Review: ‘China: The Wild East’

Narrator: Philip Kaufman.

Narrator: Philip Kaufman.

With: Ai Weiwei, Bai Yang, Armen Baliantz, Deng Pufang, Peter Fong, Gao Xiqing, Guo Lei, Huang Tianmin, Xiaozhen Jiang, Dorothy Ko, Emily Lau, Chris Lee , Martin Lee, Ada Mei, Mu Yu, David Tang, Gigo P. Tevzadze, Xie Xide.

Philip Kaufman’s son, Peter, makes a brave stab at pinning down the dragon in “China: The Wild East,” a generally well-observed though finally rather unfocused personal take on the waking giant as the new millennium comes into view. Divided into titled segments that address aspects of the country’s history, society and mind-set, film is a diverting enough primer for TV and contains enough nuggets to keep specialists hooked as well. Turner web will debut it on cable early nextyear.

Docu starts in grandstanding style with an entertaining fast-forward through Chinese history from Marco Polo to the present. Buzzing with a battery of emotive stats (China’s economy is likely to surpass that of the U.S. by early next century) and sharp writing (the Chinese discovered “two of the greatest energy sources known to man — gunpowder and . . . pasta”), this nine-minute intro, set to propulsive, percussive music, is a potent curtain-raiser.

As the narration in the opening seg (“Crossroads”) explains, the Kaufman family became entangled with China when vet film actress Bai Yang visited San Francisco in 1981 and intro’d her daughter, Xiaozhen Jiang, to Chinese-speaking Peter. In ’89, while shooting “Henry & June” in Paris, the Kaufmans received a call from Jiang, distraught at the Tiananmen massacre; more recently, hearing from Jiang that China had become “the wildest place on Earth,” father and son made the journey to find out for themselves.

After mingling clips from Bai’s first movie, the 1937 Shanghai classic “Crossroads,” with a touching interview with the actress as she recalls her imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution, docu moves on to the CR memories of another member of the Kaufman circle, Gao Xiqing, now a honcho at the Shanghai Stock Exchange. This section (“Dream Maker”), essentially about the transition from Maoist to semi-market contempo China, also follows San Francisco restaurateur Peter Fong as he revisits Shanghai after 14 years, amazed at the changes.

Film subsequently fans out into a loose collection of thematic segments, looking at the country’s potential for chaos (“Deaf Ears”), the erosion of traditional ways in the face of modernism (“The Sick Man Stands Up”), pre-1949 Shanghai (“Shanghai’s Wild Past”), and the Hong Kong 1997 question (“The Return of Hong Kong”).

San Diego U. historian Dorothy Ko opines that, as modernism and mammon encroach, the Chinese “have lost faith in their own culture, in humanity.” In contrast, Gao says that the coming millennium is the most crucial period in China’s history of the past 2,000 years, as its people are for the first time being treated more as individuals by the authorities.

Kaufman’s Hong Kong interviewees, including the savvy politician Emily Lau, admit that no one really knows how the colony will fare post-1997, as it’s always been a borrowed place on borrowed time. One makes the valid point, however, that the current kowtowing of some parties to Beijing is simply Hong Kongers’ switching of their practiced reverence away from their fast-fading masters, the Brits.

With its seeming contradictions, China has always been easy game for docus by awed, bemused Westerners, never less than now. When dealing with broader issues , like culture and history, the film follows a familiar path of scatter gun statistics and no clear resolutions. The Kaufmans should also know better by now than to drag out old chestnuts like foot-binding to support vaunted Western values (“Women Unbound”).

In the end, the most interesting and substantial segs are those dealing with concrete subjects, such as the actress Bai (still a striking beauty in her mid- 70s) and Shanghai’s glitzy, decadent past, illustrated with fascinating clips and photos. That world of nightclubs, hookers, opium dens, foreigners and triads vanished almost overnight with the Japanese invasion of ’37 but is now fast returning.

Tech credits are fine. Kaufman [7mpere’s[22;27m narration is a tad lugubrious in tone, but doesn’t spoil the package.

China: The Wild East

(DOCU)

Production

A Wild East Prods, production for Turner Original Prods. Produced by Xiaozhen Jiang, Peter Kaufman. Executive producer, Philip Kaufman. Executive producer for Turner Original, Pat Mitchell. Directed, written by Peter Kaufman.

Crew

Camera (color,) Mitchell Farkas; editor, Ruby L.B. Yang; music, Tan Dun; sound, Jiang Yizhong, Will Harvey; additional camera, Rick Fichter, Philip Kaufman, Xiaozhen Jiang, Peter Kaufman. Reviewed on videocassette, London, Sept. 1, 1995. (In Telluride Film Festival.) Running time: 96 MIN.
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