An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, Hu Bo, 2018)

An elephant sitting still poster“It’s all about agony” a discredited adult figure intones midway into Hu Bo’s first (and sadly only) feature, An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, Dàxiàng Xídì’érzuò). Latest in a long line of indie features to ask serious questions about the hypocrisies of the modern China, Elephant stops to wonder how one manages to live at all in world which has become so “disgusting” as to make life itself seem like a cosmic joke. In this “wasteland”, all that’s left of human connection appears to be a series of games of oneupmanship in which there must always be a loser and for which no one wants to take personal responsibility. Then again, they say there’s an elephant in a zoo in Manzhouli which has taken passive resistance to unnatural extremes but somehow survived all the world has thrown at it.

Four lives intertwine in the decaying industrial environment of a rundown town somewhere in Northern China. Petty gangster Yu Cheng’s (Zhang Yu) day gets off to a pretty bad start after he sleeps with his best friend’s wife only for him to return unexpectedly, spot Yu Cheng’s shoes in the hall, and then throw himself off the balcony in a fit of total despair. Meanwhile, teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) gets himself mixed up in his best friend’s altercation with school bully Yu Shuai (Yu Cheng’s little brother) over an (allegedly) stolen phone which ends in a scuffle and Yu Shuai tumbling down a set of stairs. Wei Bu decides to run and asks his female best friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to go with him, but she has troubles of her own in the form of a toxic relationship with her embittered mother and an ill-advised affair with the school’s married vice-principal. Lacking other options, Wei Bu turns to his genial next-door neighbour, Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), hoping to borrow some money but Wang is preoccupied with his declining family situation as his son and daughter-in-law attempt to force him out of his apartment and into a nursing home so they can move into the catchment area for a better school for Wang’s granddaughter.

Our four see themselves as walking dead, but are in some respects the last four standing. They wonder and they muse, asking why it is life has to be this way but unable to simply ignore the nagging threads of connection and human decency that those around them seem to have successfully eradicated. The older generation, having been betrayed by China’s rapid rise to economic prosperity, are cruel and embittered. They treat their children with contempt, smirking grimly in the knowledge that they will likely share the same fate. Yet they have managed to weather the storm, coming to an accommodation with the fact that life is disappointing and surviving even if in a form that makes survival just about as unpalatable as it’s possible to be.

For this survival, they have helped themselves to entitlement. This is a game of (occasionally literal) dog eat dog in which all that matters is winning no matter at what cost in order to avoid feeling like a nobody. Petty schoolboy thug Yu Shuai, learning a lesson from his disaffected brother, attempts to rule by fear and intimidation but finds his empire threatened by Wei Bu’s principled attempt to stand up for his friend. Wei Bu is a “loser” and his accidental “win” is a shock to the system that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down but revolution was not in Wei Bu’s game plan and his resistance is short lived. Alone and friendless, he sees no alternative but flight.

Wei Bu’s friend, who turns out to have been unworthy of his loyalty, later achieves a rare moment of existential ecstasy in having frightened off two goons with a gun he pinched from his father. He is overawed to have inspired such fear and sure that most never feel anywhere near as alive as he feels at this moment. Wei Bu is unimpressed by his dark philosophy, but perhaps understands it as a grim encapsulation of the world in which he lives. Yu Cheng too tacitly accepts that his society values the strong, but it becomes apparent that his pretence of coldness is just that. He claims to hate everybody, and his brother most of all, but he walks back into a room on fire to save a man he doesn’t know and for all his attempts to abnegate the responsibility for his friend’s death is clearly affected both by his decision and his own role within it.

Responsibility is something nobody wants to take. Yu Cheng blames his friend’s death first on his own individual will, and then on his greedy wife for the unnecessary economic burden she placed on him, and finally on an unrequited love whose rejection he claims sent him into the arms of his best friend’s girl, but finally he cannot escape his own sense of guilt as embodied by the grieving mother his moral failings have produced. Huang Ling’s teacher expresses a similar life philosophy when she presses him as to why the school did not call the police over Yu Shuai’s accident. He tells her that if he’d called the police he’d be “involved” which not something that he wants to be. Unfortunately for him, his decision to pursue an “affair” with a vulnerable teenager is going to get him in “involved” in several sticky situations, most of which he blames Huang Ling for as the girl who has “ruined” him. Like the elephant of the title, Huang Ling’s lover sits and watches as the world spirals out of control, unwilling to stop it for fear of being dragged into its never-ending cycle of destruction and disappointment.

Intense individualism has fostered not only selfishness, but a refusal of accountability. Everything is always someone else’s fault just as someone else must always lose in each and very encounter in order to avoid the sensation of being a “loser” oneself. Alone among the older generation, Wang retains his youthful sense of human feeling, but eventually even his will is worn away and he considers giving in and entering the retirement home even after visiting it and realising it is little more than death’s waiting room. His advice to the young echoes that of Huang Ling’s lover, that there is no escape from sorrow and an attempt to evade it through starting again somewhere else will lead only to double failure. The best thing, he tells them, is to believe in a better place and then never go there so as not to have your illusions of a kinder world shattered. Yet there are flickers of possibility, Wei Bu wants to see the elephant anyway even if it changes nothing. Hu wants to ask us if it’s possible to go on living if you discover that there is nothing to live for and perhaps he found his own answer for that, but there is hope here, if faint and compromised, in the thought of distant elephants enduring all with stoic grace.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of New Wave Films.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Rao Xiaozhi, 2018)

A Cool Fish posterThe genial loser is fast becoming a staple of contemporary Chinese cinema. Rao Xiaozhi’s second feature A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Wúmíng zhī Bèi) is the latest in a long line of comedies to make the “diaosi” world its home as a collection of disappointed and increasingly desperate failures become embroiled in a complex web of cosmological coincidence. China’s famously draconian censorship regulations ensure that the ending of this caper will be bittersweet at best, but even so a brief brush with violent crime does at least allow a bouncing back if only through hitting rock bottom and emerging with greater clarity.

Small town hicks “Bra” (Zhang Yu), short for “Cobra”, and Big Head (Pan Binlong) have talked themselves into a gangland future, planning a big city heist after getting their hands on a stolen gun and motorbike. Unfortunately, not everything goes to plan and they end up robbing a mobile phone shop next door to the bank rather than the bank itself because the security guard was too intimidating. Not only that, they manage to send their getaway bike into a tree while trying to escape by muddling the clutch with the accelerator meaning they have to escape on foot. Crawling in through an open window, they find themselves in the home of the spiky Jiaqi (Ren Suxi) who is paralysed from the neck down and completely unafraid to make use of her one remaining weapon – an extremely loud and imperious voice. Jiaqi is also the sister of widowed security guard Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) who was once an auxiliary police officer and harbours a desire to get back on the force which he feels he could fulfil through investigating the robbery and retrieving the gun on his own initiative. Meanwhile, Xianyong’s boss, financially troubled property developer with a complicated family set up Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), is on the run from gangsters to whom he has massive debts.

Like the cool fish of the title, Bra and Big Head are young men with impossible futures who find themselves cast out from mainstream society with no real way back in. No education, no connections, no job prospects or family – their futures look bleak. Bra sees himself as a gang boss in waiting even if Big Head is his only henchman, but the guys are no master criminals and despite their claims of working their way up in the crime world it’s clear they aren’t cut out for such cutthroat antics. Xianyong, by contrast, had opportunities but squandered them and then lost everything in a tragic turn of events for which he must bear some of the responsibility. Despised by his teenage daughter, humiliated by the gangsters chasing Gao Ming, and burdened by the guilt of having caused the accident that ruined his sister’s life, all Xianyong wants is to hit back and prove himself a someone, which means he’s coming for another pair of losers not so different from himself.

Rao Xiaozhi rolls the familial in with the political through rooting all of Xianyong’s various problems in his very male failures as a compromised father figure. Having lost his wife in a tragedy of his own making, Xianyong is resented by his daughter who has reverted to her mother’s maiden name out of shame while he engages in underhanded scams to bolster his fragile sense of self worth. Meanwhile, all Big Head dreams of is a small house in his hometown and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Xia (Ma Yinyin), who has come to the city in search of money. Big Head thinks she doesn’t want to marry him because he isn’t rich, but Xia’s reluctance turns out to be misplaced shame in having engaged in sex work and no longer seeing herself as good enough for the small town wholesomeness of a man like Big Head, never guessing he might go to such extreme lengths just to prove himself worthy of her.

Trapped by the crushing impossibility of life in a rapidly developing, relentlessly unfair, patriarchal, and conservative society each of our heroes takes desperate measures to enact their escape but quickly discovers that escape is a spiritual more than material matter and cannot be bought through transgression. This being China, crime cannot pay and so our guys cannot hope to emerge heroically from their less than heroic foray into gun toting criminality but even so you’d have to admit that their futures are brighter for having hit rock bottom and woken up with a better sense of self and a degree of forward motion. Rao’s ramshackle world of lovelorn little guys daring to dream of a (modestly) brighter future perfectly captures the bleak romanticism of the “diaosi” phenomenon and proves strangely difficult to resist save for its crushingly “necessary” finale.


Currently on limited release in UK Cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dead Souls (死靈魂, Wang Bing, 2018)

Dead Souls posterFor his eight hour exploration of China’s painful past, Wang Bing borrows a title from Gogol’s famous 19th century Russian novel which aimed to poke fun at the various flaws in contemporary cultural norms. “Dead Souls” (死靈魂, Sǐ Línghún), in Gogol’s case, referred to serfs which had passed on but were still included in a landlord’s register of property and therefore liable for taxation (the novel’s protagonist, a corrupt former civil servant, is keen to “buy” these “virtual” serfs as part of a mysterious money making scam). Wang Bing’s aims are about as far from comic as it’s possible to be, but he too is intent on unmasking national hypocrisy in ensuring the testimonies of the hundreds of men and women who survived Mao’s “Anti-Rightest Movement” of the late 1950s are finally heard. The alleged rightists became “dead souls” in more ways than one – having lost their party affiliation they no longer quite existed in the intensely conformist post-revolutionary world where they found themselves betrayed and abandoned by an increasingly oppressive regime that eventually robbed them of their humanity.

In 1956, the Communist Party had announced the Hundred Flowers campaign in which ordinary people were encouraged to voice their innermost thoughts about the state of the revolution. After a short lived period of liberalism, the Hundred Flowers campaign was exposed as a ruse to root out so called reactionary elements. The Anti-Rightist Movement which began in 1957 rounded up those who had offered up constructive criticism of the party as well as capitalists, intellectuals, and just about anyone with a vaguely questionable history, and packed them off for “re-education” at various labour camps throughout China.

Mostly offered through lengthy direct to camera monologues, Wang presents a first hand account of the Jiabiangou Labor Camp from those who managed to survive (around 500 of 3200 internees) after famine and disease took hold. Many of the alleged “rightists”, most “rehabilitated” after the Cultural Revolution and subsequent economic reforms, affirm that they have no idea what it is they did “wrong” but are convinced that it was petty jealousies and personal resentments that landed them in hot water rather than a political dispute. Many found themselves at the mercy of an official they’d already reported for incompetence or corruption, disappeared for reasons of expediency or convenience. Others were told that their re-education was for the public good and they’d be back in a matter of months in their old job with their old salary, or else their family could come live with them on the utopian farm that would arise from their efforts in the camp.

Of course, the reality was very different and the harrowing stories recounted by the now elderly men with a mix of retrospective black humour and deeply held resentment speak of death on a mass scale, starvation, walking corpses, and rampant disease. With famine intensified by the failure of the Great Leap Forward, food supplies grew increasingly short while numbers of “rightists” in need of re-education only increased thanks to a kind of quota system. Those most likely to survive were the ones who made themselves the most useful – the physically strong, the tenders of horses, and the kitchen staff who could survive by pinching food when no one was looking. One strangely gleeful old man calmly recounts how he finagled his way into the kitchen and then set about pilfering the best of the supplies for himself with the help of the other cooks (seemingly without remorse), while another man recounts spotting a similar practice and taking the greedy to task by reminding them that the food they were scoffing came out of someone else’s mouth. Those who survived did so either because their families were able to smuggle in food for them, or else they were lucky.

Breaking away from the rigorous, sometimes oppressive interviews, Wang wanders the grounds of the former camps now levelled in an attempt to erase their existence but still painfully visible in the arid, scarred landscape. Bones litter surface as if squeezed out of the earth while human skulls rest eerily in the middle of barren land. A group of survivors attempts to identify remains through stones placed atop the bodies of those who died when those left behind still had the strength to bury them, but fail to read the faded names while their attempt to erect a monument to those who lost their lives to a malicious failure of government ends with only more destruction. What they were not permitted to do Wang accomplishes if intangibly in creating an indelible monument to human suffering through the first hand testimony of a persecuted generation finally able to break the long decades of silence and give voice to a truth still so painfully hidden.


Short clip from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

Bitter Money (苦钱, Wang Bing, 2016)

Bitter money poster“Bitter Money” (苦钱, Kǔ Qián), according to director Wang Bing, is a phrase on the rise. It may be that money is rarely sweet, but this kind is particularly hard to swallow. Not only is the youth of China thrown out of its villages towards the inferno of city industry, living alone and away from home, but finds nothing more than exploitation, drudgery and false promise when it gets there. Wang’s trademark immersive detachment captures the frustrating inertia of the young men and women of the modern China who find themselves very definitely at the bottom of a heap and consistently betrayed by a failed ideology.

Wang opens in the country with a trio of hopeful youngsters about to leave everything behind for the bright promise of a better life for themselves and their families bought with city money. They board a bus, and then a train, and then interminable hours later arrive in Huzhou, the centre of the modern garment trade. The girls find work in a small workshop which, all things considered, might not seem so bad save that it provides only extremely low pay and offers no guarantees.

Shifting away from the recent arrivals, Wang’s camera locks onto the melancholy figure of 25-year-old Ling Ling who wants to borrow it as ally in confronting her coldhearted husband who threw her out after she complained about his beatings and is now so resentful that she’s stayed away too long that he refuses to talk to her. Ling Ling’s attitude to her unhappy marriage speaks volumes about the oppressive, patriarchal world of Huzhou where physical strength and dexterity are the only real currencies.

Lamenting her fate to coworker, Ling Ling affirms that domestic violence is just a part of life and believes that women have a duty to “submit” to their husbands’ rages – after all, “no woman can beat a man”. Her husband, Erzi, is proud and insecure. He views his wife’s behaviour as a slight against him and is resolved to be rid of her, loudly threatening her life in front of half the neighbourhood guys each of whom gets up and abandons their mahjong game after sensing that something is about to kick off. Despite the disdain with which the other men treat his overt violence towards his wife, Erzi is convinced his “manly” behaviour is impressive and thinks nothing of grabbing his wife by the throat in full view of Wang’s camera which remains a purely passive presence despite this ongoing threat.

Ling Ling, however, has few real choices left to her. She can’t survive alone in this environment and has nowhere else to go. In a pattern repeated across the nation, Ling Ling’s son is being raised in the country while she and her husband try to make a go of things in the city. Her major argument with Erzi is that he kicked her out with no money and won’t even give her anything for their son. Yet a later scene shows them together again, seemingly “happier” even whilst they to continue to bicker about money if in a less obviously destructive way.

Most of the other workers are not quite as trapped as Ling Ling, but are caught by a feeling of threat and desperation which encourages them to push themselves beyond the limits of human endurance while their bosses reap the profits. One minute the garment workshop is in the hole because they backed a product which isn’t selling, and the next it’s doing so well that the “slow” workers are being laid off in favour of the more “efficient”. It goes without saying that work in these small workshops is almost entirely unregulated with very few enforceable labour rights which means the boss is free to hire and fire as he sees fit. Some consider “investing” in pyramid schemes despite an awareness of their risks in the belief that they could beat the system if they get out fast enough while others resolve to give up and go home to the comparative comforts of the country.

One worker retreats into drink, only for his boss to tell him he’s holding back his wages for his own good which seems like a dubious claim at best. The workers regard the “big factories” with fear and awe, enemies of their current establishments but perhaps also offering better opportunities if also requiring a further fall into the industrial inferno. With little else on offer, “bitter money” is all there seems to be but its rewards are scant and its toll heavy. The teenage girl we first meet full of excitement and enthusiasm is eventually worn down, realising she’s worked all these months and earned barely anything. Wang’s detachment mirrors that of his protagonists who find themselves at the mercy of a cruel and indifferent social system the ongoing violence of which it proves almost impossible to escape.


Grain in Ear (芒种 / 망종, Zhang Lu, 2005)

Grain in Ear posterChinese-Korean director Zhang Lu has made a career of exploring the lives of those living on the margins of modern China and most particularly those of the ethnic Korean minority. 2005’s Grain in Ear (芒种, Máng zhòng, 망종, Mang Jong) brings this theme to the fore through the struggles of its stoic heroine who bears all her troubles with quiet fortitude until the weight of her despair threatens an already fragile sense of civility, consistently eroded by multiple betrayals, misuses, and an unforgettable othering. Yet she is not entirely alone in her outsider status even if there is precious little value in solidarity among the powerless in a world of circular oppressions.

32-year-old Cui Shun-ji (Liu Lianji) has moved to a small town with her young son Chang-ho (Jin Bo) following her husband’s conviction of a violent crime. Unable to find work, she ekes out a living illegally selling kimchi from a cart without a permit while Chang-ho busies himself playing with the neighbourhood kids in the rundown industrial town. Isolated not only as a newcomer but as a member of the ethnic Korean minority, Shun-ji keeps herself to herself but can’t help attracting the attentions of the locals some of whom are merely curious about her spicy side dishes while others are intent on helping themselves to things which aren’t actually on sale.

There is something peculiarly perverse about Shun-Ji’s decision to make her living selling kimchi. It is both an act of frustrated patriotism and a kind of commodification of her ethnicity though she seems to have intense pride in her ability to produce her national dish even if there is not often as much calling for it as she would like. Meanwhile, at home, Shun-ji virtually tortures little Chang-ho into trying to learn the Korean alphabet as a way of fastening him closely to his heritage and community, but Chang-ho is a Chinese boy to all intents and purposes. He may understand Korean, but he doesn’t want or need to speak it and resents his mother’s attempts to reinforce his Koreanness.

Meanwhile, despite her aloofness, Shun-ji eventually forms a kind of relationship with a lonely Korean-Chinese man, Mr. Kim (Zhu Guangxuan), who visits her cart. Brought together by a shared sense of loneliness and a connection born only of a mutual ethnicity, the pair drift into an affair but Shun-ji’s dreams of romantic rescue will be short lived. Her lover is a weak willed man married to a feisty Chinese woman who will stop at nothing to recapture her henpecked husband. Cornered, Kim tells his wife it’s not “an affair” because money changed hands, branding Shun-ji a prostitute and getting her arrested by the police to prove his point.

To be fair, Shun-ji’s married lover is another oppressed minority afraid of the consequences of non-compliance, but he’s also just one of the terrible men that Shun-ji will encounter in her quest towards independence and self sufficiency. Her husband killed a man for money and left his family to fend for themselves when he went to prison for it. Her lover called her a whore and left her at the mercy of the police. A man who offered to help with a lucrative kimchi contract turned out to be after another kind of spice, and the kindly policeman who stopped by her cart with tales of his impending marriage turned out not to be so nice after all.

In this fiercely patriarchal world, women like Shun-ji have no one to rely upon but each other. Marginalised by poverty, ethnicity, and unfamiliarity, Shun-ji and Chang-ho live in a small shack behind the railway next to the local sex workers. Chang-ho, too small to understand why everyone calls the women next-door “chickens”, treats them all like big sisters while a kind of solidarity emerges between Shun-ji and the melancholy youngsters from far away towns who’ve travelled to this remote place to ply their trade out of desperation, too ashamed to stay any closer to home. One of the sex workers tries to warn Shun-ji about Kim – men who buy their services are not especially good romantic material, but it’s advice that falls on deaf ears. Shun-ji wants to believe better of her compatriot, but her faith is not repaid.

Zhang, in a familiar motif, foregrounds Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness, giving it additional weight in the mouth of little Chang-ho whose longing is for another kind of home in contrast to his mother’s continued need to believe in the solidarity of her community. Yet even she eventually loses faith, tearing up Chang-ho’s Hangul cards and finally allowing him to give up on his Koreanness. Having endured so much, Shun-Li’s broken spirit eventually leads her towards an inevitable explosion and a grim, strangely poetic revenge against the society which has so badly wronged her. Only in this final moment of transgression does Shun-ji begin to harvest her own freedom, but escape is still a long way off and her final act of defiance may only further condemn her in world of constant oppressions.


Grain in Ear was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Mandarin and Korean with Korean subtitles only)

Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Li Ruijun, 2017)

Walking Past the Future poster 1Communism is a labour movement. It’s supposed to look after the workers, ensure fairness and equality through prosperity born of common endeavour. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was how the ruling powers tried to justify their headlong slide into globalised capitalism but thirty years on the modern China has left many behind while the rich get richer off the backs of the poor. The poetically titled Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Lùguò Wèilái) follows two such unlucky youngsters from Gansu who find themselves out of options in China’s shrinking industrial heartlands.

Our heroine Yaoting (Yang Zishan) has a job in an electronics factory assembling circuit boards. She lives with her parents – peasants from rural Gansu who came to Shenzhen 25 years previously in search of a better life, and a younger sister who is the family’s bright hope. Trouble is on horizon when Yaoting’s dad is taken ill and needs hospital treatment only to be unceremoniously “made redundant” when he tries to go back to work. On the very same day, Yaoting’s mother also announces she has been let go from her factory job leaving Yaoting as the family’s only earner. The day after Yaoting’s dad gets fired, his factory literally collapses and many workers are killed. You could say he’s had a lucky escape, but there are still few options for a man in his 60s with poor health and the family needs money. He decides they have no other option than to move back to Gansu and go back to farming, but when they get there, he discovers someone else has taken over his land (legally) and won’t give it back.

Meanwhile, Yingtao desperately wants to buy an apartment but with sending money back to her struggling parents her factory job is barely enough to live on. Her best friend Li Qian (Wang Ting), unburdened by a family, is addicted to plastic surgery and is saving to go to Korea for the best there is. On a hospital visit during which she is temporarily blinded, Li Qian runs into the roguish Xinmin (Yin Fang) who has a sideline recruiting desperate people to take part in potentially dangerous medical trials. Unbeknownst to either of them, Xinmin is also the “Desert Ship” to Yingtao’s “Misty Landscape”. They’ve become online best friends but have never met. Increasingly desperate to get the money for her dream apartment, Yingtao agrees to participate in a series of drug trials even though she has previously had a liver transplant and has a history of poor health.

Despite the supposed benefits of a movement led by workers, Yingtao and her family are victims of the modern era in which jobs are no longer for life, there is no community or fellow feeling between “boss” and “employee”, and those at the bottom of the ladder enjoy few rights. Yingtao’s father gets laid off when they find out he’s been ill with only a goodwill gesture of severance pay (which presumably goes up in smoke with the factory), while the same thing later happens to Yingtao when her liver condition resurfaces. When the electronics factory hits a rough patch, Yingtao is laid off for an entire week with no pay – so much for solidarity and a full belly for all.

Yingtao’s only pleasures are her constant conversations with “Desert Ship” who keeps needling her to officially accept his friendship request, but she won’t because moving their friendship to a more official level would prevent her from talking to him quite so freely. Neither Xinmin nor Yingtao is aware of the other’s identity, or that they are in fact texting each other while quietly miserable in the same room. A young orphan just trying to survive, Xinmin has a cynical and exploitative streak perfectly symptomatic of the world in which he lives but he is not completely heartless even if he is somewhat hypocritical in advising his online friend against the medical trials he has unwittingly persuaded her to undertake back in the real world. 

Pushed lower and lower, forced to undertake difficult and physically dangerous work with little protection and only the warning that their decisions are on their own heads, Yingtao and Xinmin find little to be hopeful about despite the eventual warmth of the connection between them and the innocent desire to see the snow back in the simpler world of rural Gansu. The future has indeed passed them by, marooning them in a miserable present yet, like the song the pair keep singing, they continue to dream of finding a “welcoming window” no matter how far off it seems to be.


Walking Past the Future screens in Chicago on Oct. 24 as part of the Seventh Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where director Lee Ruijun and producer Zhang Min will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Family Tour (自由行, Ying Liang, 2018)

A Family Tour posterMaking films in China is far from easy, especially if you’re intent on exposing the misconduct of your own government. Director Ying Liang found this out the hard way after his third film When Night Falls fell foul of the censors and subsequently saw him exiled from Mainland China. Distancing himself slightly from his material, Ying draws inspiration from his own life in following an exiled female filmmaker’s uncover mission to surreptitiously meet up with her mother by “coincidentally” bumping into her at various tourist spots around Taiwan while she pretends to be taking part in a specially organised package tour.

Ying’s stand-in, Yang Shu (Gong Zhe), has been living in Hong Kong for the last five years after her last film, which features the same plot as Ying’s offending feature in following the mother of a man facing the death penalty for a notorious violent crime whose case may not have been properly handled, was banned. Married to a Hong Kong film programmer, Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo), Yang has a young son and a teaching position but has been unable to pursue filmmaking thanks to the demands of living in exile. When a Taiwanese festival decides to screen her controversial film and invites her over to talk about it, it seems like too good an opportunity to miss. Together with her compassionate husband, Yang hatches a plot to bring her mother, Chen Xiaolin (Nai An), to the “neutral” territory of Taiwan as part of a tightly organised package tour of Mainland tourists. However, as it might cause problems for Xiaolin on her return if they are spotted together, the family will have to take care to ensure that their meetings seem coincidental – no mean feat when Xiaolin is holidaying with a crowd of sociable coach travellers who will no doubt be wondering why she keeps wandering off on her own.

The ironies of exile abound. Yang is constantly asked difficult questions of identity, whether she considers herself to be a Hong Konger or a Mainlander with pressure on all sides to give the correct response. Meanwhile, she’s confronted with the creeping authoritarianism of Beijing even in Hong Kong as a celebrity doctor who’s said the wrong thing is forced on TV to make the obligatory public self criticism in which he avows his loyalty to the “One China”. Despite being married to a Hong Kong national and mother to a son born on the island, Yang doesn’t quite feel as if she’s truly supposed to be there. As she later almost puts it in an ill-advised social media post her husband is quick to talk her out of, Yang “wants to go home” and being unable to means she can’t really settle anywhere else.

Meanwhile, she’s “free” to travel to Taiwan while her mother can only get there by bribing an official tour guide to get her on a tightly regimented bus trip which requires jumping through a lot of bureaucratic hoops to prove you will definitely be coming back. China famously doesn’t recognise the autonomy of Taiwan which has its own troubled history of colonisation and oppression. One of Xiaolin’s fellow passengers who eventually stumbles on her secret is an elderly man whose father came to Taiwan with the nationalists in 1949 shortly before he was born and was executed there, never to meet his son. The old man has come to Taiwan to see where his dad lived and died while he still has time. Politics has been destroying families since time immemorial  but never quite so insidiously as when it decides to use the natural bonds of parents and children as a tool to ensure total compliance within a cruel and uncompromising regime.

Despite having made all this effort, Yang’s interactions with her mother are strange and strained. She’s angry, resentful, guilt ridden and conflicted, unable to meet her mother on an emotional level and unwilling to accept this will probably be the last time she ever sees her. Xiaolin knows her daughter well but her country better, she’s learned to live within its oppressive confines by keeping her head down but Yang seethes with anger towards her mother’s tendency towards compliance. When Yang’s film was blacklisted, it was Xiaolin’s house the men in suits barged into, insisting she force her daughter to re-edit her film, bringing up unpleasant memories of her husband’s time in the re-education camps and making mildly threatening insinuations while Xiaolin holds her ground and refuses to cooperate. Yang’s activism has very real consequences not only for herself but for her family. Ironically enough, Ka-Ming is free to travel back and forth to the mainland, occasionally visiting Xiaolin but too afraid to take his son there in case the authorities try to snatch him.

Restrained as always, Xiaolin poignantly and without irony talks of what she terms the “Chinese way of love” – that you might have to sever connection with those closest to you in order to keep them safe. Familial love, or any kind of love at all, is a liability and a burden that puts both parties in danger from those that would seek to use their feelings against them. Like the rather brusque tour leader who has taken a significant risk in facilitating this odd reunion puts it, “what can ordinary people do?”. Ying cannot find much of an answer. Ironically enough, the Chinese title translates as “free travel” – the very opposite of a package tour in which one has the right and the opportunity to go wherever one wants whenever one wants to, unencumbered by the desires of the collective. A meditation on the inertia of exile, the pain of separation, and the cruelty of the uncompromising systems which abuse real feeling in the name of control, A Family Tour (自由行, Zìyóuxíng) is a heartbreaking exercise in futility in which the only way forward lies in melancholy resignation.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)