Movie Review: Ming Yue Ji Shi You (2017)
A few years back I complained that more than a few European and Chinese filmmakers were taking the natural horror and drama of the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing and making them melodramatic.
This doesn’t do that. Here, director Ann Hui takes the natural horror and drama of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and makes it undramatic.
Hui is a celebrated and critically acclaimed member of the Hong Kong New Wave. She received a lifetime achievement award at the 2012 Asian Film Awards, while her last two films—“Tou ze” (“A Simple Life”) in 2011 and “Huang jin shi dai” (“The Golden Era”) in 2014—won best director honors at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Film Festival. I assume “Ming yue ji shi you” (“Our Time Will Come”), which was released a month ago in China, will be up for same.
But it makes me realize why some of our better, quieter films don’t travel well. A lot of cultural nuance must get lost in the journey, and we’re left with ... this.
“Ming” focuses on WWII-era guerilla activity in Hong Kong, particularly the Dongjiang (East River) guerilla unit, which, as the movie opens, is tasked with spiriting artists and intellectuals off the islands and into unoccupied Chinese territory. The Japanese are the least of it. You also have to navigate Hong Kong gangs and watch out for collaborators and quislings.
The main focus of our concern—if we’re concerned, and I wasn’t particularly—is Mao Dun (Tao Guo), an acclaimed left-wring writer who is boarding with Mrs. Fong (Deannie Yip) and her schoolteacher daughter Lan (Zhou Xun, ridiculously gorgeous). We see some of the machinations involved in getting him to safety. He trades in his western suit for traditional Chinese wear. Call-and-response passwords are exchanged. But he’s being watched and/or traduced, and the day of, we know the man claiming to be his contact is a collaborator. Dun suspects as much, too, but doesn’t know what to do. Then Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng), a cocksure rebel, shows up and kills the spy, and convinces Lan to chaperone Mao and his wife to the embarkation point. She agrees, and returns with a soft glow of satisfaction. She becomes a guerilla herself.
I suppose this contrasts with one of her first scenes. In a meadow on a sunny afternoon, she releases her pet rabbit into the wilderness rather than allow him to wind up on the family dinner table. In the same scene, she rejects the marriage proposal of her boyfriend Kam-Wing (Wallace Huo), since it comes on the heels of his announcement that he's going to ... another island? To Japan? Either the movie was too subtle, was translated poorly, or I wasn’t watching closely enough. Maybe all three. Kam-wing winds up working for a Japanese official, but he’s no collaborator. He’s part of the rebellion, ferreting out maps and other important documents to the Allies.
Much of the guerilla activity is, in fact, paperwork: bringing pamphlets from Point A to Point B; passing notes and eating them to prevent detection. Lan’s mother, initially dismissive of her daughter’s activities, gets involved, too, but she’s caught, imprisoned, tortured. Blackie comes up with a plan to rescue her, but Lan, seeing how hopeless it is, how many lives will be lost, tearfully abandons it, leaving her mother to her fate (digging her own grave with a bowl before being shot in the head).
Much of the movie is like this. It’s about the heroism that still happens within the thing that doesn’t.
Zhou is lovely to look at, and Eddie Peng provides a welcome jolt every time he’s onscreen; but the pace of the movie is soporific, its loose ends puzzling. Kam-wing’s Japanese superior figures out he’s a spy, and cuts him with a Samurai sword but allows him to live; but we never see Kam with Lan again. Indeed, he’s the one rebel we never see interact with the others. How is his story connected? Is it just one of the many? And if the point of the movie is verisimilitude, life lived, then why are so many of the Japanese soldiers fat and stupid? Sgt. Schultz comes to mind.
Meanwhile, the framing device, a la “Saving Private Ryan,” is a present-day interview with one of the guerillas, now an aged taxi driver (Tony Leung), who was 10 back then. Except he was a peripheral figure, barely involved in the events described. If he’s telling the story, how does he know the rest? If he’s not telling it, what’s with the framing device?
There’s a good movie in here but this isn’t it. Most of the characters, Chinese and Japanese, just seem to be waiting out the misery. I felt the same.