Weekend Lover (周末情人, Lou Ye, 1995)

Lou Ye’s troubles with the censors began at the very beginning of his career. Shot in 1993, his first feature Weekend Lover (周末情人, Zhōumò Qíngrén) was held up until late ’95, making ’94’s Don’t Be Young his accidental “debut”. Set in the contemporary era the film nevertheless has a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia coupled with air of nihilism that perhaps distressed the censors more than the otherwise potentially problematic bohemian setting, finding the post-Tiananmen generation floundering in a changing China in which the dream of freedom has long since flown. 

In one of many title cards, Lou opens with a lengthy piece of text claiming that this is a true story, a claim he will return to with the closing card the fantastical quality of which perhaps undermines the idea of its “reality”. The author of the text claims that this is a story some did not want to tell but mostly because it makes them sad to recall bygone days for reasons we will come to understand. Nevertheless, the filmmakers claim to have tracked down the central figure of Lixin (Ma Xiaoqing) who has agreed to share her story, which turns out to be the story of two men, violent thug Axi (Jia Hongsheng) and sensitive musician Lala (Wang Zhiwen), who find themselves bound for confrontation in order to lay claim to the affections of Lixin. 

Axi is the “weekend lover” of the title, a high school boyfriend of Lixin’s who used to spend weekends in her apartment while her parents were out but later went to prison for killing another boy who threatened their relationship. Lixin vows to wait, but ends up meeting Lala in a case of mistaken identity tasked with venturing into the unfamiliar world of back street pool halls to find a man in plaid in order to deliver something on behalf of Axi. The pair start dating, but Axi returns unexpectedly some years later put out to realise that Lixin has forgotten him and quite literally moved on. Hoping to get her back he threatens Lala and later Lixin herself, remaining somewhat obsessed with recapturing the past while little more than a violent street thug with nothing to offer other than intimidation. 

One could see Axi and Lala as embodiments of past and future with Lixin trapped painfully in an interminable present. Lala dreams of becoming a singer, eventually joining a band with whom Lixin also becomes friends hanging out in the beatnik bohemian space of the disused building she decribes as a “jail” they repurpose as their arena. Yet even this potential future is flawed. The band’s leader (Wang Xiaoshuai) explains to Lala that they will disband after their big concert as most of the members are going abroad, perhaps he will even go to America. There is no future for any of them in China while Lala rejects the idea he may stay and marry Lixin, realising she has not completely severed her connection to Axi believing their relationship is doomed to failure. 

Westernisation is indeed a persistent background theme from the discarded Coke cans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Lipton tea in Axi’s rundown room to the fancy new fast-food restaurant where Lixin works going under the name “California Rainbow”. These Bohemians dream of Western freedoms aside from the power of consumerism, longing for the right to seize their artistic potential but finding themselves continually constrained by a society they do not understand. “We drank a lot, always felt we were the most miserable and that society didn’t understand us. Later I came to realise it’s not that society didn’t accept us it’s that we didn’t understand society” Lixin explains in voiceover apparently from the vantage point of “many years” later in which she seems to have in part at least rejected her countercultural youth and developed an understanding of the contemporary society. 

Nevertheless, the film closes with both her wilful self-exile and an improbably optimistic coda which may only be a reflection of her dream followed by the title card which suggests that the couple may find happiness but only “many years later” in another city. “We felt the whole world belonged to us, as if everything would last forever. But we didn’t know what would happen.” Lixin laments, recalling her brief moment of youthful freedom later ruptured by the re-introduction of the violent past in a touch of rather elliptical irony that perhaps evokes Lou’s later taste for non-linear narrative. Moody yet imbued with a kind of youthful ennui, Weekend Lover’s frequent use of title cards, pop music, and self-consciously cool imagery may never quite coalesce beyond their various influences but edge towards an attempt to capture youth in a new age of anxiety caught between the death of idealism and the opportunities of a newly consumerist economy. 


Weekend Lover is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Musical sequence (English subtitles)

Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Lou Ye, 1994)

Lou Ye’s complicated relationship with China’s censorship board has been well documented though it is certainly not a recent phenomenon and has in fact plagued him from the very beginning of his career. His first feature, Weekend Lover, was shot in 1993 but not passed for release until two years later technically making 1994’s Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Wēi Qíng Shàonǚ) his cinematic debut. This might seem surprising seeing as Don’t Be Young flirts with themes the censors find problematic, an ethereal gothic ghost story perhaps permissible solely because the spectres can be read as existing only in the mind of the troubled, traumatised young woman at the film’s centre though the spirit that haunts is perhaps that of the age and of a traumatised China caught between failed revolution and rapidly expanding economic prosperity. 

As the heroine, Lan (Qing Yu), tells us this is the story of “another time, another place”. Unable to separate fantasy from reality, she nevertheless goes on to narrate a dream she later claims not to remember and in any case can no longer revisit. On smashing a bottle in the street she retrieves a device which seems to be the engine of a music box that once belonged to her mother and acts as a kind of key to an alternate reality that soon bleeds into her contemporary life. In the present, Lan is a nervous young woman struggling to deal with her mother’s death in an apparent suicide, watched over by her patient doctor boyfriend Lu Mang (You Yong) but after discovering a strange book similar to one her mother owned containing a floor plan and a letter after taking shelter from the rain under the porch of an abandoned mansion she finds herself investigating her own history. 

The dream world, shot in an ethereal blue, seems to exist sometime in the 1950s, Lan’s clothes and those of her boyfriend and the other people around her suddenly shifting without warning as she finds herself crossing over while everyone else appears in pale face as if this were the world of the dead, or a “hell” as an elderly woman later describes it. Lan insists that “everything is real” though the borders between the two worlds become increasingly thin even as the plot developments become ever more outlandish leading to a confrontation with a mad scientist veterinarian and his nefarious attempts at human experimentation with a weird drug that causes those who take it to lose control over their nervous systems. The scientist insists that science makes him a god with the right to dominate the world while the secondary villainess (Nai An) turns out to be a scorned nurse blackmailed into helping to “ruin” Lan over her murder of a patient who tried to assault her by pulling out his oxygen tubes. Only the earnest Lu Mang who is strangely absent for much of the action after leaving to “take an exam” but mostly wandering moodily around noirish rail stations served by atmospheric steam trains, is present to represent “science” as a force for good but ultimately ends up defending Lan in the most prehistoric of ways. 

Nevertheless, what she begins to uncover is a complicated family legacy running through romantic failure, adulterous liaison, and broken connections all contained in the house she inherits after decoding the messages from the dream. Lou throws in a series of unexpected cinematic allusions, including one to Ozu’s Late Spring as a lodger randomly peels an apple with intense melancholy, while drawing inspiration from the Hong Kong New Wave. Yet the key aesthetic is gothic horror as Lan finds herself trapped by generational trauma, witnessing her grandmother bound in cobwebs while attacked by razor-wielding spectres apparently keen to stop her further investigating her traumatic past. Finally she laments that all that remains is an “empty and beautiful end”, apparently returning to the present which is perhaps equally frightening in its sense of oppressive anxiety by abandoning the music box and thereby closing the door on the nightmarish dream world of haunted houses and cursed legacies. Nevertheless, the young couple seem to have beaten back the attempts of the older generation to reassert their control and emerge into a new society with a new sense of freedom if not quite liberation. 


Don’t Be Young  is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

China’s Van Goghs (中国梵高, Yu Haibo & Kiki Yu Tianqi, 2016)

“You can just take a picture!” a frustrated driver calls out to “painter worker” Zhao Xiaoyong as he makes a long delayed attempt to express himself artistically by painting the streets of his rural hometown in the style of European artist Vincent Van Gogh. Xiaoyong is one of several men attempting to survive in a declining industry, a painter of knock off replicas of famous works of art produced for the foreign market in the small town of Dafen, Shenzhen known as one of China’s largest “oil painting villages” since an enterprising Hong Kong businessman kickstarted the movement back in the tumultuous year of 1989. 

Though the title may at first seem ironic, referring to the “fake” paintings at its centre, Yu Haibo and Kiki Yu Tianqi’s strangely moving documentary China’s Van Goghs (中国梵高, Zhōngguó Fán Gāo) explores the conflicts which continue to define the lives of the artists who as they put it paint to live but take their art extremely seriously and possess tremendous technical skill but are forced to stifle their own creative instincts while producing meticulous copies for a mere pittance. As Xiaoyong laments, they find it difficult to attract and keep apprentices because you can earn more at the factory, while one of his colleagues ironically admits that they had to set up a production line in order to complete an unusually large order though following the financial crisis those are largely thin on the ground. 

Xiaoyong is a Van Gogh obsessive, as are many of the artists of Dafen, and longs to visit Amsterdam in order to see the originals up close. Ironically enough, their biggest market is indeed the Netherlands, and his most important client has invited him to visit several times previously though Xiaoyong and his wife continue to argue over the expense. His eventual visit is however heartbreaking, his eyes a deep well of pain and confusion as he finds himself overcome with disappointment and disillusionment. He thought his client owned a fancy gallery, but his paintings are being sold in a pokey knock off souvenir shop for three times what he was paid to paint them which was only around €8 to begin with though they took many hours to complete. Later talking to another artist about his trip he remarks on how overcome he was seeing Van Gogh’s originals, but the experience also destroys the sense he had of himself as an artist, reminding him that he is “just” a craftsman making diligent copies while leaving him with the desire to create something meaningful of his own. 

Earlier in the film, Xiaoyong had travelled back to his rural hometown for the anniversary of his father’s death breaking down in tears while reflecting on the various ways his poverty has defined his life, denied an education and orphaned at young age. Back in Dafen, meanwhile, his teenage daughter who lives with grandparents in order to attend high school visits home and declares herself fed up with education, as if she’s wasting her time unable to keep with the curriculum silently crying in the corner while her parents continue working. Xiaoyong sympathetically laments he didn’t have the opportunity to learn very much but has taught himself to open his mind and has obviously become a skilled craftsman with canny business skills only to find himself falling for his own mystique serious about his craft but unaware of the various ways he is being exploited by the Western art economy.

What he’s doing may in a sense be dubious though no one seriously thinks they’re buying a Van Gogh original for €30, but who is to say what really is “authentic” art or suggest that Xiaoyong’s artistry is worth any less solely because someone painted what he painted before? Can a meticulous copy be in itself a separate work of art resplendent in its technical prowess? Xiaoyong says he fell in love with Van Gogh’s paintings because of his discovery of beauty in poverty, he and his friends tearfully watching the 1956 Hollywood biopic Lust for Life fiercely identifying with the artist’s struggles as they too try to accommodate painting to live with their desire for creative expression. In a strange moment, Xiaoyong recalls a dream he had in which he met Van Gogh and told the artist that he had almost become him, but Xiaoyong’s salvation eventually comes in a meeting of the two worlds, painting a portrait of his ageing grandmother her face a labyrinth of lines born of a long life of rural hardship. Sure, you can just take a picture, but it isn’t quite the same.


China’s Van Goghs is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Reunions (吉祥如意, Da Peng, 2020)

Comedian, actor, and general multi-hyphenate Da Peng (AKA Dong Chengpeng) scored box office hits with his first two features, superhero parody Jian Bing Man and musical dramedy City of Rock, but The Reunions (吉祥如意, Jíxiáng Rúyì), a reworking an earlier short, marks a definite shift in his personal style if not exactly devoid of laughs or warmth. Partly a muted personal meditation on the price of success and the compromises of the modern China, Da Peng’s Spring Festival movie in contrast to the sentimental norm finds a family on the brink of disintegration but discovers within that a sense of sad resignation rather than failure or disappointment. 

Comprising of Da Peng’s earlier short given the English title of “A Reunion”, the first 40 minutes or so act as a kind of verbatim docudrama starring a professional actress, Liu Lu, as Da Peng’s cousin Lili (who later features in the part two “A Final Reunion” making of redux) alongside members of his family including his mother and father playing themselves. Da Peng had apparently intended to film a kind of personal history/tribute to his grandmother exploring the various ways she lived her day to day life preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations, but during his stay which was his first in many years his grandmother sadly passed away. During the making of sequence, he begins to wonder if his visit home to make the movie may have caused his grandmother’s health to decline or if he was simply unaware that she had already become ill because he failed in his duty as a grandson staying away so long. 

As he puts it, in the city he is a different person with a different life largely forgetting about his family back in rural China. The main crisis of the New Year period is not however his grandmother’s death but the pending decision of what to do with uncle Ji Xiang who suffered brain damage after an illness a few decades previously and is unable to take care of himself. Filial wisdom says the burden falls on Lili, but she too lives in the city and has her own life with a small child to take care of meaning that it would be difficult for her to take her father home to live with her, not to mention the potential difficulties of uprooting him from everything he’s known. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lili and her father had long been estranged as her mother divorced him after the illness and moved to the city when Lili was a teenager. During the making of sequence, the actress playing Lili asks for clarification in her motivation stating that the one thing she doesn’t understand is why she hasn’t visited her family in over 10 years, but the only answer she receives is an awkward silence. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of the grandmother relations between the siblings begin to fray as old conflicts bubble to the surface, Da Peng’s uncle and aunt complaining that they cared for Ji Xiang and his mother all this time on their own and would appreciate some help but fail to see how any of the secondary suggestions of the other siblings pitching in as grandma had wished are realistic. Others insist that prior to his illness Ji Xiang was the most filial of the siblings, frequently helping out his brothers and sisters with jobs at the oil field where he worked and generally making sure to take care of everyone only to be semi-abandoned by them now he is no longer to look after himself. The presumably engineered argument from the movie later spirals out of control, the actress playing Lili pleading with the siblings to stop, while her real life counterpart looks on impassively from behind the camera, the fate of Ji Xiang still seemingly undecided. 

Yet quizzed by a fan at a Q&A after the screening of A Reunion, Da Peng doesn’t have an answer for why he decided to make the film, any messages he might have hoped to convey beyond a sense of loss and regret lost amid his desire to capture a moment of family life, his mother appearing on camera in a brief interview sequence avowing that she believes that with grandma gone this will probably be the last New Year, the siblings no longer having a common reason to come together. Someone even mentions that the family is only here this time because of Da Peng’s film, calling into question the ethical dimensions of his decision to put his relatives on camera. He closes on a poignant note with some home video from New Year 2008, presumably the last time he was home, featuring his grandmother and Uncle Ji Xiang in happier times harking back to an essential sense of loss in the all the missed opportunities of absent years now that there will be no more next times or home to go back to. 


The Reunions is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

All About Ing (小伟, Huang Zi, 2019)

A small family finds itself pulled in different directions in the wake of a medical emergency in Huang Zi’s poetic family drama All About Ing (小伟, Xiǎo Wěi). The three are perhaps in slightly different places, each longing for freedom from one thing or another but finding themselves bound by a sense of legacy while haunted by both past and future as they attempt to reorient themselves around their shared loss, searching for new ways forward while always looking back. 

Opening with the poignant image of an empty chair, Huang slowly walks us into the “Ing” home (not their name though each of their names contain it) as patriarch Weiming (Ko Hon-man) gets a haircut from his wife while his son Yiming (Howard Sit Lap-Yin) lazes on the sofa behind. The sense of familial harmony is however soon broken as mother Muling (Janis Pang Hang-ying) chases down her indifferent son while her husband has recently entered hospital with a condition that appears to be much more serious than he thought it to be. Firstly criticising the hospital unsure if he’s getting the best care because the place seems “too new”, Weiming is convinced there’s nothing seriously wrong with him because the doctor says he can go home in a few days. Muling, however, is aware the reality is a little different and has decided not to tell her husband that he has advanced liver cancer letting him believe he merely has “cirrhosis”. 

Divided into three arcs following each of the family members as they attempt to come to terms with the ways their lives will change, the first part of the film follows Muling as she finds herself carrying the burden of family all alone trying to keep them together while her son dreams of escaping abroad and her husband is in continual denial about the state of his health. Perhaps she wants to escape too, her friends at a factory cafeteria gossiping about a mutual acquaintance who was so set on going abroad that she apparently left her husband to marry a wealthy old man living in Cyprus. “What freedom? Is abandoning her son and husband freedom now?” her friend asks while Muling pensively stirs her soup thinking something much the same, later identifying with the lonely old granny who keeps wandering off from the flat next-door while her family it seems don’t even really bother to look for her. Will that be her future too, wandering all alone like a living ghost forgotten by those closest to her? 

A teenage boy Yiming is not particularly primed to see things from his mother’s perspective, longing for escape through studying abroad keeping the news of his acceptance at university in the US a secret from Muling just as she keeps the extent of Weiming’s illness a secret from him. He resents her for her thinking “something bad” will happen to his father while slacking off in class, rejecting her offer of an introduction to a cram school run by a friend but cheating on his homework by copying another girl’s answers. Like Muling’s friend, Yiming’s classmates are convinced there’s no future for them in China joking about jobs as security guards or successful shop merchants while determined to seek their fortunes abroad perhaps partly out of a sense of teenage rebellion against constraining family mores. Yet Yiming is also struggling to process the idea of death experiencing strange dreams of a ruined village he eventually visits with his father on a last trip back to his hometown. 

Weiming’s elderly mother looks not unlike the escaped granny framed vaguely from behind, while his brother too appears somewhat ghostlike as if frozen in time dressed in an old-fashioned donkey jacket and carrying a mysterious photo tube. The two boys he meets on a misty beach who do not acknowledge his presence appear like ghosts of their younger selves while Weiming himself has begun to haunt the landscape ominously looking in through a window at his wife and son on the other side. The family went back to visit Weiming’s family grave but they can’t find it, the town now in ruins while a holiday resort is currently under construction slowly taking over the mountain featured in a picture the family retrieve of Weiming’s father they will later hang on their living room wall. “I want to change the world” Yiming idly mutters on the train home though Weiming doesn’t hear him, the son poignantly turning round to share something with his father after they return home only to find his chair empty. Another his elliptical long shots, Huang closes by returning to his opening POV once again a ghost exiting the space as if returning to a familiar chair while the family attempts to repair itself, moving forward in memory of the past not trapped by it but carrying it with them as they go. 


All About Ing is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)