In Character (入戏, Dong Xueying, 2018)

In Character posterThere has of late been an unfortunate trend of historical revisionism in recent Chinese cinema which has sought to look back at the Cultural Revolution with a kind of fond remembrance for a more “innocent” time. Mostly coming from directors in their 50s and 60s who were themselves young during the last years of Maoism, films such as Feng Xiaogang’s Youth have attempted to draw a sharp contrast with the collectivist past and consumerist present as if to lament the passing of a kinder era, but have also largely located themselves within the cosseted group of youngsters working for the regime and therefore shielded from the intense cruelty of the age.

Songs of the Youth 1969, the debut (and to this date only) narrative feature film from director Ye Jing, is much the same in this regard in that it deliberately recreates his own longed for adolescence as young man fighting, he thought at the time, for a better China. Lamenting that the young people of today have no idealism, he describes the Cultural Revolution as a “rock ‘n’ roll movement” in which intellectual youth chased love and freedom through venerating Mao. Looking at footage of himself on screen, he urges the youngsters not to pity the kids in the square even though they were being “brainwashed” but to admire them because they were fighting passionately for something they believed in.

Dong Xueying, the director of In Character (入戏, Rù), came on board with the intention of exploring the living conditions of Chinese actors but quickly found herself sucked into an alternate reality in documenting the behind the scenes production of Songs of the Youth 1969 as Ye sends his cadre of youngsters off to an abandoned munitions factory in Sichuan for “the Cultural Revolution Experience”. During this time, they must prepare by living under contemporary conditions – wearing Red Army uniforms, surrendering their phones and other modern communication devices, and learning the various revolutionary songs which operated as a key part of the movement.

Although the young men and women are merely actors born long after the Cultural Revolution had ended, the “experience” quickly turns into a kind of social experiment along the lines of Stanford Prison as the intense mob mentality of the era begins to take hold. An early visit from Ye finds them furiously role playing, greeting him as if they were ghosts of his past waiting more than 40 years for his return. Playfully singing bawdy and suggestive songs, they embrace the sense of fun loving youth the director seems to be looking for but a fatal mistake by one young actor abruptly turns the tables, recalling the fear and danger that many must surely have felt in an era of intense suspicion puritanical scrutiny.

Many had openly laughed during rehearsals as they spouted the outdated Maoist quotations and learned the choreography for revolutionary ballet, but the fervour eventually takes hold and it’s not long before they begin turning on each other. First it’s a minor complaint blown out of all proportion about inattention and fiddling with fingernails instead of concentrating on collective concerns, and then an outright attack on one of their number who has made an obvious if understandable mistake – he asked for a few days off on hearing a relative was dangerously ill, and not only that, he misspelled Chairman Mao’s name in his apology letter. Jiang Siyuan’s request seriously upset Ye who is now convinced that the modern youth is selfish and irresponsible and that the youngsters still haven’t absorbed the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Upset that Jiang may have ruined all their hard work, the actors subject him to a Struggle Session in which he must self criticise while they each berate him for damaging the integrity of their common project.

Ironically enough, the “film” has taken the place of the revolutionary ideal, while Ye has become a kind of Mao figure as a faraway authority whom they must worship and placate to make their dream come true. Despite their modern upbringings, the actors quickly succumb to the worst tendencies of the age as they consent to oppress each other, going along with the austerity of the ideology which instructs them to rid themselves of their “selfish” instincts in order to serve the collective while simultaneously emphasising their individual will to ensure their place in the film which necessarily means that Jiang must surrender his human feeling and accept he may never see his grandfather again.

Ye promises them the time of their lives in an experience he hopes will be life changing in the same way, presumably, he feels his own youthful brush with the revolution to have been, but their memories of the munitions factory are likely to be less positive as they ruminate on the immediacy with which they were able to betray each other in service of an empty ideal. Dong’s camera captures not only the misguided romanticisation of the Cultural Revolution by those like Ye disillusioned with the path of modern China, but its frightening legacy in the ease with which such inhumanity takes hold.


In Character was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Rib (肋骨, Zhang Wei, 2018)

“You choose to live together because you love each other, and to enter holy matrimony with our blessing” a rigid priest ominously intones at the outset of Zhang Wei’s The Rib (肋骨, Lèi). This conflict between personal choice and a need for approval from authority figures to legitimise it is at the heart of Zhang’s empathetic exploration of transgender lives in contemporary China. Given the censors’ constant preoccupation with LGBT issues (40 minutes of footage were apparently removed to gain approval though at the request of the Catholic Church rather than the state authorities), his decision to focus on a transwoman’s struggle to get through to her religious father may be a surprising one but follows a wider trend in Chinese language cinema which is beginning to embrace such formerly untouchable subjects with increasing positivity.

The Rib is, however, as much a critique of oppressive Confucianist social codes and rigid religiosity as it is a plea for greater empathy and understanding in accepting others for who they are rather than forcing them to abide by outdated ideas of conservative conformity. Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) was assigned male at birth but identifies as female and wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, however, despite the fact that Huanyu is 32 years old she still needs her father’s signature on a consent form to get the operation and not only that, her father has to be filmed signing it in person in case there are any repercussions further down the line.

The major problem is, Huanyu’s father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi) is a devout Christian who even serves as a sign language interpreter during church services. Huanyu’s mother passed away when she was small and so Jianguo raised her alone. Given his strict religiosity he is unlikely ever to agree to the surgery and Huanyu has never felt able to discuss her gender dysphoria or sexuality with her father for fear that he wouldn’t understand. Those fears are borne out when Huanyu is forced to talk to him in order to move towards surgery. Jianguo thinks it’s a joke, and then some kind of mental illness which could be cured with the right treatment. He hosts an intervention with the priest and other attendees of the church in order to talk Huanyu out of her conviction that she is a woman and even goes so far as to set her up with a selection of pretty sex workers in the belief that Huanyu will change her mind after feeling “like a man” through experiencing “proper” sex with a woman.

Of course, all this really does is drive a further wedge between father and son. Jianguo lashes out. He goes to visit a friend of Huanyu’s, Liu Mann (Gao Deng), who has recently returned from undergoing reassignment surgery in Thailand (where it’s cheaper and there aren’t so many barriers), but rather asking pertinent questions he viciously berates her. Liu Mann, Huanyu’s closest confidante, is not herself certain that Huanyu should have surgery. Returning to work after her operation she found herself fired for not being the same person who left and though she’s suing them for unfair dismissal has discovered that one kind of unhappiness has merely replaced another. Jeered at in the street, enduring the sniggers from insensitive shop staff, and labeled a pervert for just trying to use the bathroom in a public place, Liu Mann has begun to fall into despair no longer believing that a happier future where she could live as herself in freedom is a real possibility.

Jianguo insists he knows his son best and blames Huanyu’s friends for corrupting her. Huanyu is 32, but Jianguo still exercises his paternal authority in loudly declaiming that he will not “allow” this situation to continue any further. Believing that the problem may be that Huanyu had no maternal input, he even starts romancing a woman from church who has no idea she is merely a tool in Jianguo’s mission to “save” his son, while furiously praying that Huanyu will soon marry and have children. The Church itself becomes, perhaps ironically, another vessel for rigid Confucianism as Jianguo ponders the end of his family line along with his dwindling authority and the effects of his son’s “sin” on his own good standing in the eyes of the community.

Yet through witnessing the increasingly destructive results of his actions Jianguo begins to reconsider. He listens to medical advice, attends seminars, and asks himself the true meaning of his faith. After all, if God is in heaven listening to prayers from his children below, then shouldn’t a father on Earth listen to his son’s wishes? Jianguo stops worrying about sin and asks more practical questions – is it safe, is it painful, will it end Huanyu’s life sooner, and weighs the degree of his child’s suffering against his ideology. Shooting in crisp black and white with only the startling red of Huanyu’s favourite dress, Zhang captures the dullness of Huanyu’s existence as she feels herself only half alive before ending on a note of vivid colour as the faces of transgender people fill the frame. A tender, empathetic exploration of a sensitive issue, The Rib is an important step forward for trans representation in Mainland China and a powerful plea for human decency and universal understanding.


The Rib was screened at the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival and the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Meili (美麗, Zhou Zhou, 2018)

Meili poser 2Though Mainland cinema has a famous aversion to the representation of LGBT lives on-screen, there does seem to have been a notable shift towards the positive in recent years with even big budget blockbuster comedies and family films offering subversive, if subtle, messages of tacit support. Nevertheless, lesbian life continues to be underserved with Fish and Elephant, often regarded as the “first” explicitly lesbian film from Mainland China, released only in 2001. Zhou Zhou’s Meili (美麗) is not an issue film nor does it make much of its protagonist’s sexuality but it does attempt to address the many difficulties she experiences in her life as a gay woman from a humble background.

Meili (Chi Yun) has a casual job in a laundry and lives with her high flying career woman girlfriend Li Wen (Zhou Meiyan) who is often forced to stay out late drinking to excess with colleagues in an attempt to climb the ladder. Li Wen receives the opportunity of an extended business trip to Shanghai and asks Meili to go with her only to change her mind abruptly at the last minute, fearing her colleagues will find out that she’s in a relationship with another woman and it will damage her prospects or perhaps even cost her her job. Though Meili was ambivalent about going anyway, the sudden reversal proves a huge shock, especially as she’s also been let go from her laundry job for having the temerity to ask about the annual leave policy.

Meanwhile, Meili is constantly pestered for money by her hard-pressed older sister (Li Shuangyu) who is married to a man (Wang Limin) so vile Meili can hardly bear to look at him. The reasons for her disdain will become apparent, but adding to the confusing family situation is a little girl being brought up by the couple which is apparently Meili’s. Meili is a lesbian with no interest in men which may hint at the reasons she intensely hates the child and resents the entire situation. Despite all that, however, Meili does not seem to be able to cut her sister off and finds herself going out of her way to help her even though she is herself in extreme difficulty.

Toughness and tenderness do seem to go together as we witness Meili set up an IV for her hung-over girlfriend, berating her for drinking too much yet again but caring for her anyway. Meili blows up at her brother-in-law’s, overturning their dinner table when he insults her in front of his friends, but shuts down when wounded by Li Wen, seemingly unwilling to engage in a probably destructive argument but dragged into one anyway. The relationship between the two women appears settled and positive despite the disparity of their socioeconomic statuses, but there are cracks and when Meili begins to suspect that Li Wen may be seeing a male colleague behind her back, perhaps as a cover or to improve her career prospects, she begins to wonder what they really are to each other.

For Meili who could not rely on her family, and had no future plans or real place to belong, Li Wen had become everything. “Shanghai” is a dream to the youngsters of Changchun who assume the gleaming city must be full of opportunity and excitement but it may well be one beyond their reach even if they manage to escape industrial town casual labour hell. Meili bears her difficult circumstances with fortitude. Obliged to live quietly and under the radar, she works hard and saves her money but is betrayed at every turn – by unscrupulous employers, by her toxic family, by her ambitious girlfriend, and even by her supportive and well meaning friends who reluctantly decide that they will have to leave her behind alone in order to chase their own dreams in the city. Having lost everything and all hope for the future, violent revenge seems an unavoidable consequence of her almost total oppression.

A popular name for baby girls, “Meili” means beautiful but there’s precious little beauty in Meili’s increasingly grey and hopeless world. Human selfishness, capitalistic avarice, and conservative patriarchal values conspire to rob her of all possibility for life or forward motion. There is no path out of poverty and little possibility of happiness in being able to live openly and equally with a woman by whom she is fully loved. Painting a bleak picture of life in post-reform provincial China, Zhou’s debut presents a refreshingly normalised depiction of a same sex relationship while making plain each of the various ways its heroine is backed into a corner by the oppressive and increasingly unequal society in which she lives.


Meili was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Zhou Mingying, 2018)

Land of Peach Blossoms posterIn Tao Yuanming’s 5th century fable, The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Shìwàitáoyuán) is a mythical utopia where people live in peace and harmony knowing nothing of the outside world. Zhang Derong, the founder of the Feast of Flowers restaurant, saw himself as creating something similar – a place beyond the outside world founded on collectivist principles where they make healthy people healthier through “emotional catering”. If it were not immediately obvious, the founder of Feast of Flowers is not entirely on the level but has promised great things to the young men who work in his restaurant and look up to him as if he were some kind of more ethical, caring Jack Ma.

His most devoted pupil, Tang Guangbin used to work in a nuclear power plant and had a sea view from his company dorm but he likes it here better because he feels “free” in his heart and soul. Like Guangbin, Zeng Qi also feels that as long as they follow The President’s teachings they will make the Feast of Flowers bloom all around the world spreading health and happiness as they go. The Feast of Flowers is indeed a cheerful place filled with dancing and a faux ancient fantasy Chinese village atmosphere. There is also, however, a dark side which will become apparent to the young hopefuls the longer they stay in the garden.

The truth becomes apparent first to the practically minded Wang Peiyuan who turned down more lucrative jobs to work at the Feast of Flowers because he bought into Zhang’s ambitious business plan and assumed there would be more opportunities down the line. Not only is his pay cheque lower than promised because of all the “training” he has to pay for, but it’s so far below market rate that he’s worrying about paying his mortgage and being able to feed his wife and child. Meanwhile, Zhang waxes lyrical about work ethics and insists that “training” his workforce until 5am and then starting again at 8 is all part of his grand plan to turn them into top entrepreneurs.

Guangbin excuses himself to a friend on the phone in case he sounds as if he’s been “brainwashed” as he fiercely sells Zhang’s philosophy as not only a way to become rich and successful but to make the world a better, more caring place – the kind of place he perhaps assumes China was before the ‘80s reforms which opened it up to Capitalism. Of course, Guangbin is too young to remember what it was like back in the ‘70s, but hears people tell him about solidarity and job security and he’s understandably envious. He’s made a big investment in Feast of Flowers and so it takes a long time before he’s prepared to accept that he is being exploited by an unscrupulous charlatan. Once he and some of the other guys figure out there won’t be any expansion of Feast of Flowers, prime jobs, or bonuses, they want to quit but they can’t because they’re in hock for all this “training” and will lose their unpaid salary because, ironically, they don’t have effective work place protections. 

Zhang runs the place as if it were a work cadre and himself the Chairman. He commands absolute loyalty and requires employees to self criticise, running regular hunts to find the most “self centred” of the workers with many keen to jump at the bait and even to accuse others on cue. Those who disagree and want to leave are dismissed as having “too many personal thoughts and opinions” when they should be concentrating on understanding The President’s philosophy. Guangbin once felt free inside the Feast of Flowers, but later came to feel that outside was “a world of freedom” and inside “a prison full of darkness” from which there is “no escape”.

As if to ram his point home, Zhang makes the workers listen to Red Detachment of Women and has a bizarre obsession with “retaking” the Diaoyu Islands (also known Senkaku islands) from the Japanese, even staging a surreal play in which the Feast of Flowers soldiers personally defeat the Japanese army and capture Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe while Moon Over Ruined Castle plays mournfully in the background. Disillusioned by modern China’s lurch towards soulless consumerism and yearning for a simpler time in which people supported each other in common endeavour (but secretly still wanting to get ahead), the youngsters at Feast of Flowers bought into Zhang’s duplicitous nonsense and allowed themselves to be brainwashed into serving his ideals rather than their own. The parallels are obvious, but Guangbin may sadly be right in believing that there is no escape from the soul crushing exploitation of the modern economy which promises so much and yet delivers so little.


The Land of Peach Blossoms screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 7.15pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Zhang Nan, 2018)

Stammering ballad poster“We all live our lives in silence” according to the subject of Zhang Nan’s Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Huáng  Gǎ Yáo). A love song to a disappearing rural landscape, Zhang’s beautifully composed documentary follows an aspiring folksinger whose dreams of fame have taken him away from the land he loves so much as he tries to ensure the survival of traditional village culture by singing in the cities.

A college dropout, Zhang Gasong embraced his love of folk music while too embarrassed to return home. Honing his craft as he goes, he’s been travelling around the country for the last seven years going wherever someone wants to hear him play – though occasionally they might have to front him the train money to help him get there. Gasong is, it has to be said, an eccentric young man. A former bandmate laments Gasong’s “poor social skills” which led to the band’s breakup, while also remaining exasperated that Gasong just up and left, disappearing for years on end without a word, with little regard for their friendship. Still, he seems to have forgiven him enough to agree to play for Gasong’s big shot on China’s Got Talent.

China’s Got Talent might seem like a left field move for a traditional folk musician, but Gasong has his eyes on the prize. He wants to be the kind of star where everything gets done for him and all he has to do is play, but for the moment he’s busy touring small music venues and festivals singing for his supper and hoping the youth of China who have, like himself, abandoned their village homes for the convenience of city life, will eventually re-embrace the song of the earth.

That aside, Gasong has a conflicted attachment to the pastoral past. He always hated farming and ironically claims to loathe the familiar smell of wheat germ and freshly tilled soil, not to mention the physical toll of of the work. Nevertheless he maintains an attachment to the landscape and views it almost as an inheritance of which he has been robbed by the modern China. The place where he grew up is now largely in ruins after having been relocated to avoid a drought, and though he bitterly misses the familiar black donkey that once lived in the village he has to remember that it’s long been sold. A traveller now himself, Gasong is losing connection with his land and with his family, but desperately clinging to his ancestral legacy through the medium of song.

In the end, China’s Got Talent didn’t really get Gasong, but perhaps that’s for the best. Cameramen expecting disappointment found only relief when they came to interview the band afterwards. Though it’s a shame that the performance will never be aired, and the beautiful rural folksong will not be heard by the millions of Chinese viewers almost certainly tuning in for more energetic fare, Gasong remains undaunted. Wandering off once again he loses touch with his band members and resumes his nomadic travels as an itinerant musician. The grand irony is that these songs, so intrinsically linked with place, are themselves travelling and echoing in new locations looking for new pastures in which to take root as the modern China flattens mountains to build factories and moves families on from their lands while sending its young into the cities all alone.

Gasong, who has stammered since childhood, has found his voice through music though often struggles to make that voice heard in boisterous modern society. Like many of his generation he too has realised he cannot stay in his pastoral paradise, but has also discovered that the city doesn’t suit him. Most at home in the wide open spaces of his native Gansu, Gasong roams the land singing the song of the soil as he goes in the hope that it will one day echo and send the sound of home all around the world.


Stammering Ballad screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 1pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rouge (胭脂扣, Stanley Kwan, 1988)

Rouge poster 2How long should you wait for love? They say every love story is a ghost story, and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (胭脂扣) is a love story in more ways than one. A love letter to old Hong Kong, Rouge laments the passing of time and defeat of beauty by efficiency but then stops to wonder if perhaps that isn’t better and if we’re all secretly happier in world in which dying for love has gone out of fashion.

We begin in the early 1930s as courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui Yim-fong), dressed as a man and singing of doomed love, catches the eye of nobleman Master 12 Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). He lavishes gifts on her and the pair fall madly in love, but his family do not approve of the match and are set on Chen-pang marrying their chosen bride. Out of options, the pair decide on double suicide, but Fleur finds herself all alone in the afterlife and, after 50 years have passed, makes her way to the Hong Kong of the late 1980s in search of lost love.

Many things have changed in the Hong Kong of 1988, but luckily they still have classified ads which is how Fleur decides to find Chen-pang. Of course, ghosts don’t generally have need of money which means she’s still out of luck, but for some reason she finds herself attached to the kindly clerk, Yuen (Alex Man Chi-leung), who eventually agrees to “admit” her while he and his reporter girlfriend Chu (Irene Wan Bik-ha) help track down Chen-pang in the hope that Fleur can find him before the next memorial of her passing in two days’ time.

Kwan contrasts the opulence of the 1930s with the stark efficiency of the modern city in which pleasure palaces have been replaced with convenience stores. Fleur wanders through a world much changed, and sees its ghosts everywhere she goes. The Yi Hung teahouse is place of decadent delight filled with music, colour, and elegance but it’s also one built on misery in which young women are trapped and exploited as a direct result of generalised poverty. Hong Kong has moved on and is now one of the wealthiest cities in Asia, bustling with industry and ambition. The modern cityscape may be less aesthetically pleasing, but perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing if that beauty had existed only to mask an unpalatable reality.

It is true enough that Fleur struggles to make herself understood to Yuen and Chu – her language is no longer current and her way of thinking arcane considering they are only two generations apart. Fleur wonders why the pair of them aren’t married, to which Yuen bemusedly replies that perhaps it’s that there’s no particular pressure urging them towards a more formal union. In any case their relationship seems solid enough in a pleasant, ordinary sort of way. Where Chen-pang gives Fleur the gift of an empty rouge case, Yuen notices Chu’s shoes are worn and thinks to buy her new ones seeing she’s always running about. They wonder if they’d commit suicide for love and come to the conclusion that they wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other only that life is precious and that kind of grand romanticism seems so absurd in the much more down to earth 1980s.

Still, Chu and Yuen can’t help but be captivated by the grandeur of Fleur’s romantic longing. They too want to see a happy ending to her tragic story that makes 50 years in limbo worth the wait, but what if Chen-pang was just a selfish coward who woke up from a romantic daydream and went back to his ordinary life of familial obligation and frustrated desire? Fleur died for love, but 50 years later it all seems so senseless and her return is, in a sense, an attempt to come to terms with disappointment – in love and in the world. The Hong Kong of 1988 may have been anxious too, if in a different way, as another uncertain dawn hovered on the horizon but Fleur’s parting gift is to accept that there’s no point waiting for someone who has no intention of coming. She says goodbye to the past, and walks into a new future with a lightness in her step while the past, suddenly burdened, can only look on with regret.


Rouge screens at the BFI on 4th May with director Stanley Kwan in attendance for a Q&A as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Women (女人心, Stanley Kwan, 1985)

Women posterThings are changing in ‘80s Hong Kong, but when it comes right down to it are there really any more choices than there were in the past? Stanley Kwan would become known for his fiercely female led filmmaking and his debut, Women (女人心), is indeed a statement of intent if heeling close to the Shaw Brothers house style and possessed of a particularly mid-80s kind of cynicism. Marriage falls under the spotlight but for all of its minor oppressions and petty aggravations the net seems almost impossible to escape.

Kwan opens with a strangely cheerful family scene which quickly turns sour as housewife Bao-er (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) is excluded by her husband, Derek (Chow Yun-Fat), and son, Dang-dang (Leung Hoi-Leung), who close the bathroom door on her before declaring a pissing contest. Irked, Bao-er finds herself mildly enraged by the sight of her husband’s undies and decides to take this opportunity to tell him she wants a divorce. She’s found out all about Derek’s fancy woman Sha-niu (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and has had enough. Decamping to her mother’s with Dang-dang in tow, Bao-er finds herself the latest member of her friends’ “forever happy single women’s club” but remains conflicted when it comes to considering the further direction of her life.

The “forever happy single women’s club” is itself somewhat confused in its outlook in that most of Bao-er’s friends are not really intending to remain single forever but are hoping to find a new partner, if perhaps also enjoying playing the field while they look. None of them are really very happy with the status quo and the various get-togethers at which they enjoy lavish buffets and copious amounts of alcohol are mostly filled with bawdy discussions about men and sex, much to the consternation of the rather uptight Bao-er. 

In fact, Bao-er’s “refinement” seems to be one of the chief issues in her marriage which is perhaps why Derek has found himself intwined with a clingy free spirit who quickly moves into the family home and does her best to stake a claim on little Dang-dang but is unwilling to keep house with the consequence that the apartment is quickly overrun with old newspapers and empty food cartons – a sight which fair breaks Bao-er’s heart when she’s forced to visit only to be presented with some of Sha-niu’s patented “spicy soup”. During a candid conversation with her mother, Bao-er reveals that throughout her married life she’d gone to great lengths to preserve her feminine mystique only for Derek to take off with a woman prepared to let it all hang out. Her mother, broadly supportive of her choices, advises her to think carefully about her future. If the marriage was unhappy then it’s best to call it quits, but if Sha-niu is just a passing fad then perhaps she’s one worth putting up with in the absence of other options.

Bao-er’s mother seems to think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to a healthy marriage, but as a “modern” woman, Bao-er expected more. Even so, despite not requesting alimony (she only wants money to cover Dang-dang’s expensive private school fees), we don’t see Bao-er looking for work though it’s also clear she isn’t looking to remarry in the immediate future. Like many of her friends, Bao-er seems to have her doubts about living as an “independent” woman and continues to be irritated by Derek’s relationship with Sha-niu even while attempting to firmly close the door on her marriage.

The end of the relationship does however give her an opportunity to consider what it is that she wants, even if middle-class conservatism ultimately wins out. This is particularly true of an unexpected attraction to a lesbian friend which she chooses not to pursue seemingly because of the social taboo. Despite being fully out and accepted by the group, Terry (Cheung Yin-Gwan) is also pitied by some of the other members who believe she is locked out of the conventional family life most of them are looking for because she is looking for a woman and not a man. Even if it’s true that Bao-er can only really be fully herself with her female friends, she and the others still hanker after male companionship and do not feel complete without it.   

The major theme which emerges is that marriage and family are essential, if imperfect, and must be maintained even if perhaps superficially as the closing text which conveniently condones Derek’s poor behaviour while allowing Bao-er her “revenge” implies. A slightly cynical point, to be sure but undercut by Kwan’s sense of empathetic irony which asks what other real choices Bao-er has while refusing to condemn her for the ones she eventually makes. Socially conservative as it may be, the fact remains that possibilities are bleak for women of a certain age in ‘80s Hong Kong which remains a playground for men like Derek while women like Bao-er and her friends are left with only complicit means of personal rebellion.


Women screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival on 5th May at King’s College London where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Tracey (翠絲, Li Jun, 2018)

Tracey PosterHong Kong has often sought to present itself through its cinema as an ultramodern, cosmopolitan city, claiming a kind of cultural freedom from Mainland oppression. In truth, however, there are areas in which it may disappoint itself. Li Jun’s debut feature, Tracey (翠絲), is in many ways an empathetic attempt to redress the balance in making plain the destabilising effect emotional repression can exert across an entire society, causing nothing other than the mutual unhappiness which provokes one person to oppress another in service of nothing more than conventionality.

A married, 50-something father of two grown up children, Tai-hung’s (Philip Keung) conventional, ordered life is disrupted when he receives a phone call telling him that a treasured childhood friend, Ching, has been killed while working in Syria as a war photographer. Unbeknownst to anyone, and not quite admitted even to himself, Ching had been the love of Tai-hung’s life and his death finally forces him into a reconsideration of the feelings which are now, perhaps, a lost opportunity. The sense of loss is doubly brought home when he collects Ching’s partner, Bond (River Huang), from the airport and discovers that he had been legally married to another man in the UK though the pair’s marriage certificate is not valid in Hong Kong which presents a problem in trying to repatriate Ching’s ashes.

Bond, himself from Singapore where homosexuality is at least technically still illegal, knew of Ching’s love for Tai-hung and Tai-hung’s unrealised attraction to Ching but struggles with Tai-hung’s decision to not to embrace his sexuality, preferring to marry and have children in pursuit of a conventional life. Despite having grown up in an arguably even more oppressive society, Bond is 20 years younger and has perhaps benefitted from an increasingly liberal world in which greater awareness has afforded him the vocabulary to process Tai-hung’s complex identity with a delicacy that was not available to Tai-hung in his youth, nor to his quasi-mentor Brother Darling (Ben Yuen) – a performer of Chinese Opera who specialised in female roles and confided to Tai-hung that he identified as a woman but is unlikely to have ever come across the term “transgender” let alone claim it as an identity.

Nevertheless, Bond’s arrival begins to push Tai-hung’s long repressed longing to the surface even if his first attempt to explain to Bond that he too identifies as a woman is met with mild derision as Bond misunderstands him in assuming his claiming of a female identity is an attempt to reject his homosexuality. What Tai-hung tries to explain to him is that he does not see himself as a gay man but a straight woman and therefore felt that pursuing his love for Ching, a man who loved men, would never have been a possibility. Fearing his gender identity would never be accepted by anyone, Tai-hung kept his true self hidden even from his closest friends and unwittingly placed a wedge between himself and the man he loved.

Bond pushes him still further with the perhaps unfair charge that his entire life has been essentially selfish and founded on the continued deception of his wife and children. Despite its seeming conventionality, Tai-hung’s family life is not altogether happy. His wife, Anne (Kara Hui), is a fiercely conservative sort who prizes nothing so highly as respectability as she proves by rifling through the maid’s room in search of evidence of sexual indiscretion which she later uses as grounds to suggest firing her. As the couple’s son Vincent (Ng Siu-hin) points out, there is also an unpleasant racial component to her puritanical morality which objects to her Indonesian maid having a right to a private life, fearing that she will bring “disease” into the house by sleeping with another “foreigner”. This is perhaps why she objects to her pregnant daughter’s (Jennifer Yu) desire to divorce her highflying lawyer husband when she discovers that his serial philandering has resulted in a sexually transmitted disease which he has passed to her and which has thankfully been detected early enough to avoid harming the baby.

Despite Anne’s pleas with her daughter that you don’t reject someone for turning out to be different than you assumed them to be, she is obviously not ready to accept Tai-hung’s authentic self despite having been aware that there was always something slightly amiss within their marriage which prevented it from being a true and total union. It is perhaps this sense of nagging incompleteness and unhappiness which has pushed Anne’s need for respectable conventionality into overdrive, as if a superficially successful adherence to the rules could be a substitute for emotional fulfilment. Her own suffering then seeks to push her daughter into the same space as a self-sacrificing housewife who has exchanged personal happiness for the cold comfort of social respectability. 

Thanks to reuniting with a now elderly Brother Darling and finding himself accepted by the younger Bond, Tai-hung begins to find the courage to embrace his true self and discovers that many of his friends and relatives are more supportive than he might have assumed even if some of them may need time to get over the initial shock. As his mother tells him, the important thing in life is learning to find one’s peace of mind – something which could only be helped by abandoning the outdated Confucian ideas which continue to define the social order in favour of something warmer, freer, and fairer built on mutual acceptance and compassion.


Tracey screens as the closing night gala of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 24, 7pm, at AMC River East 21. It will also be screened in London as the closing night of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival on 9th May, 6pm, at BFI Southbank where members of the cast and crew will be attendance for a Q&A.

 Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.