Tag Archives: Chinese films

The Umbrella Academy


by George Wolf

There was a brief interruption, but we now return to the usual mastery of Yimou Zhang.

While 2016’s The Great Wall (Zhang’s first English language film) stood less than tall, the return to his native tongue results in yet another rapturous wuxia wonder, one nearly bursting with visual amazements and endlessly engrossing storytelling.

Taking us to ancient China’s “Three Kingdoms” era, director/co-writer Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern) creates a tale of martial artistry, lethal umbrellas and political intrigue gloriously anchored in the philosophy of yin and yang.

After generations of warfare, the cities of Jing and Yang have been peacefully co-existing in an uneasy alliance. Now, thanks to a brilliantly devious plan for revenge that’s been years in the making, that fragile peace is threatened.

While the tragedies and backstabbings recall Shakespeare, Dickens and Dumas, Zhang rolls out hypnotic tapestries filled with lavish costumes, rich set pieces and thrilling sound design, all perfectly balanced to support the film’s dualistic anchor.

Working mainly in shades of charcoal grey with effectively deliberate splashes of color, Zhang creates visual storytelling of the grandest spectacle and most vivid style. There’s little doubt this film could be enjoyed even without benefit of subtitles, while the intricate writing and emotional performances combine for an experience that entertains and enthralls.

But seriously, you will never look at an umbrella the same way again.


When Push Comes to Puncture Wounds and Bullet Holes

A Touch of Sin

by Hope Madden

A handful of befuddled but beautifully realized characters fall through the tears in the cultural fabric of a too-rapidly modernizing China in Zhangke Jia’s A Touch of Sin.

The film sets four tales spinning simultaneously, each uncovering the unpredictable challenges and opportunities facing four characters who are dealing with capitalistic expansion, an unprecedented and often unstructured change in more than just their economic reality. As each grapples with the task of making a living among the unscrupulous who’ve already learned to exploit the fledgling economy, bloodshed becomes ever more appealing.

Jia’s imagination and scope are epic, but his film remains intimate. Though his pacing is slower and his dialog certainly more restrained, Jia’s film draws on some of Tarantino’s staging preferences when push comes to puncture wounds and bullet holes. Like Tarantino, though, Jia never abandons his characters.

He remains invested in each one, whether it’s the disgruntled miner hoping to hold village officials responsible for community welfare, the young woman defending her honor to herself as well as her unwelcome suitors, the transient who enjoys his freedom and his handgun, or the adolescent thrashing desperately against a lifelong outlook of meager wages and soul-crushing employers.

The physical environment is as unforgiving as anything in this bleak, colorless winter where everyone looks cold and uncomfortable – not abjectly miserable, just utterly unhappy. It’s a perfect backdrop for these lost souls, although Jia seems to be suggesting that these outcasts may not be all that atypical. Not one is in an entirely unique situation, and only the gun-happy transient even seems like an odd duck. No, these are very regular people who finally, irrevocably react rather than submit.

This is the real brilliance in his film. With each passing storyline, the line between “he just snapped” and “would I have done the same” blurs. Jia wonders throughout how an intelligent, rational person is supposed to manage with no future.