ASH IS PUREST WHITE – movie review

ASH IS PUREST WHTIE (Jiang hue er nü)
Cohen Media Group
Reviewed for & by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jia Zhang-Ke
Screenwriter: Jia Zhang-Ke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feeng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan
Screened at: Critics’ Link, NYC, 3/7/19
Opens: March 15, 2019

When I visited China in 1985 as part of a study tour, I found a country that had been wracked by a Cultural Revolution that ended a few years earlier. What I saw was as backward as you might expect for a state that had not experienced a global outlook. All felt provincial, with Beijing’s airport looking more primitive than even our own LaGuardia terminal and Shanghai’s equivalent of our Fifth Avenue coming across like a major road in Milwaukee. Even the best hotels were second-rate given that the big international chains were afraid to invest in a poor, Communist country. Today things have changed dramatically, though at the cost of making Beijing and Shanghai among the most polluted cities on earth. Instead of the quiet pace that found the older generation enjoying the camaraderie of the bathhouses, you now have ambitious young men more likely to bathe their Beemers or their Mercedes. The forty-eight year old Jia Zhang-Ke, easily China’s most celebrated filmmaker today and in the opinion of an NPR critic perhaps the best filmmaker at work in the world takes a look at how the changes affect a particular group of people. In 2001 they look like a bunch of small-time gangster nobodies socializing in a decrepit shack but calling one another “brothers” as a sign of undying loyalty. Seventeen years later life had caught up with them, the reversals symbolized in the characters of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan).

Bin is the honcho of the underground society taking for granted the deference given to him by his brothers. Qiao is in love with him, a woman who is one of the boys, giving love punches in the back to two men and taking a bite from the shoulder of her paramour, Bin. The entire group must feel that their loyalty will be unchallenged for life while Qiao seems assured that her love for Bin and his for her will last forever as well.

Though Qiao considers ballroom dancing “too Western,” but the entire company dance to a rhythm that would be familiar here in the U.S. When Bin is attacked by young people from a rival gang, Qiao saves his life by firing a gun into the air. Since China is not Texas, she spends five years in jail for mere gun possession. It’s now 2006. Qiao is out of prison sailing the Yangtze. noting villages along the way that are going to disappear—not from climate change but from the building of a dam to give electric power to the community. There’s one change. From the narrative’s point of view comes another change. Bin has moved on to another girlfriend and refuses to see her, leaving her adrift and forced to use her prison-acquired scamming skills to get meals and money. (Telling some wedding guests that she is a friend of the bride and those of the groom is a technique sometimes used even here.) By 2018 Bin has become a different man entirely, sidelined by a serious stroke, wheeled around by Qiao who tells him that their love is gone. Yet Qiao is in no mood for schadenfreude despite being dumped by Bin while she is in jail.

The conclusion is one of great sentiment but not at all like the cheap kind you’d find in commercial Hollywood movies. Though Jia does not afford us in the audience the spectacular scenery found in epic films like Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, supplies some panoramic shots around the Yantze and through the windows of a train—the latter being the backdrop of a humorous scene involving a passenger’s line that he is conducting research on a UFO project and would like Qiao to join him, offering her a job.

The film’s highlight is Jia’s expertise in the director’s chair but most of all from a shattering, albeit subdued (compared to what Hollywood would do to her) performance. “The years pass just like that” (snaps fingers) notes Gloria’s mother in Sebastián Leilio’s marvelous movie “Gloria Bell.” With those years, in China, there arrive momentous economic and social changes which, at the same time, make their mark against loyalties that had been expected to continue forever. Those wedding bells in our town may be breaking up that old gang of mine, but the simple passing of years does irreparable damage to familial ties in China. “Ash is Purest White” casts its eye on an exuberant but ultimately mournful setting in a particular spot involving two particular people, but its theme can stand in by extension for us all.

136 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – B+


Uncork’d Entertainment
Reviewed for & by Harvey Karten
Director: Mads Brügger
Screenwriter: Lærke Sanderhoff
Cast: Frederik Cilius Jørgensen, Rasmus Bruun, Odessa, Flemming Sørensen, Vibeke Manniche, Mohamed Ali Osman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/18/19
Opens: February 1, 2019

The Saint Bernard Syndicate Movie

You’ve probably heard of American business tycoons who have gone to China to take advantage of cheaper labor but who have returned to the U.S. frustrated by the different cultural aspects of Chinese business as well as the difficulty of managing an operation from thousands of miles away. Mads Brügger, in directing “The Saint Bernard Syndicate,” knows what cultural dissonance is all about. This time he focuses on the difficulties of negotiating with people from a foreign culture. This is his first fiction film, having previous contributed documentaries “The Ambassador, wherein he goes to uncover the blood diamond trade in Africa, and served as co-writer of “The Great European Cigarette Mystery,” dealing with a European politician involved in being in the pocket of the tobacco companies.

With “The Saint Bernard Syndicate,” he serves up his celluloid with a lighter touch, though the absurdist comedy at times comes across as zany to the point of embarrassment. As with his tobacco doc, he takes pot shots at business again, but this time zeroes in on a couple of dorks who consider themselves entrepreneurs and who seem destined to suffer the fate of many another enterprising person with no aptitude for business despite a plan that looks like a slam dunk.

Brügger chose his actors well. As Frederik (Frederik Cilius Jørgensen and Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun) are known in their native Denmark for comedy, they are ideal in situations that apparently call for some major improvisation. At the same time he takes his chances with some Chinese subjects who are non-professional actor. “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” is unlike any American sitcom as it’s not the kind of story that requires an audience laugh every twenty seconds. It embraces a serious overlay in that Rasmus has just been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, so with imminent paralysis and death looming, he figures, what the hell, might as well go with his chum Frederick despite having been bulled by him in an elite private school.

This is the kind of story that may make you think more than once about investing with start-up companies involving foreign countries. As written by Lærke Sanderhoff, the two go to Chongqing, a major business center in China and so polluted you’d not expect many tourists to visit. They set up embarrassing interviews for a staff of bilingual secretaries. After failing with an expensive party complete with confetti, bands and dancers, they manage to bait a wealthy investor, not realizing that he is a scammer with possible ties to organized crime. He is the only Chinese investor that allegedly believes that the rich countrymen will buy Saint Bernard dogs to add to their prestige, and therefore is willing to risk a large sum to set up a center that will breed the dogs, allow buyers to buy food from that center, and go with the veterinary care that it would provide.

Odessa the dog improvises as the big, lovable St. Bernard, while Rasmus Bruun was named best actor at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Now and then Frederik Cilius Jørgensen playing CEO of the Saint Bernard Syndicate insists on pulling rank on his buddy, but both are klutzes—something like Danish Laurels and Hardys. Since every dog has its day, we are pulling for the two businessmen because deep down many of us realize that whatever talent we have, it’s not for business. “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” is a Monty-Pythonesque tale of missed connections, as embarrassing as it’s funny, and with a serious streak involving the horror of taking a final, big chance when your weeks are numbered.

In Danish, Mandarin and English with English subtitles.

100 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

THE CHINA HUSTLE – movie review


Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jed Rothstein
Screenwriter: Jed Rothstein
Cast: Dan David, Matthew Wiechert, Carson Block, James Chanos, Soren Aandahl, Maj Soueidnn
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/23/18
Opens: March 30, 2018

The China Hustle Movie Poster

History has judged capitalism to be the winner. With the exception of a handful of countries—Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba—all follow the tenets of capitalism whether they announce themselves as capitalists or not. And theoretically, capitalism is the most form of economy that has integrity; that is, if you do good for others, make the products that people actually want, you will get rich. However there is another way of looking at this: if you get away with stealing from the people, you can also get rich. Or as Balzac said “Behind every fortune there is a great crime.” The latter opinion gets cinematic treatment in Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle.”

When I visited China in 1985 the country was a lot different from the way it is now. The street in Shanghai that was to resemble New York’s Fifth Avenue was a dark and dismal place, its stores pathetic haunts with shoddy goods, but at least the Chinese people were able to afford them. Tipping was not permitted. China was Communist in word and deed. Flash forward to 2018 and China has become the second largest economy, threatening to knock the U.S. off its pedestal as the world’s leading producer. The country that houses 1.3 billion people calls itself Communist, but though Mao’s portrait remains in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese people according to some are the most eager in the world to amass great wealth.

Still, some companies are shady at best. While the Chinese government forbids foreigners from owning stock in its corporations, leave it to those in America with the most vivid profit-making ideas to find a way around the law. The technique described in Rothstein’s documentary, called the reverse merger, is for Chinese companies to creep into the American stock exchanges like Trojan horses. When an American company is about to go belly-up but is still listed on our stock exchanges, a Chinese company pulls a reverse merger. This means that the foreign company enters the American one like a dybbuk, merging with a dying American corporation while operating in China. Hedge fund managers and financial companies would solicit investment from rich Americans, using the ecstatic balance sheets to convince all that huge profits can be made. Who needs Bernie Madoff when so many other clever capitalists can do the same?

There is one trouble: some Chinese companies vastly overstate their revenues and prospective futures even though they are heading south just like the defunct American businesses. It’s only the balance sheets that are raves. When some crafty Americans visiting China took note, discovering that the factories in no way enjoyed the traffic they claimed, they could have blown the whistle to expose them. Instead, these would-be muckrakers, aware that the bad news is around the corner and that the stocks would soon race for the basement, they sold the stocks short, a technique that allows investors to borrow stock from the brokers. Then, when the stock goes way down, return the stock to the brokers by repurchasing at the lower price. (See Wikipedia for a full explanation of “selling short” at

Rothstein’s doc hands the stage to people who have profited by this scam. As one leading financial manager states, “There are no good guys here. Not even me.” The film does not overstay its welcome at just 84 minutes and is reasonably easy to understand unless you’re a North Korean and have never heard the term “stock market.” Its editing is snazzy, meaning lots of bells and whistles such as you’d find in an action drama. It serves as ample warning: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. If any two words summarize the lessons taught, they are: Trust nobody. Do not take expert opinions except with a grain of salt, as Bernie Madoff’s investors learned the hard way.

Do I have to warn readers that Donald J. Trump should not be trusted? He recently pushed through and signed legislation that he said would deregulate 70% of the corporate world, as though he never heard of the market crash of 2008. If there’s anything that could be said of “The China Hustle” it’s that its lessons have not been absorbed by people who should learn from them lest they wind up selling apples on the street to make a living.

Unrated. 84 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

BORN IN CHINA – movie review


    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Lu Chuan
    Cast: John Krasinski, narrator.
    Screened at: NYC, 4/5/17
    Opens: April 21, 2017 – Earth Day
    click for larger (if applicable)
    As you watch Disneynature’s “Born in China,” do you get the feeling that zoos around the world should be closed and that children (and adults) should depend for nature study on the movies?  I do.  Watch the snub-nosed monkeys in the high, rocky areas of central China, in the pure air far from the poisonous cities of Beijing and Shanghai.  They all day long, the elders nurturing their young, swinging from branch to branch and having one helluva great time unconcerned about getting into Harvard or making it big with a hedge fund.  No facilities in any zoo could duplicate the grounds needed for such a vivacious, intelligent animal.  You say that the animals in zoos could not possibly survive in the jungle if they were given freedom?  This is true.  The ethical way to deal with this is to keep the zoos open until all its current inhabitants die out naturally (as if you can live and die naturally in these prisons).  And never build, renovate or even think of putting these wonderful, innocent creatures behind bars.  This is the position of PETA, and this is my position, and parents, before you criticize, take a look at some of the movies that hit the multiplex year after year, whether National Geographic or any of the Disney studios, and tell me your dissent. This year, “Born in China” will add to the education of you and your young ‘uns, given the expert close-ups of animals that took years to film.

    While China is known for providing us in the U.S. with affordable gadgets as Japan did half a century ago, there are justifiable complaints about the workmanship.  But when it comes to the birds, bears, leopards, chiru (antelopes),that make their homes in most populous Asian country, perhaps the only equal could be found on lands in East Africa.  I don’t believe the Chinese tour industry can take on customers given the dangerous, rocky peaks in China, some of which are 14,000 feet into the clouds, though if you don’t rush out of the theater when the end credits begin to roll, you will see the dozens of human beings involved in the photography scaling the mountains like Nepalase Sherpas.

    Obviously taking years in the making, given the progress of the seasons on exhibit, “Born in China” also has one minute of stunning time lapse photography of flowers as they burst open in a colorful array of nature’s glory.

    Since this is a G-rated film, there are no close-ups of prey animals being torn to ribbons by predators like the snow leopard, but you do see some shots of the large animals feeding on carcasses, having chased down the slower members of the unfortunate prey.  There is one scene of vengeance, however, though this term would be inappropriate to describe the natural course of events, as a horned animal protects one of his young by puncturing the leopard, described in the golden tones of narrator John Krasinski as being “badly injured.”  Again, not to disturb the kids in the audience, we do not see the injury or even hear about the extent of damage.

    China is best known for pandas, here in gorgeous display, the mothers protecting the young while the babies, just like human beings, show their independence by wandering off signaling their ability to fall only now and then in the grass.  Narrator Krasinski gets most excited when he slowly repeats the fact that an adult panda will eat forty pounds of bamboo in a single day.  Talk about a Paleolithic diet!

    Monkeys fly across trees, snow leopards race toward their pray, and cranes, known in Chinese legends for carrying away the souls of the departed, remain with their flocks.  And again, not to scare the kids, Krasinski, though mentioning the word “death” once, notes that according to the circle of life, we are born, we grow old, and we are reborn.

    You and your youngsters may want to do further research into what he or she has seen on the big screen.  Pick up a copy of John MacKinnon and Karen Phillips’s “A Field Guide to the Birds of China;” also Zoe Chant’s just published “The Snow Leopard’s Home.”  Both are sold at

    Rated G.  79 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

I AM ANOTHER YOU – movie review


    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B
    Director: Nanfu Wang
    Cast: Dylan Olsen, Nanfu Wang, John Olsen
    Screened at:Critics’ link, NYC, 8/30/17
    Opens: September 27, 2017
    I Am Another You poster
    When they see a homeless man lying in the street, the first thing some people want to say to him is “Get a job!”  A cartoon in the New Yorker magazine shows a middle-class couple gazing at such a man, the woman saying to her friend, “Why doesn’t he at least take up an instrument?”  People have all sorts of opinions when passing by those without homes, people bearing simple cardboard signs, sometimes even with a protective pit bull lying beside.  Truth is, not only people who live on the street and get their meals by dumpster diving are the same.  Would you believe that some actually choose to leave their nice, bourgeois homes, even folks who may like their families, but who would rather see what the country is like?  These are people who do not haunt the same stairways, the same park benches, the same winter shelters inside train stations. One such person is Dylan.

    Dylan is not what he seems to Nanfu Wang, who immigrated to New York from China, ambitious to make documentary films.  When she ran into Dylan Olsen, she learns, but is skeptical, that the young man considers himself a citizen of the world.  He tells her that he chooses to be free, and the only way for him to escape the shackles of a bourgeois existence is to put a large camping pack on his back—no shopping carts laden with clothing—and to appear to others like a college student exploring the country.  Wang is fascinated by the idea and wants to learn more. She also wants to contribute a fleshed out look at the young man and of course to add a doc to her résumé.  She finds out more than she expected shortly after meeting the man’s father,who tells all about his son, both the flaws and the joys.

    While Wang adopts the appearance of a homeless person herself, she travels with Dylan, always wondering who this person really is, whether he’s telling the truth, and whether he may even be emotionally unstable—at worst schizophrenic.  She finds out that Dylan and his family are Utah Mormons, politically and socially conservative, that the 22-year-old was a polar opposite from his brother, an accomplished pianist who is to demonstrate his skill on the keys.  Is Dylan a modern-day Jack Kerouac, a beatnik who believes you cannot be free if rooted to a specific point?  Was Dylan born too late, missing out on the glories of hippiedom, the youthful style of the late sixties and early seventies?  Is he bucking for sainthood?

    There’s a little of everything here, as Wang not only directs but mans the camera and uses Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero’s original music to add further drama to what must have originally been hundreds of hours of film stock.  Are there no untoward events in the relationship?  After all, who can be with another person day and night, especially while traveling, and not feel close to breaking down oneself?  The big schism arrived when the film’s subject was generously supplied by a shopkeeper with a free bag of bagels, but Dylan wants to beg.  He doesn’t want anything given to gratuitously, so he throws the bagels out.  That’s when she breaks away from him.

    But wait!  She meets Dylan’s dad, a down-to-earth Mormon who works in the police department sex crimes unit, who testifies that his son has been a handful, while Dylan’s brother, by contrast, is salt-of-the-earth and accomplished on the keyboard.  Then the mystery unravels.  Dylan had been on psychiatric medication, but instead of taking it—which could have resulted in his staying at home—he had sold the meds and instead uses alcohol as his drug of choice.  Yes he is experiencing more freedom combined with his ability to start conversations with others, enough to get invited to their homes.  But he is not a well person.  Yet, except for the times that the doc uses sound effects to give us in the audience a club to what schizophrenia can do to a person, he comes across like a youthful, energetic, handsome specimen who, having experienced what he wanted to do may become as bourgeois as the rest of the family.

    For her part, Nanfu Wang is well on the road to documentary glory, having contributed last year’s “Hooligan Sparrow,” about a fellow who went to China’s Hainan Province to seek justice for six kids who had been abused by their principal, the justice-seeker harassed unmercifully by the government.

    Unrated.  85 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?