A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见 南屏晚钟, Xiang Zi, 2019)

“How come she doesn’t cry?” a mother anxiously asks, still on the table following a caesarean section, “don’t worry, it’s a matter of time”, the doctor reassures her. Representations of LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Chinese cinema are few and far between, which might be one reason why the famed dragon seal does not appear before A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见 南屏晚钟, Zàijiàn Nán Bīng Wǎn Zhōng), a Spanish co-production and the autobiographical first feature from Xiang Zi. A melancholy contemplation of the various ways a repressive social system can echo through generations, Xiang’s film quietly suggests that one form of authoritarianism breeds another and that if conformity comes at the cost of happiness then it’s a price not worth paying. 

Heavily pregnant Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) has returned to China from the US with her Western husband (Thomas Fiquet) to have the baby under better medical conditions, but it appears that an extended stay with her parents may not exactly be a cause for celebration. Though her mother Jiumei (Na Renhua) originally seems cheerful and happy to see her daughter, it’s clear that there is frostiness between the two women and distance within the marriage. Gradually we discover that the iciness which pervades the Huang home is born of a sense of resentment and betrayal which stems back (partly, at least) to Jiumei’s discovery that her husband, Tao (Wu Renyuan), is a closeted homosexual after discovering him with his male lover. 

That does not, however, quite explain Jiumei’s ambivalent attitudes to her daughter. “I haven’t had a happy day since you were born” she’s fond of saying, regretting that she didn’t strangle her at birth after hearing from a fortune teller that Xiaoyu would be her “nemesis”. The allegorical quality of Jiumei’s story about going off the dog because he came to love her husband more is certainly not lost on Xiaoyu, awkwardly asked to translate for her husband, swinging between pity and resentment, as bound by social norms as her mother in feeling obliged to take care of a woman who does nothing other than reject her. 

Xiaoyu has long thought her parents should separate, but it never seems to happen. Her father tells her that he worries what will happen if they do. Jiumei says she wants to go to the US and live with Xiaoyu who can hardly refuse, but Tao knows that his wife is not an easy woman and the effect of her constant presence could prove detrimental to the state of his daughter’s marriage. Even so, Xiaoyu thinks it would be the best thing for all of them, if only to escape the never-ending hell of their cycle of bitterness. 

Jiumei, meanwhile, has found refuge elsewhere – in the arms of a shady Buddhist cult. Jiumei believes that her husband is “mentally ill”, blaming his mother for some sort of past trauma that’s made him the way he is. The cult preaches filial piety, family values, and loyalty to the state, and is always ready to “help” in return for “support”. Hoping to buy her way into a more respectable life, Jiumei donates vast amounts of money in the hope of meeting the mysterious Master Zhao who, it is claimed, can “amend” her husband’s sexuality and therefore fix all of the other problems in her life. 

“Gossip can bury you alive” we later hear Jiumei exclaim in a flashback, talking about about something else and perhaps explaining why she’s so desperate that her marriage of convenience be a superficial success. From the outside the Huangs are an ideal couple, wealthy and successful, and so their society tells them they shouldn’t complain. Having suppressed her own desires, complaining that Tao has been “impotent” for most of their marriage, Jiumei is angry and resentful of those who are unable or choose not to do the same. Meeting Tao’s lover, Xiaoyu laments that what Jiumei most wants is never to separate from her father until the end of time, but does not quite know the essential truth of it until an unexpected and all too brief moment of candour from her distant mother. Xiaoyu’s hand wants to reach out to her, but there is a barrier between them which it seems cannot be breached. 

Moving between Jiumei and Tao’s early courtship and the present day, moments of elliptical symmetry present themselves. Fengxi (Chen Zhengyuan), Tao’s younger lover, is it seems himself about to be married and become a father. Xiaoyu meets with him and explains that she is not in any way against their relationship, but pleads with him not to enter a marriage of convenience and ruin a young woman’s life, as her father did, solely for the sake of passing on the family name. He is quick to correct her that he would never consider it, his fiancée is a lesbian who wanted a child with her lover, he is merely helping them out while getting everyone’s parents off their backs.

Fengxi refuses “to build happiness over someone else’s sorrow”. Meanwhile, a long time in the past, someone asked Jiumei what the point was in marrying and having children to live a life you don’t believe in, but she could only answer that marriage was a matter of finding someone who fit the role more than it was of love. Jiumei has been playing her role at the cost of her soul and it’s left her lonely and bitter. Internalised homophobia has ruined them all, forcing them to live lives of empty conformity with only the cold comfort of having fulfilled their duty to society. Jiumei resents Xiaoyu because she is the symbol of the price she paid to lead a conventional life, doubling down on her bet for normality, and passing on that same, misery inducing repression to her daughter. Xiaoyu seems to have escaped by going abroad, but even if her husband tries to convince her that her parents’ lives are not her responsibility, remains equally bound by a sense of obligation now given new weight by her impending motherhood. Xiang ends with a heartbreaking dream sequence in which all can dance together, joyfully embracing their true selves free of shame or anxiety, but as others retreat from the rain some choose to stay, sitting all alone in darkened rooms knowing it is they themselves who elected to turn out the light.


A Dog Barking at the Moon is available to stream via BFI Player until 4th April as part of this year’s BFI Flare.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Wang Ran, 2017)

Doesn’t everyone deserve their time to shine? For the students at the music conservatoire at the centre of Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ), a glittering future may be difficult to imagine. Another in the recent series of Chinese youth comedies, Wang Ran’s debut may clearly be inspired by Japanese anime, but adds a noticeably patriotic beat in making its heroes devotees of traditional music facing off against the “pretentious” threat of European classical. 

The academy is strictly divided along class lines with the snooty classical kids pretty much ruling the roost. When an actual fight breaks out between factions, the conservative headmaster sides with the classical club and erects a series of prison-style gates to confine the folkists to their own corridors while also banning them from staying too late or eating in their rooms. Airy fairy nerd Chen Jing (Xu Lu) hadn’t previously cared about the folk vs classical drama, but is pulled into it when she falls for handsome pianist Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). That’s why she naively volunteers to be a page turner for him at a big concert, not quite understanding she’s being made fun of. Determined to prove herself to him, she decides to form a traditional folk ensemble but finds it difficult to get recruits, ending up with a group of four otaku girls everyone else is scared of who only agree on the condition that she buys them all plastic model kits every week. 

A true underdog story, Our Shining Days makes heroes of its “losers” whose uncool tastes have seen them roundly rejected not only by their fellow students but also by their families. Chen Jing is a talented Yangqin player, but conflicted in her ambivalence towards traditional Chinese music. Internalising a sense of shame about her niche interest, she half convinces herself that she’s only learned yangqin because her parents made her and is not truly invested in the instrument, which is why she immediately assumes they’ll dissolve the band as soon as her mission of winning Wang’s heart is over. 

The otaku students, however, rediscover a love of the admittedly fantastical music, giving it a cool modern edge inspired by their love of anime and games. The otaku live in the “second dimension” and have already more or less othered themselves, but begin to actively enjoy being part of the band along with the communal pleasure of making music together. Meanwhile, the scruffy Chen Jing begins learning a little about life from the sacred otaku texts of her new friends, only to take their shojo manga-style advice a little too seriously in deciding to make a public confession to Wang which brutally backfires. Wang is planning to go abroad to study classical music, he’s not interested in lowly yangqin players. 

The class drama reaches a crescendo when the conservative headmaster announces that as of the following year the school will cease admitting students playing traditional instruments altogether. Spurred on by Chen Jing and the otaku girls, the oppressed folkists finally find the strength to resist, rising to prove there is a viable ensemble for folk instruments to counter the “sophisticated” classicists. The classicists adopt the motto “let my music be the soundtrack of war”,  but the folkists are all about team effort and peaceful co-existence. When the local inspector reminds the headmaster there is no conflict in music and expresses disapproval of the school’s prison-like environment, the folk ensemble, rather than trying to defeat the classicists, come up with a “better” solution in which they can work together so that folk music can still be heard as part of the big end of year concert. 

A cheerful coming of age tale which ends in the message that there’s a place for everyone and that those who are generous of spirit are the likeliest to prosper and be happy as they do, Our Shining Days also has its share of high school drama as the scruffy Chen Jing gradually progresses to towards a more mature elegance while her best friend Li (Peng Yuchang) gets the courage to confess his feelings in a much less ostentatious manner. Subtly patriotic in its suggestion that traditional folk music is “better” than the false sophistication of pretentious Western classical, the central messages are of love, acceptance, and authenticity, insisting there’s a place for everyone who comes with an equally egalitarian spirit. 


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix

Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

Spring Tide (春潮, Yang Lina, 2019)

Toxic motherhood takes on strangely subversive, allegorical tones in Spring Tide (春潮, Chūn Cháo), Yang Lina’s painful examination of the relationships between three generations of Chinese women, each in different ways victims of the times in which they live. It’s true enough that the folk tunes sung so happily are often odes to the “motherland” which betray none of the eeriness of their propagandistic intentions in their full hearted endorsement of nation as family, but the darkness is inescapable as we see their metaphors made flesh in a woman destroyed by her sense of disappointment in life and in turn destroying her daughters literal and metaphorical in a pathological attempt to give her life meaning. 

30-something Jianbo (Han Lei) is a socially conscious investigative journalist whose refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is a constant thorn in the side of her more conservative editor. At home, meanwhile, she’s mother to nine-year-old Wanting (Qu Junxi), who, we later realise is being raised by Jianbo’s feisty mother, Minglan (Elaine Jin Yan-ling), while she splits her time between the family’s backroom and a bed in a student dorm with occasional nights spent with an intense yet silent musician. 

Aside from the obvious emotional disconnection, the fracture lines between mother and daughter are also ideological. Jianbo is a post-80s generation woman, she wants to hold mother China to account because she wants her society to be better than it is. She unroots scandal and corruption and brings them to light through the power of the press, trying to create real social change through shaming the populace into better patterns of behaviour. But her mother Minglan lived through the Cultural Revolution, because of all she’s suffered she thinks that things are fine the way they are and criticising the beneficent state is like scolding the person that raised you. Caught in the middle, Minglan’s fiancé Zhou (Li Wenbo) espouses contradictory views, at once proud to have Jianbo as a daughter because “journalists are the conscience of a country”, but also grateful for the iron rice bowl system that gave him a steady job, not to mention a pension and the old person’s flat that’s allowed him to meet Minglan. 

Minglan’s life has indeed been full of suffering, though it is perhaps surprising how casually she and her friends remark on the terror they experienced during their youth while continuing to sing the old patriotic songs. “My motherland and I can’t be apart for a moment”, according to patriotic hit My People, My Country (我和我的祖国), but its tones suddenly seem sinister in their breeziness as we’re forced to consider the icy Minglan as a stand-in for China as a toxic mother, insisting that she must be respected and that her children must repay their debts to her, no matter how abusive she has been and may continue to be. To her friends in the retirement community, Minglan is a warm and caring woman, running the choir and organising local events, but she’s also blindsided by the suicide of a friend who took her own life because of an entirely different kind of filial disappointment coupled with existential loneliness. Minglan can’t understand why she did it, but in characteristic fashion largely makes it all about herself in lashing out at Jianbo when she points out that Mrs Wang was not as happy about their (read: Minglan’s) potential retirement plan as Minglan had believed her to be. 

“When were you going to realise this was a family and not a battlefield?” Jianbo asks her mother knowing that she can make no further reply. The tug of love over motherhood of Wanting is, in many ways, a tussle over the future of China. Minglan digs her nails in, telling Wanting a few hurtful truths about her mother while insisting that you really can’t trust anyone anymore but that’s OK because grandma loves you, while Jianbo remains powerless to reassume her maternity knowing that her only weapon is to avoid unduly antagonising her mother in the hope that she won’t end up alienating Wanting in the same way Minglan alienated her. All that exists between them now is a torrent of resentment, Minglan seeing her daughter only as the symbol of all her frustrated desires, and Jianbo knowing she’s become a sad and lonely woman solely because her mother refused to love her in the way she wanted to be loved. Jianbo is determined that she won’t let Minglan’s “vanity and hypocrisy” corrupt her pretty, sensitive daughter, pushing her towards an “ignoble and ridiculous life”. She wants Wanting to be free of this chain of abuse and all its authoritarian gaslighting, but has no mechanism to free her other than distance. 

Wanting, by contrast, is cheerful and kind. She has absolutely no filter and is entirely unafraid of asking difficult questions, but is also brave and strong, willing to stand up for others. A little girl in her class who happens to be from the Korean minority is criticised for her “poor” Mandarin and ordered to switch seats but her new buddy refuses to sit with her because he claims not to be able to understand what she’s saying. Wanting immediately pipes up that she understands perfectly, instantly becoming the girl’s best friend and visiting her home which appears to be one of immense harmony and happiness where her dad whirls her round while proudly singing Arirang, standing in stark contrast to Minglan’s joyous yet somehow self-involved recitals. China as an authoritarian mother may be losing its grip on power, while Jianbo’s generation struggles to free itself from the trauma of toxic parenting, but there is perhaps hope for Wanting as she and her friend decide to leave the patriotism showcase to follow the spring tide right out into a wide river of joy and freedom.


Spring Tide was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Liang Ming, 2019)

A young woman rides the waves of changing times in Liang Ming’s Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Rìguāng Zhīxià). Perhaps innocence is something slightly painful you’re better off without, but awakening to life’s light and shade can be a difficult process. Gu Xi (Celeste Lv) is suffering with a dull ache in her jaw and the solution is, apparently, merely pain killers but you can only numb yourself so long before you have to make a choice of whether to go on living with the pain, or free yourself from it. 

A young, if slightly immature woman, Gu Xi has a job in a local hotel and lives alone with her half-brother, Gu Liang (Wu Xiaoliang), who, until recently, has eked out a living as a fisherman. A recent oil spill revealed to have occurred some time ago but covered up by the authorities has put paid to that, while Xi also finds her job under threat because she has an undocumented status and there is shortly to be some kind of inspection. Having grown up without a mother and entirely ignorant of who her father might have been, Xi feels acutely anxious about her circumstances and is dependent on Liang for a sense of security. It is therefore unsettling for her when he develops an interest in the sophisticated Qingchang (Wang Jiajia), daughter of local mob boss Zhou (Chen Yongzhong) and a recent returnee from South Korea where she had been living with her mother. 

A mirror image of Xi, Qingchang is everything she she’s not. Xi is well known for wearing her brother’s clothes, dressing like a tomboy for reasons that are a combination of poverty and affection, where Qingchang has wardrobes full of the latest fashions brought back with her from overseas including a beautifully crafted Hanbok featuring an elaborate embroidered design. As much as she’s resentful and intimidated, Xi can’t help admiring the slightly older woman, captivated by her sense of self assuredness, and eventually develops a sisterly bond with her even while fearing that she may steal her brother away. 

A further intrusion, however, disrupts their tentative familial bonding. A fisherman found dead and floating on the sea hints at a burgeoning turf war between local bosses Zhou, Qingchang’s father and Liang’s employer now that he’s taken a job as a security guard at the docks, and Jiang (Tao Hai), a melancholy Christian who owns the hotel where Xi had been working. Though warned by others that Jiang seemed “creepy”, Xi feels indebted to him because her job at the hotel was saved after she approached him to intervene. Her habit of recording the conversations around her to listen to later presents her with a problem when she discovers that Zhou may have bumped off the fisherman himself and is planning to frame Jiang for the crime. Jiang, it seems is also receiving protection money to ensure the fishermen’s safety, apparently a promise he wasn’t able to keep. Xi is pulled three ways. She loses confidence in Qingchang who is now both tainted by association and a figure of mild discomfort, while fearful that if she reveals what she knows, serves justice and repays a debt by clearing Jiang, she will ruin her brother’s happiness and risk his rejection. 

Trapped in he realms of childhood, what she most wants is to preserve her status quo. Liang is everything to her – brother, father, and somewhat uncomfortably a figure of romantic impossibility. Her feelings towards Qingchang are mired in complexity, a nascent attraction perhaps underlying her sense of jealousy either misdirected through her complicated feelings for her brother or simply finding its anchor for the first time. An angry speech at her brother’s birthday party during which she inappropriately reads out a semi-explicit passage from a lesbian novel hints at an attempt to resolve an attraction she feels is taboo, though it is unclear for whom it is directed. As with most young people, she must come to an accommodation with the fact that her world is changing. A childhood promise that she and her brother would never marry, preserving their family of two forevermore, was always unrealistic but she struggles to let go of the idea of permanence in a childish sense of familial security. Like the oil polluting the seas, her world is coloured by uncertainties but like anyone else she discovers that her agency is limited and whatever choice she makes others will make their choices too. That dull ache in her jaw is a reflection of the ills of the world around her, an inconvenient tooth that needs to be plucked out and discarded leaving only the cold comfort of adult wisdom behind in its place. 


Wisdom Tooth screens on March 11/14 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

The River in Me (大河唱, Ke Yongquan, Yang Zhichun, He Yuan, 2019)

Can the old arts survive in the modern world or are they destined to fade away with the passing of time? Folk singer Su Yang is determined to preserve them, if only by assimilation, blending traditional folksong with Western rock to bring it into the modern era. While some complain that Su’s singing is inauthentic, he argues that authenticity, in that sense at least, isn’t the point. The only thing that matters is whether people like it and can feel something of themselves and of ages reflected in the ancient rhythms. 

Now a successful musician, Su is not originally from the country but moved to rural Yinchuan, Ningxia in Northwest China with his parents when he was seven. He later says it was the music of Yinchuan which touched him not because it is the greatest of cities but because it’s the one which most intersected with his life. Through his travels, Su meets up with a series of other practitioners of traditional arts mostly also from Ningxia and the surrounding area as he and they dwell on survival. 

Itinerant singer Liu Shikai makes a living playing the Sanxian, but fewer and fewer people are interested in listening while in private he feels himself lonely as a twice widowed father of three, especially as his youngest daughter has now married leaving him at home alone. Su laments something similar, reflecting that there’s no New Year for him. His festivities will consist of working and drinking, while his family can see him on TV from the comfort of their homes. Su’s brother complains endlessly about the annual Spring Gala (while watching it anyway), finding the show totally lacking in any kind of substance and becoming more boring by the year. His astute daughter, however, points out that his criticism is unfair or at least stating the obvious because the Spring Gala reflects “youth culture” which is perhaps flashy and superficial but equally is not intended to appeal to middle-aged men. Su appears on the program himself but might agree, seeing as it’s his mission statement to put a little soul back into the mainstream by bringing the rhythms of the Yellow River to contemporary society. 

Back in the country, meanwhile, folksongs are serving the same purpose they always have, expressing joy in the natural world and bringing communities together through choral solidarity. Then again, Hua’er singer Ma Fengshan, sometimes finds himself at odds with his. A member of the muslim minority, his house is filled with religious texts that he is unable to read because they are in Arabic which he doesn’t speak. Some have told him that he should spend more time on religious study, but all he wants to do is sing, while others actively oppose Hua’er for its “salacious” qualities, aware the songs can be used as a form of flirtation and convinced that they have the potential to cause marital breakdown and infidelity. In spite of everything, Ma keeps singing and is eventually joined by other members of his community wearing traditional dress to celebrate Hua’er music. 

For puppeteer Wei Zongfu, however, the future seems far less bright. Now ageing himself, he’s accepted that his descendants won’t want to succeed him and there are few people interested in learning shadowplay. The leather puppets crafted by his grandfather are so precious to Wei that he didn’t even want to take them to use in Su’s showcase of traditional arts in fear they might be damaged or stolen, opting for a safer paper play instead, but is now contemplating what’s best to do with them after he dies and if the art itself can survive when there is no one to perform it. 

That’s a problem also faced by Zhang Jinlai, the harangued head of a Qinqiang Opera troupe frequently at odds with his co-star wife who berates him for employing too many actors when they aren’t making any money. With economic factors to consider, he finds it hard to keep his troupe together and is pushed towards making “innovations” that might appeal to a younger audience but wishes to remain “authentic”. Su’s suggestion, by contrast, is that in the end you can only move forward, the old arts may have to adapt or die. Some may not approve of his modern take on the traditional, but in his own way he’s saving Hua’er song and helping to pass it on to future generations, in his own words extending the rhythms of the Yellow River to all corners of the world. 


The River in Me screens in Amsterdam on March 4/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Present.Perfect. (完美現在時, Zhu Shengze, 2019)

Live streaming has become big business in China. Locked out of the nation’s burgeoning economy, many youngsters have pinned their hopes online, seeking internet fame as a pathway towards a life less disappointing. Recent documentary People’s Republic of Desire showed us how cynical and exploitative the industry could be, how it often betrayed both viewers and stars in selling false connection and manufactured acceptance. Present, Perfect (完美現在時, Wánměi Xiànzài Shí), however, assembled from hours of live streamed content artfully regraded in crisp monochrome, shows us something else – the everyday bloggers who aren’t really in it for the money or the fame, but crave visibility and validation. 

Zhu Shengze opens with a literal crane shot, scenes of construction and deconstruction as if symbolising the rapid reorganisation of the modern China. Rather than the more familiar chats, we see silent scenes of people working – men shifting bags from lorries, construction workers, later a farmer who does talk in order to tell us about his desire to found an ecological farm and invite us to experience his new “agritainment” facility. Eventually we arrive at a factory where a young woman who will recur throughout the film patiently sews underpants while chatting to her livestream followers, apparently free to do so though she admits that it decreases her productivity which is a minor problem because she’s paid by the unit. A divorced mother of a three-year-old, later seen clinging to her arm at the factory, she patiently answers repetitive questions about boyfriends and hopes for the future. 

One of many marginalised in modern China, the seamstress finds a sense of validation in the appreciation of the fans hanging out in her “showroom” and occasionally shooting her various presents by way of thanks. Not everyone is quite clear, however, about what services are exactly on offer. A dancer resists the pleas of a caller offering big bucks for a private chat hoping to persuade him to dance in the nude. The dancer offers him a different kind of ill-defined service, but encourages him to try another channel which might be more open to his particular needs. 

That kind of potential exploitation is a definite threat, but so is the callous maliciousness which all too often defines internet communication. A lonely dancer experiences trouble in the real world as a belligerent older gentleman angrily forbids him from filming in his chosen spot, but later offers a melancholy monologue about his many haters who, for some reason, are keen to insult him when all he’s ever tried to do is make them smile. The final scene of the movie finds him surrounded by a small crowd and attempting the famous Gangnam Style dance routine while the bystanders look on in silent bemusement, their eyes mostly fixed not on him but on the camera. 

Yet for all that, for those who’ve found themselves exiled from mainstream society online communication can provide an essential lifeline. One young man calmly explains that his genitals have been removed and, as a consequence, he never went through puberty and has become a 30-year-old with a child’s body. Bullied at school, he holed up at home playing video games until they too bored him. Though declaring himself “not gay”, he tells us that a crush on a male vlogger showed him a way out, that becoming a live streamer himself gave him the confidence to go out and explore the world, eventually leading a more independent life with a job in a local factory. Another man we’re introduced to was badly burned in a fire, losing his hand and sustaining significant facial scarring, itself something that attracts relentless trolling and inappropriate questions. 

In these brief windows into everyday life, what we discover is a kind of reverse voyeurism as the streamers offer up their reality in hope of connection. They are careful to remind viewers that they rely on presents, and the money comes in handy, but they aren’t planning on becoming famous or deluded into thinking they can strike it big. Some are just in it for the fun, goofing off for the camera moonwalking and sad no one seems to be interested, dancing alone to a Mandarin cover of classic ‘80s hit Dancing Hero, enlivening dull and repetitive tasks by presenting them as a kind of teaching exercise as they chat amiably with friendly strangers, calling out their names as they flash up in the showroom as if they’d just walked into a familar neighbourhood bar. Others crave a sense of validation, but all are looking for a kind of escape from a rapidly changing society built on a tenuous link to invisible strangers craving exactly the same. 


Present.Perfect. screens at the ICA from 24th January courtesy of ICA Cinema.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Rescue (紧急救援, Dante Lam, 2020)

The rescue poster 3

It’s tempting to see Dante Lam’s latest foray into big budget mainland action as a continuation of his previous hits Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea which paid tribute to the police and navy respectively, but it is also the latest in a series of films featuring China’s finest bravely battling against the odds to save the day. Like Tony Chan’s The Bravest which celebrated the selfless heroism of China’s firemen as they risked their lives to stop a potentially catastrophic fire in an oil refinery, The Rescue (紧急救援, Jǐn Jyuán) pays tribute to another undersung arm of the emergency services – China’s Coast Guard.

Our hero, Captain Gao Qian (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) of China Rescue And Salvage, is a devil-may-care hero who throws himself into danger without a second thought where lives are at stake. The motto of China Rescue And Salvage is “we risk our lives to give others hope”, but some feel that Gao Qian is too reckless with his and fear that he’s forgotten that you can’t save anyone if you get yourself killed playing at heroics. That’s something that’s temporarily brought home to him when the pilot of his helicopter is badly injured during a rescue on an oil rig engulfed by flames, leaving the inexperienced co-pilot to fill-in on his behalf. Gao Qian works his magic in the nick of time, but both of the pilots quit the team immediately afterwards, the pilot struck by the proximity of death and the co-pilot by his sense of inadequacy in feeling as if he failed to live up to the job.

Luckily the team soon get a new pilot – a lady, Yuling (Xin Zhilei), who clashes with Gao Qian in true disaster movie fashion in her desire for rational action and the kind of heroics that are strictly by the book. Against the odds, however, they make a good team, eventually bonding in mutual admiration for their complementary skills. Meanwhile, Gao Qian is also dealing with some home drama in that he’s just brought his young son Congcong (Zhang Jingyi), who had been staying with his grandmother, to live with him. Congcong seems to be suffering with some kind of illness, but is otherwise cheerful enough and hoping that his dad will get him a new mum, like, for example, the beautiful Yuling.

The death of his wife, his son’s illness, and the loss of colleagues he was forced to leave behind, haunt Gao Qian like a cosmic joke, as if he’s being “punished” for snatching so many other lives from the jaws of death. No matter how hard he tries, there are lives which cannot be saved – no helicopter can rescue you from terminal illness or debilitating disease. Nevertheless, he continues to do his best no matter the personal costs. “Everyone has their own battleground, mine is rescue” he tells a superior with determination after his priorities are questioned. In training, the coach reminds the rescuers that their enemy is nature. They push their bodies as far as they can go, willingly risking all to let others know that someone is always looking out for them and will come in their time of need. Faced with certain death, Gao Qian enters an eerily beautiful existential space born of liminality in which he is perhaps able to feel everything that is to be alive while his son, fighting his own battle, does something much the same.

The strangely poetic quality of life in extremis is directly contrasted with the hokey comedy of Gao Qian’s home life and the brotherly comradeship of the base which are both much more of the typical “New Year Movie” mould. Lam fares much better than Chan in heading off the obvious melodrama, though he too resorts to the obvious foreshadowing of a young man daring to get wedding photos taken while planning to risk his life for the greater good, while the quirky production design and wholesome warmth of Gao Qian’s home life as he attempts to make the world safe for his son offer a much needed escape from the anxiety of his disaster-fuelled existence. Unlike that of Red Sea, the world of The Rescue is a more open and hopeful one in which Gao Qian does his best to save everyone who needs saving no matter their nationality, feted far and wide as a hero even if he awkwardly embodies a magnanimous China as a world protector as he does so. Nevertheless, Lam once again manages to elevate his material beyond its propagandist aims, edging towards a more ambivalent contemplation of selfless nobility and the costs of courageous endurance.


In UK cinemas from 25th January courtesy of CMC Pictures. Unfortunately, the release of The Rescue has been postponed because of the Coronavirus outbreak in China. We will update you as soon as we hear of new release date!

Original trailer (English subtitles)