Island of Light ゴーヤーちゃんぷるー (Goya-champuru) [2006] • Japan

The least one can say about this film is that it won't hurt you. It's a bit thin, borderline trite, in it's I love the magic that is Okinawa message, but it's not offensive. There's this sixteen year old Tokyo girl whose mother abandoned her when she was two; her photographer father died mysteriously a month ago ("No body, so we prayed to his camera instead. That was quite weird to see"); she's bullied at school but jumps at the first chance to join the gang by targeting her best friend as the new scapegoat (she slaps her for no reason as an initiation rite); she quits school and secludes herself in her room because she can't relate to her guardian grandparents; she joins an online sort of hikikomori group, starts texting some guy (who befriends kids in the group because he feels superior to them) and tells him she wants to die. He says "might as well, it beats living ... but why don't you come visit me in Okinawa instead". All that's in the first ten minutes or so.

The girl isn't even off the ferry to the Island of Light before she is taken under the wing of a sweet old lady, the first of the fabulous Okinawans we'll meet as the film progresses. The old lady is a delivery driver which makes it convenient for quickly introducing the young girl to the community of wonderful people who will change her life. On one of their stops a man with terminal cancer has collapsed on his front porch so the girl gets a chance to be a hero by running to the clinic to fetch a doctor (on the way there she stops to ask directions of someone who is gardening and just happens to be the collapsed man's wife). She makes it to the clinic and delivers the message but collapses herself from all the running, and it just so happens that she collapses into the arms of a woman who, well ... if you haven't figured it out by now I won't spoil it.

Ordinarily a film like this would gross me out but this one gets a pass because it never gets melodramatic or histrionic. Most of the performers come off as non-actors (but most aren't) so maybe they lacked the chops to take it to that level. Even the coincidence heavy plot didn't roll my eyes too much because it unfolds in a "country" way, just like you'd expect on the Island of Light, not by building each scene to a crescendo, which is the "city" way. The scenery of Okinawa is soothing, too. In the end just remember: the film won't hurt you.

Director: Tetsuya Matsushima
Starring: Mikako Tabe, Jun Fubuki, Kôhei Takeda, Misako Ôshiro


Story of Qiu Ju 秋菊打官司 (Qiu Ju da guan si) Qiu Ju Goes to Court [1992] • China, Hong Kong

If you have any interest in learning about or experiencing a foreign country (assuming China is a foreign country to you), you'll get a lot from this film. Roger Ebert, although not a great resource when it comes to East Asian cinema, wrote "we absorb more information about the lives of ordinary people in everyday China than in any other film I've seen". Ebert hasn't seen a lot of Chinese films but his observation is still to the point. The Story of Qiu Ju seems like it is utterly realistic and revealing and that's what is magical about it. Much of the film, most of it in fact, that involves people surrounding the main characters is captured with a hidden camera and is quite candid and authentic. The scenes focused on the main characters are also shot (and performed) in such a way as to suggest they aren't staged in any way. But don't be fooled. This is the genius trickery of director Zhang Yimou's sweet homage to the days of yore.

A very pregnant Qiu Ju and her young husband are chili farmers and want to build a storage shed for their over-productive crop. They go to the village chief to ask permission and are denied on the grounds that the land is for farming, and that if everyone built a building there would be nothing to eat. Qiu Ju's husband points out that the chief isn't a farmer, doesn't understand farming, and is only raising hens. The chief hears the final remark as a humiliating insult about the fact he has only four daughters—and no sons to carry on his family name—so he kicks Qiu Ju's husband in the balls.

Qiu Ju's story is a journey for justice as she perceives it. She is worried at first that her husband's injury may leave them condemned to the one child policy for good, but her husband soon recovers and the film then chronicles her efforts to get the village chief to apologise. That is the only justice she wants. The chief offers to let Qiu Ju's husband kick him in the balls but he won't apologise. Qiu Ju takes her case up the hierarchy to the district administrators, the county, the city, and the party, with the result always being the same: The village chief will pay for medical bills and loss of work and Qiu Ju and the chief are instructed to engage in some self-criticism in order to regain harmony. And by harmony they mean Qiu Ju should drop the case. Everyone, all the way to the top, is sympathetic to her but they won't ask the chief to apologise because he is the chief and he would lose face and his ability to keep chiefing would be compromised. It's a subtle but huge point in Chinese culture.

This film is so good on so many levels it's crazy. One of the head-scratching wonders of the film is it's portrait of harmonious village life while this minor conflict is going on. The first reaction most people will have to this film is "Are people really that nice and polite to one another"? It's almost a documentary capturing rural Chinese life in the 1990's in all its humble and honest simplicity. It's also an insightful observation on the changing bureaucracy in China, both vertically and horizontally over time. It's a parable which ponders whether the law, the wisdom of elders, or common courtesy offers the best solution to disputes. Zhang Yimou is fascinated, and maybe discouraged (maybe not), by the changing Chinese culture and weaves a grand metaphorical tale for viewers to consider from many angles.

Gong Li's performance is amazing. One of the most beautiful women in the world, she plays this role very down to earth and understated, not to mention pregnant, dressed in peasant clothing, and with a scarf wrapped around her neck and much of her face most of the time. It's not a glamorous role. She is one of only a few professional actors in the film and does a remarkable job melting in among all the real people.

The Story of Qiu Ju is a slow paced, somewhat repetitive film but it's all the better for it. Viewers are treated to a heart-warmimg world of relationships which are themselves slow-paced and repetitive. It would be a shame to rush through it.

Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Li Gong, Peiqi Liu, Liuchun Yang, Kesheng Lei, Zhijun Ge