Tuesday, April 12, 2011

News Bites: No Word From Ai Weiwei, Hong Kong Festival Awards, & 3D Porn

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has not been heard from since he was arrested in Beijing on Sunday, April 3. Image the Guardian

Last week I posted about the arrest of China's most prominent contemporary artist (and documentary filmmaker) Ai Weiwei. There has been no word of Ai's current whereabouts since then, and yesterday afternoon the Guardian reported that Ai's driver Zhang Jingsong and his accountant Ms Hu are also now missing. Ai Weiwei's friend Wen Tao has not been heard from since he was arrested the same day as the artist.

Many individuals and governments around the world have voiced their concerns about Ai Weiwei's  detention. On April 8 a letter protesting Ai's arrest was published in the Guardian, signed by a range of Chinese and China-related creative figures, including documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming and the UK Chinese film expert Professor Chris Berry.

You can read a more detailed article I wrote for New Matilda on the current wave of repression and the impact it is having on China's creative community here. An even grimmer assessment of the situation can be found in the China Human Rights Defenders website here.

On a less depressing note, the Hong Kong International Film Festival drew to a close last Tuesday (April 5). I spent a couple of days at the festival in late March and managed to catch around a dozen films, including a lot of new Chinese titles.

Standouts for me included Wang Bing's astounding The Ditch and Freddie Wong's The Drunkard, both of which I'll write about in separate posts.

On the whole though the Chinese titles this year were disappointing compared to last year's strong showing. Li Hongqi's documentary Are We Really So Far from the Madhouse?, about Beijing band PK14, was a grating piece of misjudged experimentation, while Felix Chong's Hong Kong triad flick Once a Gangster was one of the silliest films I've seen in a long time.

Most disappointing of all was the Jia Zhangke-produced Yulu, a documentary comprising a dozen or so short films by seven different directors profiling “successful” people in contemporary China. Two of the segments were directed by Jia himself, and I'm sorry to say they were among the weakest. The film made me rethink the increasing criticism I've heard leveled at Jia Zhangke in recent years in China, which I'd previously largely written off as sour grapes on the part of other filmmakers. More on that in a future post.

The weaker Chinese lineup at Hong Kong this year was reflected in the festival's awards, which in contrast to 2010 featured only one Chinese title: Old Dog, by Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tsenden, which won the Golden Digital Award. Unfortunately I didn't see Tsenden's film, but I enjoyed his earlier film The Search, which I saw last year in Beijing.

No prizes went to Chinese documentaries this year, although Yu Guangyi's Bachelor Mountain, Xu Tong's Shattered and Cheung King-wai's One Nation, Two Cities were all nominated for the Humanitarian Award for Documentaries. Of these Bachelor Mountain was the strongest, but none came close to the power of last year's winner, Petition. I'll write about Bachelor Mountain and Shattered in future posts. In the the meantime here's the complete list of Hong Kong Film Festival winners from the Hong Kong International Film Festival website.

List of Hong Kong International Film Festival Award Winners

Asian Digital Competition
Golden Digital Award: Old Dog
Silver Digital Award: Eternity
Special Mention: The Sun Beaten Path

Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries
Best Documentary Award: Peace
Outstanding Documentary Award: Pink Saris

Short Film Competition
Grand Prize: Pigs
Jury Prize: Little Children, Big Words
Special Mention: Nowhere Elsewhere
Special Mention: I was a Child of Holocaust Survivor 

FIPRESCI Prize: Bleak Night
Special Mention: Good Morning to the World

SIGNIS Award: Winter’s Bone
Special Mention: The Human Resources Manager

In other China film news, the Hollywood Reporter noted recently that the People's Republic is still dragging its feet responding to the World Trade Organization ruling in December 2009 that Beijing's restrictions on film imports violate WTO regulations.

The article says: “Two weeks have passed since China promised to tell the World Trade Organization what it’s doing about allowing an agreed upon rise in foreign participation in the distribution of movies at its booming box office and all that’s come out of Beijing is a plea for patience and a complaint about the world trade body.”

The China delegation apparently asked other WTO members “to understand the difficulty and complicated situation China is facing during the process of implementation."

The difficulties and complications no doubt relate to reconciling the desire of the Communist Party to control what Chinese people see while still complying with WTO regulations. It's a real dilemma for China's leaders, who love all the riches a market economic brings (particularly for them and their families), but hate the way it undermines their control of information.

While we're on the subject of commercial film industries, the Hollywood Reporter also revealed a few days ago that The Warring States, yet another dull historical epic from China's studios, is set to be released in the US and Canada on April 22. According to HR, “The film stars Honglei Sun and Francis Ng as Sun Bin and Pang Juan, two students of military strategy who fought for supremacy during China’s Warring States Period, which lasted from 475 to 221 B.C.” Sounds riveting.

More interestingly, the latest offering from the Hong Kong industry is being billed as “the world's first 3D porn film.” The wonderfully titled Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy is breathlessly described by the Guardian as “a movie so salacious that Chinese audiences are reportedly flocking from the mainland to more permissive Hong Kong for the chance to see an uncut version.”

Directed by Christopher Sun , the film is apparently “based on the classic Chinese erotic text, The Carnal Prayer Mat, and follows a young man as he befriends a duke and enters a world of royal orgies and other sexual peccadilloes.”

A steamy moment from the world's first 3D porn flick, Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy. Just don a spare of coloured specs to get the full effect.

Longer term watchers of Hong Kong movies will remember an earlier version of the tale, also entitled Sex and Zen, released back in 1991 during the industry's heyday, when soft-core “Category III” romps like Erotic Chinese Ghost Story were common fare. Incidentally Erotic Chinese Ghost Story starred Amy Yip, who also appeared in the original Sex and Zen.

The Guardian says producer Stephen Shiu told Hong Kong media that the 3D Sex and Zen would “leave audiences feeling like they are sitting right there at the edge of the bed.”

Oh well, it beats another four hour movie about feudal generals. Sex and Zen is set to open on Hong Kong screens on April 14.

Finally, it's not really film related, but aging rocker Bob Dylan played mainland China for the first time last week, packing them into Beijing's Workers' Gymnasium (just down the road from my recently vacated Beijing apartment) on April 6. I'm sorry I left Beijing a few weeks too early to see the show.

Visiting foreign performers in China are required to submit set lists and lyrics to the authorities before they are issued permits to play, and according to Charles Shaar Murray in a rather simplistic and stupid article in the Guardian, Dylan was specifically barred from playing Blowin' in the Wind and Desolation Row (the final track from his classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited).

Dylan plays China and makes New York Times columnist indignant for failing to inspire a revolution.

Dylan has copped a lot of flak from certain quarters for submitting to these rules - including an amusingly hysterical piece from Maureen Dowd in the New York Times - but one of my favourite China commentators James Fallows fired off a riposte on Sunday defending the singer. Interestingly Fallows claims that Dylan did in fact play Desolation Row in Shanghai following the Beijing gig.

Read for yourself and decide – I'm just sorry I missed the show.

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