A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, He Xiao-Dan, 2017)

When you don’t know what to do, you go home, but what if home doesn’t quite exist for you anymore or trying to go back there only reminds you of all the reasons you chose to leave? Then again, perhaps “home” exists for just that purpose, a place you’re supposed to go to think things through before you ago back out into the world again. The heroine of He Xiao-Dan’s Chinese-Canadian co-production A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, Chūnsè Liáorén) is waiting for the thaw, trying to come to terms with the failure of her marriage and the unexpected directions her life may be about to take with or without her consent. 

Fang (Yan Wen-si) has been living in Montreal for the past 10 years, having married a French-Canadian man, Eric (Émile Proulx Cloutier). Her marriage, however, has become distant and she suspects Eric may be having an affair while a considerable strain has also been placed on the relationship because of their inability to conceive a child. When an attempt to confront Eric about his infidelity turns violent and counselling proves no help, it becomes obvious that the only option is divorce. Fang travels back to her hometown in Dazu which she hasn’t visited in the decade since she left and tries to figure things out while staying with her rather gruff grandfather (Cui Kefa). 

Immediately on her arrival, a taxi driver mistakes Fang for a tourist, but even on being told she’s a local quickly realises she’s been away a long time. Her home is not quite her home anymore. Fang’s grandmother has passed away and her grandfather has got married again to a cheerful, warmhearted woman who seems completely odds with the rest of Fang’s sad and grumpy family. The biggest issue is that Fang has not disclosed why she’s come back to China and so everyone is keen to ask about Eric, the lack of children, and her fancy ex-pat life in Canada. 

In fact, Fang is frequently described as the family’s most successful member precisely because she has moved abroad where she owns her own home and, they assume, lives a much higher standard of life. Meaning well, Fang’s new grandmother puts her foot right in it when she tells Fang that the highest success for a woman lies in marrying a good man. More in tune with modern Western values, Fang objects in part to the obvious sexism of her grandparents’ worldview, but it of course also touches a nerve as she finds herself trying to process the failure of her marriage while being too ashamed to admit that her “perfect” life in Canada wasn’t quite so perfect after all. Having separated from Eric, she’s determined to prove that she can make it on her own and doesn’t need a man to get by but is also lonely and feeling lost. Grandma provides some unexpected wisdom when she reveals that she lost her first husband in the Cultural Revolution and came to the same conclusion as Fang resolving never to rely on a man ever again, but is grateful to have met Fang’s grandfather who, despite his gruff appearance, is gentle and caring and has always looked after her. 

Meanwhile, in the therapist’s office, Eric struggled to come up with something good about his relationship with Fang other than that she loved him, supported his work, and took care of their relationship. Eric doesn’t seem to have been a very good husband, self-involved in the extreme, but the therapist is quick to ask somewhat insensitively if it wasn’t Fang’s inability to have children that has destroyed the marriage, a claim Fang rejects because she hasn’t yet accepted that she may be infertile. Despite her rejection of her grandmother’s patriarchal sexism, Fang craves motherhood, bonding with the lonely little girl of her cousin who has “abandoned” her with her parents to work alone in Chongqing. Fang has ambivalent feelings towards Hong who apparently “fell” into a life of drugs and backstreet gambling after a traumatic street attack and the rejection that followed it from her policeman father too embarrassed to report that his own daughter had been the victim of a crime. Something in Fang admires Hong’s subversive independence and wants to help her, especially if it helps her quit gambling, but she also resents that she has given up the thing Fang most wants in deciding not to raise her daughter but leave her with her parents. 

Reconnecting with an old friend who’s become a Buddhist and learned to respect simplicity in life begins to shift her perspective. “How can I stop this endless suffering?” she screams into a ravine. He tells her Buddha has a plan for that, but she might not like it. She repllies that she only believes in the reality right before her eyes. According to grandpa, young people suffer because they think relationships are all romance when the reality is “tolerance”. Grandma, by contrast, tells her that the secret of life is learning to see the beauty in every thing. “It’s good to be alive”, she sighs, “It’s a pity life is so short”. Spring finally comes to Fang’s life as she begins to clear up the literal mess of her failed relationship, no longer feeling like a powerless passenger on the great train of life but finally in charge of its direction. 


A Touch of Spring streams in the US Sept. 29 – Oct. 3 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Dong Runnian, 2019)

What is love, and in the end does it really matter? It’s a question the mostly middle-aged couples of Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Bèi Guāng Zhuāzǒu de Rén) who perhaps assumed they were past such existential questioning find themselves contemplating after an unprecedented event causes the disappearance of seemingly random people from all over the world giving rise to the rumour that those taken were those truly in love. But if that’s so, what does it mean for the overwhelming majority left behind, suddenly lonely and uncertain wondering if they’ve been spared or judged and found wanting for their lack of emotional fulfilment. 

At 10am one spring morning, a brief flash of light creates a slight temporal disturbance causing a small percentage of the population to simply vanish. No one knows what happened or where they’ve gone, but the connection is later made that many seem to have been taken in pairs giving rise to the theory that the disappeared are the only true lovers. This is a minor problem for some of the left behind who have lost spouses twice over, not only literally but emotionally in realising that their loved one was in real, deep love with someone else. Meanwhile, those not taken begin to wonder why, questioning the validity of their relationships, doubting that their loved ones really love them but not quite daring to ask the same question in reverse. 

Dong opens the film with a vox pop session questioning several people about the nature of love, some of whom we’ll get to know better and others not. Our hero, school teacher, Wenxue (Huang Bo), unconvincingly claims that he does not put any stock in the admittedly unscientific theory that only true lovers were taken and that the rumours have not affected him or his wife but as we later see they have profoundly unsettled his unexceptional, middle-class family life which was at least superficially happy or perhaps merely unhappy in the most ordinary of ways. Before the light, we see him annoy his wife by waking her up smoking in bed before they have perfunctory, routine sex over which they discuss Wenxue’s hopes for promotion and whether or not it’s appropriate to schmooze with the headmaster to smooth the path. The fact they weren’t chosen eventually becomes a kind of embarrassment, the promotion going to a man whose wife disappeared on him for the slightly strange reason that being betrayed in love somehow grants him the moral high ground. Wenxue, like many, goes to great lengths to excuse himself, getting a fixer to photoshop pictures of his wife along with train tickets to make out she was in another town when the light descended.

Meanwhile, Li Nan (Wang Luodan), a woman who was in the middle of trying to divorce her husband when the light struck finds herself accosted by his mistress (Huang Lu) demanding to know where he is seeing as he did not ascend with her. The obvious conclusion is that he had another woman, but the quest forces each of them to reassess their true feelings towards the missing man, the mistress desperate to prove she wasn’t just an “adulteress” but a woman in love, and the wife that she really is ready to let him go. A young woman (Li Jiaqi) who threatened to commit suicide by jumping off a roof when her parents tried to stop her marrying her boyfriend (Ding Xihe) suddenly doubts her feelings when her parents disappear together while she and the man she thought she loved are left behind. A petty thug (Bai-ke), in the only subtle implication of a same sex love, becomes obsessed with the idea that his friend has been murdered by a TV presenter who had been bothering him and his death has been covered up to look like one of the disappearances, perhaps again hoping to find evidence against a romantic rejection. 

Talking to another man in a similar situation Wenxue is given a dressing-down, reminded that he’s been extremely self-involved and that the problems he’s now able to see in his marriage thanks to the light were there all along, only now he’s refusing to face them in a much more direct way. He couldn’t or chose not to see that his wife was lonely and filled with despair while flirting with an equally lonely woman at work. His confrontation with her provokes his only real moment of emotional reckoning as they each reflect on the fantasy of romance and its capacity to dissipate when realised. Walking in on his teenage daughter getting dumped for the first time he’s perhaps in the best position to offer advice, even if it’s of the fairly prosaic kind to the effect that she’ll get over it in time. “Your lies make me ashamed” she’d fired back at her parents’ middle-aged hypocrisy, a very ordinary marriage in which perhaps the “love” has gone, in one sense, but equally might be succeeded by something else. “It’s alright, you will know it in the future” Wenxue tells his heartbroken daughter but might as well be talking to himself, beginning to feel the love after love in conceding that perhaps this is what “love” is rather than any kind of “rapture” literal or otherwise. A beautifully pitched meditation on the consequences of love, the madness, violence, and loss, Gone with the Light finds its release in stillness and a gentle contemplation of that which remains when everything else is burned away. 


Gone with the Light streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Love You Forever (我在时间尽头等你, Yoyo Yao Tingting, 2020)

“Don’t overthink it. It’s fiction” the hero of Yoyo Yao Tingting’s tearjerking romance Love You Forever (我在时间尽头等你, Wǒ Zài Shíjiān Jìntóu Děng Nǐ) advises the heroine, attempting to keep his secret right until the very end. Inspired by Zheng Zhi’s novel, the original Chinese title translates to the more poetic “I’ll wait for you at the end of time”, hinting at the central, sci-fi-inflected romantic tragedy in which the hero finds himself selflessly sacrificing his years on Earth to fulfil the dreams of the woman he loves. 

Describing himself as a man who does not exist because there are no memories of him in this world, Lin Ge (Lee Hong-chi) is writing a memoir as a way of recapturing the past. He tells us of his lifelong love for Qiu Qian (Li Yitong), a woman he first met when they were both children in the summer of 1991 shortly after his mother had passed away from illness. Lin Ge describes her dancing like sunshine piercing through the thick clouds, a force which has illuminated his life. Trying to retrieve her lost marble from a pond, he discovers a mysterious clock which inspires their childish games all through that golden summer, yet at summer’s end they are cruelly separated when Qiu Qian moves away. At 17 he meets her again and she playfully pretends not to remember him, later embarking on a tentative teenage romance only for Qiu Qian to be hit by a car and killed on her way home from a birthday date. Activated by his tears, the mysterious clock sends Lin Ge back in time, or more accurately into a parallel universe where he is able to prevent the accident and save her life but only at the cost of his existence. This time Qiu Qian really doesn’t remember him because he never existed. Not even his father (Fan Wei) knows him, and he seems to have aged a good decade which in itself presents a barrier to possible romance. 

There’s something of a poignant metaphor in Lin Ge’s intense desire to crawl back inside his memories by writing them down, neatly laying out the various timelines of his life which he has willingly sacrificed to save Qiu Qian resigned to the fact that, in the final version, she will never know him. Later, she asks him how he knows the woman in his novel would be happy with the future he has engineered for her in which he is a deliberate absence but Lin Ge has no answer for her. The Qiu Qian that we see has achieved her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina with the Shanghai ballet, but she is perhaps unfulfilled aware there’s something missing in her life. About to leave the stage, she’s engaged to an old school friend, Huang (Chao Zhang), who is distant and controlling, actively discouraging Qiu Qian from continuing to dance after they marry and emigrate to America reminding her that she’ll have “more important things to think about” once she’s his wife. Lin Ge, meanwhile, now appearing as a man around 60, has taken a job as a caretaker at the theatre where he watches over Qiu Qian from the wings only for her to discover his memoir and become intrigued by its similarities to her own life. 

“The fate is destined, you will use up your time” an Eastern European fortune teller cautions Lin Ge after realising there’s something not quite right with Qiu Qian’s lifelines, “Don’t change the fate again, otherwise everything will become tragic”. Conflicted in her dance career, Qiu Qian reflects that had she known how it would turn out she’s not sure if she would have pursed her dreams, but Lin Ge, perhaps talking more for himself, affirms that of course she would. Even knowing how it would end, he’d do it all again for the brief moments of happiness he spent with Qiu Qian, “it only counts when we’re by each other’s side” as it says in the diary. Fate, however, keeps conspiring against him even as Qiu Qian undergoes her own parallel quest to solve the mystery of their love story in reverse. A poetic meditation on the lover’s exile, selflessness, the power of memory, and the indelible connection of a fated love, Love You Forever is genuinely romantic in all senses of the word even in its inescapable melancholy for those who pledge to love until the end of time.


Love You Forever is currently on release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Sam Quah Boon Lip, 2019)

“Sheep are happy as long as they have grass to graze, they don’t care if you shear their wool” according to a vox popped farmer in the ironically titled Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Wùshā). Inspired by the Indian film Drishyam, the Mandarin title of Malaysian director Sam Quah’s Chinese remake is simply “manslaughter”, but as the English title perhaps implies if ironically Quah circumvents the censors to issue an oblique broadside to oppressive authoritarianism largely by setting the film in Thailand. 

As the film opens, affable Chinese-Thai IT and internet business owner Weijie (Xiao Yang) is chatting about his favourite thing, movies, with the regulars at his usual haunt, a restaurant run by Uncle Song. Meanwhile, Song tells him about the latest local gossip, the murder of a man who’d recently won the lottery, which is why corrupt cop Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai) has been hanging around but not actually doing much investigating. It’s rumoured that hotshot female police chief Laoorn (Joan Chen), who has a fearsome reputation for being able to solve any case, is going to take over. She eventually does just that, fabricating evidence to push the suspect into confessing. Her tactics may be underhanded and unethical, but at the end of the day, as she points out, it doesn’t really matter. She wasn’t framing anyone and isn’t intending to submit the evidence in court, she correctly solved the crime and exerted psychological pressure to trick the suspect into thinking she had something she didn’t so he’d know the game was up. 

“As long as you are not scared, they can’t do anything” Weijie tells his daughter, reminding her that fear is the only leverage of those like Laoorn when they have no real evidence. Unfortunately for him, he’s become involved with the disappearance of Laoorn’s odious son Suchat (Bian Tian Yang) who, we discover, drugged and raped Weijie’s teenage daughter Pingping (Audrey Hui) during an excursion for bright high schoolers, going so far as to film the whole thing in order to blackmail her into providing further sexual favours. Pingping had been keen to go on the trip, somewhat snobbishly looking down on her lower-class family and seeing it as a networking opportunity to make elite friends. She is perhaps the film uncomfortably implies being punished for her unfilial elitism, but eventually finds the courage to tell her mother Ayu (Tan Zhuo) what happened. Ayu accompanies her to the rendezvous with Suchat and confronts him but he is unrepentant, reminding them that his mother is the police chief and his father a politician so he can do as he pleases before trying to force himself on Ayu at which point Pingping hits him with a hoe and knocks him out. Believing that he’s dead, Ayu buries the body with a recently interred family friend and waits for her husband to come home from a business trip repairing the internet in a hotel the next town over. He eventually returns early, worried that he couldn’t get though on the phone because youngest daughter Anan (Zhang Xiran) had left the receiver off the hook. 

A decent and kind man, well liked by everyone, all Weijie wants is to protect his family. What’s done is done, all he can do is try to mitigate it by utilising all his movie knowledge to change the narrative so that they are merely implicated in the crime rather than active suspects. In this, the mini-feud with useless cop Sangkun actually works in his favour. An earlier episode had him offer some advice gleaned from movies to an old man whose grandson had been assaulted by Suchat. Sangkun was in the process of pressuring him to accept a payoff to drop the charges (most of which he’d have pocked for himself). Another business owner privy to the incident apparently reported him anonymously and was attacked in the street only for Weijie to come to his rescue and be accused of assaulting a police officer. It’s very easy for him to claim that Sangkun is trying to frame him out of pettiness, and very easy for people to believe him because that’s exactly something Sangkun would do. 

Sangkun is the embodiment of casual abuse of power. He doesn’t care about serving the people or protecting the vulnerable, he is only interested in validating himself through authority. Laoorn is not quite the same, but she too is an aspect of the all-powerful state as she marshals all her resources against Weijie, an ordinary husband and father, against whom she has no hard evidence only her much vaunted intuition. She will stop at nothing to find out what’s happened to her son, while Weijie is determined to do everything in his power to protect his family. Laoorn underestimates him, as Pingping had, because he is a poor orphan with no education, only later realising that he is clever and resourceful even if he’s pinched his defence strategy from a lifetime of watching crime movies. The pair are engaged in a perfectly matched battled of wits, but only one of them has the power of the state behind her and a gradual erosion of civil rights to allow her to wield it against a personal enemy. 

Filming in Thailand, Quah has a much freer hand to broach the subject of official corruption even if it’s quite obvious that he’s making a point about the overreach of the Chinese state rather than that of Thailand. Weijie’s plight eventually sparks a large scale riot that spreads throughout the country as the populace declares itself thoroughly fed up with the Sangkuns of the world, not to mention the Laoorns or her mayoral candidate husband Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man) who is almost entirely absent from the crisis because all he cares about is the election even if it’s a minor inconvenience not to have his family on show at hustings. Dutpon’s disinterested authoritarian parenting coupled with Laoorn’s indulgence and willingness to enable her son’s crimes through covering them up is perhaps blamed for the “monstrous” young man Suchat was becoming, himself standing in for a generation of wealthy, pampered sons of elites raised with improper boundaries who think they can do as they please because they are somehow above the normal morality. “Good parents” Weijie and Ayu meanwhile find themselves at the mercy of a corrupt faux-aristocracy, abused by Suchat and then rendered powerless in the face of an authoritarian regime. 

Weijie, however, rejects his powerlessness in an attempt to think himself out of the cage in which he finds himself imprisoned. A perfectly plotted psychological thriller, Sheep Without a Shepherd ironically satirises the much cited claim of authoritarians that humanity flounders without a leader as the populace begins to fight back against its toxic relationship with those in power. Nevertheless, its admittedly compassionate and humanitarian conclusion cannot help but feel like an overt concession to the Mainland censors’ requirement that crime can never pay and all transgressions must be owned (even if not directly by those who are literally guilty). Ultimately, however, Weijie redeems himself in the eyes of his daughter, and in doing so subtly reinforces the anti-authoritarian message in instructing Pingping never to be afraid of anything again, freeing her from the oppressive leverage of fear which itself constitutes authoritarianism.


Sheep Without a Shepherd opens in UK cinemas on 21st August courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Mulberry Child (Susan Morgan Cooper, 2011)

Unavoidably, it can be difficult for parents and children to understand each other. They come from different times and places, and the relationship will always be strained by the weight of conflicting expectations. All these things are true no matter where each of you were born or raised, but they are perhaps exacerbated by a degree of cultural dislocation. Author Jian Ping, the subject of Susan Morgan Cooper’s documentary/drama hybrid inspired by Ping’s memoir Mulberry Child, attributes the distance between herself and her Westernised daughter Lisa to just this fact, worried that in bringing her to America for a better life she may have made a mistake. At once silently proud of everything she has achieved, she also fears that Lisa takes her easy life for granted and has “forgotten” the hardships her family once faced during China’s Cultural Revolution. 

It’s telling in some ways that Jian asks Lisa to read her book rather talking to her directly, hoping that by learning about the brutalisation of the Mao years and the echo of its affects in her family alone might help to explain something to her about why she is the way she is. There’s no getting away from the fact the relationship between the two women is strained beyond the normal degree, Lisa keen to defend her Americanised way of life and apparently unable to understand her mother’s attitude to money which she sees merely as a means to an end rather than something to be accumulated for its own sake. That might in part be less culture than class, in that Lisa at least appears to have enjoyed a high standard of life and it’s difficult to appreciate the powerful desire for material security if you’ve never been without it, but also leads back to a conflict between the two women’s ideals of a “good” life and the disconnect in the their essential ideals. 

Born in China but living in America since she was 4 1/2, Lisa claims not to feel resentful towards her mother for having temporarily left her behind in China with her grandparents while studying abroad. Nevertheless, she is very frank in voicing hostility, devastatingly stating that she feels like a guest in her mother’s home while later recalling a solitary childhood, leaving at 15 for boarding school. She feels as if she was raised to be self-sufficient and finds her mother’s “sudden” desire for closeness odd, declaring the 1.5 mile journey to her mother’s apartment too inconvenient to make with any regularity. Lisa also feels very little connection to her family in China whom she views as quasi-strangers, while Jian perhaps feels that the fact they are family is enough to bind them no matter what. 

What Lisa comes to understand through her journey to China is less a grasp of cultural history than that there are different ways of showing love and some of them are easier to understand than others. Jian too wrestles with the same thing, recalling her childhood with her own mother whom she regarded as cold and distant, preferring her warm and kindly grandmother whose feet were bound, knowing that her grandmother too was shaped by the times in which she lived in that she was raised to be loving and affectionate but mainly in order to serve men. Jian’s mother came of age during turbulent times and saw freedom in Mao’s promises of an end to feudalism which also included an end to cruel traditions such as foot binding and the promise at least of sexual equality. But the Party demanded total loyalty, and in times such as these emotion was a liability. Jian internalised the lessons of her mother and grandmother and learned to bear her sorrow in silence with grace and fortitude. Her grandmother told her to be strong like the mulberry tree so as never to break, emotional repression as a tactic for survival. She made sacrifices for a better life for her daughter, but her daughter resents her for a perceived emotional absence and for always expecting “better” in her maternal pride which, ironically, only fuels her sense of inadequacy. 

The film closes with an emotive moment of mother and daughter bonding over shared enthusiasm for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with Lisa suddenly declaring that China is the future as she begins to embrace her dual heritage, but does not stop to ponder how Jian’s parents, apparently also excited about the Games, felt about the modern China as those who had been among the more fervent supporters of a now abandoned Maoism. Nevertheless, Mulberry Child proves that greater intimacy can be forged only through a process of mutual understanding. Still sounding unconvinced, Lisa closes with the affirmation that they are at least “starting the process” as mother and daughter reflect on the legacies of trauma national, historical, and personal.


Mulberry Child is available to stream via Amazon Prime in the US and UK.

Trailer

Lost and Love (失孤, Peng Sanyuan, 2015)

Because of a series of interconnected social factors, the trafficking of children has become a widespread problem in contemporary China. Many of these children are simply abducted from wherever they happen to be and handed over to brokers who are often working with organised crime. Some of the children are sold on to orphanages working with various organisations who facilitate international adoptions which fetch a high price, but the major demand comes from depopulated areas of rural China who, suffering under the One Child Policy, need more children to help them on the farm or perhaps because their birth children were female and they need a male heir. In any case, though child trafficking is an open secret, very few abducted children are ever traced and reunited with their parents. 

Peng Sanyuan’s debut film Lost and Love (失孤, Shī Gū) does not dwell on the causes of China’s child abduction problem but on the pain and suffering it inflicts on parent and child alike. Lei Zekuan’s (Andy Lau Tak-wah) son Da was taken from his home at two years old. Zekuan has spent the last 15 years travelling all over China chasing every lead desperately trying to find him but drawing a blank at every turn. Turning to modern technology, he’s hooked up with a group of concerned citizens who are always on the look out for missing kids and the gangs that maybe handling them. Though many people are sympathetic towards him and touched by his unrelenting search for his son, there are others that Zekuan meets who, meaning well, ask him if perhaps it’s not better just to let it go and move on. After all, it’s been 15 years. Da was only two, he probably won’t remember his home or family and may not even know he is adopted. Zekuan, however, cannot bring himself to give up, convincing himself that he will one day be reunited with his son while touched by the plight of other parents in the same position, adding the face of a child he sees on a missing poster abducted just recently to the flags on the back of his bike on the off chance that someone might have seen her too. 

Zekuan’s zeal is in part repaid when he’s run off the road and rescued by a young mechanic who sets about fixing his bike. Zeng Shuai (Jing Boran) is touched by Zekuan’s quest but also a little irritated by it. As he later confesses to him, he was an abducted child himself, though too old to have been Zekuan’s son. Taken at four, all he remembers is a suspension bridge, a bamboo grove, and his mother’s hair worn in a long plait. He wonders if his parents ever looked for him in the same way Zekuan looks for his son, but also harbours a degree of resentment towards them for being so careless as to “lose” him. Zekuan assures him that his parents surely miss him dearly and are praying for his return, prompting the young man to consider setting off on a journey to look for the place where he was born, accompanying Zekuan along his way. 

Shuai says that his adoptive parents cared for him well and clearly loved him, but he has also adversely suffered through being an “abandoned” child in ways other than the emotional. Because he was bought illegally, Shuai has no legal status and cannot apply for an ID card which means he had only limited access to education, is unable to apply for exams, cannot get married, cannot open a bank account, and is barred from advanced transportation like planes and trains. Part of the reason he desperately wants to find his parents is to reclaim his identity so he can lead a full life, no longer confined to an underclass of people who legally speaking do not exist and have no rights. 

Yet what’s also obvious is the pain he feels in being disconnected from his roots. Taking the same journey but at cross purposes, the two men generate an easy paternal bond, becoming anxious when they lose each other in crowded markets and having fun messing around washing cars for the money to keep moving forward. But having talked to so many other grief-stricken parents, Zekuan is wary of making a mistake. In one village he’s guided to a boy who fits all the criteria and is said to be living a miserable existence with parents he doesn’t get on with. A kind of connection is made with the young man who perhaps has been hoping that someday someone will come to find him, but the scar which had given Zekuan so much hope turns out to be on the wrong foot, prompting him to doubt himself, wondering if perhaps he’s forgotten which foot it was after all these years and it really might still be him.

That dream is spoiled by the unexpected intervention of the adoptive mother who, unlike the distant father, fights furiously for the rights to her son. The boy seems just as crestfallen as Zekuan, and the sense of heartbreak is all consuming. Asked for advice, a Buddhist priest uses fancy language to tell Zekuan that if he doesn’t look for his son then he’ll never find him, but has no more idea than anyone else if he’ll ever be found. All Zekuan can do is console himself with the search so that when he finds his son he can tell him that he never gave up looking.


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Zhang Yang, 2019)

Having turned his attention to Dali in China’s Yunnan province, Zhang Yang’s third in a series of documentaries exploring the area Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Māo Māo Guǒ Kǎoshì Jì) takes a micro view of the modern society through the trials and tribulations of one little boy, Qu Hongrui, as he tries to pass the eccentric “exam” to graduate from Mao Mao primary school which takes the form of a daylong scavenger hunt leading to an overnight camp at a picturesque river. Perhaps a look at changing educational methods in a system which is often criticised for an over reliance on rote learning and test scores, Zhang’s documentary is also a gentle exploration of the art of growing up as Hongrui finds himself at loss for a way forward when he discovers that he cannot simply insist on having his own way. 

When we first meet Hongrui, he’s on the first of his tasks which involves a trip to the local market where he is charged with shopping for the various vegetables on his list to be used later in the day. Though he is accompanied by an “observer” to make sure he’s never in any immediate danger or causing trouble to others, the purpose of the test is to force Hongrui to act independently, teaching him how to interact with shopkeepers, manage his money, and shop for himself. When he’s got everything on his list, he’s supposed to go to the next checkpoint and have his “passport” stamped so he can proceed to the next stage. 

That’s when his problems begin. The next stage is a rock climbing challenge in which the children are supposed to venture up a climbing wall and retrieve a flag with the letter they’ve been assigned. Hongrui, however, seems to be more afraid than most of the other kids and finds the wall a confusing challenge despite frequent instructions and words of support from below. Eventually he bursts into tears and begins screaming to be let down but eventually composes himself enough to be able to complete the task successfully. That’s something of a pattern which will be repeated. It seems that Hongrui isn’t very popular with his peers and is regarded as a crybaby, one girl eventually asking him “why do you like to cry so much?” after getting fed up with one of his angry episodes. 

The same thing happens again during the next challenge when he’s placed in a group with four girls and asked to blend the juices of the vegetables he collected to create new colours and make a group painting. Some of the kids want to make a blue colour and the others pink. After a quick look around the room shows them most of the other groups have gone with blue the girls lean towards pink, which upsets Hongrui to the extent that he runs back out to the examiner complaining “We’ve got a massive schism over colours”. Every time Hongrui encounters a problem, he tries to run to the grownups to sort it out, but the examiners like the observers aren’t permitted to get involved. These exercises are about socialisation and harmonious living. They’re supposed to teach the kids how to compromise and work out their differences peacefully so they can work as a team, but Hongrui still has fairly underdeveloped interpersonal skills and makes frequent mistakes when it comes to negotiating with his teammates. When he comes back from speaking with the examiner, the girls have already found a solution on their own, making a pretty purple colour that suits everyone equally. 

Hongrui’s rage and frustration lead him to make unwise decisions, telling the teacher he wants to leave the group because the girls wouldn’t listen to him even if it means he won’t get a badge for this task, only relenting when the examiner explains the entire group will fail if he leaves so his friends won’t get their lunch either. He runs into a similar problem when he’s supposed to put a puzzle together as a clue to the next checkpoint but discovers that he’s lost a piece and concludes that another girl who has far more pieces than she needs must have picked it up. The girl insists the piece was in her pack to begin with and is therefore “hers” so she won’t help him, which proves very challenging to Hongrui who feels he’s been unfairly treated. He tries to appeal to the examiners again but they aren’t allowed to help, his observer explaining that he needs to learn to negotiate with others on his own. Sadly, though it appears not to benefit her in any way to hold on the puzzle piece, the girl continues to refuse to surrender it, perhaps irritated by Hongrui’s “accusation” that she took it from him, and eventually leaves him stranded, unable to move on the next task. 

This however a primary school exam so happily Hongrui is able to continue on his journey though it might be debatable how much he’s actually learnt. Crying hot, rage-fuelled tears in the car apparently unashamed to be so emotional in front of another girl in the same position who is increasingly exasperated by his “childishness”, Hongrui is reminded that he needs to learn to control his emotions as he grows up, but does at least seem to calm down enough to cheerfully make his way towards the finish line. The kids are, by and large, alright as they learn how to live in the world and with each other, overcoming their problems together and having fun along the way.


Mao Mao Cool is represented by Fortissimo Films.

The Sound of Dali (大理的声音, Zhang Yang, 2019)

Following his portrait of an artist Up the Mountain, Zhang Yang returns to Dali for the second in a trilogy of films celebrating this small area provincial China which has become known for its beautifully preserved traditional buildings and picturesque views. As such, it has already become a draw for tourists, but Zhang’s documentaries aim to explore the area from a more local perspective. The Sound of Dali (大理的声音, Dàlǐ de Shēngyīn), as the title suggests, captures the unique soundscape of the small city through four seasons as man and nature create their own symphonies. 

With more a straightforwardly observational approach than either of the other documentaries in the series, Zhang resists narrative but shows us scenes of Dali from unexpected angles beginning with the beauty of stormy skies filled with the perhaps ominous sound of rushing wind which soon gives way to snow. Ducks flap and fly, crash landing on water, while chickens strut and bees hum. Sheep and cows graze in the fields while oxen pull carts for the farmers labouring on the land. Women plant rice and later harvest it, shaking the sheaves to release the grain and making a music all of their own. 

Zhang cuts the sound of industry into an accidental symphony as a blacksmith bends and hammers metal, builders hammer wood, and engineers pummel the ground. Old women play their looms like lyres, and master carvers scrape wood into intricate designs with tiny, expert motions. 

Meanwhile, there is music of the more obvious kind in the singing of hymns in a Christian church, worship at a mosque, and rituals conducted by the farmers to ensure a good harvest. Others attend the local temple to make Buddhist offerings for perhaps much the same reason. Traditional opera takes place in the streets while buskers too add to the joyful sound of man-made music.

Zhang is keen to show us the sound of human industry in concert rather than conflict with nature. The seasons change, the skies darken, and sometimes the sound is frightening rather than harmonious, but there is life here at a nexus of the traditional and the modern. Colourful festivals fill the streets with processions of the old gods, farming is done the traditional way, and perhaps at times the sound of human voices drowns out the birds and rustle of the trees but does not destroy them. Meanwhile, a young man sets up a stand selling artisanal coffee and people dance and sing at the local markets enjoying family life as children play happily both amid the greenery and in the pleasant city streets. The young go to discos, and couples have their wedding photos taken against the backdrop of the beautiful local scenery. 

Perhaps cheating a little, Zhang cuts from an eagle soaring majestically above the landscape to drone footage giving us a birds’ eye view as we, for a moment, become “nature” too, observing the tremendous beauty of the land in all of its luscious greenery as the waterfalls tumble almost silently below. The Sound of Dali is one of harmony and happiness as human voices and the natural world blend as one in a great symphony of life in all its glorious cacophony.


The Sound of Dali is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Vortex (铤而走险, Jacky Gan Jianyu, 2019)

“Only with money are you treated like a person” according to cynical gangster Xia Tao, another embattled soul turning to the dark side to try and survive after multiple betrayals in a cruel and unforgiving society. Anchored by a standout performance from comedian Da Peng in a rare dramatic role, Vortex (铤而走险, Tǐng’érzǒuxiǎn) sees one feckless young man falling into a web of criminality after succumbing to the temptation of an easy fix to all his problems. As he and others will discover, however, actions have consequences and there are no victimless crimes. 

Liu Xiaojun (Da Peng) is an embittered young(ish) man left orphaned and resentful after his policeman father died on the job. Nominally a mechanic with his own repair shop he also has a self-destructive gambling problem that’s left him deep in debt to local mobsters. He tries to hit up an old friend, Brother Wan (Cao Bingkun), recently released from prison, but he offers him a job rather than money, explaining that it’s only crime adjacent not actually illegal. All he has to do is drive unregistered cars back to the depot where Wan can resell them, and he’ll get 10,000 a pop. Xiaojun isn’t really into crime so he’s reluctant to take Wan up on his offer, trying his policeman uncle (Cao Weiyu) for yet another loan instead, but when he blows that too in reckless gambling he realises he has no other choice. The plan goes badly wrong, however, when the car Xiaojun is supposed to pick up turns out to be occupied and he finds himself in a fight with the Xia brothers. He manages to get it back to the depot but there’s another problem. The car was carrying cargo, a little girl, Qiqi (Audrey Duo / Doo Ulantoya), hidden in the boot apparently at the centre of a kidnapping plot. 

Xiaojun wants to call the police, but Wan is against it. He urges him to dump Qiqi somewhere and hope the authorities find and return her to her parents, but Xiaojun finds himself keeping the little girl. When Qiqi’s frantic mother calls the cellphone that was left in the car he realises she’s worth around two million and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. After all, it’s a win/win. Xiaojun isn’t going to hurt Qiqi like the kidnappers might so he’s keeping her safe and he gets to pocket the money in return. 

So begins his series of moral justifications for the vortex of crime that began with his decision to drive the car for Wan which was itself caused by his gambling problem and addiction to quick fix solutions. Later, we can see that his self-destructive streak is a kind of despair, an act of self-harm taken in revenge against the unfairness of losing his father who apparently did everything right but paid a heavy price in attempting to serve justice. Xiaojun unfairly blames his uncle for failing to save his dad in choosing to do his job as a policeman and fiercely resists his well-meaning, paternal attempts to save him from his life of crime adjacent activity, but later perhaps comes to understand after unwisely becoming involved in the kidnapping plot, bonding with the innocent Qiqi, and then bitterly regretting his foolishness in placing her in danger to chase the money. 

Yet money, as Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) says, is only thing that counts and you’re nothing without it. Xia Tao too turned to crime following parental betrayal, no longer seeing the point in playing by the rules if all it gets you is a lifetime of righteous suffering. Wan’s bar hostess friend, Zhao Qian (Li Meng), seems to be mixed up in the plot too though as her role becomes clear we realise that she has also succumbed to a quick fix solution out of desperation, trying to save a man she loves but later describes as “only a friend” by resorting to desperate measures to ensure he gets a life saving operation. Even little Qiqi seems to feel betrayed by mum and dad, answering Xiaojun’s question about who she thinks loves her more with a sad “neither”, while asking not to be returned to her mother because she’s been stopping her seeing her father and she misses him.  

As we later find out, there might be quite a good reason for that which Qiqi is too young to understand, but still she wants to try and find him and seems cheerful enough with Xiaojun while he says he’ll help her. Until then, Xiaojun becomes an awkward paternal presence, touched by Qiqi’s earnestness and lost in a moral quagmire trying to work out where the best place to send her might be while still hoping to get his hands on the cash. Redeeming himself by, in a sense, paying the ransom by deciding to prioritise saving Qiqi from the Xia brothers, Xiaojun begins to extricate himself from the vortex of crime, rediscovering a more positive paternal presence of his own in forgiving uncle Wang and his own father in coming to an understanding of their choices through being forced to make his own. A minor condemnation of the modern China’s wealth obsession and growing social inequality, Vortex finds its villains less villainous than one might expect, succumbing to the slippery slope of criminality in desperation and a sense of abandonment in a society which seems content to leave them behind.


Vortex is represented by Fortissimo Films.

International Trailer (English subtitles)