As a metaphor for suppressed passion, a firecracker factory will do just fine, especially if it’s in pre-revolutionary China, which Zhang Yimou’s films have definitely established as a veritable minefield of potentially explosive lusts. But in Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker, director He Ping (best known for his Swordsman in Double Flag Town) takes the metaphor too far, while leaving the passion behind.
Though their autonomy is limited by the usual social and family concerns, Firecracker‘s principal protagonists are freer than those of such films as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. Nie Bao (Wu Gang) is an itinerant painter who, as he brags, can take his skills anywhere; he’s hired by Chun Zhi (Ning Jing), a young woman who’s known as “The Master” because she, as the Cai family’s only heir, is obligated to oversee the factory—and it wouldn’t do to have a woman in such a position. The Master wears men’s clothing and has vowed not to marry, so as to not dilute the family’s ownership of the fireworks operation. (No one remarks on the fact that this tactic will preserve the title only for one generation.) The artist, struck by Chun Zhi’s beauty, sets out to make her forget her vow, a quest that makes him a threat to the factory’s status quo and to such established figures as overseer Mr. Mann (Zhao Xiaorui).
Though Firecracker‘s too-leisurely pace and elegant compositions are clearly those of a post-Mao Chinese epic, its characterizations are as sketchy as in any assembly-line Hollywood romance. The attraction between (and of) Nie Bao and Chun Zhi is purely physical, and their personalities are the simple opposites suggested by the film’s title: He’s a rootless hothead, she’s chilly and stuck in place. Sex roles prove to be pretty immutable too: Once the painter succeeds in seducing his boss, she puts on a dress and announces, “I don’t want to be your master. I just want to be a woman.”
This won’t do, and in the course of the film’s unshapely narrative Nie Bao is compelled to leave town not once but twice. During the second absence, the artist learns to make fireworks and returns to challenge all potential suitors to a firecracker contest. In a competition involving gracefulness and recklessness in equal measure, he faces, naturally, antagonist Mr. Mann. At the factory, miscreants are punished by having parts of their bodies blown off by explosives; in the contest, Nie Bao and Mr. Mann risk such maiming to win Chun Zhi. (According to the director’s notes, “within traditional Chinese culture, this kind of competition is not out of the realm of possibility.”) It’s a duel in which winning can be losing, a result that fits Firecracker‘s fundamentally melancholy tone.
In framing the story, He Ping skillfully uses the intricate system of courtyards that traditionally has come to express the strictures of pre-revolutionary Chinese life; his compositions alternate dark shadows and flooding natural light, and contrast the factory’s orderliness with the unpredictable tumult of the nearby Yellow River. Unfortunately, Da Ying’s script is not as nuanced as the director’s rendering of it. Nie Bao and Chun Zhi are too shallow to justify their deep yearnings, so the film’s explosions seem detonated less by character than by sheer narrative necessity.
The lot of Latin American immigrants who venture across the U.S. border is not an easy one, as writer/director Greg ory Nava has already demonstrated in his 1983 film, El Norte. There are echoes of that saga in Nava’s new My Family (Mi Familia), but this time Nava and his longtime collaborator, producer/co-writer Anna Thomas, have sugarcoated their tale. Despite the occasional outrage, this epic finds more solace in family than the scenario actually justifies.
Family follows three generations of Mexican-Americans in East Los Angeles, and features more tones than characters. Sometimes naturalistic, sometimes folkloric, the film ventures unconvincingly into politics, melodrama, magical realism, and even sitcommery. Nava seems to grab for whatever’s closest on the shelf, and the result is thematically incoherent.
The tale is narrated by Paco (Edward James Olmos), a representative of the middle generation, who begins with a story of his father, Jose, that plays like something out of Don Juan DeMarco. “Actually, nothing like that ever happened,” Paco quickly adds, substituting a less dramatic but equally cutesy tale: How his Mexican dad, ignorant of the very concept of “another country,” set out to visit a relative in Los Angeles, an excursion he thought would require a day and in fact took a year.
Later, Paco’s California-born mother, Maria, will undertake a similar trek. Expelled from the country by immigration agents who don’t care that she’s a citizen, the pregnant woman waits for her baby to be born and then begins the long walk home. Swept into a swollen river, Maria somehow saves herself and her baby, Chucho, cheating the “river god” (and his agent, an owl) of Chucho’s life.
Though Paco, an aspiring writer, denounces the machismo of his younger brothers, Nava is fascinated by the family’s beautiful losers. Of Maria and Jose’s six children, most are written off in the narrative equivalent of a sentence: One daughter eats too much and opens a restaurant; another, Toni, becomes a nun and is politicized in Central America; a son who goes to law school is dismissed as an Anglo wanna-be (and his blond fiancée and potential in-laws as objects of ridicule). Nava finds plenty of screen time, however, for Chucho (Esai Morales), a knife-wielding late-’50s pot dealer who takes on both rival gang members and the police, and for Jimmy (Jimmy Smits), the youngest, who carries Chucho’s self-destructive legacy into the ’70s.
The fates of Chucho and Jimmy illustrate Family‘s tendencies toward muddle. When the former is shot down by overeager cops, his death is attributed to the river god, finally claiming the soul he thought was his 20 years before. (Yeah, the owl shows up again.) Later, sullen Jimmy weds a Salvadoran woman, Isabel, who Toni is trying to save from deportation and likely death. After their marriage, Jimmy reluctantly falls in love with Isabel; despite Maria and Jose’s objections to the green-card union, it turns out that bringing someone into the family is always for the best. In rescuing Isabel from the death squads, though, current events rapidly degenerate into soap opera. Fortunately, Isabel and Jimmy’s son, Carlito, is a family therapist in the form of a straight-talking 4-year-old.
There are some structural devices linking this sprawling tale, including Paco’s narration and repeated shots of the bridges that lead to jobs on the west side of town. These are more contrived than integral, but they’re the best Family can offer; the members of Maria and Jose’s brood are as blatantly disparate as the film’s pitch is wavering. In its efforts to illustrate various aspects of the Mexican-American experience, a sense of family is one of the film’s principal casualties.