Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, Gu Xiaogang, 2019)

“The family should be peaceful and united” according to an exasperated aunt but then again “family is a pain”. Gu Xiaogang’s stunning debut feature Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, chūn jiāngshuǐ nuǎn) takes it name from a famous classical painting and unfurls a tale of familial strife born of intergenerational tension which is also a tension in the earth between new and old as this “traditional Chinese landscape” as someone describes it pointing at another painting is gradually eroded by a destructive modernity. 

This ambivalence is clear in the opening scene which takes place in the family restaurant where they are currently celebrating the 70th birthday of the family’s matriarch. What first seems atmospheric, even romantic as someone describes it, in the candlelit space is revealed to be simply a power cut and a symptom of the imperfect modernity visiting itself on the town. In any case, grandma later collapses in the process of handing a red envelope to her grandson and is taken to hospital where it is revealed that she has suffered a stroke which has accelerated the course of her dementia. The question then becomes who will accept the responsibility of caring for her with each of her four sons secretly hoping that someone else will volunteer. 

Grandma is in many ways the film’s moral authority, at one point quite literally adrift in the modern society. She no longer recognises her daughter-in-law Fengjuan (Wang Fengjuan) and avoids taking her medication believing that she’s being poisoned but pines for her youngest son whom she says spends the most time with her and is the most obedient but in fact appears the least interested of all the brothers. When he finally visits her to show off the fiancée everyone told him he had to get to put her mind at ease before it’s too late all she can do is stare at the moon. On the other hand, she is the one firmly on the side of the young, telling her granddaughter Guxi (Peng Luqi) to marry a man she chooses for herself rather than be swayed by the wishes of her parents and wind up miserable as she herself seems to have been. 

Guxi is in a relationship with local teacher Jiang (Zhuang Yi) who might otherwise be thought a catch in that he has a good job and stable income as well as access to a preferential mortgage programme for those in his profession, but Fengjuan envisions more insisting Guxi marry the son of an influential businessman in part to ease her own financial worries. As Guxi suggests, her mother’s idea of happiness is different from her own. Having suffered privation in their youth the older generation prioritise material comfort but in their old age may become lonely or resentful in the emptiness of their familial relationships. Yet to defy her parents’ wishes is emotionally difficult, her eventual decision to choose Jiang over them a minor revolution.

Meanwhile the lives of each of the brothers is overshadowed by debt both financial and moral in the continual horse trading of family life. Third brother Youjin (Sun Zhangjian) is a petty gambler in trouble with loansharks who eventually trash oldest brother Youfu’s (Qian Youfa) restaurant trying to get him to pay up, while second brother Youhong (Sun Zhangwei) and his wife are owed money from various parties but eventually come into some by making themselves homeless agreeing to sell their home to developers intending to cash buy a fancy apartment for their factory worker son and the bride which has been picked out for him. “We lived here for 30 years. It was demolished in three days” Youhong’s wife laments as the city is demolished and rebuilt all around them in preparation for the 2022 Asian Games. The promised new transport connections ironically emphasise how much they will add to the town by making it quicker and easier to go somewhere else but there is a genuine sense of poignancy in Gu’s slow panning motion through a derelict apartment across to the shiny new one about to be completed behind it. 

In one of the soon-to-be dismantled buildings, the youngest brother recovers a suitcase with a love letter inside it dated April 1989, a relic from another China though telling the same old story of young love thwarted by parental authority. Closest to her grandmother and third uncle Youjin who eventually reclaims her from the old person’s home where the other brothers had decided to send her while caring for his 19-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome, Guxi brands her family selfish and laments that they can’t get past all of these arcane rules and petty power games to love and support each other as a family should ironically taking grandma’s advice in refusing to perpetuate the cycle of resentment by marrying a man she doesn’t love just to please them. Gu films this unfolding tale with a series of breathtaking tracking shots along the river as if running one’s eyes over a scroll painting while giving in to the oneiric quality of the rolling mists that hang over this changing landscape. Apparently the first volume of a trilogy of films set along the Fuchun river, Gu’s minimalist epic is a poignant evocation of a hometown memory both transient and eternal.


Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Drifted in Life (流水无尽, Shen Lianlian, 2021)

“People leave eventually. We’ve spent enough on him” the wife of a man drifting between life and death eventually concedes in Shen Lianlian’s indie drama Drifted in Life (流水无尽, liúshuǐ wújìn). In the modern China it seems everything has a price, not least a human life, but more than that it has a debt which must be satisfied at all costs. This is something with which the disparate members of a small family beset by lingering tragedy are each faced as they try to negotiate new paths forward while bound by ancient loyalties and traditions. 

This is certainly true for Keyu whose parents weren’t even going to call him when his grandfather is left in critical condition after a bathhouse accident lest they disrupt his working life. According to the incredibly offhand and somewhat insensitive doctors Renkai’s case is hopeless, his spine is severed at such a point that he has lost connection with his lower body and almost certainly will not be able to breathe without a ventilator. The family start planning the funeral on the car ride home, but the grandmother finds it impossible to let her husband go insisting that they leave him in the hospital just in case a miracle may happen while the rest of the family do what they can to sort out the bills, the originally unsympathetic doctor eventually warming to them in their devotion and agreeing to use an expensive drug to alleviate Renkai’s symptoms while reminding the grandmother that he will not recover.  

Kebo, Keyu’s bother, becomes indignant and enraged taking it out on the owner of the bathhouse for his apparently lax safety standards only for him to justify himself that he’s only a “small business” an excuse that becomes a refrain justifying commercial entities’ exploitation of employees and avoidance of complying with regulations. Keyu too is worried about “restructuring” at his company, while his wife’s is constantly laying people off and she fears for her own job while dealing with a temperamental diva artist who accuses her of being a sellout only interested in making money out of him. Meanwhile he ends up crushed between two conflicting loyalties seeking to make use of his relationship with an important client tasked by both the company that he works for and a desperate childhood friend with a “small business” of his own. Both Keyu and his wife opt for a kind of escape, he by betraying his company to put his friend forward for the contract and she starting a side hustle with the artist that seems like it will end up being more trouble than it’s worth but each of them wind up betrayed by their own choices. 

And then there’s the bad example their working culture seems to have been setting for their small daughter Weiwei who takes her new managerial responsibilities too seriously when made a monitor at kindergarten apparently hitting another child while collecting homework. Kebo meanwhile is also filled with resentment plunging his family, including his pregnant girlfriend to whom he is not yet technically married it seems for financial reasons, into even more debt after getting arrested for attacking the bathhouse owner and facing a lengthy sentence while his father ironically does something similar by getting into an altercation with a neighbouring stall owner after deciding to resume his butchery business to help pay grandpa’s medical bills. The matter is only resolved thanks to a neighbour who has a connection in the local police pressuring the bath house owner to back down and agree to a settlement out of court. 

Grandpa’s life becomes accidentally commodified as the family tot up how much it’s costing them to keep him in the hospital, even grandma eventually conceding that he has very little quality of life while coming to terms with her grief almost as if she were satisfying herself that they’d done “enough” to fulfil their obligation to him at least in monetary terms. “What’s the point of living like that?” Weiwei had tried to ask her dad, wondering why they’re keeping her grandfather alive while he drifts between life and death unable to communicate though she might as well be taking about herself or anyone else caught between the contradictions of the modern China and looking for release from its purgatorial grip. 


Drifted in Life streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Great Happiness (极乐点, Wang Yiao, 2020)

Three young men find their paths to prosperity in the modern China abruptly severed in Wang Yiao’s ironically titled Great Happiness (极乐点, jílè diǎn). Great happiness is to them an ever elusive concept overburdened as they are as children of the One Child Policy caught in the midst of the rapid changes which transformed the nation into the capitalist powerhouse it is today. Each of them is in one way or another failed by that transformation, denied the sense of possibility they are continually promised while repeatedly exploited by a society in which everything really is about money. 

Childhood friends Wang, Sui, and Li are each trying to achieve independent success as “entrepreneurs” in the new society, but are also divided by their contradictory goals. For Li, a spoilt rich kid and ambitious fantasist, it’s not so much money that matters as the appearance of it. He buys BMWs on a whim, but has to run across town to ask his mother for money to invest in his “businesses” while it later transpires that his fiancée Xin with whose family he is in dispute over the financial arrangements of the marriage is actually paying their household bills. Unbeknownst to him his mother’s business is struggling, they’ve already sold the assets he was counting on to fund further business ventures, and while they’ll always support him his parents do not have the capability to bankroll his frequent failures. Needing everyone to see him as a big shot, he books a fancy hotel for the wedding despite Xin’s concerns, slapping down his credit card for the 50% deposit only to have it later declined when trying to pay for the ring. Hooked on another sure thing by dodgy friend Ma, he gets himself in trouble by making an unwise arrangement with a loanshark mortgaging something which might not strictly speaking be his. 

Architect Sui’s fiancée Lisa is wary of Li fearing he’s a bad influence and while she might be right Sui makes a few bad decisions of his own including taking a mistress when she travels to the UK to study abroad. Li is investing in his business which given the construction boom in the modern society ought to be a sure thing though Sui also has an artistic temperament and objects to the essential uniformity of the modern Chinese city. Li doesn’t get why he can’t just pull generic designs off the internet rather than coming up with his own while Sui isn’t convinced by his desire to invest in Wang’s burgeoning media business fearful that it will be just another boom and bust industry soon to be oversaturated by the similarly ambitious. 

Wang has been married four years but is yet to conceive a child much to his parents’ consternation. His burden is all the greater as a son of the One Child Policy meaning the responsibility for continuing the family name lies only with him as his grandfather continually points out. His parents who were once wealthy but lost everything in the late ‘90s industrial reforms are so concerned that they pledge all their savings to an IVF programme while granddad objects convinced that paternity cannot be guaranteed and like the factory boss Wang lies to in order curry favour believes they’d be better off with a shaman. Even in the modern society in which “superstition” is frowned upon such beliefs remain common, the factory boss obsessed with “wealth gods” and seeking to surround himself with men who have recently fathered children in order to increase his luck. 

As might be expected, the IVF programme is not entirely on the level, explaining to the family that they need to sign a confidentiality agreement because the treatment they offer is technically unlicensed. They don’t like to describe it as “illegal” because it’s more like the law just hasn’t been updated yet. Sui encounters something similar when his mother comes down with a mysterious illness that seems to be some kind of rare cancer potentially caused by the pesticides used to grow the apples which she had been fond of eating for the benefit of her health, poisoned by the modern industrial machine just like the polluted fish stocks Wang’s mother had been forcing her daughter-in-law to eat believing they’d help her conceive but may actually have been causing her infertility. The medicine Mrs Sui needs exists, but it’s prohibitively expensive and not covered by insurance leaving the family with little choice than to consider selling everything they own including the apartment purchased for Sui’s upcoming marriage. 

In the contemporary society a man’s worth is measured in square meters according to a jaded youngster but there is something of an economic hubris in the visions of these myriad, identical apartment blocks that no one can really afford to buy. While Li, the naive capitalist, and Sui the flawed intellectual whose disappointed father runs a moribund ping pong school in an old temple almost an embodiment of the ghosts of China’s past, Wang (who shares his first name with the city in which he lives) may actually come out on top flashing his hidden capitalistic fangs in his unexpected ruthlessness while simultaneously under increasing family pressure to have a second child now that the One Child Policy has become a Two Child Policy. “Everything he had was borrowed” the friends lament of Li having learned something of the truth he tried so hard to hide. “Who was he trying to impress?” perhaps missing the point in this ordinary tragedy of the modern China. 


Great Happiness streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Wind (随风飘散, Dadren Wanggyal, 2020)

“Who made these rules?” an exasperated young woman asks, fed up with her constant stigmatisation for something that was in any case not her fault. Set in a small Tibetan village, Dadren Wanggyal’s Wind (随风飘散, suífēng piāosàn) takes aim at entrenched misogyny while suggesting that the traditional patriarchal social codes by which the village operates have caused nothing but misery not only for women but for their men too who all too often turn to drink and violence in order to escape their own sense of imprisonment. 

Only the wise old grandmother seems to know better. She is the only one to show kindness to Samdan (Sonam Wangmo), a young woman she discovers in her barn who has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Seven years later, Samdan and her daughter live in a small home on the outskirts of the village but are regarded as social pariahs shunned by the local women and often described as filthy witches in part because Samdan has had to resort to offering sexual favours to local men in exchange for food and assistance. Meanwhile, the old lady continues to support them sending her son Gonbo (Genden Phuntsok) to supply the pair with meat yet Gonbo is careful never to venture inside while his wife, Urgyen Tso (Wondrok Tso), remains intensely disapproving. Gonbo soon has a son, Tsering, who is sickly leading Urgyen Tso to blame Samdan and her daughter Gelak (Tsering Drolma) for his poor health. Seven years on from that, Samdan’s 14-year-old daughter becomes a surrogate sister to Gonbo’s son who is bullied by the other children because he is small and weak but is constantly misunderstood by the judgemental village society.

Both Gelak and Tsering are in various ways made to pay for their parents’ transgressions. It isn’t Gelak’s fault that she was born to a mother who was not married, though she is the one called “witch” and seemingly blamed for anything that might go wrong throughout the local area. Neither is it her fault that her mother has little other option than accept gifts from lecherous men in order to support them both in the absence of a husband in this wickedly patriarchal society. Tsering meanwhile becomes the victim of his mother’s unhappy marriage, knowing that Gonbo has someone else in his heart that he was forced to give up because a marriage was already arranged for him. It is really his moral cowardice which has led to all the subsequent problems in that he should not have begun a relationship he was not prepared to fight for nor agreed to marry another woman out of a sense of obligation and then gone on to resent her for it. For these reasons, Urgyen Tso has become a jealous woman and most of all for her sickly son while seemingly unaware of how he is treated by the other boys in the village. Gelak is the only one who stands up for him, stepping in to challenge the bullies and later carrying him home when he is seriously injured by one of their pranks yet is constantly blamed for making him ill despite Tsering’s assertions that she is not responsible and in fact helped him.   

In any case, it’s this sense of rejection and futility that eventually push Gelak towards a desire to take charge of her own destiny. The wise old lady had told her that her only option was to find a husband to care for herself and her mother, yet Gelak has had enough of unreliable men and chooses an opposing path. Using the loom the old lady had given her, she resolves to earn a living for herself ordering her mother never to accept a gift from any of the local men ever again while taking on all of the duties the man of the household would usually perform. That would include taking part in the ritual at the Holy Mountain on behalf of her family, somewhere that a woman would ordinarily not be allowed to go. Breaking with tradition she takes the men to task, asking who exactly made these rules and why while challenging the village’s essential misogyny to claim her full autonomy and right to head her own household in the absence of a man. 

Chastened they do not stop her, though as for what happens after that the answer may not be so easy. Interestingly enough, the protagonist of the story on which the film was based, The Bastard Child Gelak, was a boy, yet Gelak’s determination to claim her right to equality and liberate her mother from years of stigmatisation presents an existential challenge to the outdated social codes of the village in which women are forced to bear the brunt of male failure without recourse or remedy. Elegantly lensed amid the dramatic scenery of a Tibetan mountain village, Dadren Wanggyal’s impassioned drama paints an animated portrait of contemporary Tibetan life while arguing passionately for long-awaited social change. 


Wind streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chang’e (常娥, Shen Lianlian, 2021)

A middle-aged woman’s stultifying life in rural China is momentarily enlivened by the arrival of a man who organises ceremonies for the dead in Shen Lianlian’s naturalist drama, Chang’e (常娥, Cháng é). Named for the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology, Shen’s film finds its embittered heroine lonely and resentful while also consumed with guilt over her desire to feel something more only to have her hopes of a new life dashed and like the goddess find herself alone as if marooned on a distant planet. 

Shen opens the scene with the noisy clanging of the factory where 55-year-old Xiaoxiang (Wang Xiaoxiang) works, its repetitive rhythms marking out her life with dull futility. Foul mouthed and angry, she snaps at those around her not least her 30-year old bachelor son who shows no desire to get married while repeatedly reminding her that there’s nothing he can do but wait until a new apartment he wants to buy becomes available for sale. Meanwhile they discuss the death of a neighbour living in very similar circumstances to Xiaoxiang who is later revealed to have taken her own life. 

This ominous event, however, presents new possibilities to Xiaoxiang who takes a liking to the mysterious middle-aged man who arrives to help them conduct the local death rites despite having previously criticised her neighbours for being unable to carry them out themselves. Because of a lack of available accommodation, Xiaoxiang ends up hosting him in her apartment and enjoying a sense of domesticity long absent from her life as her husband works away and rarely returns home. It’s at this point that she begins having bad dreams finding herself trapped in a rising bucket while the machine hammers behind her or walking around a market where the chicken’s feet remind her of human hands and she notices an embroidered shoe floating in the water. 

Like the goddess Chang’e, Xiaoxiang has a pet rabbit she keeps in a cage with whom she closely identifies unable to escape the prison of her own existence yet her eventual parting with the creature is less liberation than resignation or even a kind of suicide. Meanwhile she watches a rocket, Chang’e 5, launch for the moon while seated firmly on her sofa. The mysterious man’s arrival may raise the sense of possibility, of a new more emotionally fulfilling life, but he is also of course a spectre of death hovering on the horizon. Along with the paper houses constructed for the ceremony, Xiaoxiang passes fires in front of graves confronting her with the ever present threat of mortality. She is told that the cause of her nightmares lies in having offended the dead for whom she must burn more sacrifices yet nothing seems to cure her anxiety or loneliness. 

In a sense Xiaoxiang is performing her own death rites while coming to an accommodation with the idea that her life will have no more changes, as certain and repetitive as the machine which she operates. Shen captures the crushing disappointment of her small-town existence where even small pleasures such as buying a new coat are guilt-inducing luxuries with an unforgiving naturalism. Xiaoxiang gossips with a colleague suspecting that one of the other workers is being harassed by their boss but otherwise does nothing, her friend reminding her she no longer needs to worry about things like that as she is “not as pretty” as the unfortunate young woman. Using a cast of non-professional actors, the lead actress is indeed a factory worker from the director’s hometown, Shen lends an air of futility to the lives of women like Xiaoxiang while likening her to the distant and melancholy figure of Chang’e who finds herself alone, marooned on a lonely planet solely for her transgressive desires for emotional fulfilment in a life of stultifying productivity. 


Chang’e streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Love Conquers All (爱情征服一切, Tan Chui Mui, 2006)

“Girls are mostly stupid” extols the dubious romantic lead of Tan Chui Mui’s debut feature, “they think their love can conquer all”. Ironically titled Love Conquers All (爱情征服一切, àiqíngzhēngfúyīqiè), Tan’s ‘90s drama wonders how true that might be or if in a sense love can at least triumph over reality as we watch the naive heroine falling wilfully or otherwise into a dangerous web of abuse and exploitation while torn between the innocent romance of a hometown boyfriend and the confusing compromises of seedy urbanity. 

Innocent country girl Ping (Coral Ong Li Whei) travels from her home in Penang to work in a relative’s restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. While using a pay phone to keep in touch with her family, she comes to the attention of John (Stephen Chua), a somewhat rough local man who quickly begins stalking her bizarrely enough with the offer of a bunch of bananas to which Ping claims to be allergic. Nevertheless, lonely in her new life in the city rooming with her employer’s young daughter Mei, she eventually gives in and begins a relationship with him. While they’re at a hawker stand one evening, he introducers her to his friend, Gary, whom he claims is a pimp. Gary’s modus operandi is to pick up a new girl every three months, make her his girlfriend and then disappear sending a friend to say he’s in trouble with some shady types and needs money fast. Unable to pay, the young woman is drawn into sex work which Gary forces her to continue on his return before selling her off to people traffickers and starting the process over again. 

Ping seems fairly horrified by John’s story, but inevitably experiences something similar herself as John expresses fear for his future given the precarity of his underworld life, turns up with bruises, and then disappears sending Gary to tell her he needs money fast. She knows what’s happening but goes along with it anyway, perhaps out of a sense of fatalism or as John has suggested because she gives in to the romantic fallacy that her love can save him though he only means to use and discard her. Or perhaps, who knows, it is just a coincidence and he really does love her after all. A minor moment of potential exploitation mirroring their earliest date in which she suggests buying him a jacket but he prefers a different, possibly more expensive one, may imply something different. 

In any case, Ping’s view of romance may be overly idealised informed by the brand of TV drama so cheesy that little Mei and her mum can’t help giggling as they watch. Mei too is in the middle of an innocent romance with a penpal who calls himself only the “Mysterious Man” which is on one level worrying even if her explanation that he usually talks about stuff at school implies they may be of a similar age and she may even know him. At different stages, both Ping and Mei are seen drinking at the cafe staring into space thinking of their respective romantic interests though Ping’s situation is obviously not quite so innocent. On a fairly coercive date in which he idly raises the idea of marriage and children, John drags her to the beach and posits an ideal family life in small house like that of his aunt to whom he introduces her as his wife but may or may not actually mean to provide her. 

“You have no choice unless you jump” John uncomfortably repeats as he completes his romantic conquest even as Ping continues to call her hometown boyfriend on the phone telling him she loves him even in front of a mildly jealous John. Perhaps their romance is to her a kind of fantasy of romantic sacrifice set in contrast with the more prosaic sacrifice she has made to leave her family and travel to the city. While working in the cafe she’s approached by another creepy guy only a little older than John but just as persistent and taking much the same approach insistently asking for her name though she eventually manages to brush him off. Yet the question remains, is Ping merely a romantic fool, “stupid” as John had said, or a young woman attempting to take control of her romantic destiny as perhaps Mei is doing when she asks her mother to drive her to her pen pal’s address so she can figure out what he looks like? Shot digitally in a retro 4:3, Tan’s debut feature is replete with zeitgeisty detail of Kuala Lumpur in the ‘90s and filled with the lacuna of nostalgia, but offers no real answers for the duplicitous nature of love. 


Love Conquers All streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

One Summer (一个夏天, Yang Yishu, 2015)

“It makes no difference having a husband or not” a friend of the heroine in Yang Yishu’s One Summer (一个夏天, yī gè xiàtiān) laments, yet Zhen is determined to retreive hers or at least find out why he seems to have been swallowed whole by the contemporary society. Trying her best to live a “normal” life or at least give the semblance of one to her daughter she searches for answers but becomes increasingly disillusioned with every step closer to her husband’s salvation. 

Zhen’s otherwise ordinary and comfortable life is disrupted by a doorbell in the middle of the night. Insistent, the bell rings continuously forcing Zhen’s husband Xiaoping to investigate. The ringers turn out to be policemen who make a less than polite request for Xiaoping to accompany them to the station not even allowing him time to say goodbye to his wife or explain what’s going on. The knock at the door is a hallmark of authoritarianism and it’s this cold and austere regime which Zhen finds herself battling. She has no idea why her husband has been taken or to where or for how long. No one can tell her anything either, she’s left entirely alone and in the midst of her confusion must try to balance caring for her young daughter with the increased financial demands of becoming a single mother temporarily or otherwise. 

The neighbourhood woman she asks to watch her little girl explains that she can’t help because the house she paid for in the country for her in-laws to live in is going to be knocked down and she needs to go back there to make a fuss and pay some bribes to make the best of a bad situation. Meanwhile, a third party at the lawyer’s office where Zhen goes for help mutters about bribing the judge and she’s later tricked into giving a large sum of money to gangsters on the advice of someone who said they knew how to help Xiaoping. 

Chasing the police, she’s denied any sort of information before someone more senior tells her that she’s got the wrong station so they can’t help her anyway and in any case suspects are apparently prevented from seeing their families so there’d be no point in finding him. Later she’s told that she might not be able to see Xiaoping until either the case is dropped or he’s been sentenced which might take “several years”. After exhausting the legal routes she tries asking around their old friends to see if anyone knows anything she doesn’t and discovers that some of them have moved abroad or died in mysterious circumstances. Uni friend Lu now a lawyer and continuing to carry a torch for her agrees to help but also remarks on how she’s changed from the bright and cheerful actress he once knew now a wife and mother assigned to an archive where she subversively helps a young woman research a documentary on a persecuted scholar. 

Eventually she discovers that Xiaoping has been hauled in on possibly spurious charges relating to some potentially dodgy dealings at his NGO, accused of illegal fund-raising, tax evasion, and for some reason bigamy which you think would alarm Zhen but it doesn’t seem to suggesting that she either has so much faith in Xiaoping that she refuses to accept it could be true or has decided that it isn’t relevant. On the other hand, the neighbourhood woman offers a few pointed words on experiencing domestic violence from her overbearing husband while her friend laments that hers is always away working so it’s almost as if she weren’t married at all almost implying that Zhen may as well give up her quest because men are unreliable and in some sense always absent even if not literally imprisoned by the state. 

And then just as abruptly as it began everything seems to have been “settled” as if it never happened in the first place. The police harassment, necessity of becoming acquainted with her husband’s business affairs, the stress and worry of trying to take care of her daughter and provide her with a stable home, along with the need to run round her old friends begging for help most of them can’t offer all seemingly forgotten in the interests of a return to genial domesticity. Even so a sense of tension remains, the constant anxiety of living under an authoritarian regime in which a knock at the door may come at any time and you may never see your home again. 


One Summer streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Black Tide Coast (在黑潮汹涌的海岸, Wang Mingduan, 2020)

A lovelorn young woman travels the coast hoping to get a response from the sea in Wang Mingduan’s beguiling indie drama Black Tide Coast (在黑潮汹涌的海岸, zài hēicháo xiōngyǒng de hǎi’àn). A slice of slow cinema, the film finds its wandering heroine chasing the ghost of lost love while on an uncertain journey but eventually finding herself roped into a stage play short of an actress and befriending an equally lovelorn young woman on a similar yet stationery journey waiting for her love’s return. 

As the film opens in the summer of 2015 in Shandong, Qin is on a peaceful solo holiday during which she is supposed to meet up with a friend only he never shows up, all that’s left of him is a pair of glasses on the beach. Four years later she fetches up on the island of Hainan once again taking in the tourist sites but this time hanging out in a bar where they play classic movies from Taiwanese landmarks A Brighter Summer Day and The Boys from Fengkuei to the back catalogue of Eric Rohmer. After a while she is scouted to fill in for an actress who apparently has appendicitis in a surreal avant-garde play about a woman trapped in a strange place with a Squirrel who’s lost her pinecone, and a bear who doesn’t want to hibernate and leave her shadow behind. 

The tone is indeed Rohmeresque in its whimsy, Qin proceeding on her holiday in these very laid back places just generally hanging around in the sun. The Shandong trip is broken into several vignettes marked by title cards featuring the dates though Qin mainly does ordinary tourist things and later records her thoughts about the weather on her phone. She receives a phone call she doesn’t answer, but seems somehow lonely and a little lovelorn. Catching sight of happy couples in the streets seems to depress her, as does a romantic charm hanging by a shrine along with its pair which appears to be blank. 

It may be the possibility of blankness that frightens her even as it motivates her journey onwards as she eventually reveals travelling the coasts of China on foot looking for a sign from the sea. Meanwhile, she strikes up a friendship with Chen, the woman running the cafe, whose friend also deserted her four years previously only she has decided to stay put and is busy hosting a retrospective trying to screen all of the films he left written down in an unfinished notebook. Each of them seem to be in some way looking for a missing person, wondering if its possible to save a man lost at sea in the same way you can save a sunken boat while meditating on journey’s end and how you know when it’s time to leave a place in search of somewhere new. 

Qin herself describes her adventures on the island as like a dream in their absurdity, watching Classic French cinema in a beachside cafe and starring in a strange absurdist play. Wang’s trance-like transitions and oneiric mise-en-scène add to the dreamlike feel as does the poetic dialogue which leans towards the philosophical as the two women meditate on journeys, lost love, and incomplete quests while themselves searching to define their place in the world. In the end they have in a sense swapped places, Qin left behind or perhaps electing to pause her wandering while Chen decides to stop waiting handing the notebook to Qin as someone more familiar with its contents. Yet the closing coda may imply the two women have crossed paths before or that their fates are somehow linked while the closing poem seems to point towards their courage in continuing their respective journeys standing on the shore looking for a sign from the endless sea as if waiting for a letter from an absent friend. Dreamlike and ethereal, Wang’s delicate script offers no concrete narrative nor definitive message but perhaps suggests that the meaning lies in the journey itself and can only be discerned by those who are prepared to look. 


Black Tide Coast streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Being Mortal (来处是归途, Liu Ze, 2020)

A young woman finds herself haunted by a sense of erasure in Liu Ze’s moving family drama Being Mortal (来处是归途, lái chǔ shì guītú) adapted from the novel by Li Yanrong. As the title might suggest, the questions the heroine faces are those of mortality and of the realities of death and ageing in contemporary China as she struggles to decide what the best thing to do is when it comes to caring for her ageing parents. Highlighting both the social changes born of increasing modernity and the pressures of an ageing society, Liu’s drama has few answers but explores the strain caring for those who will not recover can place on those around them. 

At 30, Tian (Tang Xiaoran) makes the difficult decision to accept a job transfer and return to her hometown in order to help her mother, Wenxiu (Li Kunmian), care for her father, Jianguo (Zhang Hongjing), who has been suffering with dementia for the past few years. Though we do not hear much about her life in the city, it’s also true that part of the motivation for moving lies in her unsatisfying relationship with a married co-worker who refused to leave his family. A friend suggests that he may have been reluctant to make the move in part because of Tian’s responsibility to her father, viewing him as a burden he was unwilling to bear. At the wedding of a hometown friend, she rekindles a relationship with her high school boyfriend, Qin Mu (Shi Xiaofei), the two of them being the only ones among their classmates to have remained unmarried. But as both the romance and Jianguo’s illness progress, the need to care for him also places a strain on the couple’s relationship with constant confusion as to the shared responsibilities and uncertainty for the future. 

Tian does have an older sister, Hua (Wang Tan), who is already married and has a child of her own yet lives some distance away and is able to help only financially though her money is often refused. Feeling guilty and seeing the toll caring for Jianguo is taking on her mother and sister, Hua suggests that it might be time to consider a nursing home or else a professional carer but Wenxiu and Tian are reluctant believing they’d be abandoning him or failing in their responsibility of care. Even so the rapid progression of his dementia which intensifies when he is hospitalised with pneumonia places an increasing strain on the two women, Wenxiu at one point snapping and shouting at Jianguo after he has soiled himself. As the women argue, Qin Mu finds himself trying to clean the old man up only to be shooed away by a regretful Wenxiu after she’s pulled herself together and retreat to the bathroom where Tian can hear him retching. This momentary crisis brings the couple’s relationship to a crunch point, Tian telling Qin Mu he can leave and he doing so without much of a protest. 

Much of the drama revolves around the effects of Jianguo’s illness on those around him, but he often has heartbreaking moments of lucidity sobbing in terror and frustration the first time he wets himself as his wife and daughter even in their own shock and confusion do their best to help him. “I’m completely worthless” he later cries, returning a pained gaze and muttering “I’m sorry” before trying to stab himself in the neck after hearing Wenxiu snap “stop tormenting me” in a moment of frustration. Meanwhile he keeps saying that he wants to go home, back where they lived years ago haunted by the figure of a small boy reminding him of the son they lost to illness in childhood. 

Tian is perhaps lucky in that despite the One Child Policy, she does have a sister and is not entirely alone even in the spectre of her impending orphanhood no matter how her relationship with the similarly burdened Qin Mu may turn out as he contends with his hardline former soldier father pent up with his own sense of embittered resentment. Nevertheless, Liu captures a sense of the despair among women like Tian facing a series of dilemmas in considering the best way to care for her parents as they age while also worrying for her own future in a sometimes uncertain society. Though essentially low key and naturalistic determined to present a sense of everyday ordinariness Liu’s sweeping transitions between moments in time along with flights into Chinese opera and the occasional dream sequence lend a note of poignancy to the familial tragedy at the film’s centre. 


Being Mortal streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

River of Salvation (一江春水, Gao Qisheng, 2020)

“But life’s supposed to be good, isn’t it?” the heroine of Gao Qisheng’s indie drama River of Salvation (一江春水, yī jiāng chūn shuǐ) asks an old lady who has just explained that she’s considered taking her own life because of its inescapable misery. The film’s title may in its way be ironic in that there’s no real sign of salvation for anyone in this quiet backwater of rural China where as we discover no one is quite who they say they are. 

The hopelessness of 32-year-old Rong’s (Li Yanxi) existence is emphasised in the opening scenes in which she gets dressed up and heads to the port to pick up her fiancé’s mother only to be told that she won’t consent to the marriage partly because her intended’s first wife was a refined, elegant woman of much higher status while her son, Sanqiang (Chen Chuankai), is rough and boorish. Rong walks home feeling humiliated but also as if a last shot at happiness has been taken away from her. Sanqiang is also her boss at the moribund massage parlour (seemingly legitimate and offering only foot massages) where she works which is itself in the midst of financial difficulty. Meanwhile, she’s also the sole carer for her 18-year-old younger brother, Dong (Zhu Kangli), who spends most of his time playing video games and hanging out with his delinquent girlfriend, Jing (Yang Peiqi). 

As dull as her life seems, we can also see that Rong has a degree of anxiety and may be attempting to hide something about her past. She seems unusually cagey when her friend and workplace colleague Jinhua (Liu Jun) tries to invite her to a recently opened dumpling shop while almost always wearing a face mask claiming to be allergic to UV light. When the police are called due to a workplace altercation, she finds herself hiding in the basement obviously not wishing to encounter them. Yet as she discovers pretty much everyone in this small backwater town is hiding something or as Jinhua puts it is different on the inside. The guy on the front desk (Xi Kang) has been embezzling money to cover a gambling problem while even the lovely old lady (Huang Daosheng) with whom Rong bonds has not been entirely honest with her even while selling dreams of a better life. 

The central crisis is itself motivated by dishonesty in Jing’s claim that she is pregnant, later (perhaps falsely) stating that she made the whole thing up in order to test Dong shortly after reciting her own tearful monologue about the kind of life she wants but fears she can never have. The relationship between Jing and Dong encourages Rong to reflect on her own adolescence which contains more than a few troubling elements the film never sufficiently explores even while it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt over something which is later revealed to be a triviality. People ask her if she hasn’t thought of moving on, but she tells them that she doesn’t know how to do anything else essentially trapped in dead end small-town China where the only hope of escape seemingly lies in marrying a man with means. 

Making up her mind, Rong begins teaching Dong how to be independent in the light of her impending absence while he too steps into adulthood in finding his own direction and striking out in search of it. Having faced her past, Rong quite literally burns her mask perhaps hinting at a return to a more authentic self yet pushed into a strategic retreat released from the purgatorial limbo of her small-town life but left with no place to go. Shot in 4:3, Gao’s static camera lends an additional air of stagnation to Rong’s otherwise stultifying existence which is not itself unhappy except in its concurrent anxiety and pervasive sense of hopelessness. There may be no river of salvation, but Rong does at least begin to unpick the duplicities of the world around her in unmasking the various personas she encounters while digging out their hidden truths until finally deciding to face her own and gaining with it a kind of liberation if not perhaps one which engenders a great deal of hope for the future. 


River of Salvation screens in London at Picturehouse Finsbury Park, 17th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)