The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt (2006)

Directed by: Ann Hui
Written by: Li Quang
Producers: Zhang Wang, Wang Wei, Li Nan & Yang Qian
Starring: Siqin Gaowa, Chow Yun-Fat, Guan Wenshou, Wang Zwen, Lisa Lu, Shi Ke & Vicky Zhao

Buy the DVD at:

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2008:
Best Actress (Siqin Gaowa)
Best Original Film Score (Joe Hisaishi)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2008:
Best Picture
Best Director (Ann Hui)
Best Screenplay (Li Quang)
Best Supporting Actor (Chow Yun-Fat)
Best Supporting Actress (Vicky Zhao)
Best Cinematography (Kwan Pun-Leung & Nelson Yu)
Best Costume Design & Make-Up (Ma Yu-Tao)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2007:
Best Screenplay Adaptation (Li Quang)
Best Actress (Siqin Gaowa)
Best Supporting Actress (Vicky Zhao)

Living in Shanghai, Ye Rutang (a terrific Siqin Gaowa that also appeared in Stanley Kwan's Full Moon In New York) lives her apartment life trying to cope with an opera singing neighbour (Lisa Lu - The 14 Amazons), her well-dressed cat, gossip but Ye also has a nice streak that makes her invite those in need (and those pretending to be in need) into her life. After losing the opportunity to bond with her nephew Kuankuan (Guan Wengshou), being conned by charming, fellow Opera enthusiast Pan Zhichang (Chow Yun-Fat), poor Jin Yonghua (Shi Ke) begs for help in order to take care of her child. But when the woman stages a traffic accident just to squeeze money out of the situation, Ye rejects once more but dives deep into the arms of Pan again, knowing the risks. It's a pattern of trust and relationships that tracks back quite a long way in her life...

Although Chow Yun-Fat has somewhat mixed his uneven Hollywood career (high point being the sadly neglected Anna And The King) with stints in Asian cinema since 2000's often mentioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2006 became more of a celebration for those wishing for the immortal charisma and actual talent of Yun-Fat to appear more closer to his actual home. Starring in Zhang Yimou's Curse of The Golden Flower, personally actual excitement entered when The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt was announced, Chow's re-teaming with director Ann Hui. Tracking back to 1981, Hui directed Chow to wide acclaim (but superstardom was yet to come) in her tragic The Story Of Woo Viet and while this Mainland lensed production doesn't contain the compelling harshness of said social commentary, many bitter pills can be find in Hui's comedy-drama. Many of which are about progressing naturally anyway. Following through till the last frame is therefore vital because this mish-mash of moods, characters and storylines only cohere towards the end where we realize we also have an acceptable (but not EXceptional) Ann Hui movie on our hands.

Linking the themes of the film to the word postmodern, it could basically boil down to our older character not wanting to be in tune with the new times of Shanghai or simply not having the strength anymore. Watching Ye, it's probably a little of both but main issue still concerns relationships torn prior and the question of whether they can be mended. Pretty basic templates, ones Hui used to complex effect in her autobiographical drama Song Of The Exile so don't necessarily relax with The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt.

Starting with the story of Ye and Kuankuan, clearly she has trouble being a proper caretaker, ranging from having no food at home to not warning the kid about birds flying freely in her apartment. The kid recognizes his downsized role though and quickly negotiates living rights but also adheres to his disappearing pattern ("He'll usually come back on the 3rd day"). Now things really begin to take unexpected turns and we begin to wonder where the focus in the work is at! Because soon Kuankuan meets up with what is presumably an online friend (scarred character of Fei Fei, played by Wang Zwen) and we got a kidnapping scheme on our hands shortly after. Is this a movie adhering to some age old Hong Kong cinema insanity?

Knowing Ann Hui, it's probably worth taking the whole trip and not just 25 frustrated minutes of it before the dvd is ejected. After some detours into Ye's attempts at being an upright citizen by reporting littering and not getting a tutoring job because the parents wants their child to learn American English, Li Quang's writing begins speaking of Ye as being abandoned by the demands of the world at this point. It's a point in developing. Finally entering the frey is Chow Yun-Fat, in what is billed as a special performance (and it certainly is) but is close to a supporting act (most performances are as this is mainly Siqin Gaowa's show). Connecting to Pan via their love of opera, him being a conman reveals the thematic strands of gullibility and frankly stupidity in Ye as the often off-key, totally unconvincing and scripted nature to Pan's rants and stories would have a sound character running for the hills. But anyone can get lonely and risking it all for a bit of physical love, possibly even long lasting romance sees Ye go even further into business with the charming Pan. And it's here heaps of praise should be thrown at Chow Yun-Fat who perfectly catches the unconvincing, at times goofy nature of the conman. Deadly charming and charismatic (character AND the actor), it's wonderful to see Chow being playful again close to home grounds, feeling extremely comfortable in the company he's in.

However the bitter pills pretty much kick in by Chow exiting the picture but the wackiness and flirts with questionable focus finally start to pay off. The dark comedy turning into somber drama means we get a complete circle. Being postmodern, for whatever reason as explained above, comes with the territory of being old according to our storytellers here and aside from some abstract behaviour from director Hui, her throughline that concerns family relations more than anything manifests itself in a basic, affecting manner. Because using simplicity as her tool doesn't turn the film into something truly transcending into class cinema but being sufficient is damn good coming from Hui and the cinema output overall in the territory. Not that Hui has forgotten to be mean and angry as evident by her work on Goddess Of Mercy, The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt is still only a fairly somber but also warm experience for the moment. And those moments are perhaps what Siqin Gaowa's very vulnerable Ye counts as worth going through. It is for us on the other side anyway.

The DVD:

Universe presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. Print is clean and transferred in fine manner that does justice to Kwan Pun-Leung and Nelson Yu's often stunning, natural cinematography. The blend of old Shanghai, new Shanghai and rural Manchuria really are felt outside of the screen.

Audio options are the original Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 dub but as I'm not equipped with a 5.1 system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.

The English subtitles read perfectly clear without any spelling or grammar faults along the way. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Released as a 2 disc set, our first contains some minor extras. The trailer starts off things, Star's Files for Ann Hui, Siqin Gaowa, Chow Yun-Fat and Vicky Zhao are merely filmography listings while the Photo Gallery (15 images) houses some decent production stills. There is some meat however on disc 2, with supplements touted as running 72 minutes and containing the same subtitle options as the feature to boot!

Teaser 1 (9 minutes, 6 seconds) is a loooong teaser for the film, showing mostly clips of Siqin Gaowa and Chow Yun-Fat while title cards narrates the film's intentions theme-wise. Possibly a reel to show buyers but nothing you'd want to watch so shortly after you've seen the feature. Teaser 2 (1 minute, 11 seconds) is however a teaser trailer.

Interview Of The Director And The Casts (21 minutes, 33 seconds) gathers the package of director Ann Hui, actress Siqin Gaowa and composer Joe Hisaishi (of Ghibli fame), interviewed separately. Hui touches upon the irony of the movie title, Chow Yun-Fat's thorough preparation for the role, meaning of the film and other casting choices like Vicky Zhao. Siqin Gaowa has plenty to say about her character and themes of the film while our Japanese composer briefly talks of his collaboration with Ann Hui. An unnamed interview subject appears very briefly (is it possibly writer Li Quang?) and while fun info pops up, too many movie clips disrupts the opportunity to bring extensive info out of the interviewees. Brief behind the scenes footage of shooting and scoring pops up but we get plenty more of that in Highlight (44 minutes, 26 seconds).

(Chow Yun-Fat and Ann Hui on set, from the Highlight featurette)

Loosely edited together footage rather than structure is the name of the tune here but that's fine because the glimpses of costume fitting (a particular woe for Siqin Gaowa), make-up tests and set footage is usually fun to watch. Chow Yun-Fat is the star of the show here, giving weight to the fact that he is as charming and funny as people have described him. Playful with the film crew and the documentary crew even!

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson