Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident, Jill Coulon, 2016)

Ironically taking its title from the classic Chinese legend of the monk Xuanzang who travelled in order to bring Buddhism back to China, Jill Coulon’s Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident) follows a group of Chinese tourists on a 12-day coach tour through Europe which will apparently take them through six countries though they will be disembarking only infrequently. As the tour guide Huo explains during his opening speech, Chinese tourists were once greeted by vaguely offensive signs in their native language instructing them to avoid being noisy or spitting but these have now been replaced by those advising that their Chinese credit cards are readily acceptable. 

According to Huo only 8% of Chinese people currently hold a passport but more and more are venturing abroad. Nevertheless, they are still ambassadors for China and so he reminds them to be careful of the impression that they make. In any case, they will spend relatively little time on the ground, arriving in Rome at 9am they leave at 1.15 and though they appear to have a lot of free roaming time much of the trip is micromanaged with meals already booked in Chinese restaurants. Embedded with the travellers, Coulon does not spend much time getting to know them or discovering their various backgrounds and reasons for choosing this method of travel but some do speculate on the tendency of Chinese people to do everything at speed wondering if Europeans are more laidback because their societies are already “developed” and so they can afford to spend time in the present without feeling the need to forge the future. 

Bringing the 12-day trip down to an hour of viewing time adds a satirical bent to the breakneck speed, though it does seem that some travellers at least are mainly interested in ticking off the most famous attractions as quickly as possible. Offering commentary as they pass through the picturesque town of Lucerne, Huo points out the Rolex store before ironically juxtaposing the beauty of the Alps with the Hermès boutique directly opposite. Most of the tourists are indeed in it for the shopping, several picking up a luxury watch while one enviously observes that this seems to be a very wealthy town filled with exorbitantly priced sports cars as if the expense meant nothing to them at all. Passing through Paris we see the tourists laden with bags from top designer stores, one ironically wearing an Armani T-shirt with a little Chairman Mao pin directly underneath the logo. Some meanwhile tire of the ceaseless consumerism and defiantly decide to go somewhere different with no shopping opportunities if only to avoid other Chinese tourists. 

Despite his long years working in the tourist trade, Huo himself does not seem to be free of stereotypical impressions of Europeans, explaining that “true” French women are blonde with green eyes and that the French go on strike in the spring, holiday in the summer, and go skiing in winter leaving only the autumn for work all of which he describes as “bad capitalism”, implying one assumes that China’s excessive work culture is “good capitalism”. Another tourist however reflects enviously on the fact that the French apparently only work 150 days a year while her partner points out that if you count non-weekdays China also offers around 130 days off which doesn’t seem so bad to him even if he’s incredulous about four day weekends and getting a day in lieu if a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. This perhaps contributes to another tourist’s conclusion that the French are “lazy” because of the disinterested way a guard at a museum swiped his ticket, sitting with his legs crossed.

A pair of old ladies, meanwhile reflect on the way that European cities have preserved traces of their history with ancient ruins visible in local parks something she feels would have been regarded as a nuisance in China and destroyed either by the authorities or malicious persons. While Huo relates the various stereotypes he’s encountered from foreign tourists, that the Chinese people have no freedom and might not know what a washing machine is, another young woman enquires if they have internet up in the mountains only to be told that the internet and online shopping are not as developed in Europe because the prohibitive costs prevent an effective delivery infrastructure, she ironically adding that in China workers cost nothing. In his closing speech, however, Huo remarks on the awkwardness of responding to the accusation of wealth unable to answer either that he is very rich or very poor opting only for the disingenuous statement that “China is a developing country”. The tourists might not be looking for spiritual enlightenment like Xuanzang, but still as one puts it they have their goals and they have perhaps been achieved as they circle back around to Milan and the plane that will take them home.  


Journey to the West streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Changfeng Town (长风镇, Wang Jing, 2019)

“One strange thing follows another in this town” according to a world weary saloon owner attempting to process the mysterious theft of a handful of billiard balls. Like a magical realist fable, the village at the centre of Wang Jing’s whimsical nostalgia fest Changfeng Town (长风镇, Chángfēng Zhèn) exists slightly out of time, located at the intersection of memory and longing filled both with a sense of existential ennui and the comforting aimlessness of childhood. Yet even here where time passes and doesn’t the ironies of small-town life pervade as the older hero reflects on the wilful secrets and everyday mysteries which exist even in those places where everyone knows everyone and gossip is the lifeblood of the community. 

Narrated by the young “Scabby” (Song Daiwei), so nicknamed because of a prominent scar on the back of his head, Changfeng Town weaves together several stories set across one theoretical summer as seen through the eyes of a group of small boys continually on their periphery. Set comfortably in a “nostalgic past”, the atmosphere of the town shifts from a restrained post-war, early ‘60s tainted innocence towards something perhaps closer to its more logical position somewhere in the early to mid 1980s which of course places it after the Cultural Revolution but before Tiananmen Square in a China filled with a sense of hope and possibility for a brighter future mirroring perhaps Scabby’s own sense of growing adolescent energy. 

Nevertheless, Changfeng Town is a strange place where strange things do indeed happen though less one after another than all at once. Missing billiard balls, a plague of mice, a purifying flood, arrivals and disappearances each changing the unchanging town in small but marked ways, it’s nevertheless a sense of loneliness that defines each of the intersecting tales most of which have to do with misplaced or unfulfilled love. Redhead (Pema Jyad), the teenage ringleader of the local kids nicknamed for his red rinse hairdo, pines for the most beautiful girl in the village, Cai-xia (Luo Wenqing), half-sister of Scabby’s friend Four Eyes (Liu Xinrong) and box office girl at the local picture house, yet she has taken a liking to lovelorn poet Guang (Tao Taotao) who has just had his heart broken by the local school teacher. Redhead’s widowed mother (Cui Nan), meanwhile, has been carrying on an affair with the married local dentist (Wei Xidi), apparently an open secret in the village, while beloved truck driver Xi-shan (Chen Gang) continues to carry a torch for her knowing his love is impossible because he was involved in the accident which killed her husband. 

Known only as The Mute (San Shugong), an old man travels to the station every day with his parrot presumably hoping to meet someone who never arrives. One of the boys says his mother told him that he does so because he mistakenly thinks he can travel to other places by watching the trains go by, but no one really knows because no one really bothers to try to communicate with him. Some attempt to leave the village, occasionally returning like the much changed Redhead now dressed like someone who’s been to the city bringing back with him gifts of modernity such as a remote control Transformer that provokes a falling out between Four Eyes and Scabby which adds to the narrator’s growing sense of disillusionment, but to return is in many ways to fail, to be consumed by nostalgia and unable to move forward. Changfeng Town is also a charming trap. Scabby will soon outgrow it as spring travels towards autumn, the bald spot on the back of his head which gives him his name fast disappearing rendering him Scabby no more. Yet it will always in a sense be there for him, its residents permanently happy even as people come and go. 

Mirroring the ending of The 400 Blows, one of several films playing in the local cinema which also include Spring in a Small Town, A Touch of Zen, Steamboat Bill, Jr, and Nights of Cabiria among others, Wang closes with a freeze frame leaving Scabby “running towards the unknown” abandoning nostalgia in search of the elusive happiness of those who remain behind. Shot with a wistful ethereality, Changfeng Town marries an earthy, small-town rurality with an ironic absurdism as the various stories of its melancholy protagonists weave in and out of each other while remaining strangely unknown in the ever constant, ever changing village of nostalgia.


Changfeng Town streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Summer Trip (川流不“熄”, Feng Keyu, 2021)

Societal change and rising economic prosperity threaten the foundations of the family in Feng Keyu’s charmingly nostalgic intergenerational adventure A Summer Trip (川流不“熄”, Chuān Liú Bù “Xī”) elegantly lensed by Mark Lee Ping-Bing and boasting a typically whimsical score from Joe Hisaishi. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the nation is in a celebratory mood but in a society where everybody works all the time something may be in danger of getting lost. Young Xiaosong (Hu Changlin) is going off the rails (in a fairly minor way) with both the school and grandpa, often left with childcare duties he feels might not quite be his responsibility, leaning towards blaming the parents who are simply not present enough in his life to be able to offer much in the way of guidance. 

A Korean War veteran, grandpa Zhang Dachuan (Yang Xinming) is beginning to feel as obsolete as the discontinued parts he needs to repair his ancient jeep. He can’t get his head round mobile phones, forever pressing hang up when he means to press answer and causing accidental offence in the process. Resenting the implication that he’s not got much to do all day, he finds himself enlisted by his overworked son to represent the family when his wayward grandson Xiaosong gets into trouble at school. This particular time, it’s apparently because he’s been bothering a female student by taking photos of her with a professional DSLR camera (the teacher later gives Dachuan an envelope to pass to his son and daughter-in-law which turns out to contain a love letter Xiaosong attempted to pass to the object of his affection). Slightly annoyed to be seeing Dachuan again instead of the boy’s parents, the teacher makes herself clear that the cause of Xiaosong’s poor behaviour and declining grades is most likely a lack of parental attention. Chastened, the parents discuss finding a cram school but nothing is really done about his problematic approach to romance, especially as they each need to return to work soon after dinner leaving grandpa sitting alone at the table. 

Perhaps strangely, Xiaosong seems to have forgotten that his grandpa even has a name, hanging up on a caller thinking they’ve got the wrong number only to realise they wanted grandpa and redial upon which Dachuan discovers that his greatest wartime friend has passed away in Beijing and the funeral is in a few days’ time. Though Xiaosong had technically been “grounded” for the summer, the idea was that grandpa was supposed to supervise him while he stayed home and studied. So begins their awkward road trip, passing first through the home of Dachuan’s daughter Ling (Dai Lele) in a town closer to the capital and a lengthy train ride away before pressing on to the city. 

As his opening voiceover explains, Xiaosong never really understood his grandfather thinking of him as a grumpy, stubborn old man stuck in the past. Yet as grandpa later sadly laments reflecting on his friend’s final days, people talk about the past a lot when they’re unhappy in the present. Everyone is always keen to pay respect to Dachuan and his wartime generation, though not all of them have good intentions such as the overfriendly young man they meet on the train who enthusiastically listens to his stories, or the older woman (He Zaifei) who reminds Dachuan of his late wife but leverages his desire to show off by getting him to pay for an expensive lunch. For his part, Dachuan resents his declining capacity and finds himself at odds with the modern world, unable to access technology or understand the changing nature of society. His quest to get to Beijing under his own steam is a way of rebelling against his age, proving he’s still capable and independent though his slightly narcissistic can-do attitude often backfires, his offer to fix a broken-down bus exposing his lack of acumen while his petulant decision to leave finds him stubbornly insisting on walking the remaining 30km to the capital. 

Highlighting the corporate obsession, meanwhile, another stranded bus passenger makes constant phone calls to his less than understanding boss to explain the delay. While Dachuan and his grandson experience set backs on the road, the boy’s father Jianguo (Tu Songyan) chases a reluctant client who won’t sign a contract and returns late to a dark and empty home while his wife (Yang Tongshu) works the nightshift as a surgeon at the hospital. Unbeknownst to Dachuan, Ling and her husband (Gong Zheng) are about to split up apparently because he spent too much time at work and the relationship has fallen apart as a result. Young Xiaosong says he wants to be a photographer to “document all the beautiful things and moments” lamenting that they never took a family photo with his late grandmother. In the absence of his father and son and forced to humiliate himself repeatedly at work, Jianguo comes to regret having deprioritised his family life and recommits himself to repairing their fractured bonds perhaps with a family holiday lamenting that they never got round to it while his mother was alive. The Olympics Opening Ceremony becomes, its own way, a second New Year with the TV broadcast taking the place of the Spring Gala as the family finally come back together again having gained new understandings of themselves and others through their various summer adventures. Society might have changed, those exciting KFC “family buckets” from the city apparently not going quite as far as you’d think, but the family can apparently still be saved with a little mutual understanding and a dose of self-reflection.


A Summer Trip screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Li Xiaofeng, 2020)

“How dare you want to live when your existence is pointless” a father admonishes his blameless son, deflecting his own willing complicity in the persistent decline of the modern China. Repeatedly abandoned and betrayed firstly by his society, then by his friend, and finally by his father, the hero of Li Xiaofeng’s moody neo-noir Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Fēngpínglàngjìng) first chooses self-exile only to eventually return and wonder if his crime has been forgotten allowing him to live again before discovering that nothing really changes, there is no escape from the whims of the rich and powerful in an increasingly feudal society. 

Quiet and studious, Song Hao (at 17: Zhou Zhengjie / at 32: Zhang Yu) first wakes up to life’s unfairness in 1992 when he’s called into school on a holiday by his headmaster who breaks the news that he’s losing his guaranteed university place supposedly because his grades are good enough to get there on his own and others need it more. “I like to prioritise the collective over the individual” he explains, reminding him that an extra person from the school going to a top uni can only be a good thing though it’s obviously a blow to Hao not to mention his ambitious father Jianfei (Wang Yanhui) who immediately rings up to complain and discovers that the place is going not to a needy student but Hao’s best friend Li Tang (Lee Hong-chi), son of the local mayor. Angry and confused, father and son set off on circular journeys to confront their respective counterparts, but there’s a storm raging and Hao accidentally wanders into the wrong house after noticing the door flapping in the wind. After walking past a baby sleeping upstairs he runs into an old man who mistakes him for someone else and soon lashes out, shoving fruit into his mouth and trying to suffocate him at which point Hao picks up a knife and stabs his attacker in the belly. Taking flight in terror Hao believes he has just killed a man and orphaned a little girl, never knowing that his father arrived a few minutes later and finished the old man off to stop him talking or that Li Tang was watching the whole thing from a window in the opposite building. 

Returning 15 years later for his mother’s funeral, it’s Li Tang who is most pleased to see Hao when he runs into him by chance at the ruins of the scene of his crime now a future development site for the young real estate tycoon, that is if the now young woman (Den Enxi) the orphaned baby has become whom Hao had been following out of guilt-ridden curiosity would agree to vacate her family property. While Hao has been languishing as a lonely construction worker, Tang has prospered off the back of the 90s economic boom largely thanks to an entrenched network of local corruption that runs from his father the mayor through Hao’s father Jianfei who was handed a fat promotion presumably to placate him over the uni places scandal. Tang has, in a sense, stolen his future leaving him quite literally displaced wandering in the ruined landscape of a haunted past while his father, he discovers, had divorced his mother and remarried in order to have another son. “Your upbringing was a failure” he cooly explains, he needed another male heir to salvage the family reputation and restore his name. Jianfei has, however, done pretty well out of the arrangement now a wealthy man with a separate apartment Hao is not welcome to visit but planning to send his wife and child abroad and retire to Australia. 

Intending to leave as soon as possible, Hao nevertheless starts to wonder if it hasn’t blown over and he might in a sense be allowed to seek happiness, bamboozled into a romance with an old school friend (Song Jia) apparently carrying a torch for him all this time. The past, however, will not let him go. The corruption runs deeper than he even suspected as does Li Tang’s insecure greed and duplicity, attempting to force friendship through blackmail. An embodiment of post-70s fuerdai Li Tang is an amoral capitalist willing to do anything it takes in pursuit of wealth, but at heart a coward ashamed that he owes everything to his father’s machinations and perhaps projecting all of his resentment onto his old friend Hao whose future he so casually stole.   

Yet the message seems clear, men like Hao will always be at the mercy of men like Tang. Perhaps this is the bargain his father has made, but it’s one that Hao can no longer tolerate once Tang forces him to destroy the roots of his redemption. The only sane response to the madness of the modern China, he seems to say, is to go mad in one way or another. Even so, this being a Mainland movie, the nihilistic fatalism of the inevitable conclusion is somewhat undermined by the brief coda in which a policeman reassures a young woman that the crime has been investigated and the wrongdoers punished while the now familiar title card explains to us who went to prison and for how long for their many and various moral transgressions. Hao’s existence is rendered “pointless” because he is unable to live by the rules of a corrupt society, yet his self-destructive act of rebellion does perhaps bring about change if only in the names involved. Beautifully shot with brief flashes of expressionism amid the rain drenched streets of a decaying city to the melancholy strains of a noirish jazz score, Li’s fatalistic takedown of the inequalities of the post-90s society is an exercise in style but one which lets few off the hook as its nihilistic conclusion stabs right at the heart of patriarchal corruption. 


Back to the Wharf streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Wang Shuchen & Yan Dingxian & Xu Jingda, 1979)

Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority. 

As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble. 

Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations. 

Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression. 

Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites. 


Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Wan Laiming, 1961/1964)

The late 1950s to mid-1960s would come to be known as a golden age of Chinese animation ushered in by the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio under the aegis of Wan Laiming who along with his brothers had produced China’s very first animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Dànào Tiāngōng) was conceived soon after Iron Fan’s release but its production was derailed firstly by the continuing Sino-Japanese War and then by the Chinese Civil War that eventually brought Mao Zedong to power. Produced in two parts released in 1961 and 1964 but screened together only in 1965, the film would ironically prove to be the studio’s last before being closed down during the Cultural Revolution. 

Most particularly in this context, the story of Sun Wukong might seem ill-advised even in its definitive cultural capital adapted like Princess Iron Fan from the well-known Journey to the West. The Monkey King as all know is a mischievous scamp forever causing trouble because of his resistance to following the accepted rules of mainstream society, something one might think anathema to a rigid, increasingly authoritarian regime. Yet in the Wans’ characterisation, Sun Wukong is also a good, socialist hero in the guise of a chaotic Robin Hood robbing the Heavens not for himself but to share with all the little monkeys waiting for his return on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits certain that such luxuries should not be limited to the gods alone and seeking to redistribute them on Earth (if only among his friends). 

Even so, at the heart of the story is a challenge to the celestial authoritarianism of the Jade Emperor and the godly elites who live quite literally in another realm. Lamenting that he is unable to train the little monkeys properly because he can’t get his hands on a weapon befitting his majesty, Sun Wukong is advised to swim to the underwater palace of the East China Sea Dragon and ask him to find something suitable, which he does, but nothing proves up to the talents of the great Monkey King. Finally, hoping to get rid of him, the Dragon King shows Sun Wukong the Gold Cudgel which calms the sea and tells him he can have it if he can take it away. Annoyingly, the Cudgel responds exactly to Sun Wukong’s magic and becomes his trademark giant staff leaving the Dragon King with a problem he can only take to the Jade Emperor. Thereafter succeeds a continuing debate as to how to deal with the Monkey King problem which begins with the decision to tempt Sun Wukong to Heaven by offering him a fancy title and position so they can hopefully keep an eye on him. 

This is perhaps a minor irony and element of subversive satire amid the corruptions of a newly collectivist society in which flattery and title inflation are becoming a persistent problem. Put in charge of the stables, Sun Wukong immediately sets all the horses free which is less of a problem than it sounds and considerably improves conditions for all, only it annoys the austere Horse General who makes the mistake of revealing to Sun Wukong that he’s not really “in charge” at all, sending him right back down to the mountains where he offends the gods by appointing himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” in an affront not only to their majesty but the celestial order itself. Some still feel appeasement is the way, that humouring Sun Wukong by pretending to respect his made-up title and convincing him to come back with a better position is the best way to minimise his rebellion but they fail to learn their lessons. On being told he can’t eat the fruit in his garden until a banquet is held and then discovering he’s the only one not invited and everyone is merely humouring him with The Great Sage stuff Sun Wukong is once again offended, deciding he’ll go anyway and then getting extremely drunk and trashing the whole place. 

For this some feel he must die, but Sun Wukong refuses to expire even surviving being baked alive in a pot. Drawing inspiration from classic Peking Opera, the Wan brothers allow Sun Wukong to defeat each of the gods’ various challengers using both his cunning and agility in a series of beautifully choreographed action sequences which leave him standing defiant a thorn in the side of authoritarian power if perhaps one with his heart in the right place, living for the anarchic joy of sharing all his spoils with the ordinary monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The 2012 restoration of the film keeps both halves together but also reformats the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to a “modern” widescreen in addition to giving it a 3D makeover. Nevertheless, the flawless and inventive animation along with beautifully painted backgrounds drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings coupled with the use of Peking Opera instrumentation and choreography lend the film a charmingly timeless quality while the subversive themes of resistance to rigid authoritarianism seem to take on new import most particularly in the present day. 


Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Zhang Yibai, 2016)

A collection of lovelorn souls meditate on love and loneliness in Zhang Yibai’s adaptation of a series of popular short stories by internet author Zhang Jiajia. Perhaps misleadingly titled, I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Cóng nǐ de Quánshìjiè Lùguò) is less tearjerking melodrama than humorous exploration of romantic disaffection in the modern society in which even love itself has perhaps become both duplicitous cliché and an unattainable dream. For smug DJ Chen Mo (Deng Chao), being in love means staying together forever, but for his co-host/longterm girlfriend Xiaorong (Du Juan) adolescent love has already run its course. Thoroughly fed up with his empty, somewhat cheesy words of advice to lovelorn callers, she abruptly breaks up with him live on air. 

Two years later Chen Mo hosts the show alone amid declining ratings, listeners now fed up with with his total capitulation to depressed cynicism and advertisers getting ready to pull the plug. Xiaorong has joined station management but seemingly has little desire to save the show, later entering into an unwise bet that should Mo be able to climb to the number one spot, she’ll marry him but if he fails he must parade through the town with a sign reading “I’m an idiot” which, as we later discover, is a callback to their uni days when they were young and in love. Mo laments that the only couple still together from way back when is his best friend Chubby (Yue Yunpeng), who currently lives with him, and the beautiful Yanzi (Liu Yan) whose heart he won being the only person willing to defend her when she was accused of thievery. Pure-hearted, Chubby does every job going, even allowing people to punch him for monetary compensation, so he can send the money to Yanzi who is currently abroad travelling the world. Mo seems fairly unconvinced by the arrangement, but also regards Chubby as his “anchor”, that as long as Chubby loves Yanzi, they are all still young and love is real.  

His other roommate, meanwhile, his cousin Shiba (Yang Yang) is being semi-stalked by the local police woman whose constant flirting he doesn’t seem to have picked up on. As we later discover, Officer Lychee (Bai Baihe) has also been disappointed in love, previously jilted at the altar by a foreign boyfriend who apparently did a disappearing act, but has apparently maintained her faith eventually entering to a wholesome relationship with the eccentric young man who spends all his time inventing new gadgets. Despite the evidence, however, Mo remains cynical and hung up on Xiaorong who seems to have defied the narrative destiny of their uni love story. Describing him as immature, she feels as if something changed with Mo during the radio show, that somewhere along the way he lost his sense of warmth. “It’s only when we are filled with love that our show passes on love. When we feel lonely we can’t warm anybody up” she tearfully explains taking over the broadcast, adding that Chen Mo might be the loneliest of all in his false bravado and prickly tendency to make off-colour jokes as a childish defence mechanism. 

Ironically, however, the ratings start to pick up thanks to mild-mannered intern Birdie’s (Zhang Tianai) unexpected outburst at a disgruntled caller who took Mo to task for his terrible, unsympathetic advice for his romantic problem. Silently in love with Chen Mo after his certain presence on the radio saved her from loneliness, Birdie does her best to “save” him, even later giving up her dream of romance to try and help him win back Xiaorong only for him to get the message too late, realising that Xiaorong has outgrown him and they’re on different paths while maybe what he needed was a spiky little bird to peck him out of his shell. 

Chen Mo called his show “Passing Through Your World” as if in acknowledgement that some people are supposed to brush past each other meeting only for a moment, but naively hoping to encounter someone that would make the world brighter just by being in it. Shooting with a whimsical arthouse lens, Zhang opens in a rainy Chongqing as if reflecting the loneliness and despair which plague each of his protagonists who each in one way or another find solace in the presence of Chen Mo through his radio show acting as a beacon for lonely souls everywhere, before ending in bright sunshine and golden fields leaving the neon-tinted city behind for a dream of a more innocent love. Nevertheless, not everyone gets their happy ending, and there’s something in the film’s most romantic gesture being the drawing of an umbrella on cutesy mural to help a lost little girl weather the storm. A breezy stroll through urban malaise and millennial love, I Belonged to You ultimately sheds its cynicism for a pure hearted faith in romantic destiny but does so with a healthy dose of maturity in acknowledging that the path of true love never did run smooth.


I Belonged to You streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last Letter (你好,之华, Shunji Iwai, 2018)

“Anything we need to change?” asks a young woman looking for feedback on a speech, “Nothing. It’s fine” her mentor replies in an exchange which takes on a peculiar poignancy, hinting at a gentle accommodation with the ordinary tragedies of life which is perhaps itself the hallmark of director Shunji Iwai’s career. Adapting his own novel and calling back to his 1995 masterpiece Love Letter, Iwai makes his first foray into Sinophone cinema with the Peter Chan-produced Last Letter (你好,之华, Nǐhǎo Zhīhuā) taking his key concerns with him as a collection of lovelorn souls ponder the what ifs of romantic misconnections and the “limitless possibilities” of youth. 

In the present day, the now middle-aged Zhihua (Zhou Xun) attends the funeral of her elder sister, mother of two Zhinan, who sadly took her own life though the family have been telling people she died of an illness which is in a sense not exactly untrue. Zhinan left behind her only two things, a letter to her children daughter Mumu (Deng Enxi) and son Chen Chen (Hu Changling), and an invitation to the 30-year reunion for her middle school class. Attending the reunion with the intention of letting everyone know that her sister has passed away, Zhihua is mistaken for Zhinan and ends up going along with it, even reconnecting with a teenage crush, Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) now an unsuccessful novelist, for whom she became an unfaithful go-between charged with delivering his love letters to the sister she feared was always prettier and cleverer than she was. After her husband, Zhou (Du Jiang), destroys her phone in a jealous rage, Zhihua finds herself ironically mirroring her teenage years in continuing a one-sided correspondence with her first love in the guise of her sister.  

As in Love Letter the older protagonists find themselves trapped in a nostalgic past, Yin Chuan complaining that he’s stuck with memories of Zhinan, the subject of his first novel, leaving him with perpetual writer’s block. Like misdirected letters the past is filled with missed opportunities and painful misunderstandings, but then again there are no guarantees that it would have been different if only the message had made it home. Little Zhihua (Zhang Zifeng in a double role), chastened to have been discovered frustrating Yin Chuan’s teenage attempts at romancing her sister (doubled by Deng Enxi) by not delivering the letters, plucks up the courage to write one of her own but finds it rejected while as her adult self is perhaps engaging in a little self delusion little realising that Yin Chuan may have already seen through her ruse but is as intent on attempting to communicate with the past in the form of her departed sister as she is. 

Perhaps slightly unfulfilled if not exactly unhappy (husband’s unexpected act of violence aside), Zhihua ponders lost love while attempting to come to terms with her sister’s death, denied an explanation for her apparently abrupt decision to run off with a rough man with no family who turned out to be a violent drunk exorcising his class resentment by beating up an educated, middle-class woman. Mumu, meanwhile, afraid to read her mother’s last letter, engages in a little epistolatory deception of her own, accidentally causing confusion in also replying to Yin Chuan’s letters posing as her mother when he tries writing to her old address with fond memories of their youth. “Life is not something you can write on a whim” he’s reminded, and it’s true enough that, as echoed in the poignant graduation speech, some will achieve their dreams and others won’t. Those limitless possibilities of youth don’t last forever, life doesn’t obey the rules of narrative destiny and you don’t always get a happy ending or in fact an ending at all. 

Yet unlike Love Letter, the man and the letter eventually arrive at the correct destination if much later than intended. The message reaches those it is intended to and a kind of closure comes with it. Mirroring her teenage self, Zhihua finds herself a go-between once again, passing letters between her lonely mother-in-law and her former professor whom she’s been secretly meeting in a local park, while reflecting on her own role as perpetual bystander not quite destined for the position of protagonist. As she had her daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) struggles with a nascent crush preferring to stay with grandma and keen to avoid going back to school in order not to have to face him, while Mumu attempts to deal both with the loss of her mother and with her legacy as a figure of romantic tragedy. Little Chen Chen is sadly forgotten, putting a brave face on grief and largely left to get on with it on his own until forced to face his sense of rootlessness as an orphaned child wondering if the world still has a place for him to call home. Shot with Iwai’s customarily lush, wandering camera filled with a sense of painful melancholy, the lasting message is nevertheless one of accommodation with life’s disappointments that even in moments of despair and hopelessness lack of resolution can also spark possibility and the memory of those “wonderful choices” of youth need not foreground their absence so much as sustain.


Last Letter streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Forever Young (栀子花开, He Jiong, 2015)

“As long as you don’t give up, it’s never too late to follow your dream” according to a sympathetic teacher perhaps incongruously advising a conflicted student who might in one sense be facing an ending but also has his whole life in front of him. Apparently inspired by a song from 2004, Gardenia in Blossom, Forever Young (栀子花开, Zhīzihuā Kāi) ironically concerns itself with the lives of a collection of youngsters facing their first roadblock as they approach the end of university while their dreams seem further away than ever. 

Popular girl Yanxi (Zhang Huiwen) has her heart set on joining the Paris Opera Ballet along with her three roommates with whom she dances the Dance of the Four Swans. Yanxi’s boyfriend Xunuo (Li Yifeng), meanwhile, dreams of making it as a rockstar with his three bandmates. The combined group of friends, cheerful and excited about celebrating Yanxi’s upcoming 21st birthday, are upbeat about the future and looking forward to their graduation concert “Dream Night” at which they hope to catch the eye of influential people. When tragedy strikes however and it seems the girls will not be able to perform, Xunuo makes a surprising decision, roping his bandmates in to take their place and dance the Dance of the Four Swans in their stead. 

Mirrors of each other, Yanxi and Xunuo can each be blinkered and self-centred. Yanxi takes it for granted that the group all want the same thing and are determined to go to Paris with her but apparently hasn’t noticed that her friends have their own problems and at least one may not be able to afford to go abroad because she’s already subsidising her brother’s education. Stubborn and unsympathetic, Yanxi later comes to regret having been so unforgiving as she faces the prospect of continuing alone only to encounter yet another setback. Xunuo meanwhile does something similar in convincing his bandmates to join him in the Four Swans project at the expense of their own dream in taking time away from their band practice while forcing them to don tutus and possibly make fools of themselves in front of all their friends. 

Asked why she chose ballet, Yanxi replies that standing on tiptoes allowed her to see further, but now she worries she’s been suffering with a particular kind of myopia in having seen nothing at all while still clinging on to a vain hope for her Paris dream. The idealised relationship between the pair is marred only by Xunuo’s petulant decision not to get on the bus with everyone else after their night out when Yanxi reminded him she was bound overseas, and her later despondency as they’re temporarily forced apart by Xunuo’s secret plan even while his strange rivalry with a former friend with whom he wrote a plaintive love song takes on an overtly homoerotic quality.  

Nevertheless, there’s something of an incongruity in such young people being constantly reminded that as long as you don’t give up there’s always time to achieve your dreams though it’s true enough that they’re each at a crisis point, about to lose the student safety net and faced with the choice of whether to keep trying to make it or go for the “safe” option of heading into the workforce. Xunuo declares that he just wants “all the sadness and troubles to go away”, only for his teacher to point out that if you’ve nothing to overcome then you’ll never grow. The presence of tragedy never seems to touch them as deeply as one would think, though at least through Xunuo’s vicarious dancing dream the guys are able to renew their friendships, acknowledging their own strengths and weaknesses as they work together in memory of absent friends and perhaps their own fading youth. 

A strangely cheerful campus drama despite its darkness and the foreboding of the title, Forever Young allows its heroes to be just that as they promise themselves that as long as they refuse to give up it’s never too late for their dreams to come true while also subtly hinting at a new ideal of masculinity in the infinitely sensitive Xunuo who is selfless and kind and just wants everyone to be happy. An overly idealised conclusion perhaps as the youngsters bid goodbye to their adolescent lives for the stormy seas of adulthood, but also a reassuring one as they emerge from their respective traumas and hardships with renewed hope for the future.


Forever Young streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)