Lan Feng Zheng (The Blue Kite, 1993)
Taking on Communist China is no small task. The Communist movement within China is a topic all unto itself. From there you encounter a waterfall of topics that all deserve a movie of their own, or even a series of movies. The exploits of countless families once China became a Communist nation would be worth telling. Even something like the change that takes place at a factory could make a great movie. Trying to take a broad look at life under the Communist Mao regime in China seems daunting and ends up being one of the things that holds Lan Feng Zheng back.
The director of Lan Feng Zheng, Zhuangzhuang Tian, wants the simple day to day life of his characters to be the focus. In this regard spending time with Tietou, his mother Chen Shujuan and the revolving door of father figures that pass through his life is certainly an interesting experience. But, it is also in this realm that the film begins to stretch itself too thin. We see too much of this family, the tendrils of the story of the family spread so far out that at times it is confusing what is happening to whom and why. Many times I found myself interested in what new calamity was befalling Shujuan. But, at the same time I often found myself wondering who this character was, or why we were now so far away from the family unit in an unknown factory. Eventually I was able to deduce what was going on, I would never say I was lost. But, Lan Feng Zheng assumes a bit too much about the knowledge its viewer will have in every scene.
These assumptions do not stop at something as subjective as narrative flow. Mr. Tian has crafted a film that expects its audience to know a lot about Chinese history. Obviously this will not always be the case. Iím not an expert on Chinese history, but I did know enough to understand what was happening politically at all times during the film. Still, I can see the political and historical knowledge aspect of the film presenting a huge barrier to many a viewer. However, I am asking a lot of a movie about Chinese history made in China for a Chinese audience to be accessible to someone far removed from that culture and history. The knowledge needed to understand Lan Feng Zheng is a barrier to enjoying the film, but it is not something I can hold against the film.
To get back on track letís tackle the idea of time in Lan Feng Zheng. The one area where I feel the film excels is in the way it handles the passage of time. Years pass in this story, and if not for Tietou slightly aging it would be near impossible to know that any time has passed. By allowing the film to start in 1953 and look like 1953 when so many years have passed Mr. Tian has made his most provocative statement against the Communism of China. We hear so much about the Rectification Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and so on. Yet, time stands still in China. Years pass us by, and none of these great movements bring about any sort of change. The die hard Communists can march through the street all they want. They can yell as loud as they want. They can declare their efforts a success until they can speak no longer. But time does not lie, and the lack of progression that China makes as a nation during the time period of Lan Feng Zheng is right there on screen for all to see.
Lan Feng Zheng is well acted and I like the minimalist style employed by Mr. Tian. I can see why this film has been banned in China, and I can also understand why some people from outside of China will never be able to get into it. But, I was always interested in what I was seeing and I was amazed with how the film used the passage of time as an attack on Communism. But, I didnít find Lan Feng Zheng to be the great work of art that it has been lauded as by many a critic. Lan Feng Zheng is a good piece of art with something interesting to say. But Mr. Tian, and the writer Xiao Mao, have tackled a large subject and spread themselves too thin in trying to cover it. With a bit of tightening up and a more reigned in focus Lan Feng Zheng could have been the master work most label it as. But I canít go that far, that would be spreading myself too thin.Vs.
Gorok Mulkogi (Green Fish, 1997)
I like when films come across as fresh or different. That isnít enough for me to like a film mind you. But, I like it when I come away from a film with thoughts in my head centered around how what I just saw was quite unique. Chorok Mulkogi is not without its flaws, but if nothing else it is a unique film. The director and writer, Chang-dong Lee, takes what could have been a very pedestrian and well traveled story and adds some flavor to it in the form of the choices his characters make.
The main character in Chorok Mulkogi, Makdong, wants a simple life for his entire family. The problem is that Makdong and his entire family have more than a few screws loose. Virtually every choice they make is the wrong one. Sometimes sadness results, sometimes hilarity results (a chase scene involving an egg truck and a cop car is perhaps one of the funniest scenes Iíve seen in a bit), but no matter what this family does nothing seems to go right for them. I say that having spent very little time with Makdongís family, but in the little we see of them they make pretty bad decisions. When you add those to the constant stream of bad decisions from Makdong, well, you end up with a family where nothing ever goes right. Of course, none of the decisions in the movie hold a candle to Makdongís worst decision.
All for a girl, and for his family, Makdong takes on the life of a gangster. This is the part of the story that weíve seen before. I know Iíve seen my share of gangster movies centered around the former soldier who becomes a gangster. The difference in what Mr. Lee does with his soldier is startling. Makdong isnít crazy in a scary way as much as he is crazy in an idiotic way. Heís also almost always getting his ass kicked, he isnít your typical tough guy soldier turned gangster. But, thereís still more to Makdong, he doesnít really want to be a gangster. He shows remorse in the actions he takes, he doesnít quite understand what it means to be a gangster. There isnít a moment in Chorok Mulkogi where I honestly thought Makdong was happy being a gangster. This is where Mr. Lee takes a story weíve seen before to a fresh place.
The character of Mi-ae isnít so lucky. She fits the bill for the classic gangsterís girlfriend to a T. But, even with that being the case she has a few delightfully awkward scenes with Makdong that make her character interesting. Mi-ae also owns the final scene in Chorok Mulkogi, and I means owns it. One of the films flaws brings us to that moment, but when we do get there the acting displayed by Hye-jin Shim is pure, raw emotion. Seong-kun Mun is also quite good as Bae Tae-kon, a mob boss who doesnít really want to be a mob boss.
Chorok Mulkogi falters in the thirty minutes before its final act and in a stream of constant luck and happenstance that surrounds the picture. With about a half an hour left in the film Mr. Lee makes a curious decision to push Makdong into the background. Bae is an interesting character no doubt, but it wasnít his picture and by all of a sudden thrusting him into the lead those final thirty minutes feel disjointed. The luck and happenstance I spoke of earlier comes across like lazy writing. Maybe it isnít, but I felt there were far too many instances of blind luck or coincidence leading to something happening on screen.
Like I said earlier, Chorok Mulkogi is a flawed film. But, at the same time it is a unique experience. (At least it was for me, I was surprised to find out after I had written this that others felt it was a story told many times over. Maybe there are gangster films that cover the same territory and I have yet to get to them, but for the time being Chorok Mulkogi provided a unique take on the soldier becoming a gangster as far as I am concerned). Chorok Mulkogi isnít a movie that will set your world on fire, even if that screenshot I grabbed is some piece of hot fire. Chorok Mulkogi is a competently made gangster tale, with some family drama and some comedy thrown into the mix. It doesnít always work, but it often does, and those moments where it does work far outweigh the moments where it doesnít work.
Verdict:These two movies are very different but they ended up being very similar in how I felt about them. As surprising as it may be I'm going to move Gorok Mulkogi on to the next round because it interested me just a tad more and was the more unique experience of the two.