Like Gone With the Wind, Chen Kaige’s blockbuster–half a century of contemporary Chinese history (1925-1977) seen through the lives of two Peking Opera actors and a former prostitute–is worth seeing largely for its pizzazz: riveting performances, epic sweep and story telling, a bold and melodramatic use of color, and a capacity to generalize suggestively about large historical events through a few interlocking individual stories. Needless to say, there are certain limitations as well as advantages to this approach. The rather gingerly treatment of the homosexuality of one of the lead characters, while somewhat taboo breaking for a big-budget Chinese production, founders on a determination to make most of his sex life inscrutable, and the emphasis on violence in the early opera-training sequences sometimes has the effect of inflated rhetoric. Nevertheless, this is entertaining filmmaking on a grand scale. As a footnote, it’s worth mentioning that Miramax, which has been vocal about the injustice of the censor’s cuts made in China, has induced the director to cut 14 minutes out of the U.S. prints, making the film even shorter here than it is there. With Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li, adapted by Lilian Lee and Lu Wei from the former’s best-selling novel. Fine Arts.
The Chinese title of Dai Sijie’s semiautobiographical 1989 feature, filmed in the French Pyrenees with a nonprofessional cast of Chinese and Vietnamese emigres, means “bull sheds,” or rehabilitation centers. In a small town in China in 1966, at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, a 13-year-old boy momentarily disrupts the local propaganda by playing a pop record–actually a love song from the classic 1937 Shanghai film Street Angels–as a way of flirting with a girl in the courtyard below, and as a consequence is sent to a remote labor camp in the Mountains of Eternal Life. Dai Sijie, trained as a filmmaker in France, makes the most of his spectacular settings and extracts from this story not so much a grim survival tale as a nostalgic and poetic idyll about childhood freedom–a sort of Chinese Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which a monk on the mountainside taking a vow of silence plays the nurturing and sacrificial role of Jim. Hampered at times by awkward performances and clumsy English subtitles, this is still a worthy companion to The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine as a contemporary reassessment of the Cultural Revolution, with an evocative and haunting lyricism all its own. Winner of the Prix Jean Vigo. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday and Saturday, October 22 and 23, 7:00 and 9:00; Sunday, October 24, 5:30 and 7:30; and Monday through Thursday, October 25 through 28, 7:00 and 9:00; 281-4114.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the Chicago Film Festival, here’s a neglected movie from the past that’s better than most of the current festival entries. Of the many films by Ulrike Ottinger I’ve seen, this lovely and deliciously “irresponsible” 1979 camp item has given me the most unbridled pleasure. A nameless heroine (Tabea Blumenschein) arrives in West Berlin on a one-way ticket intending to drink herself to death, and three prim ladies known as Social Question (Magdalena Montezuma), Accurate Statistics (Orpha Termin), and Common Sense (Monika Von Cube) stand around and kibitz. Thanks to the heroine’s extravagant wardrobe, the diverse settings, the witty dialogue, the imaginative mise en scene, and the overall celebratory spirit, Ticket of No Return is a continuous string of delights, worth anybody’s time. This screening will be accompanied by a lecture by film scholar Ilene Goldman. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, October 19, 6:00, 443-3737.