How many of us have gone into the DVD shop, determined to finally get round to exploring Chinese cinema and then left without buying anything, too bewildered by the choice?
Panic not, friends! We are, as always, here to help. We’re going to be providing you with a guide to must-see Chinese films and, even better, we’re going to watch and review them for you first so you know what you’re in for.
Our film journey starts here. Over the next few weeks we’ll be reviewing 10 films that were banned in China and got those naughty film makers into a bit of bother. Like most things that are banned, we assumed you’d all be pretty interested to check them out…
Lost in Beijing
We kick off our look at banned Chinese films with Li Yu’s 'Lost in Beijing'. The four leads give brilliant performances in a film that, despite its soap opera-esque storyline which loses focus every now and again, we enjoyed watching.
Masseuse Liu Pingguo and her window cleaner husband An Kun are a migrant couple living in Beijing. In an early, pretty uncomfortable scene, we see Liu Pingguo being raped by her boss and An Kun, her husband, popping up at the window to witness it. A pretty big coincidence to believe perhaps, but give them a break, it’s a film for crying out loud!
When it is discovered that Liu Pingguo is pregnant, her boss wants the baby, which he prays will be a boy, and offers An Kun a shed load of cash.
The choices the characters have to make between the money and the all-important child perhaps reflect on a confusion of political identity, or tensions between family and aspiration in a time of changing political and social values.
But enough of the boring shit. If you like gritty, indie films then this one is certainly for you. It has it all; plenty of experimental shot variation, political undertones and quite graphic sex that, along with scenes of prostitution, blackmail and the general underbelly of China, got the film banned by the state in the first place.
‘Don’t complain about what you see. The camera never lies.’
Once again, in the context of ‘banned films’ Ye Lou’s ‘Suzhou River’ is a bit of a head scratcher. It isn’t gory… it isn’t overtly sexy… in fact it isn’t really shocking at all. It does, however, give the viewer an insight into a side of Shanghai that not many people see.
Well known as a controversial filmmaker, Lou keeps getting banned and, like a naughty puppy trying to bite the arse of an angry policeman, he seems to keep coming back for more.
The film portrays Shanghai's underbelly, rife with crime and corruption and received a good reception on the international stage, but due to Lou not seeking permission from the Chinese authorities, it was banned and Lou was not allowed to make any films for 2 years. Yeah, he really pissed the big dogs off. Naughty Lou!
The film is a gem. It's narrated by a character that, although prominent in the story, we never see as all of his scenes are shot from his point of view. The story goes a little something like this; A motorcycle courier is searching for his lost love who jumped in the river after he tried to kidnap her as a bribe for her father’s cash.
'Suzhou River' is slick and brilliantly put together with script and shot choices that at times made us get off our arses and hit the rewind button (it’s a tough life this film reviewing).
With its gritty, independent style, we do concede that this one may not be for everyone, but if you like the sound of a noir-esque tale of love, lust and life by the Suzhou River, then check it out. We don’t think it will disappoint.
Devils on the Doorstep
Set during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, ‘Devils on the Doorstep’ offers a darkly comic (and when we say dark we mean REALLY dark) snippet of what may have gone down. At points you won’t know whether to laugh, cry or do both simultaneously. It's a roller coaster we tells ya!
Two prisoners of war are dumped in a village by a mysterious stranger. The villagers have to interrogate them and keep them alive until the stranger returns, but alas, the stranger doesn’t return, leaving the villagers in a bit of a pickle.
The film explores relationships, both on a humanistic and a political level and culminates in a truly mind blowing final few scenes.
Although the film doesn’t sympathise with the Japanese, it does at times show a bond between them and the Chinese, which rubbed those censors up the wrong way. They apparently said "Chinese civilians in the movie don't hate the Japanese prisoner, but instead are as close as brothers with the latter." They were also really bloody annoyed the the film was entered into the Cannes film festival with out their permission. Oopsy!
‘Devils on the Doorstep’ is one of those great works of art that has you laughing hysterically one minute and then as a result, questioning the morality of your sense of humour seconds later. Its Chaplin-esque slapstick approach gives the film a unique edge that sets it apart from any other Chinese film we have seen. Quick disclaimer: Prepare to have your emotions played with!
WORDS BY ANNA BENNETT AND PETER DIXON