seems that Mabel Cheung is one of those directors who doesn't
quite fit any of the usual labels of auteur or commercial
director. Her films often walk the fine line between arthouse
films and more commercial fare. Because of that, she's perhaps
some kind of a "half-breed" artistically speaking;
she's not accessible enough for the average viewer and not
sophisticated enough for the arthouse purists.
Frankly, I find that attitude
puzzling. While I'm not too friendly towards overly commercial
cinema, I have no problem with a well-made, accessible commercial
film as long as it's not too manipulative and/or simple
minded. Most of Cheung's films seem to swing between the
two worlds, but to date I've never seen her come so close
to the middle. I firmly believe we need this kind of cinema,
because it provides a crossover between different types
of film fans. Imagine if we only had two large parties of
Hong Kong film fans: one for Wong Jing and another for Wong
Kar-Wai. It wouldn't be too fun, would it?
Beijing Rocks, and
films like it, might bring someone not used to arthouse
films to appreciate a more intelligent kind of filmmaking,
and it might allow the "purists" to lighten up
a bit and try to enjoy a more relaxed way of making films.
Only believing films are either art or entertainment is
stupid. They're ideally a little bit of both, though often
none of the above.
I've always respected Cheung for
that reason. To date she's made two masterpieces (Autumn's
Tale and The Soong Sisters), and two flawed but
very good films (City of Glass & Eight Taels
of Gold). The rest of her work has been solid filmmaking
(including her first feature Illegal Immigrant).
Reading some reviews, I thought this film wanted to explore
the underground rock world in beautiful Beijing and failed,
but it's simultaneously more and less than that. There is
an attempt to explore Beijing's rock 'n roll culture, but
it's only used to introduce a more conventional, albeit
quite charming love triangle as well as an analysis in general
of what it means to be Chinese in and out of the Mainland
(Which is something that probably concerns Cheung, who spent
months in Beijing waiting for approval of The Soong Sisters).
Michael's character (Daniel
Wu), for example, represents the type of HK person that
is reluctant to acknowledge his roots. Using an interview-style
profile, he tells us he hates coming to the Mainland, that
his Putonghua is crap (as is his English), and is
probably just running from his rich but demanding father
(Richard Ng) and the pressures of the world he lives in.
After spending time in Beijing, his views change, and probably
the only reason he travels with the band is because he finds
in them something familiar that he can relate to, even though
everything he experienced before didn't make him feel that
way. It's his roots that are reaffirming themselves.
Ping Lu (Geng Le) instead
is a more "international" character, who still
features many traits familiar to Chinese youth. His rebelliousness
comes from rejection of a certain way of living. He doesn't
merely want to play some rock, he wants to be understood
and to be different. Perhaps the reason why he's so conflicted
and has difficulty keeping his cool is that he doesn't have
a stable figure to follow (ideology means much less than
it used to be and he has a problematic relationship with
his father) and is waiting for something to happen to him,
like making it big in the business and letting his music
speak of his insecurities and beliefs.
Yang Yin (Shu Qi), who at
first seems like the usual good-looking but empty groupie
reveals facets of her personality that make her an interesting
character. Like her Vicky in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Millennium
Mambo, Shu Qi's Yang Yin doesn't quite know what to
do and where to go. However, in contrast with that character,
Yang Yin has a strong relationship with her significant
other. They're bound to be together it seems, even if their
relationship is not all wine and roses.
Mabel Cheung paints quite
a refreshing picture. Exploring the rock underground scene
would have been quite cool, especially because I've had
the pleasure to follow bands like Tang Dynasty and seeing
Cheung's view on this matter could have been interesting.
However, the themes Cheung introduces are much more interesting.
She asks us to understand how Chinese youth react to the
changes in the Mainland. The other band members (legitimate
musicians) for example portray effectively different characters,
from the idealist to the guy who just wants to have fun
playing some cool music. However, eventually the struggle
of the main characters is more interesting because Mabel
Cheung adds a personal, heartfelt touch to the film that
makes it involving.
Casting relatively hot properties
like Daniel Wu and Shu Qi should have meant some good box
office figures, but Beijing Rocks made a pathetic
500,000 HK$ in roughly two weeks of exposure, which just
shows that perhaps in today's Hong Kong there's little space
for cinema that isn't commercial. In the past, I would have
seen casting Wu as a negative, but he fits the character
decently. In an interview Mabel Cheung said the haracter
in a way represents Wu himself, so it probably was easier
for him. His performance suffers from Leon Lai-syndrome
(wooden with predictable expression) but somehow Michael
comes off as an interesting character.
If three years ago someone
had told me that Shu Qi would become this good an actress,
I would have laughed in their face. Going from Hustler-like
nude photoshoots and Category III crap to starring and excelling
in a Hou Hsiao-hsien film is quite a step, but she's been
giving one good performance after another. Of course her
stunning beauty is hard to overlook, but that's not what
sets her apart; there are hundreds of beautiful starlets
ready to jump in and fill her shoes. What Shu possesses
is the ability to glue you to the screen, much like Maggie
Cheung, Gong Li or Brigitte Lin. Shu will have to prove
a lot more to be truly compared to those actresses, but
judging from the last two years she's one of the most accomplished
young actresses in the business. She adds a charm to an
otherwise stereotypical character and makes simple scenes
touching just with her screen presence.
The finest performance is
from Geng Le, who I didn't particularly know before this
film. Ping Lu is not a sympathetic character in a conventional
way, but perhaps is someone many people can relate to, at
least as far as what he endures. Even in the more difficult
scenes (with his father, in example) he shines and gives
an edge to the character.
the film looks and sounds great, thanks to the amazing talent
cinematographer Peter Pau. At first you think the film is
going to end up like a Christopher Doyle-like visual orgasm,
Pau's style fits the director's restrained touch and makes
many scenes stand out. The film has a very road movie-ish
feeling (not unlike a mix of Wim Wenders and French Cinema)
and that helps to bring across the film's themes.
There are a few flaws that
don't allow this film to reach a higher level, especially
the fact the film takes a turn for the worse during the
last twenty minutes. You expect the film to end, but then
something extra is added. Also, the supporting characters
are cast aside too quickly for the love triangle. The melodramatic
climax feels a bit cheap after all that that quality filmmaking,
but it's not enough to change my opinion of the film as
a whole. Mabel Cheung's work is convincing, and her films
should have a more important part in today's HK cinema.
Beijing Rocks is one of the most convincing, personal
and charming Hong Kong films of 2001, even if it's not a
great one. (LunaSea 2002)