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Yin and Yang - By - March 22, 1995 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Yin and Yang

The nannies who raised them gave Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger more than a title for their amiable, very personal documentary, Martha & Ethel. German-born Martha Kneifel dispensed much discipline but showed little affection toward Johnstone and her siblings. African American Ethel Edwards was warm and unconditionally loving to Ettinger and her brothers and sisters, even when their parents were not.

Martha & Ethel's concerns include parenting, blood and nonblood relationships, and the concept of “home.” At its best, the film probes the complexities of each, though at times it feels like scarcely more than a family album with good production values. But just as you find yourself asking what's to care about these upscale folks' domestic tribulations, one of Martha or Ethel's anecdotes rekindles interest.

Toward the end of the film, producer-director Johnstone and co-producer Ettinger visit their caretakers' hometowns with the now quite elderly nannies. As close as they've been over the years, Ettinger has never met Ethel's “real” family; that she hasn't underscores the asymmetry of their relationship. What's telling about the reunion, especially since Ethel is one of the film's nominal subjects, is that her relatives remain elusive even after the encounter — Ettinger favors superficial chatter over probing the racial and social realities that separated Ethel from her kin. Though two singular women emerge in Martha & Ethel, one can't help feeling that a richer story is left untold.

An impoverished painter (Wu Gang) and the female heir to a fireworks factory (Ning Jing) engage in a tenuous romance in He Ping's much-lauded film, Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker, set in early 20th-century China. First love enraptures Chun Zhi, but past and present bind her: Instructions left by her dead father forbid marriage, the customs in her Yellow River village don't allow for extramarital trysts, and the region's dependence on her factory make her emotions everyone's concern.

Firecracker uses the Yellow River's seasonal changes and topography to great metaphorical effect. Within Chun Zhi's factory/living complex, the director illustrates the literal and figurative volatility of the lovers' interactions as much through lighting, sound and blocking as through narrative. Some of his tracking shots are marvels of evolving composition.

He Ping has said that the film's dialogue was scripted during shooting, though the imagery and plotting were planned in advance. This may account for scenes that feel slightly out of synch, the visual elements having conveyed meaning well ahead of the literary ones. As for the clash between individual and society, some may find Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker's turbulent conclusion too ambivalent, though it undeniably reflects the tenacity of cultural tradition.

Martha & Ethel opens Fri, March 24, at the Opera Plaza in S.F. Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker opens Fri, March 24, at the Gateway in S.F. and the Albany.