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By Joe Bendel. The Mosuo people are considered somewhat exotic in China, but that is a decidedly mixed blessing. Their traditional matriarchal way of life is slipping away, but there are opportunities to perform in Tibetan themed bars and dancehalls – at least for the pretty ones. This again is a dramatically mixed blessing. When the impact of the global financial crisis forces the siblings to return home from Beijing, they start to rethink their long term plans in Marlo Poras’s The Mosuo Sisters, which screens during the proceeding-as-scheduled DOC NYC 2012.

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Juma and Latso’s Himalayan Village is close to exactly nowhere. Returning home after their employer shutters her Beijing bar is an arduous, depressing journey. For Latso, the younger sister, it is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Having enrolled in an accounting class, she had hoped to support her family with a more professional career. Now she is returning, knowing full well it will be difficult to leave again. Indeed, it is Juma, the superior earner who is sent out (this time for Chengdu), while her mother keeps her home to work on their hardscrabble farm.

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One hopes the sisters will reap some benefit from Poras’s film, especially if it airs on public television. After production wrapped, their village was shook by an earthquake, which leveled their family’s home. Currently living in tents according to the film’s Facebook page, their family could use some of those Kickstarter funds.

Even before disaster struck, the year and a half Poras spent with the sisters dramatically illustrates Socialist China’s vast economic inequalities. Being an ethnic minority is also a dubious distinction for the sisters; it is considered intriguing, but often for the wrong reasons, to the wrong people. For instance, Juma must often endure misconceptions about Mosuo “Walking Marriages.” Roughly, those are procreative arrangements, in which the wife and husband live in their mothers’ households, but jointly raise their children during evenings spent together. Often deliberately misunderstood as an institution fostering promiscuity, they are anything but.

Of course, the status of China’s ethnic minorities has always been rather tenuous, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. However, Poras keeps the focus exclusively on the sisters’ here and now. Blessed with natural screen presence, viewers will definitely root for them. They might be from the middle of nowhere, but they are not bumpkins. In fact, they are quite intelligent and extremely sensitive. Yet the way they evolve and mature over this period of time is surprising.

While not even covered in the film’s post-script, the current condition of the sisters’ family speaks volumes about the nature of the Chinese government. We witness first-hand how unabashed gangsters thrive in a city like Chengdu, but education is practically a luxury. Poras’s frequent shots of Chairman Mao’s portrait staring down on the proceedings add an unmistakable layer of irony to their difficult struggle for survival.

A number of unvarnished documentaries addressing China’s social ills have been released internationally in recent years, but Mosuo Sisters has a somewhat different angle. It captures a vanishing culture and features two primary POV figures who completely win over audience sympathies. Strongly recommended, particularly for China watchers, Mosuo Sisters screens this Saturday (11/10) at the IFC Center. If you go, also bring some cash in case they pass the hat for the sisters’ family. Consider it a helping hand extended from one disaster area to another.

LFM GRADE: A-

Posted on November 5th, 2012 at 9:35am.

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Nov 052012

By Joe Bendel. Rachel Leah Jones has issues with her father. She is not the only one. Flamenco guitarist David Serva [Jones] is only good at playing music and reproducing. Disingenuous apologies come in a distant third when Jones takes on her more or less absentee father in Gypsy Davy (trailer here), her documentary profile/examination of family dysfunction, which screens during the still on-schedule 2012 DOC NYC at the IFC Center.

Born the blond white trash David Jones of Alabama, Serva transformed himself into the first American flamenco guitarist accepted by the Spanish old guard. He did it by abandoning his wife and two children (the director-co-producer-co-everything, and an older brother from a previous marriage). Serva is a self-absorbed creep, who displays almost no redeeming virtues throughout Davy. For obvious reasons, Jones openly questions whether she should be documenting her irresponsible father – yet persists, clearly hoping the exercise will have a therapeutic effect.

Shockingly inarticulate, Serva Jones only buries himself deeper as the film continues. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to trace the five women and five children (that he knows of) whose fates would become intertwined with his. There is some stylish flamenco and Roma-influenced guitar music as well, but Serva Jones’ undeniable musical gifts are not impressive enough to compensate for his boorishness.

It is impossible to turn away from the uncomfortable messiness of Gypsy Davy, just like a traffic accident or a Joe Biden stump speech. Jones raises family disorder to the level of performance art, but there is never any question where the blame lies.  The only real surprise is the relative emotional health displayed by many of Serva’s grown children.

From "Gypsy Davy."

Gypsy Davy is almost unique among music-related documentaries because it leaves viewers less kindly disposed to its subject after a full viewing. However, many critics and programmers will probably play up the Counting Crows hook. Yes, David Serva Jones is the inspiration for that Mr. Jones. In fact, his son Martin co-founded the band, but walked away from a career in music out of fear he would become like his father.

While it looks rather DIY, Gypsy Davy is scathingly honest and quite shrewdly constructed. Recommended for viewers in the mood for an anti-musical doc, Gypsy Davy screens this Friday (11/9) and the following Monday (11/12) as part of this year’s DOC NYC, which is still proceeding on course.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on November 5th, 2012 at 9:35am.

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By Joe Bendel. Ruan Lingyu was often called the “Chinese Greta Garbo,” but unfortunately Marilyn Monroe might be a more tragically apt comparison. Dogged by scandal, the celebrated actress would take her own life in 1935. Awareness of her fate adds even more poignancy to her work in Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (which can be seen in its entirety above), a classic of silent Chinese cinema, which inspired the title of the Asia Society’s latest film series, Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen. Fittingly, it launches their retrospective this Friday.

Ruan’s character has no name. Nor does she have a husband – but she has Shuiping, a baby boy for whom she will do anything. With no other resources, the woman is forced to sell herself on Shanghai’s predatory streets. There are no codes or euphemisms, here – she is a prostitute, plain and simple. Operating outside the law, she has no recourse when “the boss” appoints himself her pimp. While she tries to escape his clutches, he threatens to take the only bright spot in her life: Shuiping.

Nevertheless, as Shuiping matures, his mother sets aside money at great risk to pay for his education, at great personal risk. Unfortunately, intolerant parents complain to the progressive headmaster, claiming the presence of a prostitute’s son would threaten their children’s morals.

Released the year before Ruan’s sad demise, Goddess is arguably like an Oprah pick for 1930’s Shanghai. It forthrightly deals with issues of gender victimization and class exploitation, working towards a bittersweet conclusion, with the emphasis on the bitter. Yet Ruan elevates the film well beyond the realm of social issue melodrama.

Classic Chinese cinema star Ruan Lingyu.

While the appeal of some silent stars, is not always compatible with contemporary tastes, Ruan has a timeless beauty and projects a devastating vulnerability as the unnamed woman. She also has heartbreakingly touching chemistry with young Li Keng as the sweet-tempered Shuiping. Li Juunpan, a stage actor who crossed over to silent movies, also brings remarkable presence and dignity to the film as the John Dewey-esque headmaster, while Zhang Zhizhi personifies sweaty odiousness as “the Boss.”

Ruan’s work in Goddess is so honest and powerful, it transcends time and fashion. In fact, there are none of the grossly exaggerated performances that often date silent cinema. A true classic in any era, The Goddess will leave viewers deeply moved, in a fully satisfying way. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (11/9) at the Asia Society. The touchstone figure for the series, Ruan also stars in New Women screening this Sunday (11/11) and is the subject of Stanley Kwan’s biopic Center Stage, which concludes the series on Saturday, December 8th.

LFM GRADE: A+

Posted on November 5th, 2012 at 9:34am.

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