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Ang Lee the Chameleon Director and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk of the day on Chinese social media. The cutting-edge yet criticized blockbuster is the latest addition to the Chinese director’s filmography of wildly different movies.

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Ang Lee’s new film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the talk of the day on Chinese social media. The cutting-edge yet criticized blockbuster is the latest addition to the Chinese director’s filmography of wildly different movies. But diverse as they are, Ang Lee’s films have typical characteristics in common. In that regards Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a quintessentially ‘Ang Lee-an’ movie.

The latest movie by renowned Chinese director Ang Lee (李安), that premiered at the New York Film Festival on Friday, became the number one trending topic on Sina Weibo on Sunday, October 16.

With over 73 million topic views, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (#比利林恩的中场战事#) became Weibo’s talk of the day.

Ang Lee’s latest film is an adaptation of the novel by Ben Fountain that is also titled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012). One of the reasons the movie is such a hot topic is its use of novelty techniques, with a special use of 3D and an increased frame rate of 120 frames per second shot with 4K HD cameras that makes the picture look extremely real. Its official release will follow on November 11.

billy

The story revolves around Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a 19-year-old American soldier who is glamorously honored in the USA after returning home from Iraq. While Billy is struggling with his experiences in the war overseas, he also needs to deal with the surreal “Victory Tour” he is receiving in his home country and tries to reconnect with his family.

Although international media have criticized the movie for its “hyper-real” effect due to its incredibly high frame rate, many Weibo users cannot wait to see it – especially because they have high expectations of Chinese “master” director Ang Lee.

Ang Lee is known for internationally acclaimed movies such as The Life of Pi (2012), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Sense and Sensibility (1995), or The Wedding Banquet (喜宴, 1993).

“Ang Lee is a chameleon filmmaker whose signature seems almost invisible in his multicolored work.”

What is notable about Ang Lee’s films is how they seem to be so wildly different. From smoking cowboys in the American mountains to pale ladies in 19th century England, Ang Lee is a chameleon filmmaker whose signature seems almost invisible in his multicolored work.

sensebrokeback

Ang Lee’s work as a director is characterized by his multifariousness, as Lee experiments with diverse and often controversial themes and techniques.

Ang Lee was born in Taiwan in 1954. He graduated from the national film academy in 1975 and continued his studies in Illinois and later New York. Since his first movie in 1992 (Pushing Hands 推手), Lee has consistently collaborated with American screenwriters, actors, and production companies.

anglee

Although Ang’s first films involved China-related storylines, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility was Ang’s first film that had nothing to do with China. His major international breakthrough came with the award-winning Brokeback Mountain, that especially caused commotion due to its portrayal of gay love.

It might seem as if Ang’s movies are so varied that they have nothing in common at all. But besides the fact that many of these works include experimental features in terms of narrative or technique, there are also some overarching themes or characteristics in Lee’s work.

“Lee’s ability to be such a huge cross-cultural influence is unique.”

Born and raised in Taiwan, Ang Lee grew up with Chinese cinema. When he later lived and studied in America, he became familiar with a different cinema tradition.

The influence of both Chinese and American cinema, but also Ang’s personal experience of living in a new culture as an immigrant, are visible in his work.

Especially in Ang’s earlier films, the filmmaker worked with both Chinese and American actors and focused on the themes of culture clash and immigration.

But on a deeper level, Ang’s films are also characterized by their transnationality. By being a true ‘multicultural’ director, Ang cannot be marked as being either a typical ‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ film director. Instead, he is more culture-neutral and seems to leave any judgment over the films’ narratives to the audience.

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi once said about Lee:

“Lee’s ability to be such a huge cross-cultural influence is, I think, unique. His Taiwanese upbringing, which kept him deeply rooted in the Chinese way of being and living, combined with his well-informed understanding of Western movies and filmmaking techniques have allowed him to speak to those two worlds in a way no other director has.”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also deals with the clash between the situation in Iraq and modern American society. Billy Lynn is faced with the glitter and glamor of his heroic American “victory tour” that poses a stark contrast to his experiences in the battle of Iraq war. “It is sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life,” protagonist Billy says at one point.

“Great romance needs great obstacles and textures.”

Another important recurring characteristic of Ang’s films is its representation of complexity within family relations. In Ang’s movies, family is more than a blood relation; it is a social network with certain inescapable codes and rules. The main characters often struggle to adapt to them and have troubles finding their own way in the sometimes smothering family webs.

Although it might not be at the heart of the story, the connection between Billy and his family, namely his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), plays an important role in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

A third typical Ang Lee film feature is the impossible love affair. In an interview with Garth Franklin, Ang Lee once told:

“I think great romance needs great obstacles and textures. Romance and love are abstract ideas, an illusion. How do you make that? I think, most of the time, obstacles help build the romance. It helps to envision and make it feel real to you.”

“I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal.”

A final but significant feature in Ang Lee’s films is the repression of emotions. Ang Lee explains:

“I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal. You’re seeking to be honest with your free will, less conflict. I think that’s an important subject with me. That’s who I am, how I was brought up.”

Repression of emotions is prevalent in all of Ang’s films, but probably most visible in Brokeback Mountain since the acknowledgment of their homosexual feelings is such a taboo for the two main characters.

Although Ang Lee has been called a ‘director of gay cinema’ before, the issue of sexuality is not as important as the theme of repression that often comes with it.

Together with the obstacle-filled love affair (the cheerleader who wants a mystical war hero), the aspect of repressed emotions is clear in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, as it is the story of a “hero who doesn’t want to be a hero”, because everyone wants something from him and he does not know how to deal with it (Collider 2016).

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has not been receiving rave reviews directly after his first screening. Most critics agree that there seems to have been more attention to technical features of the film than its narrative depth and that it does not do the film much good.

real

Nevertheless, Ang Lee has pleaded viewers to “please give this a chance”, and to “have an open mind.” Ang Lee is not afraid to be a pioneer of new cinema techniques, even if he is criticized for it – in that regards, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is very much an Ang Lee film.

On Weibo, many netizens are excited about the much-anticipated movie. “I am already preparing to go and see Ang Lee’s next work,” one netizen writes. “I am a die-hard fan of Ang Lee, and I expect this film to be a great work again,” another Weibo user says.

Ang’s films are about cultural contrasts, love with obstacles, individuals that struggle with the codes of family culture, and especially people repressing their emotions – all transnational themes that also play a role in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In this way, his latest work, as innovating and controversial as it may be, is once again a typical ‘Ang Lee-an’ work of art.

– By Manya Koetse
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To read recent reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, go, for example, to The Guardian or US Magazine.

Sources (other sources linked to within text)
* “Ang Lee: Asian audiences more accepting of gay subject.” China Daily 21 jan 2006. 12 juni 2007. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/200601/21/content_514390.htm>
* Franklin, Garth. “ Interview: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain.” Dark Horizons. 7 dec. 2005. 12 jun. 2007. http://www.darkhorizons.com/news05/brokeback2.php
* Martin, Fran. “The China Simulcrum: Genre, Feminism, and Pan-Chinese Cultural Politics in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, in: Chris Berry en Feii Lu (eds), Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2005: 149-159+163-164+188-190
* Zhang, Ziyi. “Ang Lee”, Time. 30 apr. 2006. 12 jun. 2007.
<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1187225,00.html>

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Comic & Games

KFC China’s Psyduck Toy is a Viral Hit

As Psyduck goes viral, KFC Children’s Day toys are deemed “too childish for children but just perfect for us adults.”

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American fast-food chain KFC recently introduced three new Pokémon toys to go with its kids’ meals in various regions across China, with one of the toys, in particular, becoming a viral hit: Psyduck (可达鸭).

The new Pokémon toys were introduced on May 21st to celebrate Children’s Day (June 1). As reported by Shanghai Daily, the toys are randomly distributed in Children’s Day meals and will be released in different regions at different times.

Psyduck is a yellow duck-like Pokémon that is known to be confused because it’s bothered by headaches. One of the reasons why the Psyduck toy might be more popular than its fellow (Pikachu) toys, is because it dances, with its arms going up and down, and because of the catchy tune that starts once it starts moving. Psyduck is also a bit more dopey and ‘uncool’ than Pikachu, which makes him all the cooler (remember the Peppa Pig craze?)

Since its release, many people have been going crazy over the KFC toy. Psyduck fans have been hunting for the KFC treasure, and some have even turned it into a side business: they offer their services in getting as many KFC meals as necessary before grabbing the Psyduck toy – you’ll have to pay for their meal – and they’ll send the toy to their ‘customers’ later on.

The #Psyduck hashtag saw the first spike on Weibo on May 21st, the day of its release, when it received nearly 135 million views.

Although the toys were released for Children’s Day, most of these Psyduck fans are not kids at all. In one interview moment that went viral, an older man was asked about the Psyduck while he was standing in line at KFC. “I’m only here because my son wants it,” the man says. When he is asked how old his boy is, he answers: “He’s over thirty years old.”

A popular comment about the craze over the kids’ meal toys said: “This toy is perhaps too childish for children, but it’s just perfect for us adults.” The comment received nearly 20,000 likes.

If you buy a set meal including the toy, you will spend in between 59-109 yuan ($9-$16), but the reselling price of Psyduck has reportedly been as high as US$200 for just the Pokémon figure alone. KFC China has stated that it does not support this kind of reselling.

Illustration about the Psyduck crazy by New Weekly (@新周刊).

Especially among students, it has become popular to stick messages to the arms of the dancing Psyduck with motivational or humorous messages. Some students say the Psyduck keeps them company while they are studying.

Since short funny videos featuring Psyduck are going viral on Weibo and Douyin, a lot of Psyduck’s appeal relates to its social media success and joining in on the hype. People post videos of themselves unboxing their Psyduck, introducing it to their cat, imitating it, or they use the Psyduck in various creative ways.

This is not the first time for KFC toys to become a national craze. Earlier this year, KFC came out with limited edition blind boxes in a collaboration with Chinese toymaker Pop Mart. To get one of the dolls, customers needed to buy a 99 yuan (US$15.5) family set meal.

But the blind box sales also sparked criticism from China’s Consumer Association for promoting over-purchasing of its food and causing food waste. In order to get all of the six collectible dolls, including the rarest ones, customers would start buying many meals just for the dolls. As reported by SCMP at the time, one customer went as far as to spend US$1,650 on a total of 106 meals to collect all six dolls.

KFC is the most popular fast-food chain in China. People outside of China are sometimes surprised to find that KFC is so hugely popular in the mainland.

As explained in the book written about KFC China’s popularity (“Secret Recipe for Success“), its success story goes back to 1987, when the restaurant opened its first doors near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Some reasons that contributed to KFC’s success in China are the popularity of chicken in China, the chain’s management system, the restaurant’s adaptation to local taste, and its successful marketing campaigns.

Now, Psyduck can be added as one of the ingredients in KFC China’s perhaps not-so-secret recipe for success.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Featured image via @Baaaaaaaaal, Weibo.com

Image via Weibo

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Elementary School Textbook Triggers Controversy for Being “Tragically Ugly”

This elementary schoolbook by the People’s Education Press went viral for being ugly.

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The illustrations in a Chinese schoolbook series for children have triggered controversy on social media platform Weibo, where the hashtag “People’s Education Press Math Teaching Material” (#人教版数学教材#) attracted over 860 million views by Thursday afternoon, with the “People’s Education Press Mathbook Illustration Controversy” (#人教版数学教材插图引争议#) garnering over 190 million views.

The illustrations went viral after some netizens spotted that the quality of the design in one math textbook series stood out from other books in how ‘aesthetically displeasing’ it is.

The children depicted in the teaching material have small, droopy eyes and big foreheads. Some commenters think their clothing also looks weird and that the overall design is just strange and “tragically ugly.”

Some images depicting little boys also drew controversy for allegedly showing a bulge in the pants. Adding girls sticking out their tongues, boys grabbing girls, a reversed Chinese flag, and some depictions of children’s clothing in the American flag colors, many people think the books are not just ugly but also have “evil intentions.”

Besides the people who think the design of the textbook series is so ugly that it must have been purposely drawn like this, there are also those who are angry, suggesting China has thousands of talented art students who would welcome a project like this and do it much better.

Some parents are also concerned that such poor quality design will negatively influence the aesthetic appreciation of the children using the books.

Fueling the controversy is the fact that the textbook in question has been published and designed by a team of relatively influential and experienced designers and publishers.

The design was done by, among others, Lu Min (吕旻) and Zheng Wenjuan (郑文娟) of the Beijing Wuyong Design Studio (北京吴勇设计工作室). The book is published by the People’s Education Press.

The People’s Education Press (PEP) is a major publishing house directly under the leadership of the Ministry of Education. Founded in 1950, it is responsible for compiling and publishing all kinds of teaching material for elementary education.

The textbook already caught the attention of some parents in early May. One parent shared photos of the textbook illustration on Q&A site Zhihu.com, writing: “This textbook is so ugly! How did it ever pass the review?”

The ugly textbook design has made many netizens look back on their own childhood textbooks, suggesting that more traditional Chinese design is much better than what is being produced nowadays.

Old textbook design shared online for comparison.

On May 26, the People’s Education Press responded to the controversy on Weibo. In its statement, the publishing house said it would reevaluate its elementary school mathematics textbooks illustrations and improve the quality of the design. In doing so, the publishing house said it would welcome feedback from the public. The statement soon received over 600,000 likes.

Professional graphic design artist Wuheqilin also weighed in on the discussion (read more about Wuheqilin here). In a lengthy Weibo post, Wuheqilin argues it is too easy for people to share their old textbook covers and images to show how much better they used to be, blaming poor design on the quality of illustrators in modern times.

According to Wuheqilin, it is not so much a matter of illustrators who have become worse, but of publishing houses saving more money on illustrations. Publishers do not prioritize design and are still offering the same prices to illustrators as they did a decade ago.

“The market has expanded, illustrators’ prices have gone up, but the philosophy of publishing houses hasn’t kept up with the times. This has led to them not really raising their budgets. When I entered the industry some 12 years ago, publishers could still a good artist for 500-800 RMB [$75-$120] to do a fine cover illustration, but now it would be difficult to find an artist to do it for 8000 RMB [$1188]. Around 2015 I was asked by a publishing house to do the cover of a sci-fi novel series they produced, and the process of our talks all went smoothly, but when I quoted my price they looked displeased and told me that even if they would do their best to give me the highest budget possible, it would still only be one-tenth of my quoted price. The price I quoted was just the normal price for a game poster illustration at the time. I never spoke to that publisher again afterward. And this was 2015, let alone how the situation is nowadays.”

This is not the first time Chinese school textbooks trigger controversy online. In 2017, an elementary school sexual education textbook caused a stir for being “too explicit” (read here).

UPDATE TO THIS STORY HERE.

Read more about (controversial) Chinese children’s books here.

By Manya Koetse

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