Chinese Visual Festival 2019 Announces Full Lineup

Tracey still 3The Chinese Visual Festival returns for its 9th edition in May 2019 with a weeklong celebration of Chinese language cinema including a special focus on the legendary Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan who will be in attendance for a series of conversations and Q&As.

Thursday 02 May:

6.10pm: First Night Nerves + Stanley Kwan Q&A 

BFI Southbank, NFT1

first night nerves still 1Stanley Kwan returns to the stage with a backstage melodrama of backstabbing actresses as a veteran star makes her comeback alongside the talented youngster who threatens to eclipse her…

The legendary director will be present in person for a Q&A following the UK premiere of the film.

Friday 03 May:

4pm: Crack of Dawn: Roundtable Discussion with Director Ying Liang

King’s College London, Anatomy Museum
Ying Lang
Director Ying Liang whose When Night Falls, Sunny Day, and Family Tour are all screening in the festival will be in conversation with East Asian cinema specialist Tony Rayns, and film scholars Jessica Yeung and Victor Fan.

7pm: When Night Falls + Ying Liang Q&A

Joint ticket with A Sunny Day
King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

When Night Falls still 1The mother of a man sentenced to death for killing six policemen continues to fight for justice in Ying Liang’s probing drama. 

7pm: A Sunny Day + Ying Liang Q&A

Joint ticket with When Night Falls
King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

Sunny day still 1A young woman visits her father for lunch in Ying Liang’s Occupy-themed short.

Saturday 04 May:

2pm: A Family Tour + Ying Liang Q&A

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

Family Tour still 1An exiled film director takes a “holiday” to Taiwan in order to tag along after her mother’s old persons’ tour bus knowing they will likely never meet again in Ying Liang’s poignant semi-autobiographical drama. Review.

6.15pm: Rouge + Stanley Kwan Q&A

BFI Southbank, NFT3

Rouge still 1Stanley Kwan’s sumptuous supernatural romance stars Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung as a pair of lovers who determine on double suicide, only she is the only one who dies. 50 years later, her spirit returns to a much changed ’80s Hong Kong in search of answers.

The director will be present for a Q&A following the film.

Sunday 05 May:

1pm: Stammering Ballad

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

Stammering ballad still 1A Chinese folksinger leaves his hometown to wander and eventually ends up on China’s Got Talent only to return home and find his beloved landscape much changed in this visually stunning documentary.

3.30pm: Women + Stanley Kwan Q&A

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

Kwan women still 1A woman leaves her husband after discovering he has been unfaithful and joins the “Spinsters’ Club” but is conflicted when he wants to patch things up. Stanley Kwan will also be present for a Q&A following a screening of his 1985 debut feature.

5.30pm: Stanley Kwan in Conversation

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

Register Free

stanley kwan
The legendary director joins EasternKicks’ Andrew Heskins and Professor Victor Fan from King’s College London to disuss his life and career in the Hong Kong film industry.

7.15pm: The Land of Peach Blossoms

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre
Land藕粉peachblossomsstill1
Documentarian Zhou Mingying explores a “utopian” restaurant run along collectivist lines in which personal thought is forbidden and becoming like the leader an ideal.

Monday 06 May

1pm: The Drum Tower + Fan Popo Q&A

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

drum tower still 1An introverted high schooler and transgender vintage shop owner are the protagonists of the latest short from Fan Popo.

1pm: Meili

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

Meili still 1A young girl abandoned by her parents and abused by her brother-in-law hopes to escape with her girlfriend in a powerful debut from director Zhou Zhou.

4pm: Thin Dream Bay + Imagining Evan Yang

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre
Imagining Evan Yang
Independent filmmaker Shu Kei explores the literary life of director and songwriter Evan Yang  .

7.15pm: The Rib

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

47483187072_1c2af9ba0c_oFactory Boss‘ Zhang Wei follows a religious father’s struggle to accept his transgender daughter.

Tuesday 07 May

7pm: Four Springs

King’s College London, Lucas Theatre

four springgs still 1Director Lu Qingyi’s beautiful documentary follows his own family through four celebrations of New Year bringing with them both joy and sorrow. Review.

Wednesday 08 May

8.45pm: In Character

BFI Southbank, NFT3

In Character still 1A director making a semi-autobiographical film takes 13 actors back to the Cultural Revolution by bringing them to a disused firearms factory in Sichuan where they must wear the clothes and listen to the music of the era.

Thursday 09 May

3pm: Tracey Cast and Crew in Conversation

King’s College London, Nash Theatre

Tracey still 1The cast and crew of Tracey are in conversation with EasternKicks’ Andrew Heskins and Dr. Victor Fan from King’s College London.

6pm: Tracey + Cast & Crew Q&A

BFI Southbank, NFT2
Tracey still 2A 51-year-old married father of two grownup children begins to come to an acceptance of a transgender identity after hearing the news of the death of a close friend in the beautifully observed debut from Li Jun.

The Chinese Visual Festival runs at BFI Southbank and King’s College London from 2nd to 9th May 2019. Full details for all the films are available via the official website and you can keep up with all the festival’s latest details via the official Facebook Page, Twitter account, and Instagram.

Four Springs (四个春天, Lu Qingyi, 2018)

Four Springs poster“Time flies. Life is so short, isn’t it?” a cheerful relative remarks lamenting that the family only comes back together once a year during the first of Lu Qingyi’s Four Springs (四个春天, Sì gè Chūntiān). Rather than follow his family through four seasons for one year, Lu Qingyi observes his ageing parents at yearly intervals as time both moves on and doesn’t delivering joy and sadness in equal measure.

Beginning in the spring of 2013, Lu Qingyi returns home to the remote small town of Dushan where his parents have lived for decades. The family comes together again, if only briefly, to ring in the New Year much as they always have. During the second New Year, Qingyi is joined by his sister Qingwei but there is sadness on the horizon as we discover she is coping with serious illness though the family once again celebrate joyously recalling the past more than dwelling on the future. Subsequent reunions are born both of joy and sorrow as family illnesses take hold, bringing people back together again if only to unite them in sadness and anxiety. Yet life, as always, rolls on just the same.

Briefly including shots of himself, Qingwei focusses on the figures of his parents – retired teacher Yunkun and mother Guixian. Though they must have lived through some turbulent times, the couple are blissfully happy in each other’s company and used to taking pleasure in the simple things such as the swallows which occasionally nest in their roof, or making a new hive for some migratory bees come to visit. The natural world is very much a part of their existence as they make time for hiking out in the mountains, tending graves and enjoying the scenery singing always as they go.

Music, indeed, seems to be an important part of life in Dushan and song is never far away from the lips of of Qingwei’s parents who find themselves humming folk tunes or stretches of traditional opera. Yunkun makes use of his computer to listen to and edit tracks while the rattling of his wife’s manual sewing machine echoes from the next room. Though many things here are “traditional”, the couple are not so much trapped in the past as happy with what they have. Yunkun has embraced his computer, but a later attempt to introduce the couple to smartphones and teach them to use the WeChat app ends in hilarity as they attempt to process the extreme modernity of instant communication.

Technology is both a privilege and a curse, as the family discover one New Year in being deprived of watching the spring gala thanks to an ill timed power cut which also leaves them inside in the cold but perhaps makes the fireworks a little brighter. As the New Year becomes marked by its absences – the empty chairs and increasing silences, technology also provides a path back to happier times through the home videos filmed in previous years by Qingyi and his father which provide a record of ordinary family life both happy and sad in recalling past springs never to come again.

Time itself becomes a theme as it marches on invisibly. Qingyi’s cheerful parents are thankfully in good health, though his mother wishes they could dance again like they did in the old days and worries what will become of the one left behind when the inevitable happens. Nevertheless, the New Year arrives as it always does, preparations are made, too much food is cooked, the family eats, and sings, and remembers. Lu Qingyi’s Four Springs is a touching evocation of the joys and sorrows of being alive in his loving tribute to his goodhearted parents who have learned to find the tiny happinesses in the every day even in the midst of unbearable sadness.


Four Springs screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 7, 2pm & 5pm, at Heritage Museum of Asian Art, 218 West 26th Street.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Up the Mountain (火山, Zhang Yang, 2018)

Up the Mountain posterThe story of modern China has often been one of migration as the young find themselves pulled towards the cities, sending their children back to the countryside to be raised by relatives while they earn what they can away from home. As the economic situation improves, however, there may be motion the other way. Successful artist Shen Jianhua moved from the bustling metropolis of Shanghai to a remote mountain village where he practices his art and opens his home to all who have an interest in learning from him.

Shen’s mountain home is an interesting exemplification of a blend of old and new. Though he seems to prefer the simple life, the renovated property is decorated in a modern, though fairly minimalist, style and the family do not appear to want for anything. Their living is not austere and Shen does not object to the idea of modernity, as the toys bought for his baby son seem to testify while his apprentice chats on an iPhone and his teenage daughter listens to music while she runs.

Nevertheless, life in the mountains is lived slowly and there are things which must be done which is why we see apprentice Dinglong continually chopping firewood while the gaggle of old ladies who make up the majority of Shen’s pupils come back and forth with vegetables preparing tasty food to be shared communally by the small family that has grown up around Shen’s art practice. It does not appear that the ladies pay anything for Shen’s instruction or that he draws much of an income for it, but all seem to benefit from a shared sense of creative community. One old lady describes her life before art as “stagnant, like old water”, but now she feels reenergised and happily gives away her finished paintings to her bemused children as something to remember her by when she’s not around.

Not everyone is as happy for the old women as they seem to be for each other, however, as we notice in the persistent discord between one older bickering couple. Dinglong too remains conflicted. Still young, his parents are beginning to pressure him to give up painting and the mountains to settle down. Dinglong, like many young men, doesn’t really want to and so is surprised and dismayed when Shen’s advice is more conservative than he might have expected, encouraging him to obey his parents’ wishes and reminding him that good art is founded on a wealth of life experience. Truth be told, Dinglong has a girlfriend already and is perhaps edging towards marriage but the snag is that her parents are from a nearby city. They’d rather their daughter marry nearby and would worry about her living in a remote village they perhaps assume is much more rustic than it really is. The other problem is that artists don’t earn much and Dinglong admits he only paints one picture a year with no guarantee it will sell. As a son-in-law, he’s not a particularly good catch.

Dinglong’s dilemma is perhaps unusual, most of the other youngsters are desperate to leave the country for a better life in the cities no matter how illusionary it might turn out to be. Then again, his resistance is perhaps more understandable as he complains to Shen that he is being given almost no choice in his future as everything is being sorted out by his fiancée and the parents with him the only one in favour of his staying in the mountains. His future wife has a point, however, when she objects to raising children in the village without access to a good school. Shen and his wife are educated people and they’ve been able to teach their teenage daughter at home but Dinglong is a rural boy and they won’t have the resources to give their children the best start in life unless they travel to a place those resources might be found.

Reluctantly, Dinglong is forced away from the simple, traditional life which seems to suit him best while his wife remains unsympathetic to his attachment to the village and its guardian god. Meanwhile, Shen’s life carries on much as before even after the birth of his baby son who put in an appearance a month early to be born in the middle of New Year. Zhang captures the ancient rhythms of the traditional village through its rowdy, colourful festivals filled with joy and excitement but also sees the ways in which it is changing. One older lady enlists Shen’s help to build a bathroom on her property because her daughter was too embarrassed to bring a prospective husband home to a house without one (and a daughter getting married is after all the most important thing), creating a beautiful space dedicated to modern ideas of relaxation and serenity rather than the efficient austerity usually associated with rural life. The young might not be able to stay, but given time they may return and the mountain will be waiting for them with patient warmth.


Up the Mountain (火山, Hshān) screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 6, 2pm, at Heritage Museum of Asian Art, 218 West 26th Street.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Crossing (过春天, Bai Xue, 2018)

The Crossing posterReally, when it comes right down to it, a border is not much more than an imaginary line drawn across a piece of paper intended to bring order to a formless world. People have fought and died over the positioning of such lines for centuries, but then when all is said and done the boundaries which matter most are the internal ones and everybody has their lines they will not cross. An internal war over the nature of that line is very much at the centre of Bai Xue’s melancholy coming of age drama The Crossing (过春天, Guò Chūntiānin which a young girl living a life on top of borders geographical, emotional, and legal, begins to discover herself only through transgression.

It’s Peipei’s (Huang Yao) 16th birthday, but the most important fact about that for her is that she is now of legal working age and can get a part-time job. Peipei’s parents split up some time ago and now she lives with her flighty mother (Ni Hongjie) in Shenzhen while attending a posh high school in Hong Kong where she doesn’t quite fit in considering her comparatively humble background. This is brought home to her by her insensitive best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) who wants the pair to go on holiday together to Japan at Christmas while full-well knowing that there is no way Peipei can get the money together in time. Desperate to go, Peipei has been selling cellphone cases at school and now has her part-time job but it’s all very slow going. When Jo convinces her to bunk off and party with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells she ends up getting herself involved in a cellphone smuggling operation thanks to Jo’s no good boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun). 

Peipei’s problem is the time old one of falling in with the wrong crowd, but then we most often catch her alone and it’s a lonely figure she cuts through the busy streets of her bifurcated world. Young but tough and angry, Peipei thinks she knows what she’s doing but is caught on the difficult dividing line between adolescence and adulthood and her attempts to claim her independence are filled with determined naivety. Resentful of her mother’s seeming indifference and parade of useless boyfriends, she wants to grow up as soon as possible but it’s not so much the daring and adventure that draws her into the orbit of Sister Hua’s (Elena Kong may-yee) gang of thieves as the camaraderie. Peipei likes being part of a “family”, she likes the maternal attentions of the spiky Sister Hua, and she likes being valuable even if on some level she realises that her usefulness will fade and that her growing loyalty to the gang is largely one sided.

“The big fish eat the little fish. Never trust men” Sister Hua later advises her, and it is indeed good advice if offered a little too late. Peipei knows she’s a little a fish, which is perhaps why she sympathises so strongly with the miniature shark trapped in a tank at the palatial mansion owned by Jo’s absentee aunt. Nevertheless, she tries to swim free only to find herself sinking ever deeper into a murky underworld she is ill-equipped to understand. Her first anxious crossing with a handful of iPhones in her backpack is a fraught affair, but carrying it off without a hitch an oddly empowering experience. Even so, when Sister Hua considers swapping the phones for a gun Peipei hesitates. In essence it’s the same – perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the cargo is, and Sister Hua’s “love” is indeed dependent on a job well done, but the stakes here are sky high. It’s not such a fun game anymore, as Peipei realises spotting a badly wounded gang member hovering outside having apparently received punishment for some kind of transgression.

Meanwhile she finds herself in another kind of interstitial space altogether when caught between best friend Jo and bad boy Hao. Jo, spoilt and self-centred, assumes her family will send her abroad to study and is later shocked by the realisation that her sexist dad thinks she’s not worth it, expects her to marry young in Hong Kong, and intends to invest all the money in her brother instead. Jo didn’t care much for Hao before and even jokingly offered to bequeath him to Peipei when she left, but now all her dreams are crumbling and she suspects he’s losing interest it’s a different story. Playing with fire, Peipei finds herself drawn to Hao who becomes something between white knight and big brother figure in the confusing world of crime until his protective instincts begin to bubble into something else. The pair bicker flirtatiously but also shift into a shared space born of their mutual dissatisfaction and desire to gain access to the Hong Kong inhabited by the likes of Jo whose vast wealth has left her blind to her own privilege.

Peipei crosses lines with giddy excitement, but only through burning her bridges does she begin to discover her own identity caught as she is between Hong Kong and China, between rich and poor, between the going somewheres and not, and between innocence and experience as her exciting adventure in the world of crime eventually blows up in her face. A rather strange title card informing us that efforts to limit smuggling at the border have been redoubled (seemingly ripped right out of the Mainland censor’s notebook) finally gives way to something calmer and more meditative as Peipei awakens to a new understanding of herself and the world in which she lives, looking out instead of up and ahead rather than behind as she resolves to keep moving forward as if there were no more lines to be crossed.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pegasus (飞驰人生, Han Han, 2019)

Pegasus poster 1Traditionally speaking, New Year has often been a time for reconsidering one’s life choices, but can it ever really be too late to make up for past mistakes and charge ahead into a better future? The hero of Han Han’s New Year racing drama Pegasus (飞驰人生, Fēichí Rénshēng) is determined to find out as he tries to bounce back from disgrace and failure to prove to his young son that he was once a great man and not quite the hangdog loser he might at first seem. His battle, however, will be a tough one even with his best guys by his side.

Zheng Chi (Shen Teng) dreamed of racing glory and won it. He was a champion, the face on billboards across China, but a minor scandal put paid to his success and his driving and racing licenses have been suspended for the last five years during which time he’s been humbled and lived a workaday life as a fried rice stall vendor raising a young son alone. Now that his suspension is up for reconsideration, he’s beginning to wonder if he might be able to return to his rightful place at the centre of the podium but he’ll have to eat a considerable amount of humble pie if he’s to convince anyone that he’s a person worthy of respect now that he has nothing.

Director Han Han is, among other things, also a rally driver himself though his positioning of the sport within his tale of middle-aged loserdom is a slightly awkward fit. Racing is an expensive hobby, it quite literally relies on the involvement of those who have vast resources of disposable cash they can use to sponsor drivers so they can improve their equipment. Though a driver’s skill, and their relationship with a co-driver, are not insignificant parts of the equation, it is nevertheless true that money rules all when it comes to buying advantage (perhaps much like life).

Chi’s problem isn’t just his age, but that he’s up against extremely rich young guys with inherited wealth like his rival Zhengdong (Huang Jingyu) – a pretty boy with celebrity following and seemingly infinite resources. Han sets Chi’s struggle up as one of the chastened everyman – someone who came from nothing and made it only to crash and burn but still has the desire to get up and try again. He struggles on through various obstacles including bribing a driving instructor to get his licence back and charming a suspension board into letting him back in the game but discovers that friendships formed when successful might not survive a fall from grace. He can’t get the same kind of access as he could when he was riding high and no amount of chutzpah will make up for the disadvantage incurred through not having the kind of wealth that enables Zhengdong’s ongoing rise to glory.

Nevertheless, perhaps Zhengdong is simply a realist when he advises those looking for absolute fairness not to bother getting involved with racing. He’s not a bad guy, if somewhat insecure in feeling as if his own success has been enabled only by Chi’s fall from grace and perhaps he wouldn’t be top of the podium if the best driver hadn’t been hounded off the track. What we’re left with is an awkward admission that what makes the difference is men like Zhengdong deciding to feel philanthropic, though in this case he does so out of a sense of sportsmanship and a not entirely altruistic desire to prove himself by ensuring the participation of a worthy rival. Given this boost, Chi’s quest necessarily leaves the realm of the everyday loser and returns to the rarefied one of success enabled by privilege.

The final messages are also somewhat ambivalent in their death or glory, live full throttle intensity as Chi’s lectures on driving become lectures about life, affirming that those who win are the ones who drive fastest while making the fewest mistakes. Chi is not unencumbered, he has his son and therefore a responsibility to another which is sometimes forgotten in his own quest for glory which, we are reminded, carries risk and danger. Perhaps what we’re asked is if the gentle pleasures of a simple life selling fried rice for decades are worth giving up the hyper acceleration of a life measured in seconds following a dream. Chi might have found his answer, but it comes at a cost and he’s not the only one who’ll be paying it. As New Year messages go, it’s a decidedly mixed one which might not offer much positivity for the average middle-aged loser longing to relive their glory days in service of a dream which might long have flickered out in an increasingly unequal society.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fragile House (海上城市, Lin Zi, 2018)

thefragilehouseposterAmong the many concerns of recent Chinese cinema, economic inequality and the fate of the family loom large. Lin Zi’s debut, The Fragile House (海上城市, Hǎishàng Chéngshì), neatly brings the two together in the tale of one ordinary family who’ve managed to carve out a degree of comfort for themselves but at great cost. Economic strain threatens the very idea of family, or at least of “family” as has traditionally been defined. The Huangs pay their respects to their elders and enact the rituals expected of them, but remain mere individuals drifting endlessly without direction in pursuit of an inflated ideal of middle-class respectability.

Lin opens on the most important family occasion of all – New Year’s Eve. The Huangs have gathered together as expected with even oldest son and heavily pregnant daughter-in-law in attendance, but there is an unexpected visitor. Cui Ying’s sister Cui Na has come calling but not to join the festivities – she’s come to claim a debt and is refusing to leave the Huang’s sofa until she gets her money. In an extreme power move, the Huangs have called the police to have her removed – an act of intense pettiness which results in little more than ruining everyone’s New Year by getting half the family detained at the local police station.

Originally from the country, Cui Ying and her husband work for a construction firm but there’s trouble on the horizon because Cui Ying, who seems to be in charge of payroll, hasn’t been given the construction funding by the developers who keep fobbing her off meaning she can’t pay her workers. The workers are understandably upset and angry, some resorting to thieving materials in lieu of their wages while quietly seething with resentment towards Cui Ying who swans around in her fancy car while they can’t pay their bills or feed their families.

Likewise, Cui Na finds it difficult to accept her sister’s excuses when she takes in her lovely middle-class family home. If she really has no money why doesn’t she sell the house or her car? Cui Na thinks it’s adding insult to injury when the Huangs throw a party to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild rather than paying her back, but then holding a celebration on the one month anniversary of a child’s birth is one of the many things which a “family” must do to be a family.

Yet this family is one already divided. Lin splits the screen in three, imprisoning the Huang’s in their own individual bubbles on a night devoted to the idea of togetherness. While Cui Ying and her sons pointedly do not eat their New Year dinner at a table in the back, her husband Jian perches on the edge of the sofa, while her sister remains petulantly all the way over to the side. The Huang’s have worked hard for this house, but this evening is one of the few times they will all occupy it at the same time. Jian will soon depart to play nightwatchman at the yard – they’ve no money to pay someone else to watch the place, while youngest son Chaochao has developed the habit of going to the local internet cafe to play games online rather than come home to an empty house, neglecting his studies in the process.

Though his father is more sympathetic and encourages him to find something else to do if he finds school does not interest him, Cui Ying eventually decides to send her son away, absenting him from the family altogether. She does this in the hope of training him to become a model citizen – something the school’s prominently displayed signs declaring “one lifestyle” seem to promise, but does not stop to consider the weakening bond between herself and her children with her oldest son already in the city and, like she with her own family, only coming home for the obligatory family occasions.

Chaochao seems to have picked up on his parents’ plight, that their constant search for success has left them with little more than constant anxiety and exhaustion. You couldn’t blame him for a desire to drop out, declining to fight a battle it’s impossible win. Lin’s constantly shifting aspect ratios, letterboxing, and colour variations highlight the claustrophobic quality of the Huangs’ existences as they go about their individually boxed lives while clinging fast to the idea of familial connection to provide some kind of framework in an increasingly chaotic world but even this is not immune from the corruption of money and the fragility of the house rests on the very forces which constructed it.


Screened as part of the BFI’s 2019 Chinese New Year programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Way Out (出路, Zheng Qiong, 2016)

a way out posterThe duplicitous dichotomies of the modern China have become a permanent fixture in the nation’s cinema though mostly as a symbol of conflicted ideologies as some yearn for a return to an imagined past egalitarianism and others merely for a brake on the runaway train of capitalist materialism. Zheng Qiong’s documentary A Way Out (出路, Chūlù) follows the lives of three youngsters chasing the “Chinese Dream” albeit in their own particular ways only to discover that, in the end, despite the best intentions of those who might seek to lessen the advantages of privilege, birth may be the biggest factor in deciding one’s destiny.

Zheng opens with a little girl, Ma Baijuan, in rural Gansu. Her sing-song voice playing over her cheerful stride to school through the narrow mountain paths hints at a natural curiosity, a desire to know the “why” of everything, but Baijuan is only reciting by rote what it is says in her school book. Her education, which is received at a village school segregated by sex where she is one of only two little girls learning simple facts about the world around her while the boys next-door get a crash course in elementary maths, is largely a matter of questions and answers rather than thought or enquiry. Nevertheless, she excitedly tells us that she will soon be going on to the middle school in the nearest town and then hopefully to a college in Beijing after which she will make a lot of money and buy a new house for her family with a proper well so they can get water.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Xu Jia has already repeated the final year of high school twice in the hope of bettering his exam grades to get into a good university. Like many of his contemporaries, Xu sees a degree from a reputable institution as the only “way out” of small town poverty. He is willing to sacrifice almost anything to make it happen and thinks of little else than achieving his dream of a getting a steady job at a stable company and then getting married in order to reduce the burden on his ageing single mother.

Xu may think that a white-collar job is the only path to success but others do not quite see things the same way. Yuan Hanhan is introduced to us as a 17-year-old “high school drop out” but is in fact a talented artist and bona fide free spirit. After brief stint in a hippy cafe, she eventually achieves her dream of studying abroad at art school in Germany where she struggles to adapt to the relatively laidback quality of European society, affirming that in a developed nation like Germany no one sees the need to go on developing. She complains that Germans only need to do their routine jobs like little stones arranged in a line by the country – perhaps an ironic statement given the restrictive nature of Chinese society but also one with its own sense of logic which places the insistent work ethic clung to by Xu on parallel with an economic model which may already be out of date.

Xu gets his start as a telephonist making cold call insurance sales where the staff are drilled like a military cadre to regard their pencils as machine guns as their mics as grenades, their jobs not means of survival but an enterprise for the common good which drives tax receipts to benefit the entire nation. In a sense he has found his “way out” though his life will be one of soulless corporate drudgery, a fact brought home by his mother’s casual appraisal of his wedding album which features her son in a series of intensely romantic photographs in which he has “absolutely no expression”. Meanwhile, Hanhan remains a free spirit. Even if she never quite felt at home in Germany, she maintains a healthy interest in the wider world and is determined to forge her own path rather than become simply one of many identical “little stones”. For Baijuan, however, the future is much less rosy. Her grandfather, commiserating that perhaps she didn’t have the kind of aptitude for schooling that she might have liked, regards a woman’s education as unimportant, as Baijuan’s only “way out” is a “reliable” man whom they would like to find for her as soon as possible.

As Hanhan puts it in her philosophical closing speech, when it comes down to it birth is the most important factor of all. Simply by being born wealthy in Beijing she had advantages that others do not have. Baijuan’s fate is sealed in being born to a poor farming family in a remote rural region, while Xu constantly refers to his “family situation” as the reason he feels he has to become a success as soon as possible, hitting all the social landmarks at all the expected junctures. Each of our protagonists is looking for a “way out” of their unsatisfactory circumstances, and each of them finds it, but perhaps not quite in a way everyone would view as ”satisfactory”. Zheng’s vision of the new China is one in which the old ideology has failed, leaving behind it only an entrenched social hierarchy from which there may be no “way out” save a willing refusal to comply.


A Way Out was screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival’s New Year programme at the BFI Southbank and is also available to rent online via Vimeo.

Trailer (English subtitles)