Burning (버닝, Lee Chang-dong, 2018)

Burning posterWith the world the way it is, it’s no wonder young people everywhere find themselves lost and confused, unable to find a sense of greater purpose when all they see is futility. Eight years on from Poetry which revolved around a grandmother’s growing sense of disquiet on realising no one cares about the victim of her grandson’s transgression, Lee Chang-dong returns with a story of frustrated youth as three conflicted souls are drawn into a spiral of resentments, jealousies and forlorn hopes.

Our hero, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is an aspiring writer currently working a series of casual blue collar jobs to get by in the city. One such job unexpectedly brings him into contact with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend from his home town he didn’t quite recognise. “Plastic surgery” she quips, though she seems happy enough to see him which comes as a surprise to Jong-su, awkward as he is. Hae-mi invites him for drinks over which she asks him a favour – to look after her cat while she goes off to Africa for a bit in response to the call of “great hunger”. Jong-su agrees, but has also agreed to go home to Paju to look after the family’s last remaining cow seeing as his dad, whom he hates, has got himself arrested after getting into a fight with a public official. Before she leaves for Africa, Jong-su begins a sexual relationship with Hae-mi which he seems to think is a sign of a deeper attachment, but when she rings and asks him to pick her up from the airport he is dismayed to find she’s in the company of another man – Ben (Steven Yeun), a handsome, sophisticated, and very wealthy Korean she was accidentally marooned with for three days in Nairobi waiting for a plane.

A man like Ben is an existential threat to one like Jong-su. He doesn’t even put up a fight when Ben, whose friend has been secretly following Jong-su’s rundown pickup all the way back to the city in his Porsche, offers to take Hae-mi the rest of the way. A farm boy from rural backwater Paju, he feels himself inferior, bumpkinish, and unrefined as Ben subtly undermines his self-confidence in order to boost his own sense of superiority. Jong-su, invited to Ben’s upscale condo for “pasta”, is instantly uncomfortable. Eventually unable to mask his rising resentment, he rudely lays into his host while smoking with Hae-mi out on the balcony by musing on how a man in early middle age can afford to live like this – cooking pasta and listening to music, driving a Porsche, owning a Gagnam apartment. In the first of many barbed comments which won’t help his cause, Jong-su asks Hae-mi what exactly she thinks Ben is doing with someone like her. She replies that he says he finds her “interesting”, but the sadness in her eyes implies that she’s already given this question more than a degree of thought.

Ben remains a cypher. Though his manner is charming, even superficially kind, there’s something unsettling about him, a kind of creeping hollowness coupled with unpredictability. Rattled, Jong-su starts going through his bathroom cupboards and finds a ladies’ makeup box and a draw full of trinkets which seem to have belonged to several different women. At the very least, Ben has not been honest with Hae-mi, but Jong-su doesn’t say anything. Jong-su, less naive, is also well aware of the way Ben has been trotting them out for entertainment value at dinner parties frequented by his wealthy friends who take in the country bumpkin freak show with cruel superiority. Ben, however, is already bored – yawning ostentatiously but making a conspiratorial show of locking eyes with Jong-su who he knows is on to him in more ways than one.

Unexpectedly rocking up at Jong-su’s rundown Paju farmhouse, Ben plants a kernel of intrigue in Jong-su’s fragile mind by telling him about his “hobby” of burning down random “greenhouses” just for the hell of it. Despite his literary pretensions, Jong-su takes Ben’s words at face value and misses the obvious subtext. Whatever Ben is or might be, men like him delight in destroying fragile things to mask their own fragility. Jong-su takes the bait and the “metaphorical” fire Ben has lit within him begins to catch.

Ben, who finds Hae-mi’s tears “fascinating” because he has never cried, says he burns things to feel his soul vibrate. Hae-mi, meanwhile, remains frustratingly distant to both men. She talks about spiritual hunger and longs to find some kind of meaning in a world of futility but also longs to disappear like an all too brief sunset. She “reminds” Jong-su of a childhood incident in which she fell into a well behind her family’s farm and eventually found salvation in the sudden appearance of his face, but Jong-su doesn’t even remember. Hae-mi is in a sense still living at the bottom of a well, staring at the sky and waiting for rescue only to find herself continually abandoned, friendless and alone.

Then again, perhaps nothing she’s told Jong-su is true. Hae-mi’s answer to want is imagination, a simple ability to “forget” a desired object does not already exist. She asks Jong-su to look after a cat who is so shy he begins to wonder if it’s real, reassured only by an empty food bowl and full litter tray. Jong-su is our “writer”, but the only thing he writes is a petition letter to get the father he can’t stand an appeal for crime he knows he committed. He is our guide to “truth” but his job is to engineer narrative – the story is his to direct and the ending his to choose. He writes because “the world is a mystery” to him, but remains trapped within his own petty preoccupations in which the full weight of his rage levels towards Ben whose existence seems so unfair.

Burdened by a strangely feudal deference, Jong-su is a fuse slowly catching light. Failed by family, he and Hae-mi are abandoned children looking for a way out. They thought they wanted out of Paju, but perhaps they were meant to be together in this place if the world were better and there were no more playboy kings like Ben, eager to do “anything for fun” in order to escape the emptiness of their existence in which inherited wealth has left them purposeless and hugely insecure despite the superficial confidence of class. Jong-su and Hae-mi chase brief moments of sunlight bounced back from the gleaming spires of an inaccessible city but find no relief or promise in its greying skies. Adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong paints a dizzying picture of a tinderbox world in which the rage of the oppressed little guy threatens to engulf us all while those best placed to help only want to fan the flames.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Bi Gan, 2018)

Long Day's Journey into Night poster“It’s living in the past that’s scary” an old friend advises the hero of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Dìqiú Zhòu de Yèwǎn). He knows she’s right, but like the best film noir heroes, the past is the place he can’t bear to visit or to leave. Stealing a title from a Eugene O’Neill play about a dysfunctional family individually lost in the fog of self-delusion and unable to escape the legacies of past trauma, Long Day’s Journey into Night is the story of a man looking for lost love but finding it only within the confines of his own memory, transient yet also eternal.

Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili on the death of his father. As becomes apparent, there is nothing much of interest for him in a home he has avoided for years though an unexpected inheritance – a stopped clock his father could not stop looking at in the days before his death, yields unexpected treasure in the form of a black and white photograph of a young woman whose face has been burned out by a cigarette. Meanwhile, Luo walks us back through his own sad life story beginning at the turn of the Millennium when a recent divorce led to him letting down a friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi) – a roguish gambler, who was later murdered by gangster Zuo (Chen Yongzhong). Chasing the man who killed his friend, Luo tracks down his lover who bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the photograph. She tells him her name is “Wan Qiwen” (Tang Wei), and fascination soon turns into romance. As Luo has already hinted to us, Qiwen is the woman who defines his dreams – another of the disappeared, a ghost of memory which won’t let him rest.

Like the hero of Kaili Blues, Luo spends the rest of the picture looking for the missing – the mother who abandoned him in childhood, the man who killed Wildcat, and of course Qiwen. A haunted man, Luo chases ghosts and spectres of memory, attempting to repair his damaged world but perhaps half hoping not to find what it is he’s looking for and risk losing the beauty of its absence. Qiwen spins him a tale a worthy of any film noir femme fatale – of a jealous boyfriend and an impossible future. We can only be together if we live in the stars, she tells him, contributing to a noirish sense of futility which seals Luo inside a looping bubble of perpetual heartbreak and unresolvable longing.

For Luo all women and none are Qiwen whose emerald clad image echoes in every female face he sees. Memories of Qiwen and of his mother mingle uncomfortably, overlap and become one as he looks for explanations behind his twin abandonments and the heavy wound he carries in his heart. In his opening voice over, Luo tells us that dreams rise up within him and he rises with them as if his body were made of hydrogen, but that his memories are made of stone – heavy, immutable, and impossible to escape. Yet the dreamland is precious to him, because it’s the only place he can see Qiwen and where she is all he sees. Luo’s answers, if they come at all come only in dreams where the jumbled elements of his ongoing investigation reorder themselves, come together, and present a new truth holding its own transitory revelations.

In a dream Luo meets another woman who looks just like Qiwen only this time called Kaizhen with whom he trades eternity for transience and to whom he eventually gifts both. Luo’s wandering dream takes place on the winter solstice – literally the longest night on Earth, but is still too short. Drenched in perpetual rainfall, this Kaili is a lonely place of darkness and neon – a perfect encapsulation of Luo’s interior world, shaped by film noir and tragic romance which nevertheless gives way to a 3D dreamscape free of the selective editing which makes memory an unreliable narrator. Luo says that the difference between film and memory is that films are all false while memory holds both truth and lies, but in dreams dualities coalesce and absolutes disappear in a union of truth and fiction, transience and eternity. Bi Gan builds on the aching poetry of Kaili Blues for beautifully composed exploration of memory and desire mediated through frozen time and a single endless night.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (no subtitles)

Dead Pigs (海上浮城, Cathy Yan, 2018)

Dead Pigs posterPigs – they have the best life, according to pig farmer Old Wang (Yang Haoyu). All they do is sleep and eat while hard working folks like him go out of their way to keep them comfortable. To Old Wang, it doesn’t seem fair but, ironically enough, he seems to have forgotten the heavy price a prize pig pays for its short life of “luxury”. Nevertheless, all his hard work is about to go down the drain in the debut film from Cathy Yan, Dead Pigs (海上浮城, Hǎi Chàng Fú Chéng). Loosely inspired by the infamous Huangpu River incident, Dead Pigs is a decidedly cheerful satire of modern China’s capitalist revolution and the many changes, good and bad, it has wrought.

When all the pigs in China suddenly start dropping dead, it presents a series of problems for your average pig farmer like Old Wang. With everyone on high alert and no clear indication of what is causing the strange phenomenon, no one is buying pork and getting rid of the carcasses in the “official” way is costly, bothersome, and will alert the attention of the authorities. Therefore, pretty much everyone starts tipping their dead pigs in the river which, besides being unsightly, is also a significant risk to public health.

Old Wang, however, has other problems. When we first meet him, he’s become obsessed with the cutting edge art of VR technology because it feels just like the real thing, delighting in pretending to go swimming when he could actually just go swimming outside if only he hadn’t been polluting the river with pig carcasses. Not content with virtual delusions, he’s also got himself into debt by “investing” in a scheme which turned out to be a scam and lost him all his savings. In debt to loan sharks, Old Wang decides to ask his sister, Candy (Vivian Wu) – a beautician with an upbeat, inspirational marketing campaign, for help. Candy, however, is in the middle of a nasty dispute with a local property developer which has bought up all the other properties in the area to build a brand new housing complex bizarrely inspired by classic Spanish cathedral Sagrada Família and designed by American architect Sean (David Rysdahl) who has ended up in China in flight from failure at home. Old Wang considers asking his son, Zhen (Mason Lee), whom he thinks has a good job in the city, for the money to pay the gangsters, but Zhen is just a waiter (in an upscale bar/restaurant specialising in pork) and is too ashamed to tell his dad he can’t help. Meanwhile, Zhen has also fallen for disillusioned rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng) who is currently rethinking her elitist lifestyle.

Snapping at the property developers, Candy laments that it’s all “money, money, money” and resents that they can’t see the various practical and sentimental reasons she might not want to move, assuming she’s just an old battle-axe out for more money. In the world of rich kids like Xia Xia, money is indeed all that matters – having the flashiest outfits, jewellery, cars and accessories while being seen at the trendiest bars and restaurants on the arm of the handsomest companions the elite has to offer. No one seems to care very much about how they treat others because every offence can be paid for. Xia Xia, though she perhaps suspected it before, learns the hard way when she winds up in hospital and none of her many “friends” bother to visit her, preferring to send expensive gifts instead.

Meanwhile, Wang Zhen and his dad are two guys left behind by rapid modernisation. Too ashamed to tell his father he couldn’t cut it in the city, Zhen eventually takes to deliberately crashing into oncoming vehicles with his bicycle in the hope of extracting compensation – willingly submitting himself to a system in which money has become a license to do wrong for those who can afford it. American architect Sean feels much the same as he makes plain in an impassioned speech to Old Wang in which he insists that no one has the right to call him stupid or to make out he isn’t good enough for the brave new world they are making. Sean, having ended up in China in an attempt to escape these same feelings of inadequacy and failure in his home country, finds a new niche for himself, uncomfortable as it is, as a professional Westerner for hire in series of bizarre publicity stunts managed by a talent agency specialising in such rarefied fare. 

Yet more than the greed, selfishness, and inhumanity the cruelty of capitalism has engendered, it’s the loss of community that seems to really sting. Candy wants to hold on to her childhood home as a physical expression of a long lost neighbourhood and now absent family. Tellingly, the song she’s always singing, which is later reprised as a community wide karaoke number, is a classic track by Teresa Teng known as “I Only Care About You” in its Mandarin version but originally released in Japanese as “Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase” which literally means “surrender yourself to the flow of time”. You can’t stop progress – perhaps it’s a mistake to cling on to the tangible in a world constantly in flux when what really matters has always been close at hand. The message seems to be, salvage what you can but get out of the way of the bulldozer before it buries you too. Sparkling with whimsy and filled with impromptu song and dance, Dead Pigs is a delightfully surreal examination of a changing nation in which goodness and empathy eventually win out (to a point at least) against the overwhelming forces of rampant capitalist expansion.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s I Only Care About You

Original Japanese version (Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase)

May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput, Timo Tjahjanto, 2018)

may the devil take you posterTop travel tip – if you encounter a door which is plastered with Buddhist sutras, it’s generally a very bad idea to open it. In this case, just not opening the door is a valid and very sensible option. Sadly, it’s one the protagonists of Timo Tjahjanto’s May the Devil Take You (Sebelum Iblis Menjemput) decided not to take. Following Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves, May the Devil Take You also has a few hard questions to ask about the nature of “family” and how strong those bonds really are when the supernatural presses on already exposed nerves.

The film opens with formerly successful property entrepreneur Lesmana (Ray Sahetapy) entering some kind of agreement with a demonic shamaness whom he later kills and hides in the basement of his remote country villa. An undisclosed amount of time later, Lesmana is struck down with a mystery illness which forces his fractured family back together. Alfie (Chelsea Islan), Lesman’s estranged daughter from his first marriage, is called back to the bedside along with her step-siblings Ruben (Samo Rafael) and Maya (Pevita Pearce), famous actress step-mother Laksmi (Karina Suwandhi), and half-sister Nara (Hadijah Shahab). Forced politeness eventually gives way to resentment, especially when Laksmi begins to ponder selling the villa which is technically in Alfie’s name even if still thought of as a “family” property. When everybody unexpectedly turns up at the same time in search of things of value, they have very little idea of what it is that awaits them there.

Once again the threat is a bad inheritance in which the children are forced to pay for the crimes of their “father” who has let greed get the better of him and allied with dark supernatural forces in order to make himself fabulously wealthy. Lesmana’s sensational success is less due to his business acumen than to selling his soul, well not actually “his” but those belonging to his loved ones, to the Devil. His business empire apparently in tatters, Lesmana has both a problem and a solution, but the Devil is always wanting more and there may lines Lesmana won’t cross even when he is apparently willing to sacrifice the lives his wife and children just to be accounted a “success”.

There may be horrors lurking in the cellar of every home, but in this one they are quite literal and very, very angry. Family, as a concept, is the weapon the Devil chooses to wield, poking into all the dark and uncomfortable corners that basic civility usually leads most to avoid. Alfie, angry and carrying the trauma of her mother’s death, is resentful of her father’s new family and most particularly of her imperious step-mother whom even Maya later describes as “not a good person”. Yet for all that she can’t quite bring herself to “hate” her step-siblings, especially the kindly Ruben who seems to have embraced his role as a natural peacemaker. Their bonds will be tested by insidious evil which presses hard on their insecurities of their awkward family set-up in which no-one quite feels accepted, or wanted, or loved by almost anyone else.

Then again, family itself becomes a source of salvation when the buried past is unearthed and then reburied having been properly dealt with. Rather than a comment of Lesmana’s rejection of traditional religion and misuse of black magic, May the Devil Take You is an exploration in the desperation of a greedy man whose desire for infinite instant gratification is matched only by the Devil himself. Lesmana was willing to sell his family for gold only to change his mind and lose them anyway. The supernatural horror is all too real, but rooted in the sins of the father and in the broken familial connections which continue trap each of the protagonists in the stereotypically creepy remote rural mansion complete with creaking floorboards and leaky ceilings. Tjahjanto’s awkward tone, over-reliant on genre norms to degree of parody but distinctly serious, makes for a strangely uneven experience but there is certainly enough hellish imagery to fuel the nightmares of many a susceptible viewer.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Believer (독전, Lee Hae-young, 2018)

Believer posterJohnnie To’s darkly comical tale of a weaselly meth cook with an extremely strong survival instinct and the austere policeman who can’t resist taking his bait might seem perfectly primed for a Korean remake in its innate pessimism and awkward bromance. Lee Hae-young’s Believer (독전, Dokjeon), however, merely borrows the bones of To’s Drug War while doubling down on its central conceit as reckless obsession leads to the undoing of both our heroes, each forced to confront the futility of their respective, mutually dependent quests.

Obsessed with tracking down a mysterious drug lord known only as “Mr. Lee”, narcotics cop Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) asks a favour from an old informant only to see her murdered, leaving him only a vague clue by tracing an infinity symbol on a crumpled receipt moments before passing away. Warned off the Mr. Lee case, Won-ho finally gets a lead when an explosion at a drug lab brings scorned righthand woman Oh (Kim Sung-ryung) into his office promising to spill the beans in return for protection and immunity. Sadly, Won-ho couldn’t protect her either, but there was another unexpected survivor in the form of low level middleman Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol).

Traumatised by the death of his mother in the same explosion, Rak initially says nothing under interrogation but suddenly wakes up on learning that the lab’s dog also survived and has been rescued by the police. Unlike the “hero” of To’s film, Rak is small fry (if well connected) and is not looking at anything more than significant prison time. Rak may not be fighting for his life but he has a number of reasons for switching sides, especially once Won-ho fills him in on Mr. Lee’s backstory and long history of abrupt purges.

Despite working for the organisation, neither Oh nor Rak had ever met “Mr. Lee”. No one knows anything about them – gender, nationality, name, or location. In fact, there may not even be a Mr. Lee. Perhaps “Mr. Lee” is merely the “god” of drug dealers – an abstract idea almost given flesh but existing in a spiritual sense alone. Nevertheless, the idea of a Mr. Lee has completely captured the heart of compassionate police detective Won-ho whose all encompassing need to find him has already severely destabilised his life. After failing to protect his informant, Won-ho’s complaint against Mr. Lee is now a personal as well as professional one. Not so much out of vengeance (though there is that too), but a need to make the deaths count and his mounting losses meaningful.

Yet as another Mr. Lee contender later puts it, salvation may not be a matter of faith and if your faith has been misplaced, death may be a healing. In believing so deeply in the idea of “Mr. Lee”, Won-ho has given him form and created an idol to be worshipped through devotion. “Brian” (Cha Seung-won), a higher ranking gangster and former preacher chased out of the US for getting his congregation hooked on cocaine, has his own particular brand of faith based problems but subscribes to much the same philosophy. He may really be Mr. Lee (as may anyone), but if he isn’t he’s determined to convince himself he is in order to see himself as something more than the failed son of a chaebol dad who couldn’t hack it in the family business or in the pulpit. Brian would be happy to die as Mr. Lee rather than going on living as “himself”. Won-ho, unable to understand why kids do drugs asks his informant who explains it’s mostly because life is rubbish. Later someone says something similar to Brian, that he’d rather delude himself with the belief that he’s “someone” rather than face the emptiness.

Despite himself, and as Rak is eager to remind him, Won-ho is dependent on his informant for the pursuit of his case. Won-ho is reluctant to trust him even though Rak seems to be actively working to protect him in this extremely dangerous and largely unfamiliar world. Rak, by contrast, is aware he hasn’t won Won-ho’s faith, but assures him that’s OK because Rak trusts him. Rak does indeed seem to have the upper hand along with mysterious motivations and a fishy backstory, but Won-ho’s desperation to get close to Mr. Lee leaves him wide-open, unwilling to trust his guide but too invested to consider cutting him loose. “Belief” becomes its own drug, a transformative ritual act which gradually erodes all other needs and leaves only emptiness in their place. Won-ho can’t even remember why he started chasing Mr. Lee, but all that remains of him is the chase – a true believer suddenly bereft of a cause. Lee Hae-young takes To’s nihilistic cynicism and subverts it with a focus on the personal as both men fight self created images of their individual demons but find themselves unable to escape from their mutually assured identities.


Believer was screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Suburban Birds (郊区的鸟, Qiu Sheng, 2018)

Suburban Birds poster 1Everything is collapsing in the strangely entropic world of Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds (郊区的鸟, Jiāo de Niǎo). Time and memory conspire to confuse and confound as man-made structures devour the natural pleasures of human existence, stepping in time with China’s rapid urban development in a hasty march towards a fractured future. Our hero dreams of finding rare avian life, but remains shackled to the earth as an agent of both destruction and creation – literally “engineering” the future while attempting to repair the mistakes of the past.

Xiahao (Mason Lee) is currently working for a government-backed team of surveyors trying to solve a massive subsidence problem which has rendered a brand new estate unfit for habitation. The subsidence problem, besides being dangerous and apparently unpredictable, is also expensive – the city is footing the bill for putting an entire neighbourhood up in a hotel while essential works on a new subway line needed to serve it are also on hold. The engineers are doing their best, but they seem ill equipped to investigate and feel both under resourced and under appreciated. The youngest member of the team, Ant (Deng Jing), is even thinking of quitting because he gets all the rubbish jobs and his girlfriend thinks there’s no future in his career seeing as there’s relatively little scope for advancement save becoming the “boss” which doesn’t actually pay very much. In between drinking, arguing, and investigating, Xiahao strikes up a relationship with one of the evictees – the pretty hairdresser “Swallow” (Huang Lu), to whom he eventually offers to show the elusive birds.

Meanwhile, a second tale takes over when Xiahao investigates an abandoned school and discovers a diary written by another Xiahao (Gong Zihan) which details the various adventures of a group of adolescent friends. Whether in reality or just in the older Xiahao’s imagination, the kids from the book echo people in his adult life from the members of his engineering team to the two female evictees he encounters at the hotel. The younger Xiahao could perhaps even be an echo of the older one’s real or imagined childhood – the aesthetics are distinctly ‘90s but the adventures are infinitely timeless. Little Xiahao and his friends communicate in person and go outside to play, fully existing in tune with their surroundings and as much part of the natural world as the “suburban birds” looking for a perch in a land under permanent construction.

Yet modern China somehow works its way into their idyllic world. The kids play in the ruins of broken broken buildings, are literally injured by the ruptured landscape, and finally begin to disappear one by one. Eventually the streams cross – the young Xiahao and the other boys come across the older Xiahao and his team dreaming away under greying skies while their optical level looks silently on at nothing. The kids stick a piece of chewing gum on the lens – an act which is both intensely irritating for the slumbering adults and a literal proof of their material existence within the same plane if not definitively the same time.

Xiahao’s dreams, as he recounts them to his bored coworkers, revolve around a terrible gushing of water as a powerful drill inexplicably turns to liquid. The loudmouth party man tagging along to chivvy the crew towards a completion of the paperwork even in the absence of a safe and workable solution, has an appropriately bawdy theory but the dream itself is later echoed by the boys who find themselves charged with carrying a large butt of water through their school until its weight gets the better of them. Xiahao is convinced that leakage lies at the heart of the subsidence problem, that shoddy workmanship and bad weather have conspired to ruin the ambitions of human engineering. Public safety is not such a concern as faith in local government. Not only has an all encompassing hunger for progress robbed the land of its beauty but has begun to erode itself from the underneath leaving only a perilous fall to the chasms below.

Xiahao dreams of a more innocent time. His ringtone alarm features bird song which is either so real you can’t tell the difference, or the ironically named Swallow has never actually heard it before outside of the movies. He wants to find the elusive “suburban birds” but turns to the internet to do so, eventually wading back into into a dream in which children play freely among the greenery while singing semi-ominous communist songs about how the future belongs to the young. A riddle besets them all – what is both long and short, fast and slow, and whole yet may be divided into many parts? The answer seems to be time, or perhaps memory, hinting at the way past haunts the future as a squatting tenant of the present which can neither speak nor stay silent. Forgetting, like the water pouring in through the inexpertly poured concrete of a half constructed subway tunnel, erodes the foundations of conscious thought. You can’t build a future on emptiness, and if there’s nowhere for the birds to sit what sort of future is it anyway?


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Qiu Sheng from Locarno

Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jia Zhangke, 2018)

Ash is purest white poster 1Jia Zhangke returns to the world of crime for a slice of jianghu blues in his latest chronicle of modern China through the eyes of its ordinary, downtrodden citizens. Self referential in the extreme, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jiānghú Érnǚ) is a sad story of conflicting values and missed connection as a lovelorn woman proves herself too good, too pure, and ultimately too strong for the weak willed man she can neither love nor abandon. Times change and feelings change with them. To survive is not enough but integrity comes at a heavy price in a land where everything is for sale.

Echoing the time jumping narrative of Mountains May Depart, Jia opens in 4:3 and in 2001 as Qiao (Zhao Tao), sporting a black Cleopatra-esque haircut (the same as that worn by the identically named heroine of Jia’s own Unknown Pleasures from 2002) takes the bus into town. The first lady of the local “jianghu” underworld, Qiao is the devoted righthand woman of petty gang boss Bin (Liao Fan), enjoying the loyalty, honour, and respect of all in the slightly depressing environs of a small corner of dusty Datong. Bin is a walking monument to the idea of “jianghu” as mediated through Hong Kong action movies, swaggering around with a gun in his belt to prove that he’s the top dog in this tiny town. To live by jianghu is know that someone is always coming and when another prominent gangster is offed by young thugs, it’s not long before they come knocking on Bin’s door. Humiliatingly thrashed in the main square, Bin is only saved by a heroic intervention from Qiao who takes up his gun and fires into the air, a look of imperious authority on her face even as her eyes flicker with fear and excitement.

Qiao didn’t shoot anyone, but as the gun was illegal and she brought its presence to the notice of the police she gets into trouble anyway. A fierce devotee of the jianghu way, she refuses to give up Bin and insists the gun is hers and always has been. The gun was not hers in a real sense, and though she intends to lie in order to protect the man she loves from her mistake in firing it, spiritually speaking she and the gun are one. Having admired Bin’s skilful defusing of a petty gangster dispute without needing to use it, Qiao picks up the pistol and turns it over in her hands. The irony is, Qiao doesn’t need the gun but it completes her all the same, or at least completes the image she has of herself as an action movie heroine. Bin, however, has the gun because he doesn’t believe in himself in the same way Qiao does. He knows he’s weak and that his time is limited.

When Qiao is sent to prison for five years, she fully expects to find Bin waiting for her on the other side when she gets out. In the meantime Bin has proved true to form – he’s found himself another powerful woman to hide behind, though this time he’s chosen (or, in reality, is chosen by) one with good connections rather than fighting spirit. Bin has left the world of jianghu behind to try and make it in the rapidly developing capitalist economy, but as Qiao tells him when they finally reunite she had to live as a jianghu just to find him. Alone and friendless, betrayed by her love and disrespected by her new environment, Qiao turns to a cheeky strain of petty crime to get by – taking social revenge by attempting to blackmail random men over secret affairs, gatecrashing wedding parties for food, living by her wits on the streets and, if she’s honest, enjoying it.

Qiao is, in a sense, living in an imagined past. The frequent strains of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s seminal noir-tinged hitman drama The Killer underscore the yearning for an era of heroic bloodshed, brotherhood, and honour which never really existed outside of the movies. While Qiao grips her gun and fires in the air, Bin lights a melancholy cigarette watching Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, grumpily passive as always. Qiao saves Bin, more than once, but he can’t forgive her for it or reconcile himself to his own lack of resolve.

The film’s Chinese title, loosely translated as “the sons and daughters of jianghu” hints at the power of this double edged inheritance in which the archaic social codes of brotherly honour and loyalty are both barrier and bridge in an increasingly amoral society. Jia shows us a world of mine closures and forced migration, revisits the Three Gorges damn in which the past is sunk to pave way for the future, and introduces us to a modern day prospector with a big idea about UFOs. Bin, weak and opportunistic, doesn’t have the ability to ride the waves of China’s changing tides, but Qiao doesn’t have the will. Burned right through to her jianghu core, she sticks steadfastly to her code as she retreats to her spiritual home but owns her place within it even as the modern world rises up all around her. Qiao’s independence is both victory and defeat, an echo of the failed ideologies of a nation drunk on capitalism in which newfound freedom confuses and corrupts in equal measure. Nevertheless, there is something tragically romantic in Qiao’s lovelorn longing for a more passionate era in which the bonds between people still counted for something even if their demands were not always fair.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Full version of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s 1989 existential hitman noir The Killer