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September 24, 2009

The Beauty Remains

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Mei ren yi jiu
Ann Hu - 2005
Emerging Pictures Region 1 DVD

Does anyone have updated information on Ann Hu? Not to be confused with Hong Kong's Ann Hui, Ann Hu was one of the first filmmakers from mainland China to study in the U.S., first business, and then film. Her debut film, Shadow Magic, about the introduction of film and filmmaking in China, was picked up by Sony Classics after playing at Sundance. There isn't much to be found online, with even a brief interview on Youtube providing little of substance. The Beauty Remains seems to have slipped under the radar, playing a couple of film festivals and a brief run in New York City.

Less than ninety minutes, Hu's film seems more epic, not because of what is seen, but because of the events not seen. Taking place in the city of Qing Dao in 1948, the story of sibling rivalry serves as the story of China on the verge of change as Mao's army takes over the entire country. A young woman, Fei, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, has been summoned to the mansion of her recently deceased father. The man's only other child, Ying, explains that Fei is to officially be part of the family again in accordance to her father's wishes. Fei vacillates between her identity as her mother's daughter, and her goal of studying medicine, and the reawakening of her envy of Ying, her childhood friend when both lived at the mansion. Fei finds that the real reason for Ying's sisterly affections is less than familial, giving Fei motivation to begin a relationship with Ying's lover, Huang.

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Just as characters motivations are often veiled, and less than clear, Fei and Ying are often filmed in shadows, or with cloth of some kind draped, obscuring the action. When Fei spies on Ying and Huang making love, it is through the crack of an open door. There are also scenes where the action is washed out in bright light. The narrative is primarily based on Fei's memories, and Hu recreates how memories are often not clear at all, but hazy glimpses of the past.

Several critics I respect did not like The Beauty Remains. I can understand some of the fault finding. The influence of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love is not hard to detect. On the other hand, if someone is going to imitate another filmmaker, think of everyone who tried to ape Scorsese or Tarantino. There were also complaints about Fei's off screen narration, especially a line, "I am drawn to her like a leaf falls to the ground", referring to her feelings about Ying. Most teenage girls, and probably some teenage boys, would find the words to be the height of poetic expression. Maybe I like The Beauty Remains because a little bit of creative lighting and use of color goes a long way with me.

What is also unusual about The Beauty Remains is that the screenplay was originally written in English, by Michael Eldridge and Beth Schacter, and translated to Mandarin. Much of the production crew was American talent. One of the producers, also appearing in a small role was Lisa Lu. It probably is less than coincidental that the actress playing Ying, Vivian Wu, had acted with Lu previously. Wu's filmography, including work in American television and forays into film production indicate that she has studied the pioneering Lisa Lu's career path. Zhou Xun is familiar to those who have watched more than a couple of Chinese movies in the past few years. Without seeming to put much effort, Zhou appears in The Beauty Remains about ten years younger than her actual age. Even though Ann Hu did not write the screenplay, The Beauty Remains is not too removed from her own experience growing up during China's Cultural Revolution: "That revolution made me realize that human weaknesses are so close to the surface. Human beings are such a complex, weak and confused group of people. Only the strongest can survive the temptation of evil."

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Posted by peter at September 24, 2009 12:40 AM