Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Girl Missing (よこがお, Koji Fukada, 2019)

A Girl Missing poster 1In Harmonium, Koji Fukada explored the death of the family unit as a harried father found the foundations of his home eroded by a mysterious “stranger” with whom he shared an unspoken connection. A Girl Missing (よこがお Yokogao) pushes a little deeper in demonstrating how profoundly the foundations of a life can be shaken by frustrated connections, misunderstandings, and unspeakable desire. Probing deeper still, it wants to ask us on what foundations we’ve chosen to build our selfhoods, why it is that we don’t know ourselves without those tiny markers that tell us where we stand, and if it is really possible to rediscover a sense of self if we somehow go missing from our own lives.

Beginning in the mysterious second timeline, Fukada opens with the heroine changing her identity through the time-honoured fashion of a haircut. Calling herself Risa, she brushes off the hairdresser’s suggestion that they’ve met before, but she hasn’t chosen this salon because of its reputation or proximity to her home. Flashing back some months, we see the same woman looking a little softer and apparently working as a homecare nurse known as Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) to an elderly woman dying of stomach cancer. Ichiko’s colleagues worry that she’s becoming too emotionally involved with the Oishi household, helping the two daughters – uni student Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa), study in cafes in her off hours, but she enjoys playing mother and does after all like to help. Meanwhile, she’s also happily engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with a young son and looking forward to starting a brand-new family life of her own.

All that is derailed, however, when Saki goes missing in a suspected abduction on her way home from cram school. Thankfully, she’s found alive, unhurt, and apparently relatively well adjusted a few days later and anyone would assume the drama to be over, only it turns out that the suspect is Ichiko’s own nephew whom she briefly introduced to Saki at a cafe on the night in question. Feeling tremendously guilty and confused though she herself had nothing to do with the incident, Ichiko feels she must confess and make a formal apology to the Oishis but Motoko stops her fearing that the family will fire Ichiko and she’ll never see her again. Ichiko decides to trust Motoko and keep quiet, but it will prove to be a bad decision not least because it is in such sharp contrast to her otherwise straightforward and honest character.

The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao” or “profile” reminds us that it is not possible to see the entirety of any one thing, only a single facet and more often that not the facet that it particularly wants you to see. Ichiko is guileless, innocent, and naive in her innate kindness. She doesn’t see how her relationship with the Oishi girls could eventually become problematic because, as a nurse, she’s used to doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. What we see of her is a woman about to marry “late” by the standards of her society into a readymade family, an intensely maternal figure looking for people who need mothering. Meanwhile, Saki’s disappearance exposes cracks in the Oishi household, Motoko’s grumpy response of “would you rather it was me?’ to her mother’s wails of “why her?” beginning to explain some of her seeming disaffection with her family.

Yet as much as there may be a maternal component in her desperation to keep Ichiko in her life, we can infer from all her plaintive looks that there is another kind of desire in play, one which she seems to regard as unspeakable. Ichiko, oblivious, does not quite realise the depth to which her accidental rejections wound the troubled young woman but equally could not anticipate the casual cruelty of her petty revenge. Upset that Ichiko is not catching her drift, Motoko leaks her connection to the case to the papers, and then tells them a secret shared in confidence to pour salt on the wound. Instantly regretful and caught in the white heat of passion, Motoko fails to realise the extent to which her desire to return the hurt done to her will only wound her more in ensuring Ichiko disappears from her life for good.

Ichiko then does something much the same, reinventing herself as “Risa” she lives in an empty apartment overlooking Motoko’s with the sole aim of taking revenge against the woman who pretended to be her friend and then betrayed her. But Ichiko does not understand why Motoko did what she did, and so her own revenge is also a misplaced act of self harm which causes her to absent herself from herself, assuming another identity better disposed to cruelty but finding it an awkward fit.

Fukada places emotional repression at the heart of all. Ichiko, despite her kindness, keeps others at a distance without entering into true intimacy with anyone, while Motoko apparently struggles to articulate perhaps even to herself the truth of her own feelings, childishly hitting back when slighted and unable to bear the possibility that she is in love with someone who cannot return her feelings. Forever at odds, they see each other only in profile. The desire for revenge destroys them both, but despite the pain and inescapability of regret, they have to find new ways of going on, making little nicks on their identities to help them remember who they really are. A melancholy tale of frustrated desires, A Girl Missing flirts with constructed identities polluted by social toxicity but leaves its heroines on (slightly) firmer ground in having at least taken what control they can over the forces which destabilise them.


A Girl Missing was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

G Affairs (G殺, Lee Cheuk-pan, 2018)

G Affairs poster 1“Many think Hong Kong is getting better, but I can tell you for sure Hong Kong is getting worse” says the dejected hero of Lee Cheuk-pan’s striking debut, G Affairs (G殺). Reminiscent of Fruit Chan’s landmark chronicle of handover malaise Made in Hong, G Affairs finds itself in a city once again in crisis where the young struggle to see a future, abandoned or misused by the older generation who think only of themselves in an increasingly nihilistic world of violence and transaction.

Lee opens with an arresting scene shot in 4:3 in which a teenage boy practices his cello while a scantily clad woman opens the door only to be dragged back to the couch by a burly policeman who proceeds to have his way with her until a severed head suddenly bounces in through the French doors. The story of how the head came to land there brings together a disparate collection of people from all walks of life – teenage cello player Tai (Lam Sen), his classmate Yuting (Hanna Chan), her autistic friend Don (Kyle Li), her corrupt cop dad “Master Lung” (Chapman To Man-chak), former sex worker stepmother Mei (Huang Lu), and high school teacher Markus (Alan Luk Chun-kwong) with whom Yuting has been experimenting with oral sex.

Today’s lesson is brought to us by the letter G – chosen by Don as his favourite letter in the Western alphabet connected as it is to many of his beloved computer words, but reminiscent to Yuting of a human skull with its jaw hanging open. Above it all, Yuting resents her fellow students at the elite high school, especially the immature boys who nickname her “G” behind her back for a number of reasons ranging from an unflattering comparison to a busty classmate and the fact that her stepmother was a sex worker the slang word for which sounds like G in Chinese. Tai, meanwhile, is not well liked either and also considers himself superior to his surroundings, proclaiming that only losers need friends and frequently dobbing in his classmates for their bullying behaviour. Don, a few years older, is associated with another G word – “gay” which people seem to assume him to be for unclear reasons, and is an outcast because of his autism.

The three seem to be more or less abandoned by their parents. Tai lives alone, a melancholy musician who believes that “things of value cannot be found in the world” only in music, literature and art, while his parents have long since departed in search of riches. “A family that’s never home is not a family” he explains to mainlander Mei who hoped to find a new life for herself in Hong Kong but even with her present “family” feels even more alone than she ever had before. Her stepdaughter Yuting intensely resents her, regarding her father’s affair with Mei as the primary cause of her mother’s gastric cancer and subsequent death. Yuting also resents her father, ashamed of his embarrassing gangster antics and tendency to spout high minded quotes to mask his essential superficiality. Neglecting his daughter, Lung positions himself as a kind of father figure to Don to whose parents own an internet cafe which facilitates some of Lung’s dirty work.

Dirty work is something of a Lung speciality but as Tai says, he’s not even that bad a man merely someone trying to make a fast buck in the burgeoning Hong Kong underworld. Calling himself “Master Lung”, he thinks of himself as maintaining his own kind of order – “one country, two systems” as Yuting later ironically describes her complicated home life, but may actually be on the “better” side of law enforcement as we witness the legitimate police waterboard a terrified Don who is largely unable to answer their questions in the way they insist on asking them, and physically abuse a guilty Markus while threatening to expose his illicit relationship with Yuting and, it turns out, her stepmother Mei. Another middle-aged hypocrite, Markus confesses only to introducing Mei and her sex worker sister to his church group in the belief that they “deserved salvation”.

That may not be a view commonly held by most as Mei finds out during an impassioned conversation with Yuting’s headmistress who berates her for her “shameless” past. Speaking as a mainlander, a trafficked woman, and a sex worker, Mei hits back by asking what right Hong Kong people have to look down on her and why it is her background in sex work is so problematic that everyone seems to be telling her it would be inappropriate for her to be a mother which is only what she’s trying to be to Yuting despite her animosity. Lung might have married Mei, but he wastes no time denigrating other mainland women trafficked to the Hong Kong underworld and cooly brushes off complaints after shooting a man with the justification that no one cares about another dead mainlander. Mei does her best to be “happy”, but learning that her own mother has been executed by the Chinese state for opposing its oppression leaves her adrift, longing to go “home” but knowing there is no home to go to and no safe land even in Hong Kong.

Children are the adults of tomorrow, Yuting explains, but the adults of today have robbed them of any possible future. Lee’s depiction of contemporary Hong Kong is one of increasing chaos, a hopeless place that has lost its way. The older generation think only of money while the young want something more but struggle to find anything of meaning in the soulless modern world which seems to be imploding all around them. Strangely hopeful, yet infinitely nihilistic, Lee ends on the single word “Go” as his troubled protagonists find their own kind of peace in the abyss of the modern city.


G Affairs was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Under Your Bed (アンダー・ユア・ベッド, Mari Asato, 2019)

Under Your Bed poster 1Japanese cinema has something of a preoccupation with invisible men, but there’s rarely been as empathetic an exploration of benign alienation as Mari Asato’s Under Your Bed (アンダー・ユア・ベッド). Asato’s lonely stalker is a creep and a voyeur, but his problem is his innate passivity born of defeatism in which he has, despite his tendency to fantasise, already accepted that he lives in a kind of other world unable to touch his fellow humans from whom he remains painfully separated as if by a sheet of invisible glass.

Tropical fish enthusiast Mitsui (Kengo Kora) is one of those people who tend to be forgotten. He doesn’t feature in his high school graduation photo, and nobody, not even his parents, has ever noticed. Harbouring intense feelings of worthlessness linking back to a childhood memory of abandonment after almost dying when his father left him sitting in a hot car, Mitsui has no friends or much of a life to speak of and regards himself as a kind of non-person invisible to others. Longing to be seen, he treasures the precious memory of the only time he has ever heard someone else call his name which occurred 11 years previously when he was a university student.

Mitsui deeply believes that this memory is the only thing that gives his life meaning. Hiring a private eye to track down the woman in question, Chihiro (Kanako Nishikawa), he quits his job and opens a tropical fish store in the town where she lives, apparently now married with a baby. What he discovers, however, is that this Chihiro is quite different from the one of 11 years previously. Hoping to figure out why he begins watching her intensely, swiping a key to the house after she drops into the fish shop by chance and he offers to set her up with a tank full of colourful guppies. What Mitsui eventually discovers is that Chihiro is also living a somewhat invisible life as a victim of domestic violence unable to escape the tyrannical control of her respectable salaryman husband.

Facing a dilemma, Mitsui doesn’t so much want to rescue Chihiro as preserve his peculiar level of access to her even if seeing her subjected to such degrading and inhuman treatment quite obviously disturbs him. Mitsui can’t swoop in and save her because he’d blow his cover and lose the fragile connection to her life he’s convinced himself he has. Never daring to hope he could get her attention through an act of white knight salvation, he nevertheless fantasises about a different version of himself – one that is capable of providing comfort and protection rather than simply sitting and watching while others suffer.

Ironically enough, however, his passive presence seems to make a difference. Shifting to a brief voice over from Chihiro, we discover that the flowers Mitsui has been sending with a card wishing her happiness are the only thing that’s been keeping her going. What some might regard as a cause for concern has given Chihiro strength in proving that there’s someone else out there who cares about her. Yet this change or at least potential restoration also endangers Mitsui’s plan as Chihiro’s growing conviction that she can protect herself, spurred on by the invisible support of the flower sender and others, threatens to dissolve the fragile fantasy world he’s constructed.

Mitsui is forced to wonder if his obsession is equal parts delusion, that perhaps the very events which define his life are part fabrications. His intense conviction that he is a forgettable person is borne out when he realises that Chihiro not only does not recognise him, but apparently does not even remember anything that passed between them 11 years previously. To her, he is probably just a random guy she had coffee with one time, whereas to him she is the woman who changed his life by showing him what true happiness could feel like simply by saying his name. Spotting another invisible person like himself reminds Mitsui what he looks like from the outside and of the potential dangers of those like him when he finds out that the man later went out and stabbed his boss’ wife because she gave everyone except him a holiday souvenir. Yet there is a strange kind of positivity in Matsui’s gentle acceptance of his invisibility. Resenting nothing, it’s not revenge he wants but recognition and though he may eventually figure out that what he really desired was something more, all he needs is the possibility that Chihiro may one day say his name again.

An invisible man, Mitsui longs to “seen” but lives a bug-like existence, hiding in the places no one thinks to look. Proudly telling us that the guppies in his shop are the 34th generation of the guppies his mother once gave him, Mitsui reveals that he flushes the subpar males, with whom he inevitably groups himself, away in order to preserve the beauty of the whole rather than allow it to descend on a path towards mediocre blandness. Like his beloved fish, Mitsui remains trapped within an invisible cage unable to reach beyond the glass, resigned to looking but not touching. Nevertheless, his presence is eventually felt, unseen but recognised and finally rewarded with a single long-awaited word.


Under Your Bed was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Kang Yoon-sung, 2019)

long live the king poster 1Back in the good old days, gangsters used to make a case for themselves that they were standing up for the little guy and protecting those who couldn’t protect themselves. Of course that wasn’t quite the truth, but one can’t deny how closely small town thuggery and political office can resemble one another. Following his breakout hit The Outlaws, Kang Yoon-sung returns with web comic adaptation Long Live the King (롱 리브 더 킹: 목포 영웅, Long Live the King: Mokpo Yeongwoong), another unconventional comedy in which a surprisingly loveable rogue rediscovers his national pride and finds a more positive direction in which to channel his desire to be helpful.

Se-chool (Kim Rae-won) is a notorious thug with a traumatic past currently working with a local gang hired to clear a small protest of stall owners trying to cling on to a traditional market space in working class Mokpo where a developer wants to build a theme park and upscale skyscraper. A feisty young lawyer, So-hyun (Won Jin-a), is working with the protesters on their case and has no problem telling the gangsters where to get off. Impressed, Se-chool is smitten and starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side but his attempts to get So-hyun’s attention – being strangely nice to the protestors, buying everyone lunch etc, spectacularly backfire. Only when he hears about another man, Hwang-bo (Choi Moo-sung), who used to be a gangster but has now reformed and become a social justice campaigner running a small not-for-profit cafe serving meals to the vulnerable, does he begin to see an opening, vowing to give up the gangster life and commit himself to serving the people of Mokpo.

The irony is that everyone seems to think that Se-chool has a hidden agenda, but his only agenda is the obvious one in that he wants to win So-hyun’s heart even if that means he has to shape up and learn to become a decent person rather than a heartless gangster thug. Known as the king of the nightlife, Se-chool is regarded as a slightly eccentric, good time guy, so his sudden desire to go “legit” is met with bemusement rather than surprise, but old habits are hard to shake and it takes a while for him to realise that trying to help people with his fists is not the best way to go about it. Punching out some punks making trouble in a cafe gets him an earful from the proprietress who explains that she owes a lot of money to the guys’ gang so Se-chool’s chivalry has probably caused her a series of potentially serious problems she assumes he won’t be on hand to help her out with. Nevertheless, he retains his desire to wade in and do his bit, becoming a surprise local hero when he puts himself in danger to ensure the unconscious driver of a crashed bus gets out safely while the other passengers make their escape.

Meanwhile, local politics is starting to heat up. Venal politician Choi Man-su (Choi Gwi-hwa) is up for re-election and running on a platform of making Mokpo great again. It comes as no surprise that Man-su is deep into the corrupt theme park project and outsourcing general thuggery to Se-chool’s arch-enemy which eventually includes taking out potential rivals like Hwang-bo whose approval ratings are soaring while voters are becoming tired of Man-su’s big money tactics and insincere messaging. Soon enough, Se-chool is persuaded to enter the race seeing as his “local hero” persona puts him in good stead to oppose Man-su’s establishment credentials. But, in order to get elected and convince So-hyun he’s really changed, he’ll have to finally face his traumatic gangster past while learning to be open and honest with his feelings.

Kang goes in hard for the business of politics, taking pot-shots not only at corrupt establishment figures in so tight with organised crime that they’re little more than jumped up gangsters, but also at ambitious party hoppers, and misguided mobsters who think they’re onto the big ticket by hooking up with “legitimate” power. Poor Se-chool, meanwhile, actually thought he was doing “proper business” in his persona as a besuited gangster of the new, corporatised school little thinking about the little guy as he unwittingly went about his ultra-capitalist agenda. Heading for broad comedy, Long Live the King misses an opportunity for serious satire but has undeniable heart as the misused hero learns to accept himself in being accepted by others, falling in love not only with a feisty activist lawyer but with community spirit and progressive politics as he vows to fight for a better future for the people of Mokpo while opposing the inherent corruption in the system embodied by men like Man-su who feel themselves entitled to exploit solely by virtue of their own superiority.


Long Live the King was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Won Shin-yeon, 2019)

The Battle roar to voctory poster 1Besides seeing the birth of Korean cinema, 1919 was something of a flashpoint in the nation’s 20th century history. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, thereafter instituting an increasingly brutal colonialist regime. On March 1, 1919 the people rose up in an act of mass protest inspired by the provision for “Self-Determination” included in US president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points speech outlining a path towards enduring peace. Though the protest was peaceful, it was quickly suppressed by Japanese troops resulting in thousands of deaths and mass incarcerations.

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Bongodong Jeontoo) situates itself a year after the protest as the Independence Movement began to intensify, and is inspired by real life events apparently often absent from the textbooks in which several factions eventually came together to wipe out an “elite’ squad of Japanese troops which had been put together to take down guerrilla Resistance fighters. Our heroes have been charged with collecting money from a fundraiser and conveying it to the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai but are drawn into a wider battle against Japanese brutality on their way.

The Japanese colonial forces are indeed brutal, if often cowardly. When we first meet crazed commander Yasukawa (Kazuki Kitamura), he’s butchering a tiger in some kind of symbolic act of intense barbarity. To smoke out the Resistance fundraiser, the Japanese military begin razing villages, killing the men and raping the women, even going so far as to shoot small children for sport. When veteran Resistance fighter Hae-cheol (Yoo Hae-jin) raids a command post, he makes a point of taking a hostage who himself seems to be a teenage recruit. Hae-cheol lets the boy live not only out of a sense of compassion, but also because he wants him to take what he’s seen back to Japan, including the aftermath of a Japanese assault on an ordinary Korean village.

Yukio (Kotaro Daigo), as the boy later gives his name, is, unlike his fellow officers, conflicted and confused. Apparently a member of the elite himself, the son of a prominent military figure, Yukio gave up a bright academic future to join the army and find out what it is that Japan does with its advanced weaponry. Asked what he thinks now that he’s seen for himself, he says that he’s ashamed, that his worst fears have been confirmed. According to Yukio, his nation is suffering from an intense inferiority complex which is leading it to commit acts of extreme barbarity in order convince itself it is equal to any other imperial power.

The Japanese officers veer from the crazed, bloodthirsty Yasukawa who views his mission as some kind of hunting expedition, to the merely weak and cowardly. The Independence fighters, however, come from all over Korea speaking many dialects (some less mutually intelligible than others) and with many different motivations but all with the desire to free their country from Japanese oppression. Ace captain Jang-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) is a born soldier, but those who support him are largely street fighters and “bandits” not always welcomed into the movement by the so-called intellectual “nobles” running the show from a position of social superiority. Then again, as Hae-cheol puts it, no one can be sure how many guerrilla soldiers there are because any farmer is a potential sleeper agent.

In any case, the Resistance fighters pursue their mission selflessly, manipulating the complacent Japanese troops to lure them into a mass ambush while trying to ensure the money still makes its way to Shanghai to preserve the movement. Despite the “Roar to Victory” subtitle, it’s important to note that the Independence Movement was still in a nascent state and would continue opposing Japanese oppression until Korea’s liberation at the end of the war. Covering the legendary battle of Battle of Fengwudong, the film ends with forward motion as the Resistance commander (a late and great cameo from a giant of Korean cinema) points ahead towards the next target, the well known Battle of Cheongsanri, in which the Japanese military reportedly suffered over 1200 casualties at the hands of Independence forces. Overly gory and lacking in subtlety, The Battle: Roar to Victory is unabashedly patriotic but does its best to suggest the costs and compromises of guerrilla warfare as its selfless heroes put aside their differences to fight for a better Korea.


The Battle: Roar to Victory was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Diao Yinan, 2019)

wild goose lake poster 1Chaos and desperation are about as far as it’s possible to get from the image of the modern China the nation’s cinema has been keen to project, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves in the murky world of The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Nánfāng Czhàn de Jùhuì). Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice followup finds the director in much the same territory only this time embracing the absurdity of existential flight as his twin heroes seek impossible escape in the garish neon of a provincial underworld.

Diao opens on the rain-drenched streets as sullen gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waits impatiently for a rendezvous with his estranged wife Shujun (Wan Qian), only to be met by a stranger – “bathing beauty” Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), who explains she won’t be coming. A lengthy flashback reveals that Zenong is currently on the run after getting embroiled in a dispute over turf assignments at some kind of gangster briefing session during in which one of his guys shot one of the Cat brothers’ men in the leg. To settle the matter, the boss proposes a good old-fashioned competition to see who can nick the most bikes in one night with the winner getting the prime spot, but Zenong doesn’t know he’s been set up and mistakenly kills a policeman after being attacked by Cat Eyes. Realising there’s no longer any way out for him, Zenong’s last hope is to keep the police at bay long enough to get back in touch with his wife and convince her to turn him in to the police so that she can claim the reward money.

Like many men of his generation, Zenong couldn’t find the kind of honest work that would allow him to provide for his family and so he left home. Too ashamed to own his no-good gangster ways, he stayed away for five years but all that’s on his mind is family and this is the only chance that he will ever have to provide for them. Shujun isn’t even really sure she wants anything to do with her absentee husband, but is dragged back into his orbit once again harassed by the police every step of the way.

In striking contrast to most Chinese crime dramas, these police are far from a force for order. Describing Wild Goose Lake as a lawless land, they have their very own briefing to formulate a plan to catch Zenong but aren’t averse to underhanded tactics like threatening Shujun and trying to undermine her attachment to her husband through a fabricated story about a pregnant girlfriend. The line between cop and thug isn’t so thick as you’d think it would be, and you can’t trust the police any more than brotherhood or honour amongst thieves.

Devoid of morality, Wild Goose Lake is indeed a chaotic place defined by shifting loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Fights break out without warning, plans change, and there are no safe spaces. Bumbling as they are, the police are everywhere watching everything and trying to blend in. Anyone might be a cop, or secretly working against you. Zenong is on the classic wrong man path, except that he’s the right man and he knows it. He might not have pulled the trigger if he knew it was a policeman he was firing at, but pull the trigger he did and now he’ll have to make peace with it. Trying to outrun the law only so long as to subvert it, he finds himself slipping past checkpoints distracted by pointless officiousness and consistently evading the net.

When Shujun is unable to make it to the rendezvous, Aiai offers to take her place by turning Zenong in and claiming the reward money to pass it on to Zenong’s wife (minus a small fee), meaning they will need to trust each other until the mission is completed. Aiai, a dejected young woman supplementing her income with casual sex work as one of the “bathing beauties” found at the lake, longs to escape her dead end existence, eventually telling the policeman she’d use the reward money to open a small store back in her hometown. Like Shujun, she lives in a fiercely patriarchal, unforgiving society  from which there is little sign of escape or independence. Yet, as afraid of everything Zenong represents as she eventually becomes, Aiai remains steadfast and true, keeping her promise and paving the way towards a brighter future for Shujun and her son away from the haphazard chaos of Wild Goose Lake. An absurdist fable drenched in neon, Diao’s conception of life on the margins of provincial China is as bleak as they come but eventually finds space for positivity on returning to a world more ordinary in which two women walk away from the traumatic past arm in arm and the law has to be content to let them go.


The Wild Goose Lake was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English captions)