Feng Xiaogang: five essential films

As we celebrate the work of China’s most popular film director, here’s the lowdown on his five key steps to the top.

Xiaoxiao Sun , Yang Xiao

Cell Phone (2003)

This award-winning comedy drama is the story of a TV talkshow host, Yan (You Ge), whose life is turned upside down after his marital infidelity is traced via his mobile phone. It’s a look at how lies and affairs are magnified in the new technological world, with the mobile phone becoming the catalyst of the character’s undoing, as well as the symbol of all the pressures that Yan experiences in life.

Though Cell Phone is a comedy full of hilarious moments, it also probes into the deepest and darkest parts of the human heart. Despite all the laughter (and many of the lines are often quoted in China), many people find its message terrifying and it has provoked wide debate about the mistrust engendered by technology.

What’s special about it?  Poking fun at men’s embarrassing secrets, this film took Chinese satire to a new level.

What the critics say

“Mixing the emotional depth of his marital drama Sigh (2000) with the insouciant satire of contempo Chinese consumerism in Big Shot’s Funeral (2002), helmer Feng Xiaogang comes up with his subtlest comedy to date in Cell Phone … A past master at straight-faced comedy, Ge is aces as the charmingly, almost schoolboyishly devious Yan, all the funnier for hardly looking like your average Romeo.” (Derek Elley, Variety)

Assembly (2007)

Moving from China’s 1948 civil war to the Korean War and beyond, this is the most moving Chinese war film to date. There are no heroes, only victims. For the first time, the cruelty and absurdity of war is truly reflected in a Chinese film. Before this film Feng was known for his genius in provoking laughter from the audience; after this film, he has become recognised for his ability to provoke tears.

What’s special about it?  Gritty, raw and emotional, this is China’s answer to Saving Private Ryan (1998).

What the critics say

“Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly is a vigorously staged war movie that has been a deserved success in China … This is a film that eschews triumphalism and the customary patriotic rhetoric. Its subject is friendship, respect for individuals and the quest for justice and historic truth.” (Philip French, The Observer)

If You Are the One (2008)

Matchmaking is a new social phenomenon in 21st century China. It has become an integral and essential part of the life of Chinese singletons. Hence Feng made a film to satirise it, but he still made a genuinely romantic, wonderfully observed film. Starring Ge You, who features in all of Feng’s comedies, If You Are the One sustains the laugher from beginning to end. It’s perfect viewing for Chinese New Year or Valentine’s Day, because the story is all about how to overcome the fear of letting yourself fall in love.

What’s special about it?  A typical Feng comedy, this overtook Titanic (1997) to become the all-time biggest film at the Chinese box office.

What the critics say

“After taking a left turn into big-budgeters The Banquet and Assembly, Feng Xiaogang returns to the kind of film that made his name – ironic observational comedies … terrific chemistry between Feng regular Ge You and Taiwanese actress Shu Qi.” (Derek Elley, Variety)

Aftershock (2010)

When Feng announced that he was going to make a film about the earthquake that shook China in 1976, claiming 243,000 lives, no one was impressed with prospect of a comedy director handling this serious topic. But Feng handles the subject with complete sensitivity and, against all the odds, made it the highest grossing film of the year in China. This is not a disaster film, but the story of a family whose lives are shaken by the disaster.

What’s special about it?  The terrific performance by Xu Fan, Feng’s wife, who starred in many of his comedy films.

What the critics say

“Feng Xiaogang’s movie is a turbo-charged emotional blockbuster-epic about the Tangshan earthquake … There’s no doubt about it: this film’s an unashamed heart-wringer and a tear-jerker, but it packs an almighty punch and the CGI work at the very beginning, as Tangshan crumbles into nothingness, is impressive and pretty scary.” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)

Back to 1942 (2012)

In 1942, severe drought and a plague of locusts savaged Henan province, China, where three million people died of starvation. Feng’s film quotes these words from its source novel by Liu Zhenyun: “At the same time something else happened. The wife of the Chinese president visited the United States to rally the senators for their support against the Japanese invasion; Gandhi of India started his hunger strike; the battle of Stalingrad killed hundreds of thousands; Churchill caught a cold.” Against such a backdrop, the natural disaster seemed merely an inconvenience to people in high places, but it was the darkest moment in China’s 3,500 years of history. Most Chinese people today are offspring of the survivors.

After an 18-year gestation period, Feng completed Back to 1942 to help ensure that this history is not forgotten. Marking another radical departure from the comedies that he’s famous for, Feng’s film is so brutally honest about China’s suffering during this period that most Chinese people find it difficult to watch.

What’s special about it?  After his background in film comedies, Feng always wanted to make a film that would be his crowning achievement. This is it. Watch out also for supporting roles for Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins.

What the critics say

“The set pieces, when they come, are impressive and immense. Feng did not get to be China’s most commercially successful director without knowing how to shoot spectacular action, and the scenes of the bombing of the refugee column by the Japanese are visceral, shocking and bloody.” (Jessica Kiang, indiewire.com)

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