Thursday, June 17, 2010

Glittering Days (萬家燈火) (6/10)

Glittering Days (萬家燈火)
Neighbourhood light drama
Directed by An Zhanjun (安戰軍)

By Derek Elley
Thu, 17 June 2010

Likable ensemble movie about Beijing backstreets life is smoothly directed and acted. Film weeks, and cable TV.

Jinyuchi neighbourhood, southern Beijing, the early '90s. Though the area has long been marked for redevelopment, families still live crowded together in traditional courtyard houses. Easygoing shoe salesman He Laoer (Liu Hua), the middle of three brothers, is constantly nagged by his more ambitious wife Liu Yulan (Liu Lin) who, despite being heavily pegnant, is studying to get into university as a mature student. Elder brother, widower He Laoda (Feng Qian), has quit his job and devotes his time to calligraphy, while his daughter He Yue (Wu Xiaodan) has problems with her jealous ex-boyfriend, musician Tang Qiulin (Wu Chao). The youngest brother, high-school teacher He Laosan (Xin Baiqing), is absorbed by writing a book on the environment and neglects his wife Zhang Meng (Wu Yue), who works in a newspaper office and has her own ambitions. During the summer, heavy rain causes part of the building to collapse, and the residents put pressure on the city authorities to get on with redeveloping the area. Meanwhile, the middle and younger brothers' marriages come under severe strain.

Director An Zhanjun's (安戰軍) natural affinity for gruff but warm Beijing types, and the capital's backstreets life (The Parking Attendant in July 看車人的七月, Hutong Days 衚衕裡的陽光), is again strongly in evidence in Glittering Days (萬家燈火), which romanticises the natural community of oldstyle courtyard houses and tenement buildings while also showing the need for China to modernise its housing. The film is set during the '90s, when many of Beijing's famous hutong were still being (controversially) demolished, and, like several of An's other films, could be seen as simply a piece of retro-doctrinaire cinema (Beijing Municipality was one of the producers). But the movie functions equally well as a human drama, thanks to An's immensely fluid direction and a fine cast of distinctive actors. Working again with Niu Fuzhi (牛福智), the scriptwriter of Hutong Days, An again rises above the lecturing aspect of the basic material by making each character jump naturally off the screen.

Though its Chinese title is the same as the classic 1948 Shanghai tenement drama, Myriad of Lights, the film is actually based on a 2002 play by Beijing People's Art Theatre playwright Li Longyun (李龍雲), which he famously wrote in a 23-day burst of creative energy. Niu's adaptation, with Li, opens the action out in a cinematic way without losing the important sense of community - beautifully choreographed in the film's opening section, which shows the crowded but mutually supportive tenement/courtyard life of the He family. However, after the expansive first section, set across a hot/rainy Beijing summer, the development of some of the subplots during the subsequent three seasons (e.g. Laoda's daughter's boyfriend problem) is a bit perfunctory as everything is crammed into less than two hours.

Glittering Days is basically an above-average hutong light drama, but it truly is an ensemble picture, with no single character or couple dominating the action. Liu Hua (劉樺) and Liu Lin (劉琳) show an easy chemistry as the middle brother and his more ambitious wife; the relationship between the movie's other main couple, the younger brother and his wife, is more forced and filmy, though Wu Yue (吳樾, Chrysanthemum Tea 菊花茶) is touching as the affection-starved wife. Among the older players, Liu Jinshan (劉金山) is likable as a big bluff Beijing working type and veteran actress Jin Yaqin (金雅琴) good value for money as the family's dowager empress who won't be budged from the courtyard house she grew up in.

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