The latest film from Kei Ishikawa (Gukoroku: Traces of Sin, Arc), A Man stars Satoshi Tsumabuki as a lawyer who is pulled into a web of intrigue when a former client asks him to investigate her late husband who had been living under an assumed identity.
Inspired by the 1978 non-fiction book by Tsutomu Mizukami, The Zen Diary follows a mountain hermit (Kanji Sawada) living an ascetic life growing his own veg and foraging for mushrooms while continuing his writing career. His peaceful days are sometimes interrupted by the arrival of his editor (Takako Matsu) who turns up to collect his manuscripts and enjoy a good meal.
Drama following two women whose husbands a have each disappeared. No one has heard from Tomiko’s (Yuko Tanaka) husband in over 30 years, but she deflects the romantic interests of local fisherman Haruo continuing to wait for his return. Meanwhile, she meets a younger woman, Nami (Machiko Ono), whose husband went missing two years previously only for Tomiko to spot him in the street…
Director Juichiro Yamasaki will be in attendance for a Q&A
The lives of those living in a small mountain town in western Japan gradually intersect from a former Olympic Korean equestrian now working at a quarry to a young woman who begins holding silent protests at a crossroads much to the consternation of her widowed policeman father.
“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.
The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society.
So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.
As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room.
Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation.
Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.
A recently released young man is forced onto a nihilistic path of meaningless violence when his bank robber brother is killed in a hit and run in Eizo Sugawa’s moody post-war noir, Get ‘em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, ‘Minagoroshi no uta’ yori kenju yo saraba). Adapted from a novel from Japan’s hardboiled master Haruhiko Oyabu who also provided the source material for Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die, the film is as much about defeated aspiration and personal despair as it is about the corrupting influence of money and the futility of vengeance.
After waiting a year to divide the loot from a bank robbery, a random syndicate of crooks is shocked to discover that it has gone missing from its hiding place in an ancestral tomb belonging to one of their members along with a gun connected to the crime which is presumably being kept for insurance purposes. Everyone is convinced someone else has taken it with Tanabe (Tetsuro Tanba), the owner of the tomb, most particular about getting his hands on his share as quickly as possible and directing his suspicion towards the heist’s mastermind, Koromogawa (Akihiko Hirata).
Koromogawa is currently doing quite well for himself, having recently married and moved into a fancy new flat on a danchi. His brother Kyosuke (Hiroshi Mizuwara) has just been released from prison for an undisclosed juvenile crime and evidently has never met his sister-in-law Mamiko (Yukiko Shimazaki). Strangely buoyant and incredibly naive for someone who’s spent time inside, Kyosuke is determined to go straight and is intending to save money to buy a truck he can use to start his own business. He has no idea that his brother’s newfound wealth is down to robbing banks and is absolutely certain that he is a morally upright person who’d never have anything to do with criminality. When Koromogawa is killed in a hit and run after leaving to meet Tanabe, the suspicion is that he’s been murdered by one of the crooks in a dispute over the money though that would admittedly be quite a counterproductive move as if he really has taken it now that he’s dead no one knows where it is.
Kyosuke is shocked by Mamiko’s apparently indifference to her husband’s death, even going so far as openly flirt with him. After discovering a receipt for a coin locker in his brother’s wallet, he opens it and finds a pistol first planting the seeds of doubt in his mind about Koromogawa’s life and death. The gun, however, begins to take him over. After reuniting with old girlfriend Yuriko (Akemi Kita), Kyosuke was beaten up by her new squeeze but when he tries the same thing again and notices the pistol tucked into Kyosuke’s waistband he immediately backs down. With the gun in his hand, Kyosuke is able to completely humiliate him, forcing the man to crawl on the floor like a pig and drink dirty water from a puddle in the road. This new sense of ultimate power fuels his desire for revenge setting him on a killing spree starting with Tanabe in an effort to figure out what happened to his brother, an exercise often frustrated by his killing those concerned before turning up any real information.
Meanwhile, using the gun is also quite a stupid and naive thing to do as the police already have it on file from a shot that was fired during the robbery bringing the crime back into police consciousness and therefore making it impossible for any of the men to spend the money should they finally get their hands on it. Each has a different reason for wanting the loot, a clockmaker wanting to support a daughter left with disabilities after contracting polio, a former record producer realising that he’s aged out of his industry, a former boxer with a lame leg (Tatsuya Nakadai) dreaming of buying a small plot of land, and a couple of embezzlers looking for ways out along with in one case divorcing a wife to marry a bar hostess mistress. But then as in the last two cases and Koromogawa’s own it is perhaps the allure of rising consumerism that has already corrupted them. So much of the action revolves around big American cars, while we’re also told that the gun was one manufactured in Nazi Germany and was most likely bought or stolen from an American serviceman.
So drunk is Kyosuke on the power of the gun that he doesn’t really take stock of what he’s doing until it’s already too late, realising he’s become an accidental serial killer and no longer has a possibility of leading a normal life. He had begun to feel that way before, especially in the wake of his brother’s death, as he finds each of his job applications failing when prospective employers learn of his criminal past. He’s repaid his debt to society, but if society refuses to give him a second chance then realistically he has no other avenue than heading deeper into crime. Kyosuke liked it that the gun made people fear him but is confronted by the illusionary quality of its power when a child suddenly grabs it in the middle of a game of cops and robbers, pointing the gun at him believing it to be a toy while passers-by laugh at the amusing sight of this little boy holding a grownup hostage. It seemed to confuse Kyosuke that Yuriko had not been afraid of him even with the gun in his hand, but her sudden terror on realising that he has killed and may yet kill her only shows him what he’s become.
He wanted revenge for his brother’s death, but what if it really was just an accident? The gang begin to turn on each other after the money disappears, some believing Koromogawa took it for safekeeping to prevent them incriminating each other by spending it too early and others that he just took it for himself while each suspecting one another believing one of them is slowly killing the others to pocket the whole amount for themselves. But in the end it’s all for nothing, they couldn’t spend it anyway and several of them decide they’d rather not have the bother and are ready to live quiet lives in the country only it’s too late for that now. A final revelation confirming his brother’s criminality coupled with the betrayal of a friend’s well-meaning attempt to keep him in the dark lead only to an internecine confrontation with the futility of crime. With its noirish jazz score and photography reminiscent of contemporary American independent cinema Sugawa captures a sense of restless youth but also the latent desperation of those left languishing on the margins of an increasingly prosperous society.
“Chinese martial arts are unimpressive” sneers a Japanese soldier as a member of an aikido school which has just received permission to open in the martial arts homeland of Tianjin. Boasting surprisingly high production values in comparison with the average Chinese action movie streamer, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, huò yuán jiǎ zhī jīng wǔ tiānxià) once again sees a humble man stand up on behalf of all of China against an oppressive coloniser this time intent on fighting them on their own ground by beating the locals in a “fair” fight pitting Chinese boxing against Japanese martial arts.
Set at a complex historical moment, the film opens with the news that new regulations have taken hold at the Imperial University which will introduce Western learning to China but that many fear it’s a ruse to open the door to a Japanese invasion. That does seem to be the case in Tianjin which is soon occupied by unpleasant and duplicitous Japanese military officers who plan on opening a martial arts school of their own to rival those already in the town and eventually take it over. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Wu Shu association is about to step down and is holding a contest to find his successor. The burly Zhao quickly sees off all challengers until the arrival of mysterious stranger Huo Yuanjia (Dennis To Yu-hang) places his victory in jeopardy. Zhao plays a few underhanded moves, but an irritated Yuanjia essentially lets him win knowing his next blow may kill him. Zhao seems like the wrong person to lead the association now that it is threatened by the Japanese but eventually encourages Yuanjia to take a stand refusing to allow the proud traditions of Tianjin to be destroyed by the burgeoning Japanese empire who brand China the “sick man of Asia”.
Indeed, from the offset the Japanese are shown to be cruel and dishonourable despite the captain’s early words that they should play strategically in their quest to colonise China. Colonel Takeda is in someways much more even handed, openly reprimanding his men for acting in a way that reflects badly on the Japanese such as ordering the entire school to attack Yuanjia after he defeats aikido champ Anbei. But even Takeda is playing the long game, hoping that he can break the spirit of the Chinese by defeating them at martial arts leaving them so demoralised that they will give up on all thoughts of rebellion. Yuanjia is not however so easily beaten and neither is China as he very directly says to the japanese soldiers who try to shut him down. He frames his battle as one that will decide the course of the entire nation, that if he fails to stand up to the Japanese now then China will forever be oppressed by foreign powers though as he’s also fond of pointing out, he’s “just” a porter that the martial arts society didn’t even really want to accept before he showed them what he can do.
Nevertheless, he finds himself torn by the admittedly well-worn plot device of a nagging wife who doesn’t like him going off fighting and would much rather he stay at home even if it means all of China falls. Even she eventually comes round and gives him a precious amulet that becomes his saving grace. Chinese kung fu is he points out all about love and the desire to protect, whereas as according to Takeda Japanese martial arts are all about conquest and destruction. Yuanjia tells him that there’s no need to look for a winner or a loser in a contest of martial arts, and that in the end he cannot win because his philosophy is soulless and little more than meaningless violence while his is rooted in love and country. Martial arts is about applying peace, he explains, not bullying the weak (which seems like an odd concession in its characterisation of China as a defenceless victim only Yuanjia can save).
Running a tight 74 minutes, the film boasts a series of impressive fight sequences performed by genre star Dennis To along with a series of above average performances as the small band of Tianjin martial artists attempt to preserve their traditions while taking a stand against foreign incursion which might in is own way have a few uncomfortable implications in its nationalistic dimensions. Nevertheless, it boasts surprisingly good production values for a straight to streaming movie and largely manages to sell its admittedly familiar tale with considerable panache.
The Grandmaster of Kung Fu is released in the US on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 31 courtesy of Well Go USA.
The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important.
Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other.
A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community.
This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change.
Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her.
The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times.
The Japan Academy Film Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars awarded by the Nippon Academy-Sho Association of industry professionals, has announced the candidate list for its 46th edition which honours films released Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2022 that played in a Tokyo cinema at least three times a day for more than two weeks. This year’s favourite is Kei Ishikawa’s A Man which picks up 13 nominations across 12 categories, while there is also a strong showing for Ryuichi Hiroki’s Phases of the Moon and big budget tokusatsuShin Ultraman. The awards ceremony hosted by last year’s Best Actress winner Kasumi Arimura and TV presenter Shinichi Hatori will take place at Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa International Convention Center Pamir on 10th March.
A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.
All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own.
His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.
Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area.
When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.
Back in what now seems like another world, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth became a Lunar New Year box office smash and was described by some as China’s first foray into big budget sci-fi. Adapted from a novel by Liu Cixin, the film was much about fathers and sons as it was about sacrifice and solidarity in the face of oncoming apocalypse all of which are quite traditional New Year themes. Arriving four years later, The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, liúlàng dìqiú 2) largely drops overt references to the Spring festival bar the repeated motif of journeying home, but does once again stress the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding the future of the planet.
Then again, it seems that many feel it’s not a good use of time or resources to address a problem that will occur in a hundred years when they are long dead. A prequel to the first film, Wandering Earth II begins in the early days of the Moving Mountain Project which is the plan to push the Earth onto a different orbit to escape the sun’s eventual implosion. Given its enormous expense and the reality that much of the population will simply be left to die, the majority of the public back the rival Digital Life program in which humanity would be saved by relocating to a new virtual reality. Where this virtual reality is supposed to be stored is not exactly clear if there is no Earth for it to exist on, but it’s clear that some consider the possibilities of the digital existence preferable to allowing millions to die in the tsunamis which will engulf the Earth as it uncouples from the moon’s gravitational pull.
Chief among them is software engineer Tu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) who is griefstricken by the loss of his wife and child in a traffic accident and has been secretly working on creating a fully fledged AI simulacrum of his daughter Yaya. He tells his more practically minded colleague Ma (Ning Li) that he doesn’t have the right to define what is “real” while eventually jeopardising the Moving Mountain Project by prioritising his desire to save Yaya over saving the Earth and eventually creating the AI system that will become Moss, a possibly dangerous entity which decides the best way to save humanity is to destroy mankind.
The first film’s hero, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), meanwhile is a rookie astronaut caught up in a terrorist incident carried out by militant opponents of the Moving Mountain project while enjoying an incongruously goofy courtship with fellow astronaut and future wife, Duoduo (Wang Zhi). This time around, he’s a dutiful son rather than conflicted father serving alongside his own dad who eventually becomes an example of intergenerational sacrifice as the old begin to make way for the young whose responsibility it now is to preserve the Earth. A nervous young aid serving the current premier later takes over the reigns and finds herself giving the same advice to a similarly nervous young man as they prepare to carry on the Wandering Earth project despite knowing that it will take thousands of years to complete.
The ultimate message is therefore to choose hope, as Peiqiang later does striving to save the world even if it all turns out to be hopeless, rather than giving up and resigning oneself to one’s fate as many suggest doing when faced with the potential failure of their mission. As in the first film, the plan requires cooperation between nations and this time even more so as world powers must surrender their nuclear weapons to help blow up the moon. The Chinese premier looks forward to a day when governments can work on solving future problems rather than preparing for war, but then in an echo of the ongoing climate crisis some just don’t seem to see the point in dealing with something that won’t happen for a hundred years despite likely being among the first to complain no one did anything sooner when it finally affects them. Gwo adds a little whimsy in the technically pre-apocalypse setting with charming details such as Tu’s warm relationship with his dog-like robot helper and the general goofiness of Peiqiang’s attempt to court Duoduo while improving on the already polished visuals of the first film through several high impact set pieces but finally returns to its messages of hope and solidarity perhaps intended for a weary world attempting to find its own way out of a period of protracted strife.
The Wandering Earth II is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.
International trailer (English voice over, Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)
Onlookers is a strange word. It implies passivity, if also perhaps indifference, but nevertheless invites a question. Who exactly is looking at what or is the onlooker themselves also a spectacle of attention? The opening shots of Kimi Takesue’s Laotian documentary find a row of people waiting by the side of a road. A young man stares intently at his phone, as does an older woman two stools over, while an old lady’s eyes idly flicker as she watches the passing traffic. Another woman sits further away with a dog, facing an entirely different direction.
Of course, we are also onlookers, watching the old lady as she watches if not exactly us then perhaps our ghost as manifested in the camera. In a sense the landscape is also onlooker, a passive presence often strangely forgotten by the tourists who pass through the frames throughout the rest of the film. In the early scenes, more local sightseers can be seen visiting temples and other landmarks, like others paying more attention to getting the perfect photographs rather than immersing themselves in the experience of actually being there.
The temples seem to loom over them, onlookers too, passively observing their conduct which is not always respectful. “Don’t smoke weed here” a large sign pleads in English while large groups of tourists congregate at a swimming hole. In an elegantly composed shot of the mountains, most of the tourists are facing the wrong direction, quite literally bending over backwards to get the perfect selfie while otherwise oblivious to the beauty all around them. In a small waiting area near a shop offering tube swimming tours, the TV seems to be tuned in to ancient episodes of Friends while potential customers haggle with the driver leaving the young boy who accompanies him to wander out into the road.
Even religious practice seems to have become a tourist attraction, gaggles of sightseers crowding round a small hut where monks ring bells, taking turns banging gongs themselves. Takesue contrasts these acts of accidental voyeurism with the local people simply trying to go about their business, a row of women again siting on the roadway though this time to offer alms to a seemingly endless parade of monks in a near eternal loop. Much of the local economy does seem to revolve around the tourist trade, the monk’s parade also attracting is share of onlookers, while a woman washes a dog in the street and others try to get on with selling their goods before Takesue abruptly switches to scenes of schoolchildren on scooters or filling plastic water bottles from the river.
Then again, perhaps the real onlookers are the bemused cows fighting over tufts of grass as they wander onto temple grounds. The tourist trade may also be having a negative effect on the local environment, drowning out the sounds of the nature and disrupting the natural tranquility of the area while the tourists often appear indifferent to the world around them as if it were a mere playground and the people themselves little more than onlookers observing them from the outside. Occasionally Takesue cuts to scenes of nature without any people in them, bathing in the natural beauty of the landscape unsullied by human intervention as if to remind us of the various ways in which consumerism eats away at the world in which we live if also hinting at our own desire, as onlookers, to paint these scenes with a kind of pastoral innocence coupled with an otherwise uncomfortable exoticism.
The film ends as it began, with another roadway only this time empty save for a dog who turns around to look towards the departed people before a second dog enters the frame and barks at the camera as he passes through as if to ask where everyone’s going or perhaps what they were doing here in the first place. A gentle meditation on the nature of “travel” and the disruptive qualities of “tourism”, Takesue’s elegantly lensed images seem to argue for a more active reflection on the world and our place within it rather than remaining a perpetual onlooker observing without thought or feeling.
Onlookers had its world premiere as part of Slamdance 2023.
An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are.
At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point.
Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl.
These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself.
Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.