I'm not sure if Gong Li really is China's most famous actress, but if it isn't her, who is? I've written about a lot of successful directors and actors recently, but Gong Li has a record of success that probably outshines all of them. She appears in virtually all of Zhang Yimou's best films, she has worked with Chen Kaige and Wong Kar-wai on some of their greatest films, and she's even made a few critically-acclaimed appearances in Hollywood. If there's a silver-screen star with a better record than that, I'd love to know who.
Interestingly, this year will see Gong Li reunited with Zhang Yimou for another film, this one titled Coming Home. Their last reunionwasn't all that great, but their early work together was so spectacular that it's hard not to get excited anytime they're both connected to the same project. But can it live up to the hype? We'll just have to wait and see.
It's probably obvious by now that I'm on a bit of a Chinese film kick this month, but I may be cheating a little bit with my latest profile, which is on Taiwanese director Ang Lee.
I don't want to get into whether or not Taiwan counts as part of China, but as far as film goes, there's no doubt that the mainland would love to have Ang Lee's ouvre considered part of its canon. He may be a Hollywood director now, but Ang has been behind some of the best, most critically successful, and highest-earning Chinese-language films of all time. You've probably already seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but if you want to see Ang Lee's take on much more intimate family scenes, give Eat Drink Man Woman a shot.
For me, one of the toughest things about interacting with my in-laws (who are Chinese) is that we really don't have a lot of common ground. We grew up in different countries, different generations, and different cultures, of course, but there's more to it than that. That's because my wife's parents are part of the Chinese generation of sent-down youths, deprived of years of education in their formative years thanks to the Cultural Revolution.
It's the sort of thing that's impossible to truly understand, I think, unless you went through it. Studying the history can only go so far.
This update is apropos of nothing except that I recently watched To Live, Zhang Yimou's classic film starring Ge You, for what has to be the dozenth time.
It's almost a cliche to recommend at this point, but if you want to understand modern China, I can't think of a better single film for you to watch. It takes you through China from the Communist Revolution into the early 1980s, but instead of focusing on the big-picture politics or the behind-the-scenes scheming, it focuses on a regular, everyday family. Given that you're likely to spend more time in China interacting with regular people than you are rubbing elbows with the power elite, knowing how this history affected regular people can be a truly useful thing.
Yesterday I talked a bit about Journey to the West and the upcoming film of the same title, but as crazy as the novel is, it's actually loosely based in historical truth. Its protagonist, Xuanzang, was a real person and he really did travel from China to India in a quest for Buddhist knowledge.
And while his adventures might have been less action-packed in reality than they are in the fictional retelling, they are much more important for historians. As a 7th century traveler, Xuanzang visited and carefully documented a variety of central and southwest Asian civilizations on his way to and from India, giving historians a much better idea of how the region looked at that time.
When it comes to Chinese stories, there are few more common than Journey to the West. It's been retold in comic books, TV shows, films, video games, board games, spin-off novels, and much, much more. In fact, it's enough to make you wonder if China will ever hit some kind of Journey to the West saturation point and have less of an appetite for Sun Wukong, Pigsy, Xuanzang, and the rest.
I wouldn't bet money on it, though. The fantastical retelling of Xuanzang's quest for Buddhist sutras has persisted for centuries, and interest has, if anything, only increased. In fact, a new Journey to the West film from China will be released globally this year.
In keeping with yesterday's Hong Kong film star theme, Chow Yun Fat's success story has got me thinking about another Hong Kong action star: Steven Chow. Both men came through the venerated TVB acting school, and both got their start in Hong Kong TV but have gone on to become globally successful film stars.
They're not exactly the same, though, as Chow's also a writer and director and his films share a very distinct style that mixes over-the-top action with "nonsense" humor. If you're not sure what that means, check out Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle. This is Grade A nonsense; nonsense of the very best sort.
Spring Festival is upon us, and with it comes another season of Chinese parents' favorite sport: nagging. The topic of conversation at this holiday could be anything, but for single children, it's often: why aren't you married yet? Why don't we have grandchildren?
Of course, China's youth have come up with an answer for that: the rental boyfriend or girlfriend. You bring them home, you show them around, you shut up mom and dad and all those nosy relatives. It's quite brilliant, really, and like many things Chinese youth do these days, it's generally arranged (and paid for) via the internet.
So if you're feeling lonely during this holiday season, don't worry. Just hop on Taobao and rent some companionship! But act fast; the best ones are probably already gone...
Tibet is one of the parts of China that I've always wanted to visit, but never quite been able to. Home to the Tibetan people, one of China's most interesting minority cultures, the region's vast skies and mountain ranges have always attracted me.
But traveling to Tibet can be quite difficult. It often requires a special permit, unlike travel to other parts of China, and generally foreigners are meant to travel with a tour group and only permitted to visit certain areas. During "sensitive" times of year or restive periods, the province is sometimes shut down completely to foreign travelers, as are majority-Tibetan areas of Sichuan.
And of course, personally, as a journalist, I have an even harder time getting in. China keeps tight control of who's allowed into Tibet, and journalists often don't make that list.