When a suit announces before a press screening that the film you are about to see has “problems,” it can be a little off-putting. But that’s what happened at this year’s Berlin Film Festival with Li Ying’s decade-in-the-making documentary Yasukuni, an exploration of the slippery nature of history, tradition, and memory, which takes as its subject Tokyo’s notorious Yasukuni Shrine. Established in 1869 for the worship of eirei (“heroic spirits,” i.e., fallen or executed soldiers), the site has in recent years become the emotional flashpoint for the militarism at the heart of modern Japan.
One month after the festival premiere, controversy was ignited as Japanese nationalists went ballistic over Li’s depiction of the shrine. The film was originally slated to open in April, but several theaters in Tokyo and Osaka nixed their bookings after receiving threats from the ultra-right. When a number of Liberal Democrat members of parliament demanded to see the film and civil-rights groups staged protests against what appeared to be a possible attempt at censorship, some exhibitors decided to support the film by booking it. In early May it finally opened in Tokyo, incident-free, albeit under heavy police protection. None of this surprised Li—some of his Japanese collaborators had requested not to receive on-screen credit, mindful of the scene in which thugs beat up a protester during a celebration at Yasukuni as the Japanese national anthem plays in the background.
Li’s subject is undeniably loaded. Over the last 20 years Japan has suffered repeated diplomatic rebukes not only from China, Taiwan, and North and South Korea but from Western nations as well, for failing to take a stand against the Yasukuni cult, which, among other dubious practices, venerates the memory of convicted war criminals whose souls are believed to reside at the shrine. Complicating matters further, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid repeated visits to Yasukuni. Li’s film shows Koizumi declaring this to be a purely personal matter, though he surely knew full well that nothing is private for a head of state. In so doing, he implicitly sanctioned the Yasukuni cult of war, and by extension the warped history of Japan on display at the shrine’s Yushukan War Museum. This has all transpired at a time when the country is reconsidering Article 9 of its constitution, the clause that renounces war and the settling of disputes through military force.
Maintaining a low profile—and concealing his Chinese accent—Li visited Yasukuni over a number of years with a small, tourist-style DV camera. He discreetly filmed war vets in full uniform parading in memory of their fallen comrades, and Korean, Chinese, and other protesters demanding the liberation of the souls of ancestors forced to serve in the Japanese army mostly during World War II (such unwilling conscripts are considered captives of the shrine).
Interspersed with this material—as Li becomes a part of the choreography he’s filming, there’s an extraordinary sense of movement and space—are casual conversations with Kariya Naoji, the last surviving Yasukuni swordsmith, before and after he forges a sword identical to the 8,000 or so made by him and his fellow shrine craftsmen for Japan’s officers during the “15-Year War.” Naoji’s nonchalant mastery and patchy memory provide reflective distance, and Li keeps his compositional cool throughout, unleashing his fury only in the final 10 minutes with a montage recounting the history of modern wartime Japan in which he conveys what all too many Japanese would rather not hear: that Emperor Hirohito tacitly endorsed mass murder and that, by extension, the entire nation was fundamentally guilty of war crimes. Nevertheless, Li maintains that Yasukuni was never intended as a provocation but rather as a gift to the Japanese, one which might help them come to terms with their history.
While Japan is his second home, Li continues to identify himself as mainland Chinese. Born in 1963 in Guangzhou, he started making documentaries for Chinese state television in 1984, focusing first on Tibet. In 1989 he went to Japan, where he co-founded Dragon Films four years later. All five of his features were produced in Japan, and three of them are set there.
Li’s dual identity hasn’t made things easy for him. Is he a Japanese or Chinese filmmaker? Are his films fiction or documentary? His genius lies in the fact that the answer to each question is: both. Li articulates, spins, and weaves reality to extract the kind of truth found in great novels. At his best, starting with his extraordinary feature debut 2H (99), he dissolves the barriers between fact and fiction, spurring people to reenact or live out their lives, and in the process reveal insights that are meaningful to the world of the film and the world at large.
2H is about two mainland Chinese émigrés lost in Tokyo—and perhaps in time: Ma Jinsan, a 95-year-old former Kuomintang general who fled China after the Communist victory in 1949; and artist Xiong Wenyun, several decades younger, who looks after him as if he’s the child she never had. There’s something historically and psychologically rich to this setup, cramped and internalized as it may seem, and Li tells their story with the simplest of means. In an extended, handheld, unsettlingly black-and-white opening shot Ma witnesses a subway accident; it gradually becomes clear that the “essence” of the shot is his presence at the scene of the accident and not the accident itself. Li gives this introduction a “fictive” spin that makes one instantly question whether or not this is a documentary moment. In subsequent scenes he employs an amber tint and shoots his protagonists from a high angle; the film plays out as a story being told. When Li himself eventually starts to engage with his protagonists, he effectively becomes a character himself. The film’s narrative leaves the impression of having being found and then cultivated rather than invented.
Thematically related to 2H and something of a missing link between that film and Yasukuni is Dream Cuisine (03), perhaps Li’s most conventional documentary. The film’s Japanese title, Aji, translates as “flavor” or “taste”—which is the subject of the film. Chef Hatsue Sato, a Japanese citizen born in China, is the only non-Chinese certified master of Shandong cuisine. As the film shows, she’s one of the few left who are interested in preserving its heritage, attacked during the Cultural Revolution as a feudal remnant, and now by the forces of globalization and its attendant notions of modern cooking. So Dream Cuisine is a film by a Chinese immigrant in Japan about a Japanese who defends a Chinese tradition against its inheritors—suggesting that culture belongs more to those who appreciate and adopt it than to those with whom it originates. It’s heartbreaking to watch Sato trying to teach young wannabe Shandong cooks the essence of her art—no sugar, no lard, no MSG—only to be told it won’t make much difference if her approach is occasionally compromised.
Sato senses that her death will mark the end of thousands of years of human experience. While the death of General Ma in 2H has a certain transcendental quality, the end of Dream Cuisine leaves a distinctly bitter taste.
Another impending death is the driving force in Mona Lisa (07), which uses a similar approach to that of 2H. Shot over the course of 18 months, it examines the life of a mainland Chinese family torn between rural customs (large families whose generations depend on each other) and state regulations (the one-child-per-family law). It focuses on a mother serving a prison sentence for kidnapping a child that she claims she believed was an orphan in need of rescue, and her two daughters, who are trying to secure her temporary release so that she can pay a final visit to her terminally ill mother. In contrast to 2H, Mona Lisa comes off as a straightforward story: no twisting of narrative codes and no distancing devices. It could easily be taken for one more exercise in PRC indie realism from somewhere south of Jia Zhang-ke. But at some point it becomes clear that everything on screen is really happening, that these people’s lives are wasting away in ambiguities too deep to resolve in any simple or satisfying manner—and that this impasse is the reality of the People’s Republic of China.
Li’s sole experiment in straight-up fiction, Flying Flying (01), deals with the corrupting effects of money and the blight brought about by the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s “market economy with Chinese characteristics.” Li asked authors Mang Ke and Liao Yiwu (the latter jailed for writing a poem commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown), Zhang Yi (the film’s producer), artist Liu Wei, and others to improvise a scenario set on New Year’s Eve 1999. A debt collector (Liao) handcuffs himself to a poet and old friend who owes serious money. They talk and eventually come to the realization that their future is as fucked up as their past. Parallel to their grim riffing, a second narrative unfolds: scenes from a Yuan Dynasty Beijing Opera depicting the robbery and murder of a silk merchant. The stylization and ritual of classical theater meets the bare realism of its modern descendent, and never the twain shall meet. In today’s world, mores can’t keep up with the fast pace of social change. What lies in the gulf between the two tales is the moral vacuum of this New China. It’s Li’s most uneven yet vibrant work—there’s none of the calm mastery of his other films, just a barely contained anger, foreshadowing in its violence the end of Yasukuni.
With thanks to the staff of the Arsenal in Berlin for their generous assistance.