t just do this documentary on a whim, since he’s been a pro-Falun Gong activist for many years.

There are two people interviewed in this 79-minute documentary who have the most compelling things to say. The first is Chen Ruichang, who was a high-ranking programmer at Guangdong TV (one of the four government-controlled TV networks in China), from 1987 to 2013. Chen’s main job was to gather research to make government propaganda more convincing on television.

Chen is a Falun Gong believer, but he says when the government banned Falun Gong, he was arrested several times, put into detainment centers and work camps, and tortured as a way to get him to denounce his Falun Gong beliefs. He refused. Chen says that the Chinese government staged the 2001 Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident.

In the documentary: Chen says of the Chinese government’s actions to suppress Falun Gong: “Their purpose was to sustain the persecution. So they carefully planned the self-immolation to incite hatred in people’s hearts.” Later, Chen says of his role in creating government propaganda for Chinese television: “I fell guilty because I helped them deceive people.”

The second person who has the most interesting things to say in “Ask No Questions” is Lisa Weaver, who was a CNN reporter in Beijing from 1999 to 2003. She was at Tiananmen Square during the self-immolation incident in 2001, and she smuggled out video footage of the incident. (The video footage is included in the documentary. )

Weaver says in the documentary about getting this footage: “We were in the right time at the right place.” However, Weaver claims that the Chinese government-controlled media showed close-up footage of the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident and falsely claimed that it was CNN footage.

The reason why Weaver says she’s certain of this is because she was there with the CNN camera crew, and they were too far away from the burning bodies to get the kind of close-up video footage that the Chinese media claimed was from CNN. Weaver also claims that China’s Xinhua news agency misquoted her account of what she saw that day in Tiananmen Square.

And according to Weaver’s eyewitness memories, she saw three people set on fire, but not at the same time, as reported by the Chinese media. She remembers that some of the burning people shouted Falun Gong slogans, but she got the impression that they weren’t true Falun Gong believers, since Falun Gong strongly disapproves of suicide. Did the Chinese government force the people who were set on fire to commit these acts and coach them in advance to chant Falun Gong slogans?

It’s a theory that “Ask No Questions” unabashedly claims is probably what really happed. The problem with this documentary is that it doesn’t really interview enough people from both sides of the issue to come to a well-rounded conclusion. The other people interviewed are mostly those who support in some way the documentary’s conspiracy theory.

The other interviewees include some of Chen’s relatives—his wife Liang Zihui, who says she was also detained and tortured by the Chinese government; his brother Richard Chen; and Richard’s wife Celia Ou. Other people interviewed include Falun Dafa Information Center director Levi Browde; Sarah Cooke, Freedom House senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep” author David Satter; and “Falun Gong’s Challenge to China” author Danny Schechter, who died in 2015, which gives you an idea of how long ago he was interviewed for this film.

“Ask No Questions” also interviews Hollywood stunt man Tom Comet (also known as DangerBoy) to demonstrate how someone can be set on fire and not get seriously injured. And there’s also an interview with Dr. Alan Rosers, a surgeon at Ross Tilley Burn Center, who examines the 2001 Chinese TV news footage of the Tiananmen Square burn victims being interviewed by government-sanctioned news reporter, with a nurse having an up-close conversation with the Liu Siying in the hospital bed. (Former CNN reporter Weaver says that no other media outlets, other the Chinese outlets controlled by the Chinese government, were allowed to interview the Tiananmen Square burn survivors.)

Rosers notices several oddities in the footage, including how all of the surviving victims were placed in the same hospital room, which he says is unusual hospital procedure because severe burn victims are supposed to be kept away from as many people as possible during recovery, in order prevent infections. Rosers also says that’s also why it was very unusual for the nurse and reporter to not wear any protective masks or gloves while speaking up close with Liu Siying while she was interviewed on camera.

The doctor also notices that Liu Siying’s appeared to have a severely burned hand with a lot of bandages wrapped at the wrist, but the victim’s exposed arm for that hand looks perfectly fine, which is not consistent with someone whose whole body was set on fire. Rosers says that although he can’t prove it, the burned hand looks like a hand from a corpse, and it appears to be a prop that was tied by bandages at the wrist. Rosers comes to the conclusion, based on watching some grainy TV footage, that most of the surviving burn victims had real burns, while some could have been faked.

Loftus believes that it’s no coincidence that the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 has eerie parallels to Wang Liviong’s 1991 novel “Yellow Peril,” which describes how the Chinese government staged a self-immolation incident in order to make propaganda. Loftus also takes a closer look at the seven people named as participants in the alleged suicide pact and found that none were known to be ardent followers of Falun Gong.

In addition, “Ask No Questions” also floats a long-held theory that Liu Chunling might have died to a blow to the head, instead of by burning, based on grainy footage of what looks like a man aiming a large object at her head while she was on fire. Other conspiracy theorists have noted how unusual it was for police at Tiananmen Square that day to be carrying around fire extinguishers, as if they were anticipating having to put out fires.

And how far does the Chinese government go to punish conspiracy theorists and their supporters? Loftus says that while he was making this documentary, his Chinese wife had to delete her Chinese social media accounts out of fear that her relatives in China would be targeted by the Chinese government. Loftus also mentions that his Toronto-based production company Lofty Sky Entertainment had a contract with a Chinese company to make video games, but that contract was cancelled with no real explanation. However, that’s not too surprising, because even in non-Communist capitalist countries, some companies just don’t want to do business with a company involved in controversial political activism.

Much of the investigation in “Ask Now Questions” recycles a lot of the investigative work that Washington Post reporter Philip Pan began in 2001. The filmmakers acknowledge that Pan did a lot of the groundbreaking investigations into this conspiracy theory. Loftus says in the film’s voiceover narration that he and the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers reached out to several journalists (Chinese and non-Chinese) who were working in Beijing in 2001, but they all declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

However, why not dig deeper? There’s no indication that the “Ask No Questions” filmmakers ever attempted to interview the politicians, attorneys or other officials who were responsible for helping Chen and his wife Liang gain asylum in the United States. The main reason why Chen was able to immigrate to the U.S. was because his imprisonment got a lot of media coverage, after his relatives went public with Chen’s story.

And what do ambassadors to China think about Chinese citizens who seek asylum in other countries by claiming they are being persecuted for their Falun Gong beliefs? The documentary leaves out the perspectives of government officials involved in international relations with China.

In the documentary, Chen gives a harrowing account of the type of torture that he endured, such as being forced to watch the 2001 self-immolation incident and other horrific things on a TV screen for eight hours a day, with the volume turned up to full blast. He says that the psychological torment, more than physical abuse, is what breaks torture victims: “And once a crack forms in your logical thinking, they will drill into it until they break your will.”

Unlike her husband, Liang did eventually denounce Luong Gong while she was detained and tortured in a “brainwashing center.” She says that the prolonged torture and forced separations that she and Chen went through almost caused them to get divorced. When they fled to the United States, the couple had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their son behind in China. Although their son wanted to them to get asylum in the U.S. so that they could be safe, the documentary shows that the pain of being separated from him is still palpable.

“Ask No Questions” has some compelling interviews, but the documentary does not present anything new that hasn’t already been reported about this conspiracy theory. Loftus admits that without indisputable evidence (which he believes has been suppressed by the Chinese government), there’s no way to prove that the Chinese government staged the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001.

It’s not a secret that the Chinese government has banned Falun Gong and punished Chinese citizens who profess to be Falun Gong believers. (And that topic could be an entirely different documentary.) Therefore, “Ask No Questions” is an echo chamber that sets out to prove a conspiracy theory and, by its own admission, falls short of getting widespread evidence. If the main purpose of the documentary is to make more people aware of the conspiracy theory, then “Ask No Questions” succeeds in that goal.

1091 released “Ask No Questions” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.

Coronavirus travel bans, quarantines and evacuations: What you need to know

February 16, 2020

by John Larson

Updated April 20, 2020

Due to varying policies in different countries, coronavirus pandemic-related travel regulations and restrictions could change over time. Please check with travel providers or travel agents for the latest information, especially if traveling to another country.

Diamond Princess cruise ship (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

The coronavirus that medical officials say originated in Wuhan, China (in Hubei Province), is still a threat to thousands of people, as of this writing. As the death toll and infections continue to increase, here are some things people need to know about the coronavirus (also known also known as COVID-19) before traveling.

Travel Bans

As of this writing, most countries have banned or severely limited travel to and from China. Check with official travel agencies to find out what the restrictions are for your country.

March 14, 2020 UPDATE: Following the U.S. ban of flights from Europe to the United States, several airlines have been cancelling or reducing flights to and from Europe and the United States. Some airlines have also been decreasing the number of flights to and from the U.S. and South America. Check with individual airlines to find out what their latest policies are.

April 20, 2020 UPDATE: The U.S. is temporarily suspending immigration to the United States. Details will be posted here as soon as they are confirmed.

Quarantines

Since the corona virus outbreak, people have been quarantined if they have traveled from China or areas where there have been a number of infected people. In the United States, people returning from high-risk areas are expected to undergo quarantines for about 14 days after their arrival back home.

Cruise ships have experienced quarantines, and most have cancelled future trips in 2020 until further notice. People who have travel plans on a cruise ship need to check directly with the ship’s parent company for the latest updates.

On February 16 2020, about 400 American passengers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan were expected to disembark and travel back to the United States, according to NBC News. The U.S. Department of State released a statement saying that there were 428 U.S. citizens on the ship.

NBC reported that as of February 14, 2020, of the 771 passengers and crew that have been tested, 218 have tested are positive for the virus, and at least 32 of them are Americans. The infected Americans will be further quarantined at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, according to the report. They will be kept away from the quarantined Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan, China, in the second week of February 2020.

March 8, 2020 UPDATE: There have been more Princess Cruise ships that have been quarantined, including the Grand Princess, which carried 3,500 people and was docked in Oakland, California. The U.S. State Department has now advised against travel on cruise ships. Seniors and people with underlying health issues are especially at risk. In addition, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a statement saying that there is “increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment.”

March 20, 2020 UPDATE: Most states in the U.S. now have some type of voluntary quarantine policy, where people are encouraged to stay home, unless it’s related to a job, medical reasons, or essential errands, such as getting food, drinks, supplies or exercise. When outside of your home, social distancing is encouraged, by staying at least six feet apart from people who do not live with you. Because people are being discouraged from traveling unless it’s absolutely necessary, all forms of transportation have been significant reduced. Many travel bookings have a high likelihood of being cancelled or postponed during this coronavirus pandemic, so check with the individual transportation company where a trip is booked to get the latest updates on that trip and the company’s current policies on refunds.

Evacuations

Here are the countries that have done official evacuations for their citizens who were in or near Wuhan, China, during the coronavirus outbreak:

  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Brunei
  • Canada
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Malaysia
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar
  • Nepal
  • New Zealand
  • The Philippines
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Sri Lanka
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Vietnam

This article will be updated with any important breaking news.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Our Time Machine’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Maleonn in “Our Time Machine” (Photo courtesy of Walking Iris Media and POV)

“Our Time Machine”

Directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang

Chinese with subtitles

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

“Our Time Machine” is a documentary that is the epitome of “hurry up and wait.” Chinese artist Maleonn has decided to collaborate with his father, Ma Ke, on a life-sized, elaborate puppet stage production called “Papa’s Time Machine,” based on the memories that father and son have about their lives. It’s a race against time because Ma Ke is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and his losing his memory. But mounting a stage production like this can also move at a slow pace, since it’s not exactly the type of commercial production that can easily find investors.

Maleonn, who was single and in his early 40s when filming of this documentary began, is very close to his parents, who have been married for more than 50 years. Maleonn also has an older sister named Ma Duo. Both of their parents come from artistic backgrounds. His mother was an actress, who says she got pregnant to get out of hard labor. His father used to be the artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater and the director of the Peking Opera Theater.

Ma Ke’s career was negatively affected when he banned from working for 10 years during China’s Cultural Revolution, which ended when Maleonn was 5 years old. The reason for the ban isn’t made very clear in the documentary, which suggests that the family might still ashamed about this part of their history. When Ma Ke was allowed to work in theater again, he spent so much time working that it took away from his family life at home. Maleonn is still coming to grips with past resentment over his father’s absence, and he hopes that “Papa’s Time Machine” will help bring them closer together.

The documentary, which is slower-paced than what most Americans are used to seeing in films, shows the painstaking process of bringing the production to the stage. Maleonn’s home studio becomes populated with the elaborate metal puppets that he has created for the show. He also has to find the right puppeteers and write the show’s dialogue. One of the people on the team is the show’s co-director Tiyani, a patient and pretty collaborator who eventually becomes romantically involved with longtime bachelor Maleonn.

Making the puppets is fairly easy compared to finding investors to help bring the production to a theater stage. In between rehearsals, Maelonn travels to various places in search of investors, including New York City for the Pitch New Works program at the International Society of Performing Arts. Maleonn gets rejection after rejection, but still persists because he has always dreamed of collaborating with his father.

It might be too much of a spoiler to reveal if Maleonn’s dream comes true, but to give you an idea how much time passes in the documentary, Maleonn and Tiyani get married and have a daughter together, and Ma Ke turns 100 years old. At a family party to celebrate Ma Ke’s 100th birthday, his memory has deteriorated even further, because he constantly has to be reminded that the child he sees with Maleonn is Maleonn’s daughter. Maleonn tries to mask his heartbreak over his father’s failing health by saying that having to repeatedly introduce his daughter to his father has a bright side, because it’s worth seeing his father’s happy reaction over and over again.

As for the “Papa’s Time Machine” stage production, the puppets are truly a work of art, but based on what the documentary shows, the stage production’s storyline seems a little thin and perhaps a little too personal to appeal to a broad audience. The movie doesn’t have any big, suspenseful moments, which might disappoint people who are expecting more dramatic tension. Even though “Our Time Machine” is about a big, ambitious stage production with some visually stunning puppets, the documentary’s smaller, quieter moments with Maleonn and his family are where the movie is at its best.

UPDATE: Walking Iris Media and POV will release “Our Time Machine” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 11, 2020. The PBS series “POV” will premiere “Our Time Machine” on September 28, 2020.