Our “Streaming Surprises” series calls attention to good movies new and old that our board members are watching. Titles are available from various streaming services.
Master filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s latest drama is loosely based on stories of the jianghu (Chinese gangsters) from his hometown. The film centers on Qiao — played spectacularly by Tao Zhao, who also appeared in Zhangke’s 2015 film, “Mountains May Depart” — and Bin. The two are first introduced in a gambling parlor, completely in sync, trading cigarette drags and witty remarks. The attraction is easy but obviously one-sided; Qiao has a deep affection for Bin, but Bin sees her as more of a groupie than a fellow jianghu. He teaches her to shoot and to scam and provides a home for her far different than the one her disillusioned and unemployed father offers. When a rival gang threatens Bin, Qiao brandishes Bin’s gun and sends warning shots to ward off the attackers. I knew I wanted to watch “Ash is Purest White” as soon as I saw an image from this scene when Qiao wields a gun. Tao Zhao’s poise and stoic demeanor conveys a fearsome strength that looks heroic. This image will become the most significant moment in the film as it represents Qiao’s sharp character transformation, from a ditzy but violent girl with childish, uneven bangs adorned in bright flashy clothes, to hardened street-wise jianghu. Qiao protects Bin and says the gun is hers, and she’s imprisoned for five years. Once released, she immediately seeks out Bin by any means necessary, despite his absence and clear disinterest. It is easy to think of Qiao as a naïve girl seduced into a life of crime because of her love of a local gangster but this film cleverly subverts this expectation. The “shades of gray” implicit in the film’s English title — the original Chinese title literally translates to Sons and Daughters of Jianghu — applies well to Qiao’s character and motivations. Is she really in love with Bin? Or does she just miss the criminal power and lifestyle that she has associated with him? Her ferocity is at once empowering, unnerving, and thrilling.
As a music fan, I love music documentaries. When archival footage and first-hand accounts present new and interesting discoveries, you know you’ve got a good movie on your hands. “Echo in the Canyon,” directed by Andrew Slater, celebrates the popular music that arose from LA’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the mid-’60s, specifically 1964-1967. Narrated by Jakob Dylan, the film explores how the iconic neighborhood helped artists like The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, Buffalo Springfield and more find their sound and inspiration. The documentary features interviews with many musicians from those bands including Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, RIngo Starr, and Tom Petty, while also giving a voice to current artists like Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Beck. Particularly intriguing is the time Dylan spends with David Crosby. His interview segments are insightful and fun. These artists all come together to perform with Dylan as they record covers of the songs that shaped the history of Laurel Canyon during those years. It’s a fun watch and an even better listen, and it will inspire you to spin those classic records as soon as the documentary is over.
Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentaries, “One Child Nation” tells the compelling story of China’s decision in 1979 to launch their one child per family policy. For 35 years the government created an upbeat campaign of artistic propaganda to convince the Chinese people of their duty to save their country by staving off over population and eventual starvation. Filmmaker Nanfu Wang grew up under this policy, eventually leaving China and moving to the United States six years before having her first child. Returning home, she interviews family members and others in her province about the effects of the law on their lives. Wang’s unflinching examination of a policy that destroyed families is brutal and at times difficult to watch. We hear first-hand accounts of forced abortions, mass sterilization, and the removal of second children from families who chose to ignore the policy. We listen to those who tell of babies abandoned on roadsides or left to die in trash heaps. Wang sheds light on the records of over 130,000 foreign adoptions of Chinese babies; in some cases, these were children who were forcibly removed from their homes and sold for adoption. Ironically, the policy was suspended in 2015 as government officials recognized there were not enough young people to care for the elderly. Today, propaganda encourages families to have two children. “One Child Nation” is more than a film; it is an important record of the devastating and far-reaching implications of this policy.