and Zhang Yimou – Week 37

A side benefit of my experiment is that by the time I’m done I may be hired by The New York Times as their official Chinese film critic. If not, I can at least be a top critic at (Hmmm, I wonder if that domain has already been registered. Let me check . . . No! It was available, so I just registered it myself – haha! If you don’t believe me, go ahead and search for the registration information at Best $5 I ever spent!

So let me know if you have any ideas for my new website, I’m not sure when I’ll actually set it up, but the basic idea, that I have been carefully crafting over the past few seconds, is to create a website specializing in reviews of Asian films.

Of course, I’m joking about becoming a film critic (not about the website), but I am gradually becoming a Chinese cinephile. I’ve begun paying more attention to Chinese actors and directors than I ever did with Hollywood. In the past, I’ve rarely chosen to watch movies primarily because of the cast, much less the director. However, as it becomes increasingly difficult for me, as a Westerner living in Brazil, to find high-quality films in Mandarin, I think I will begin doing just that: searching for all the films made by the directors I admire, and to a lesser extent starring the actors that I most enjoy watching.

Fortunately, I have my Chinese films table, which I have reworked to start analyzing—and to share with you—the cast and directors from the movies I’ve watched thus far. You can see the results at the end of this post.

I didn’t even realize until I began tabulating this data that I already have a clear favorite as a director: Zhang Yimou. Out of the 20 Chinese movies that I have watched so far and consider good cinema, an astounding seven of them were directed by Zhang. Here’s a short biography, mostly based on information available from Wikipedia.

Zhang was born in Shaanxi Province. His father had fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s army during the Chinese Civil War, and his uncle and older brother fled to Taiwan, leading to problems for Zhang early in life. He worked as a farm laborer and in a textile mill for many years before studying photography and cinema and subsequently becoming a successful director.

Seven of his films have been the Chinese submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and one was the Hong Kong submission; three of these were nominated, although none took first prize.

An interesting fact is that Zhang’s career grew in tandem with that of actress Gong Li. His first seven films, between 1987 and 1995, starred Gong Li as lead actress. By the time they were making Shanghai Triad together, in 1995, they were also romantically involved, but their personal and professional relationship ended with that film. Gong Li would appear in a Zhang Yimou film again only in 2006.

In the interim, Zhang made three great movies from my list with another gorgeous and talented actress, Zhang Ziyi: The Road Home, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. Meanwhile, Gong Li continued her stellar acting career with other directors, including the film The Emperor and the Assassin, which I enjoyed and also recommend. Interestingly, she also worked alongside Zhang Ziyi in Memoirs of a Geisha—which generated intense controversy, since the geishas were played by star Chinese, and not Japanese, actresses in this Steven Spielberg film!

Curse of the Golden Flower reinstated Gong Li and Zhang Yimou’s professional relationship. Zhang’s latest movie, Coming Home (which I have not watched as it is apparently not yet available for download) also stars Gong Li. I can’t wait to see it!

Here is the list of my recommended Chinese movies in Mandarin. I’ve grouped the list by director. You will note that another director is quite prominent on my list, Ang Lee (a Taiwanese American). It’s surprising that more than half of my 20 recommended Chinese Mandarin-language films were directed by just two people. For those not yet familiar with my complete list, the aggregate score is based on a variety of factors—the most heavily weighted being my personal ratings, Rotten Tomatoes critics ratings, and IMDb users ratings.

Name of Movie Aggregate Score Order watched Year Director Star 1 Star 2
Hero 9.8 3 2002 Zhang Yimou Jet Li Ziyi Zhang
House of Flying Daggers 8.8 13 2004 Zhang Yimou Ziyi Zhang Takeshi Kaneshiro
Shanghai Triad 8.6 25 1995 Zhang Yimou Li Gong
The Road Home 8.4 10 1999 Zhang Yimou Ziyi Zhang
The Story of Qiu Ju 7.9 32 1992 Zhang Yimou Li Gong
Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles 7.2 11 2005 Zhang Yimou
Curse of the Golden Flower 7.0 27 2006 Zhang Yimou Li Gong Yun-Fat Chow
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 8.5 6 2000 Ang Lee Ziyi Zhang Yun-Fat Chow
The Wedding Banquet 8.4 30 1993 Ang Lee
Eat Drink Man Woman 8.2 31 1994 Ang Lee
Lust, Caution 7.8 28 2007 Ang Lee Tony Chiu Wai Leung
Journey to the West 9.1 8 2013 Stephen Chow
Shower 8.9 22 2000 Yang Zhang
The Emperor and the Assassin 8.3 14 1998 Kaige Chen Li Gong
Farewell my Concubine 7.6 1 1993 Kaige Chen Li Gong
A Touch of Sin 8.3 12 2013 Zhangke Jia
Fearless 7.9 9 2006 Ronny Yu Jet Li
Warlords 7.1 18 2007 Peter Chan Jet Li Andy Lau
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 7.0 19 2013 Hark Tsui
Red Cliff 2 6.9 16 2009 John Woo
Red Cliff 1 6.9 15 2008 John Woo Tony Chiu Wai Leung Takeshi Kanemoro

Real live Mandarin – Week 27

I am currently on a brief work trip in Chile. I landed at the Santiago airport half an hour before my boss, so I waited for him in the international arrivals area. I noticed a group of Asians, also waiting for passengers, speaking in a foreign language. “Could it be Mandarin?” I thought to myself. In Brasilia, one does not run into groups of foreigners as a matter of course, as one would in more cosmopolitan cities like New York or London. Moreover, my language institute does not yet have a Mandarin program. So this was the first time I was hearing an Asian language spoken in real life since I began my experiment six months ago.

I drew a little closer to the group and started paying attention. The language sounded familiar and soon I felt that I was deciphering a few words. It was just like watching one of my Mandarin movies! Lots of wo’s and ni’s, among other familiar sounds. As with my videos, I did not understand what was being said, but I was very excited to pick out a few numbers in the midst of the conversation. Although it remains a guess, I think they may have been discussing money, because in addition to the numbers I heard the word tyen, which I believe can have various meanings, among them sword (probably not the case here), dear, and money.

To confirm my perception that I was listening to the language my ears have become increasingly familiar with this year—even without understanding it—I approached a friendly-looking, middle-aged woman in the group. The group’s informal, quasi Western demeanor and in the particular the presence of a Buddhist monk led me to think they were probably not from mainland China, though I don’t know if my underlying assumptions are accurate. In any case, whether on target or off the mark, my reasoning left one major hypothesis in my mind (although others were possible).

“Taiwan,” the woman answered, to my delight, since her single word confirmed my suppositions.

My first encounter with real live people speaking Mandarin was encouraging and reminded me of one of the insights that informs my entire project. When, in the past, I would explain to my English students the importance of watching movies in English (without subtitles), I would comment that high quality films or dramas with professional actors mimic daily language better than any other source. Music is a great way to practice a language for other reasons, and repetitive listening content made specifically for language learners has its place in certain methodologies. Audiobooks are a fantastic resource for more advanced students, as is talk radio or television news programs.

However, none of these sources matches films or quality television dramas in their approximation to how people speak in everyday situations. Granted, many of the movies I have watched are historical epics or wuxia and the language used revolves inordinately around royalty, fighting, and war. Accordingly, my first and best-consolidated sentence thus far is Wo pu sha ni or “I will not kill you.” While that sentence could be extremely useful in certain situations, it is undoubtedly not as important as “Where is the bathroom?” or “I want some food, please.” Nevertheless, even the war and wuxia films do contain a lot of standard conversation and in particular the back-and-forth, natural dialogue that you would not get in music, for example. In addition, some of the movies I have watched do mirror daily situations quite closely—for example, Shower, Slam, or Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

I still do not understand much Mandarin, and whether my method is efficient is up in the air. Regardless, my point here is that listening to people have a regular conversation seemed instantly familiar to me. It seemed like one of my movies, and that reveals one benefit, at least, of using authentic listening sources, and in particular cinema.

. . .

In other news, this week, because of my trip, I did little to no listening on most days. I only logged significant time on my flight from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago. I watched the beginning of Journey to the West and the beginning of Shanghai Triad again as I flew over the Andes.