MR. ZHAO
DIRECTOR:                     YUE LU
COUNTRY:                     CHINA 1998
CINEMATOGRAPHY:   TIAN LIN WANG
CAST:                              Shi Jingming, Zhang Zhihua, Chen Yinan, Jiang Wenli
SUPER FEATURES:       Hand held camera.. Acting is best.


(Seen at the 22nd Portland International Film Festival, in Portland, Oregon)

The expectations from anyone that knew of some of Yue Lu's work before as a cinematographer, were a bit high. What were we going to find from a cinematographer that did such beautiful work in TO LIVE and SHANGHAI TRIAD, the latter of which had such a mystical touch to it with so many colors and beautifully designed sequences.

So it is with a surprise that the fist film that Yue Lu takes on is not one that was closer to the things that he has done for a while, but something
which is new to China, but is making waves. Whether this choice is made to develop the acting styles of the Chinese into something more emotional and more wide open, or just a desire to try and polish the work that Chen Kaige and Kar-Wai have been doing. Well, it is not nearly as dynamic as the other two are, but this director must have decided a long time ago that what mattered to him was the acting, not the show.

MR. ZHAO, is a film that is slow moving, but if one goes in prepared to watch the fine acting work, one will be pleased. It has none of the
fabulously mechanic, or even the "automatic" hand held style that Kar-Wai uses, but it has a blend that fits somewhere in the middle. Right from the start, we see the hand held camera up close to Mr. Zhao's wife, who is determined to find something, or make a discovery. And from that point on, the camera has already set the tone for the film. We are going to see these actors duke it out the best that we can. But the best that we can, is in effect a very slow script that is afraid to make a move, in many ways a compliment to the main character and title of the film. He would rather not face his predicament, and avoid any decisions, and the shooting style is going to make him pay for it.

This works magnificently in the sequences when Mr. Zhao is in the hospital, which are always subjective (and should be), and it is the only time that the film takes on a different shooting style to create a sense that it was during that time that he discovered some sense of life, which he is obviously lacking right now. The rest of the film is like the morning mirror that you hate to face to shave or do your teeth, or comb your hair.

With the tight corners and spaces that the rooms have, the camera setup is good, though, as it clearly places the onus on Mr. Zhao having to defend himself. If this was a decision that was made to add to Mr. Zhao's predicament, then the film is very good.

The story centers around Mr. Zhao, who has made a good friend of a younger woman, and whom we find as we go along is pregnant. But, now that his wife has already discovered the whole thing, it is time for him to fess up and make a decision. Leave his wife and take on a new one, or return to his wife. Mr. Zhao's inability to make this decision comes across as a bit of cowardice, and selfishness, as he tries to escape the argument with the younger girl by saying that he has to be responsible to his son, to which the younger girl replies, what about the new one you are going to have? Here, the younger girl makes the decision that she is capable of making in these modern days. She is going to have an abortion and she does. On his way to the hospital, Mr. Zhao meets a young man who calls himself one of her friends, and he proceeds to harass Mr. Zhao to no end, and much anger. And this is the fateful decision that will make things more confusing, and probably worse.

I suppose that is it fair, and right, to state that the acting by all three characters, are impressive, and fit into the area of TEMPTRESS MOON, in the sense that it is strongly trying to get away from the stolid and staid acting styles that have been a part of China. Gong Li, while having done much to put China on the map with her acting, still is very old fashioned and upright. The camera in this film makes sure that the actors are in their element, or space, and they do their thing from it. with some nice touches I might add.

Were it not for the nice acting work, though, this film would be not so good. Basically the script is not strong in dynamics. It's as if the lines
were given the actors, and they have to live with them and do the best they can with them. But here, the younger actress playing Mr. Zhao's mistress, or new lover, is very good. She is much more modern and active than the other two, which is a nice directorial choice. By comparison, Mr. Zhao and his wife do not move much at all during their exchanges, in of itself a commentary about the old styles opposite the new ones. Maybe the point is that Mr. Zhao wants to become more modern, and his wife is too old fashioned to fit in. But this is a stretch, and only seen when taking the film as a whole, something that might be way too difficult to express to the actors while a film is being done. It's terribly difficult to hold a concept for months and not move away from it, specially for actors.

All in all, visually it is a nice film, were it not that the colors in the rooms are really off tone, or so bland, and dark, that make the film difficult to sit through. Missing are the nice touches that have become the symbols of Chinese cinema. It comes off as a slice of Chinese life that is bland, and lacks color and individuality, if this is intentional. But perhaps this is a breaking out into other areas, for which the first exercises may not exactly be perfect, but the eventual results will be better.

A nice film to see, in that Chinese acting standards are obviously taking on western proportions. The question is, how is it going to help the film makers define their generation with this new style. The results, so far, as terribly mixed, as if no one has really figured out what to do with these things. One film maker is way too much camera doped-up, the other is way too much actor involved, and this one is somewhere in between, but entrenched so far into the acting that it appears that the rest of the film suffers by comparison. I imagine that it would have made a better impression if it had been better lit up, not so much as an acting ploy, but as a desire that Mr. Zhao might have hoped for, or his younger mistress might have looked forward to. But we never get out of the NOW, which is interesting, but is not making  for a film that helps film audiences lose themselves in it. Still nice, butnot great.

3 of 5 GIBLOONS

 

   

      

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