Move the Grave (이장, Jeong Seung-o, 2019)

MOVE THE GRAVE STILL 1The patriarchal society refuses to release its grip on four disgruntled sisters in Jeong Seung-o’s debut feature Move the Grave (이장, i-jang). Unearthing the buried past is indeed what the sisters find they have to do when their father’s “eternal” resting place is ring marked for a new development, but there’s nothing quite like unexpected family reunions for throwing present and past into stark relief. Cheating spouses, surprise pregnancies, pre-marital discord, and the old favourite money woes conspire against familial unity but female solidarity is perhaps the only weapon at their disposal in an overwhelmingly sexist environment.

Eldest daughter Hye-yeong (Jang Liu) receives the grave relocation notice on an extremely bad day. Her naughty, headstrong son Dong-min has been reprimanded for being disruptive in school yet again, and her employer has intimated that it if she intends to take extended leave they expect her resign rather than return. Nevertheless, she has to sort this grave thing out so she calls her sisters – unhappily married Geum-ok (Lee Seon-hee), soon-to-be married Geum-hee, and university student Hye-yeon (Gong Min-jung). Meanwhile, their only brother Seung-rak (Kwak Min-gyoo), refuses to take their calls on a general basis and has never given any of them his address – something which causes a problem when the women arrive at their uncle’s house. A deeply conservative man, he refuses to move the grave without the eldest son present, sending his nieces all the way back to the city with the instruction to bring their brother back with them though they have no idea where he is.

The relationship between the sisters at least is relatively stable – they may not see each other often or particularly enjoy each other’s company but are, perhaps superficially, well acquainted with each other’s lives to the extent of suspecting there is probably more going on with each of them than anyone wants to talk about. This is especially true of Geum-ok who has brought a suspiciously large suitcase for a day trip and come alone without any of her family members. Geum-hee, meanwhile, constantly bickers about money – asking pointed questions about possible compensation and taking petty potshots at Hye-yeong over the high paid job she hasn’t had time to tell them she’s effectively been fired from for daring to ask about maternity leave.

The conservative, authoritarian, and sexist uncle has presumably made his peace with Hye-yeong’s divorce and career as a working single-mother, but continues to exercise his patriarchal rights over his nieces, insisting that their presence is less essential than that of their spoilt little brother who only ever contacts them when he needs money. Tellingly when Seung-rak is finally forced to appear, he is feted and fussed over with a lavish meal cooked by his aunt while the nieces remain a secondary consideration. Recalling their difficult upbringing, they lament that Seung-rak had the best of everything – his own room, new clothes, and a bowl full of food at dinner while the four of them always had to share. Faced with such criticism of the “traditional” family, the uncle finally erupts, asking what right “you women” think you have to talk so much, and what’s wrong with staying in the house all day doing chores anyway? 

Though the older sisters are minded to bite their tongues, committed feminist Hye-yeon isn’t going to let him get away with such outdated claptrap. She loudly takes him to task, pointing out that their father made their mother so miserable that she expressly asked not to be buried with him, while also having a word with Seung-rak about his irresponsible treatment of his former girlfriend who needs him to make an important decision but seems reluctant to consider getting back together which might be what he wants but then it’s difficult to know because none of the men in this family do much in the way of talking.

Meanwhile, Geum-hee remains pre-occupied about money because her husband-to-be is dragging his feet over her proposed budget for married life. He thinks they can shave it further by ignoring his parents’ birthdays and not buying them Christmas presents, but also that they can save on daily expenses by simply “fetching” things like toothpaste and toothbrushes from his mother’s house. Adulthood, it seems, has not quite come home to him. In the end the sexist uncle and the feckless Seung-rak are forced to stand down and respect the decision the sisters have come to about the grave, but the women remain largely powerless to resist the other forces of patriarchal oppression in their lives from unfair employment policies and stigma surrounding single motherhood to society’s general refusal to accept sexual equality. The aunt’s parting words to the unhappy crowd at the docks that they “only have each other” have a mildly chilling quality, but the family does perhaps emerge with a greater sense of intimacy and a gentle solidarity as they finally put the past to rest and prepare to move forward into a less stressful future.


Move the Grave screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Short interview with the director (English subtitles)

Sub-Zero Wind (영하의 바람, Kim Yu-ri, 2018)

Sub-Zero Wind poster“Life is something you have to get through alone” the mother of the heroine of Kim Yu-ri’s debut Sub-Zero Wind (영하의 바람, yeonghaui balamcoldly claims. In South Korean society, few things are more important than family bonds but when familial connection becomes weaponised it leaves the vulnerable out in the cold. Badly let down by bad luck and irresponsible parenting, Kim’s heroines have only each other to rely on but find even their unbreakable bond strained by the self-centred, unfair, unequal and hypocritical world in which they live.

Kim follows the girls over seven years beginning with the 10-year-old Young-ha’s traumatic introduction to her step-father (Park Jong -hwan). Young-ha’s mother Eun-suk (Shin Dong-mi), big in the Church, has divorced her dad and now that she’s going to have a new “housemate” has decided that Young-ha should go and live with him. With everything packed into a moving van including her bed, Eun-suk sends her off with the removal man and a cheerful goodbye as if she were seeing off a guest who’s outstayed their welcome. Unfortunately, Young-ha’s dad has done a moonlight flit and so the removal man has no option but to take her back home, only her mother has gone out to celebrate and isn’t answering her phone. Eventually Young-ha is abandoned on the side of the road along with all her possessions, waiting for Eun-suk to come home and sort all of this out.

Some years later, Young-ha appears to have integrated fairly well into her new family, a large portrait of which hangs above their sofa in the elegantly decorated apartment. In fact, despite her original dislike of him, Young-ha seems much closer to her step-father whom she calls “dad” than to her frosty mother. Meanwhile, her best friend and cousin Mi-jin is having a tough time. Both her parents have died, and Eun-suk was supposed to be looking after her but has left her to live with her elderly grandmother and is secretly embezzling her parents’ life insurance payments to put towards her religious education in the hope of founding a church of her own. For this reason, she is terrified that Mi-jin’s grandmother will die and her other relatives will find out about the stolen money.

The truth is the Eun-suk is one of those people obsessed with the church rather than its teachings. Kim opens the film during a sermon in praise of love throughout which Young-ha has her eyes wide open, staring at her mother and her new boyfriend in the knowledge she is soon to be ejected from her mother’s new life. Despite going on about leading people to God and practicing Christian virtues, Eun-suk is often judgemental and extremely self-centred. All she cares about is being a member of the organisation and increasing her status with in it though she has obviously not kept to its teachings in that she has divorced her first husband and is now living with a man she is not not married to who is actually still married to someone else. All of this will, if it is discovered, quite obviously prevent her from becoming a minister but Eun-suk remains undeterred.

Meanwhile, she emotionally neglects her daughter and is sometimes jealous of her close relationship with her step-father. Truth be told, there is something a little inappropriate in how close they remain as Young-ha transitions into adolescence. One could assume her step-father has over invested in his new family because he misses the daughter he left behind, or that father and daughter have bonded through each being pushed out by Eun-suk’s cold hearted pursuit of her goal, but the fact remains that the family unit is quietly disintegrating under the pressure of her emotional absence and eventual slide into the hypocritical selfishness which sees her keen to adopt her boyfriend’s daughter for appearance’s sake or because she fears his leaving her while keeping her sister’s daughter Mi-jin at a distance.

When it becomes impossible for Young-ha to continue living in the family home, she turns once again to Mi-jin and the two girls try to make a go of things in Busan as soon-to-be high school grads. The main problem that they face is not so much finding employment as a place to live. Getting a room requires a running start – key money, deposit, rent payable in advance. The girls have savings, but not quite enough for starting a new life on the minimum wage when you don’t have anywhere to go back to or people you can ask for help. Eun-suk is always telling her daughter that they can “start over”, but there are times when you can’t or at least not in the same way. When the girls are cut loose, abandoned finally and completely, it may actually be a kind of relief. “Starting over” released from a destructive cycle of familial disappointment may be a real possibility but all they are left with is each other in the cold winds of an unforgiving city as they try to find a way to live as independent young women with no firm ground on which to take hold.


Sub-Zero Wind screens on 6th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

The Fatal Raid (辣警霸王花 2 不義之戰, Jacky Lee, 2019)

Fatal Raid posterUnrealistically heroic as it might have been, Hong Kong cinema was once unafraid to suggest that sometimes good guys bend the rules, but these days the Mainland market is an important consideration and so the right kind of justice must be served. A salacious B-movie and thematic sequel to Special Female Force (itself a loose remake of 1986’s The Inspector Wears Skirts), Fatal Raid does not have much of a message but does make time to muse on the philosophical nature of “justice” as it corresponds to law enforcement.

20 years previously, Hong Kong cops Madame Fong (Leung Yuk-yin) and Tam (Patrick Tam) were members of an elite squad on a covert mission in Macao which went about as wrong as it’s possible to go, concluding in a mass shoot out in which all of the other squad members died. Because the operation must be kept a secret, the fallen officers have not received their proper due – something which continues to weigh heavily on the resentful Tam, while Madame Fong is still suffering with PTSD related to the incident. A quirk of fate sees the two officers return to Macao as part of a security team escorting the current police chief to a conference, but the past returns to haunt them when their convoy is ambushed by drug addled, youthful anarchists striking back against oppressive authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, there’s inter-squad drama between newish overseas recruit Zi Han (Lin Min-Chen) and veteran Alma (Jeana Ho). A flashback to the original incident reminds us that it was being run along male/female squad lines with the elite team of women the driving force of the operation. However, it continues to be an extraordinarily sexist world that the officers inhabit. The comedic banter between Tam and fellow copper Hei (Michael Tong Man-lung) on the fateful day was mostly Hei boasting about how handsome he thought he was and how pretty some of the female officers were. In the present, the ladies face many of the same problems as undercover officers staking out a nightclub are asked to put some clothes on immediately after the operation because the men can’t concentrate surrounded by barely dressed women, and then in Macao introduced to other female officers as if they constitute some kind of special group.

In any case, the main themes are karma and justice and a possible difference between the two. The last officers standing, Fong and Tam feel guilty about another policeman who died whose body was never recovered, presumed destroyed in the explosion. Tam, who feels “justice” has not been served for his friends who were killed in the line of duty, rocks the boat by dedicating his Macao speech to their memory even if the operation they died in officially does not exist (and cannot exist, because they had no right to open fire in Macao). Fong, meanwhile, is conflicted on learning that a former mentor who helped to teach her about “justice” may have crossed over to the dark side. Tam wonders if they really need to go to such great lengths to “uphold justice” and what it is that really gets them, while Fong remains convinced that “justice should be governed by law”.

The anarchists, however, feel as if there is no justice and that law enforcement of any kind is inherently oppressive. Well, to be fair, they are mostly drugged up teens rather than politically conscious rebels, and have fallen under the spell of an older man peddling personal revenge against a system he feels has betrayed him. In any case, the original squad made mistakes which will come back to bite the remaining members as they take on a new generation of thugs outside of their official jurisdiction. Filled with strangely comic scenes such as the early in-car banter and a running subplot about a lovelorn Macao detective and his crush on Zi Han which hark back to a freer, easier era of Hong Kong cinema, Fatal Raid maybe a little rough around the edges but is not without its old-fashioned charms.


The Fatal Raid screens on 5th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival where stars Jade Leung and Michael Tong will be present to present the film.

Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Xing Jian, 2019)

Winter After Winter posterEven in the midst of war, life goes on. How to ensure it keeps doing so becomes a major preoccupation for one peasant farmer, confused as to how he’s supposed to fulfil his obligation to his ancestors if the Japanese insist on taking his sons. Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Dōng Qù Dōng Yòu Lái) takes a more stoical view of life under the occupation than you’d usually find in Mainland wartime drama, but then its themes are perhaps a little grander as it adopts the perspective of its most oppressed protagonist – the silent Kun (Yan Bingyan) whose bodily destiny is dictated by the men around her while her mild resistance is offered only through small acts of humanistic kindness.

Set in 1944 in the puppet state of Manchuria, Winter After Winter situates itself largely within a single farmhouse where ageing peasant Lao Si (Gao Qiang) is trying to fob off the local Japanese commander (Hibino Akira) who has come for his three sons. Though Lao Si of course does not want his children to go, his concern is more that his oldest son (Dong Lianhai) is impotent and has been unable to impregnate his daughter-in-law Kun so if all the boys are taken now the family line will die. To stop this happening, he tries to force his other two sons to have sex with Kun while he keeps Nakamura busy in the kitchen. His middle son (Yuan Liguo) flees in disgust, running off to join the guerrillas fighting the Japanese while the youngest, shy and inarticulate, tries his best but doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing and is eventually dragged away mid-act, bound for a Japanese forced labour camp.

In some ways, the atmosphere in Lao Si’s village is not as oppressive as one might expect. Now the men have gone, the other villagers are largely left alone with a minimal military presence in the town while they each figure out schemes for keeping the Japanese at bay. The main problem is that once winter sets in there is very little food and the Japanese are intent on keeping most of it for themselves while using their magnanimity as a bargaining chip. Regular searches are made of homes suspected of hoarding rice, while the residents are made to vomit to prove they’ve eaten nothing they weren’t supposed to. Nevertheless, the Japanese commander Nakamura is otherwise shown to be a fair and compassionate man if only largely when dealing with his countrymen – doting over his bedridden wife and little daughter, or making sure to ask a female assistant if she’s warm enough when they sit down to watch a film. Dealing with the Chinese, however, he remains rigid and unforgiving if not actually cruel or abusive. He presses Lao Si for the service owed to him by his absent sons, only reluctantly relenting when told that Kun is unable to work because she has become pregnant but expecting Lao Si to come up with a solution on his own.

Kun’s eventual pregnancy is a problem in itself. Unbeknownst to anyone, the youngest brother manages to escape and begins hiding in the family’s cellar where Kun finds him, keeping the secret and supplying him with food. The pair eventually bond and comfort each other through sex during which Kun conceives a child, but as no one can know of his return, Lao Si arranges to have her marry the “idiot” son (Young Fan) of the local teacher who he assumes is an innocent and will not bother his daughter-in-law with unwanted sexual contact (something that didn’t really bother him when he was keeping it all in the family).

Throughout it all Kun remains stoically silent, never complaining or resisting but simply existing as the right to decide is taken from her by the feckless menfolk who swap and share her with nary a word of kindness. Apparently “adopted” by Lao Si and brought up as a daughter until force married to the oldest son, Kun is made to feel beholden to her father-in-law who behaves as if she owes him her life. Lao Si, meanwhile, blames her for his misfortune – for not being attractive enough to enflame the desire of his oldest son and for sending the middle one running, denying him the heir he so longs for to fulfil his filial duties.

All Kun can do to resist is to rebel against the austerity of her surroundings with kindness. She fulfils her daughterly duties to Lao Si without complaint, tenderly looks after the boys, and finally even offers her own precious food to a Japanese soldier on the run only to pay dearly for it when he brutally betrays her. In the end, all Lao Si’s scheming comes to nothing, defeated by time and circumstance, but it’s Kun who finally makes a positive decision for the future as she perhaps finds him an “heir” even if not the kind he wanted in extending a hand to a crying child signalling an end to conflict and the advent of compassion in the willingness to move forward together without blame or rancour.


Winter After Winter screens on 5th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Clip (English / simplified Chinese subtitles)

Walk With Me (雙魂, Ryon Lee, 2019)

Walk with me still 3“I will be at your side for ever and ever” promises a creepy doll at the centre of Ryon Lee’s Walk with Me (雙魂, Shuāng Hún). It might be better to have the creepy doll on your side rather than on someone else’s but, all things considered, it’s a heavy thing to carry. At least, that’s how the heroine, Sam (Michelle Wai Si-nga), begins to feel when she starts to wonder if spilling all her anxieties onto the doll was the best idea seeing as now people around her seem to be “disappearing”. Is the ghost inside the doll angry and taking its revenge, or is it just trying to protect? Assuming, as Sam does, that ghosts even exist.

A 20-something woman still living at home with an abusive, gambling father (Richard Ng Yiu-hon) and a mother (Anna Ng Yuen-Yi) still grieving for her lost little boy, Sam has a dead end job in a factory where she is being sexually harassed by the male bosses and mercilessly bullied by the other ladies on the floor. Part of the reason Sam is being bullied is that a woman in her building was recently “possessed” by the spirit of a dead child which is judged more than a coincidence seeing as Sam’s mother maintains a shrine and makes offerings to her late son. The strange goings on only started when Sam’s family moved in around 18 months previously so the obvious conclusions have been drawn.

Intensely lonely and a perpetual victim, Sam later tells a childhood friend she unexpectedly reconnects with that she has grown so used to being bullied that she just accepts it and has given up. Dao Dao, the creepy doll, has been her only companion for most of her life and Sam has been used to using it as a kind of therapy device, something she can talk to freely without fear of recriminations. Harbouring the uncomfortable belief that the doll may be possessed by the ghost of her little brother who died before he was even born, she is starting to worry that her father’s constant attempts to get rid of Dao Dao by cutting it up or otherwise brutally disposing of it may have made it angry. To test her belief that Dao Dao is the cause of the unexplained strangeness in her life, she’s started carrying it around with her which, of course, seems to be making the danger spread – conveniently into her work life where most of the people she most hates are located.

Meanwhile, she’s reconnected with York (Alex Lam) – a guy who used to be her only friend when they were kids and bonded over being bullied (her nickname was “bony”, his was “chubby” – he’s been working out ever since). Like the doll, York promises that he’ll always be by her side to protect her from mean people and ghosts too – he doesn’t believe in them but if Sam does then he’ll go with it. Pretty soon, York has moved into the spare room in their building and is doing his best to stand by Sam but the strangeness of events keeps escalating while Sam’s mental state fluctuates. She keeps thinking that she sees the ghost of a little girl in pig tails, but remains more afraid of bad people than of supernatural threat. Even her boss’ little daughter seems to be a budding psychopath, posed eagerly with her iPhone in front of the microwave in which she’s placed an adorable little puppy just to watch it go pop.

York tells Sam that if she wants to beat the darkness she’ll have to become a part of it, apparently meaning that she’ll need to become as strong as it is in order to stave it off. Events however point towards her interpretation, that she’ll eventually have to turn to the dark side in trying to stand up for herself or else remain a perpetual victim. It may very well be irrational to blame a doll for a crime spree, but then nobody seems to think getting possessed by a ghost, or trying to keep one in your home like pet, is anything out of the ordinary. In any case the ghosts Sam is most afraid of are the ones within herself, the ones that hint at her own duality, and embody all of the rage, despair, and guilt of which she is unable to speak. Dao Dao will indeed “always” be with her, only perhaps not quite in the way she thinks. A psychologically acute tale of painful repression and low self esteem, Walk With Me is less the story of a creepy doll and its supernatural revenge than of a lonely soul’s gradual fracturing under the intense pressure of constant rejection and wilful misuse.


Walk with Me screens on 4th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Hsieh Nien Tsu, 2019)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show poster 1New Year comedies are usually about food and community, but for those lonely souls with no one to go home to, perhaps TV can fill the void. That’s certainly been the way for kindhearted TV variety show producer Yeh (Ou Han-Sheng). As a young boy he was often all alone at home and turned to TV for comfort, but with the industry as soulless as it is, is it still possible to lose yourself in the glow of the television screen?

In truth, Yeh’s programming has never been very successful which is perhaps why he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to director by his shady boss Lo (Lin Yu-Chih) who abruptly fires almost everybody else while suddenly insisting on round the clock programming. Unbeknownst to the crew, Lo has fallen foul of eccentric gangster David (Yen Cheng-kuo) who has showbiz ambitions and is determined to buy Crazy TV at a rock bottom price. Lo promoted Yeh in the hope that he’d fail so the ratings would crash and the station would go bust. Yeh’s programming, however, while not exactly a smash begins to find its audience largely through the zany schemes he comes up with to make the most of his budget like substituting repetitive ads for a “signal problem” warning, running cutesy phone-in kids TV, and a deliberately boring overnight program narrated by a guy in a sheep costume and featuring complicated maths problems and military history designed to send you straight to sleep.

Meanwhile, the backstage drama kicks off as Yeh begins to get closer to aspiring Malayasian actress Diva (Lin Min-Chen) while still nursing a broken heart over a failed relationship with a rising star who dumped him for her career. The main issue is, however, his obsession with television as a lifelong friend. As lonely child, TV was there for him, and it was still there for him as an ambitious adult, but somehow it’s lost its way and Yeh isn’t sure how to guide it home. Eventually he has to consider selling his house and earning his living as a noodle vendor while he waits for TV to rediscover its sense of self.

Filled with references to retro Taiwanese television and Western movies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Fēngkuáng Diànshì Tái Fēng Diànyǐngwears its love of the medium on its sleeve but is clearly unafraid to stick the knife in as Crazy TV lives up to its name with a series of bizarre skits created to make up for the fact they have no actual reporters so cannot actually report the news. The only way back in for Yeh, his aspiring actor friend Abi (Liu Kuan-Ting), and Diva is to enter a competition where they have to go head to head with Mr. David reenacting The Godfather, a singer, a guy reading a book, and a pair of gamers. They choose the surreal with a high risk strategy inspired by the movie Money Monster which eventually goes in an unexpected direction. 

A chance meeting with an old friend currently shooting an indie movie brings home to Yeh what exactly has been missing in his TV life – “value”, as in everyone has something valuable in their hearts that ought to be expressed but often isn’t in the increasingly commercialised TV industry. The veteran director deposed during Lo’s mass purge eventually says something similar, that the audience for their programming is mostly the elderly and children and that therefore they should accept a little more responsibility for the programmes that they air and do their best to send positive messages rather than focus on sensationalist stunts designed to win short-term ratings.

Yeh’s epiphany comes a little late, but eventually leads him to realise that if TV was a friend to him it can be a friend of everyone else and then they can all be mutual friends bonding in shared enjoyment even if they’re apart. In true New Year spirit, it really was all about community after all. Adapted from the stage play by variety TV legend Hsieh Nien Tsu, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show is a warmhearted tribute to the healing power of silly TV, bringing tired people together through shared bemusement as they eagerly tune in to the next crazy onscreen antics as an antidote the increasingly surreal offscreen reality.


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show screens on 4th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Australia on 26th July as part of the Taiwan Film Festival in Sydney.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

If You Are Happy (学区房72小时, Chen Xiaoming, 2019)

If you are happy poster 2“Win at the starting line” has become something of buzzword among parents eager to get their children the best start in the modern China where equality is no longer regarded as a social good. Even in the UK it’s not unusual for parents to go to great lengths to game the system so their children can get into the “better” state schools, but in China where educational background really can make or break a child’s future the stakes are obviously much higher. For the father at the centre of Chen Xiaoming’s biting debut, the ironically titled “If You Are Happy” (学区房72小时, X Fáng Xiǎoshí), the stakes are very high indeed as he bets pretty much everything – his family home, his career, and finally his integrity, on buying a grotty little flat in the rundown part of town where he grew up solely because it’s directly opposite the best primary school in the area.

University professor Fu (Guan Xuan) is a doting father to little daughter Cheng, but as keen as he is to keep up the facade of success his private life is falling apart. His wife, Jiayuan (Fu Miao), is suffering from long term depression and though Cheng seems cheerful, the atmosphere at home is frosty at best with husband and wife barely speaking. Meanwhile, Fu has also been carrying on an illicit affair with one of his students, Hang (Tu Hua) – a wealthy young woman whose mother (Rong Rong) is keen to send her abroad for graduate school to improve her prospects. Hang doesn’t want to go, she says because she’s become attached to Fu, but there are also rumours all over school about teachers accepting bribes to change students’ grades and the jury’s out on whether Hang has ulterior motives.

The main source of stress in Fu’s life is however his ongoing quest to buy a flat in the catchment area of a prestigious primary school. After two years of dashed hopes, an old friend working as an estate agent has a promising lead on a place that’s actually right by where they both grew up. Though the flat is in a bad state and really too small for a family (assuming they actually meant to live there), Fu is loathed to give up the opportunity even though he doesn’t have the ready cash together to seal the deal. Despite his outrage at the teachers who take bribes, he tries to force his friend to pull some strings before coming to the conclusion he’ll have to sell his flat. Fu goes ahead and lists it with another estate agent before even talking to his wife who is understandably not keen to move, insisting that the school around the corner is fine, only for Fu to snobbishly tell her that it’s fine for kids like Tao – a naughty little boy at kindergarten who accidentally slashed Jiayuan’s hand when he somehow got hold of a kitchen knife. 

Fu’s snobbishness is perhaps his defining characteristic. Forced to sell his family home, he bristles when the maid mentions that her son is looking for a flat, coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why he shouldn’t be able to afford it before accepting that money’s money no matter who it comes from. Auntie Niu’s (Xu Xing) son Bao (Liu Xiaodi) has troubles of his own, as they discover when paying him a visit and finding him near suicidal because his fiancée is thinking of breaking things off as her family have refused their blessing for the marriage until Bao can get hold of a flat in a very specific area. Bao’s case is frustrated because he’s not originally from Shanghai and a new law prevents non-locals from owning property. Luckily his fiancée is a Shanghai native but he doesn’t have the money to buy in the escalating Shanghai property market and only has this shot with Fu because he is a “motivated seller” and needs the deposit as soon as possible to put down on the property near the school.

Along with a superiority complex, Fu is also something of a prig and makes a point of being upstanding and respectable, even trying to return a box of expensive tea gifted by Hang’s wealthy businesswoman mother in the hope of currying favour. When someone gazumps him on the flat, he has a minor meltdown insisting on legal action and lamenting the decline of morality in the modern society, but then he turns around and does exactly the same to Auntie Niu despite knowing exactly what the flat means for Bao and having given his solemn word when signing the papers. Such duplicity is too much for Jiayuan who finally finds herself gaining the strength to defy her domineering husband to side with Auntie Niu who really has gone and got a lawyer when betrayed by Fu.

How much getting Cheng into a good school is about Cheng and how much about Fu’s status anxiety is up for debate, but nominally at least all of this is supposed to be for his little girl even though the stress of Fu’s ongoing quest is quietly destroying the family home, has sent his wife into a debilitating depression, and finally robbed him of his personal integrity as he continues to debase himself all in the hope of getting his hands on a really horrible flat in an otherwise undesirable area. Chen closes with a series of (seemingly) real interviews with parents who’ve considered bankrupting themselves just to move into the catchment area of a good school. Most of them concede it isn’t worth it, but are tempted all the same even if they intensely resent the way their society is going. After all, shouldn’t all children be starting in the same place? Why should one school be better than another, and why should the children have to pay for being born to parents with fewer resources to help them? There may not be real answers for any of these questions, but they’re ones the modern China continues to grapple with as the egalitarian past gives way to the moral dubiousness of a consumerist future.


If You Are Happy screens on 3rd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)