Screening Room: ‘One Child Nation’

onechildnation (Amazon Studios)

In the new documentary from Nanfu Wang (Hooligan Sparrow), she returns to her native China to find out what 35 years of the one-child policy meant to people. What she finds is horror, guilt, resignation, and corruption, with a deeply personal angle.

One Child Nation opens in limited release and on Amazon this week. My review is at PopMatters:

In the 1970s, China faced a population crisis with potentially devastating consequences. Still years away from economic transformation, the government feared exponential population growth would result in Malthusian collapse and chaos. In possibly the most far-reaching social engineering project in human history, the Chinese government decreed each family would be allowed just one baby…

Screening Room: ‘In the Intense Now’

In Joao Moreira Salles’ beautifully wrought documentary, In the Intense Now, an impressionistic flow of amateur footage captures the joy and despair of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s. It’s an incredible trip.

My review is at PopMatters:

The movie’s first half (“Back to the Factory”) starts with the street battles that ripped through Paris in May 1968. As far as Salles tries to explain it, narrating with a sonorous moodiness and marveling wonder, the protests were a sudden flaring crucible in which all the ferment of the Sixties burned white-hot over a few short weeks…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ash is Purest White’

(Cohen Media Group)

The latest release from the great director Jia Zhang-Ke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) is an ambitious modern-day Chinese crime epic.

Ash is Purest White opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

When Qiao (the everyday elegant Tao Zhao) sweeps into the grey and smoky mahjong parlor at the start of Jia Zhang-Ke’s downbeat epic Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) she’s greeted by the thronged kibitzers and gamblers as both a being apart and yet just one of the guys…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The China Hustle’

My review of  the new documentary The China Hustle, playing now in limited release, is at Film Journal International:

Threaded with booming music, slashing scare-cuts, and talking heads throwing around phrases like “financial tsunami,” Jed Rothstein’s documentary The China Hustle is stylistically easy to dismiss as just another scare story for nonfiction junkies always on the lookout for the next catastrophe. It may read at times like an overcaffeinated Alex Gibney attack piece—and Gibney is in fact one of the executive producers here. But by the time Rothstein is done, many viewers will be yanking any money they might have in Chinese stocks out as fast as they can get to their phones…

Here’s the trailer:

Nota Bene: A President Who Reads

In this year’s annual New Year’s address, Chinese president Xi Jingping sat in front of a wide array of bookshelves, as always. And as always, viewers scoured the shelves to see what the president is reading. To wit:

Xi is said to be a voracious reader, and other books spotted on his shelf this year included a growing collection of Western classics (from War and Peace and The Old Man and the Sea to The Odyssey and Les Misérables), economic texts like Money Changes Everything by William N. Goetzmann and Michele Wucker’s The Grey Rhino, and numerous titles on Chinese history and military strategy.

Apparently, per his remarks at a Seattle speech in 2015, Xi is also a Hemingway fan:

He said in his younger years he read Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Payne, and…

” ‘I was most captivated by Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea,’ Xi said.

“And that’s not all. When he visited Cuba, the Chinese president said, ‘I dropped by the bar Hemingway frequented and ordered his favorite rum with mint on rocks.’

Interesting. A president who reads. Books.

(h/t: MobyLives!)

Nota Bene: Top Risks for 2018

Earlier this week, the risk assessment firm the Eurasia Group published their take on the Top Risks that the world is going to face in 2018. It starts with China (which “loves a vacuum,” particularly the one left by the United States) and ends with Africa and a list of possibly surprising red herrings (among them, “Trump’s White House”):

In the 20 years since we started Eurasia Group, the global environment has had its ups and downs. But if we had to pick one year for a big unexpected crisis—the geopolitical equivalent of the 2008 financial meltdown—it feels like 2018. Sorry…

The full report is here.

Weekend Reading: December 9, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Hooligan Sparrow’

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This year’s Human Rights Watch Festival opens with a strong indictment of the institutional and moral corruption of modern-day China, as laid bare by a tiny insurgent band of determined women activists.

My review of Hooligan Sparrow, whose footage had to be smuggled out of China and which opens the festival this Friday in New York, is at Little While Lies.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mountains May Depart’

mountainsmaydepart1Now that the Chinese stock market is whipsawing from highs to lows and the permanent growth cycle appears to be broken, it’s probably the perfect time for a state-of-the-nation drama from one of the great modern Chinese directors: Jia Zhangke.

mountainsmaydepart-poster1Mountains May Depart is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Whatever is left of China at the start of Jia Zhangke’s epic triptych Mountains May Depart, it isn’t a place for which anyone will feel nostalgic. The first scene, set in 1999 in the small northern city of Fenyang, seems shrouded in grey. The crumbling brick buildings and bare landscape denote the only work that seems on offer here, at a coal mine.

Still, this is a time of economic boom, when China is transforming into an industrial powerhouse the likes of which had never been seen before. The film goes on to reveal the costs of that era’s sky-high promises of prosperity and accompanying irrational exuberance…

You can see my review of Jia Zhangke’s last masterpiece, A Touch of Sin, here.

Here’s the trailer for Mountains May Depart:

Quote of the Day: Trollope in China

Historian Simon Winchester in the Times Book Review on an unexpected encounter:

Traveling in China back in the early 1990s, I was waiting for my westbound train to take on water at a lonely halt in the Taklamakan Desert when a young Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder, asked if I spoke English and, further, if I knew anything of Anthony Trollope. I was quite taken aback. Trollope here? A million miles from anywhere? I mumbled an incredulous, “Yes, I know a bit” — whereupon, in a brisk and businesslike manner, she declared that the train would remain at the oasis for the next, let me see, 27 minutes, and in that time would I kindly answer as many of her questions as possible about plot and character development in “The Eustace Diamonds”?

The lesson: Always know your Trollope.

Department of Weekend Reading: February 27, 2015

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Reader’s Corner: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in China

finneganswake1There’s something about James Joyce’s last and arguably unreadable novel Finnegans Wake that has always attracted the obsessive. Fans range from Marshall McLuhan—who, one critic quipped after reading his manic interpretations, was possibly the only living person to have read every single line of the book—to those various reading clubs that have popped up where people read a couple pages each meeting over the course of many years.

Now, after one woman spent eight years doggedly translating what Joyce’s wife termed “that chop suey” into Mandarin, the book has proven to be surprisingly successful in China. Per the Wall Street Journal:

A newly affluent nation that prizes black Audi sedans and Louis Vuitton handbags has made a literary status symbol of what may well be English literature’s most difficult work. Thanks in part to a canny marketing campaign involving eye-catching billboards and packaging, “Finnegans Wake” sold out the first, 8,000-volume run shortly after it was released in December. The book briefly rose to No. 2 on a bestseller list run by a Shanghai book industry group, just behind a biography of the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern-day boom.

Perhaps it’s a sign of increasing affluence that people have the inclination to acquire status novels that they have little intention of actually reading.

New in Theaters: ‘China Heavyweight’

Although the martial art that Westerners most associate China with is kung fu or one of its many variations, one of the most popular physical-contact sports in the country right now is Western-style boxing. Outlawed by Chariman Mao in 1959 as being too Western and too violent (a boxer died at a match in 1953), the sport was made legal again three decades later, and has been gaining ascendancy ever since. When China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, the nation took home a gold medal. Although a film about the popularity of this sport in the home of kung fu would seem destined to highlight the obvious cultural dissonances, director Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) does the right thing by focusing on the young and hopeful athletes for whom this tradition isn’t foreign at all…

China Heavyweight is playing now in limited release. You can read the full review at Film Journal International.