Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗, AKA The Legend of the Swordsman, Tony Ching Siu-tung, 1992)

Swordsman II still 1In a world filled with chaos, is the answer to all life’s problems retreat or attack? After the unexpected success of Swordsman which survived the withdrawal of legendary director King Hu to go on to be a box office hit, a sequel was quickly set in motion to be directed by action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung. Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗) would be the second in a trilogy inspired by Louis Cha’s novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer and largely dispenses with the cast of the original film for a virtual reboot led by action star Jet Li and actress Brigitte Lin as an extraordinarily sympathetic villain.

Picking up soon after the end of the first film, Ling (Jet Li) and his female comrade nicknamed “Kiddo” (Michelle Reis) are on the run with the intention of retiring from the world of martial arts to live simply among honest people. However, they are about to ride straight into the heart of conflict. At this particular point in history, the “Highlanders” feel themselves oppressed by the ruling “Mainlanders” and would be set on rebellion if they weren’t so busy fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a number of Japanese troops are also holing up in China to wait out political strife in Japan. “Invincible” Dawn (Brigitte Lin), a Highlander, appears to have gotten a hand on the first film’s MacGuffin – the “Sacred Volume” which holds the key to untold martial arts power. Teaming up with the displaced Japanese, Dawn plans to use the powers of the Sacred Volume to dominate the Highlanders and then eventually take over the entire nation.

Dawn happens to be the uncle of a woman, Ying (Rosamund Kwan), with whom Ling began something like a romance back in the first film. Ying’s father, Wu (Lau Shun), the chief of Highlander tribe Sun Moon Sect, has gone missing – presumed taken prisoner by Dawn as a prelude to seizing power. Despite his desire to escape the duplicitous world of martial arts, Ling finds himself on a quest to save Ying’s father and with it the Sun Moon Sect if not the entire nation from the tyrant that Dawn seems primed to become.

Ling, as heroes go, is very much of the wine, women, and song, school. Indeed, he’s not much for anything without a good cup of booze – something that provokes an instant connection with the unusual figure of Dawn when he spots her bathing in a local pool and she offers him some of her upscale alcohol in a pretty bottle. The powers of the Sacred Volume come with a price – in order to embrace them, Dawn must transform herself into a woman (or in the less poetic rendering of the text, simply cut off her penis). Dawn’s transformation is a gradual process and she continues to play her male role as the head her clan, even parading her mistress in front of her captives in a noticeably salacious manner. However, Dawn is also caught off guard by an unexpected attraction to the cheerfully tipsy Ling and the transformation seems to accelerate – she begins wearing makeup, her voice changes into a more feminine register, and her sexual relationship with her mistress appears to be definitively over.

Meanwhile, Ling is fighting a romantic war on three fronts – he’s captivated by the mysterious woman who avoided speaking to him never knowing she is really his enemy, but is still half in love with Ying, and the subject of Kiddo’s unrequited crush. While Dawn wrestles with a deeper transformation, Kiddo is also trying to process her place as a woman among men in attempting to shed her tomboyish image by styling her hair in more classically female fashions and wearing makeup – something which can’t help but arouse mild hilarity among her comrades who collectively think of her as a tough little sister. Trying to explain her new persona to her mistress, Dawn insists that she will never forget her and that essentially nothing has changed, while the guys partially mock Kiddo’s new desire to embrace her femininity by avowing that male/female/non-binary gender is an irrelevance. Even so, on realising Dawn is the person he’d been looking for and was once Ying’s uncle, Ling’s parting questions are all about whether he might have accidentally slept with a man which he seems to find embarrassing. Nevertheless, it’s “femininity” which finally does for Dawn as she finds herself weakened by love and eventually pushed towards a “heroic” act of romantic sacrifice.

Having defeated one tyrant, Ling finds himself threatened by another as Wu’s maniacal need for revenge provokes a wide scale purge of those who had “betrayed” him. Ling’s desire to remove himself from this world of betrayals, violence, and complex moralities seems ever more understandable but cannot be his answer even as he finds himself unwillingly exiled. If you turn your back on trouble, it will eventually engulf you and everything you love – as will a failure to resist a trusted ally’s descent into darkness. Strangely affecting in its hero/villain symmetries and air of tragic romance, Swordsman II’s beautifully choreographed action sequences are only surpassed by its fierce commitment to fantasy.


Swordsman II was screened as part of An Evening with Tony Ching Siu-tung presented by the Chinese Visual Festival.

Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Park Kwang-su, 1990)

Black Republic still 1In the Korea of 1990, a revolution had been fought, won, and then betrayed by its people. Successfully petitioning for democracy, the newly minted Korean electorate went ahead and voted for the chosen successor of the dictator they’d just spent so long trying to oust. Change comes slow, but it comes even if not quite the way you wanted it. Park Kwang-su’s first film Chilsu and Mansu, released in 1988 and set in the contemporary Seoul running to catch up to its Olympic aspirations, had made its own quiet protest about a hypocritical society’s rising social inequality. His follow up, Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Keduldo Urichurum), takes a journey back in time while keeping one foot in the present to show us a nation engulfed by a darkness that crushes love, dreams, and possibility all while dangling the shining hope of a better future that seems impossibly far away.

Tae-hun (Moon Sung-keun), a student protestor wanted by the police, heads into the mountains under an assumed name hoping to get a job in a mine. However, this is a period of intense economic volatility and the mining industry is collapsing. When his attempts to find work as a miner fail, Tae-hun (going under the name Gi-yeong) overhears a conversation in a cafe and manages to get a job in a local briquette factory.

Park opens in darkness as Tae-hun makes a phone call to his mother in which he never speaks and she reassures him that everything will be OK while the sound of a train gradually gathers in the background. When Tae-hun arrives at his destination, he finds himself in a barren, blackened land where everything is quite literally falling apart. The mines are closing and the landscape, desolate as it is, is peppered with derelict buildings and the modest, makeshift homes of the rural poor at the constant mercy of their greedy masters. As a newcomer, Tae-hun is not privy to the town’s secrets, but quickly comes to understand that though he may have escaped Seoul, the struggle is inescapable, because the struggle is Korea. The owner of the briquette factory is also some kind of loanshark involved in a suspiciously close arrangement with the local mine owner who is in the middle of a labour dispute with the miners who are petitioning for fair pay and better conditions. Haunted by the memories of his protest days, Tae-hun finds himself looking on at another candlelight procession calling for workers rights but rendered impotent, forced to remain silent or risk attracting the attention of the police.

Meanwhile, Tae-hun’s silence sees him unwittingly pulled into the orbit of those he would usually oppose. Seong-cheol (Park Joong-hoon), the illegitimate son of the factory boss, takes his own sense of crushing impossibility out on the entire town. Technically the “vice-president” of the factory, Seong-cheol is a sometime enforcer for his father’s greedy loan sharking business and thinks nothing of striding in and helping himself to the petty cash to spend on women and booze while gazing at the photo of his long absent mother. An invitation to dine with Seong-cheol and pals brings Tae-hun into contact with melancholy sex worker Yeong-sook (Shim Hye-Jin) who begins to fall for him when he skips out on her after Seong-cheol has pulled one of his usual tricks in giving her away in an attempt to buy friendship through influence.

Like Tae-hun, Yeong-sook is also trapped, running, and living under an assumed identity. Through her exposure to Tae-hun who is, after all, so different from the other men in the mountains, she begins to rediscover a sense of hope and possibility. Yeong-sook quits the illegal part of her job as a “coffee girl” and deepens her bond with Tae-hun through nursing him after he is arrested and beaten by the police who seem to harbour an innate suspicion towards him despite little evidence, but their love will require another act of faith and flight and the world in which they live may not let them to escape.

Everyone here is trapped, lying to themselves or others, wishing things were different than they are but has long since given up the hope they ever could be. While Tae-hun attempts to ride out the storm by burying his head in the coal dust, feeling it fill his lungs, struggling to breathe, Seong-cheol opposes his order with chaos, laying waste to half the town in a self destructive venting of his rage and resentment towards his selfish, unfeeling father, and a society he feels has already rejected him. Impossibility and hopelessness are the defining qualities of this world of corruption and exploitation in which there can be no escape or salvation, only crushing futility. Park closes with an ironic coda of swapped fates and tragic promise which places Tae-hun right where he was when we first met him, defeated by hope but still in motion, if for an uncertain direction.


Black Republic was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Kamikaze Taxi (Masato Harada, 1995)

Kamikaze Taxi DVD coverAlmost 25 years later, Masato Harada’s post-bubble critique of a society failing to deal with its traumatic past feels oddly relevant. Xenophobia, misogyny, class oppression, and political corruption are far from unique problems but find fertile ground in a society in flux in which recent economic trauma has forced tensions to the fore. 1994 was a period of marked political chaos in which a corruption scandal had brought down a Prime Minister while the country debated electoral reform and attempted to deal with the ongoing recession, finding itself caught between the problems of past and future as the Showa era legacy continued to gnaw at the promise of Heisei.

Lowly goon Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi) has been charged with finding girls for corrupt politician Domon (Taketoshi Naito), but his world is turned inside out when Domon badly beats a prostitute leading his girlfriend Renko, a madam, to kick up a fuss which eventually gets her killed by sadistic mob boss Animaru (Mickey Curtis). Insensitively ordered to dispose of Renko’s body, Tatsuo’s resentment intensifies until he is shouldered with caring for the injured prostitute, Tama (Reiko Kataoka), who tells him that Domon keeps a large amount of cash hidden in his house. Seeing a chance to escape from the yakuza world whilst getting revenge on everyone involved in the death of Renko, Tatsuo enlists a few of his trusted guys and stages a heist. It goes badly wrong, leaving everyone except Tatsuo dead.

Meanwhile, on the run, Tatsuo gets a lift from Peruvian returnee Kantake (Koji Yakusho) now working as a taxi driver after being unable to find any other kind of work in the middle of a recession in a society not always welcoming of overseas workers. Although he was born in Japan and spent most of his childhood in the country, Kantake’s grasp of the language has become corrupted and he finds himself unable to communicate in his “homeland” despite being “Japanese”. Even without verbal communication, the two men bond and Kantake returns to collect Tatsuo despite becoming aware of his gangster past, forging a kind of brotherhood in their shared outsider status.

When Tatsuo is first introduced to Domon, the first thing he asks him is if he is “fully Japanese”. Domon “hopes” he is, but has his doubts because his name “sounds a bit Korean”. Harada opens the film with some on screen testimony from migrant workers in Japan, some of whom are, like Kantake, of Japanese birth if raised overseas but nevertheless find themselves regarded as foreigners – turned down for housing and employment, cast out from regular mainstream society. In the bubble era when it was all hands to the wheel, the migrant workers were an essential part of a well functioning economy, but now the bubble’s burst and they are no longer “needed” as construction dwindles and the demand for casual labour decreases, men like Domon begin to suggest simply sending them all “home”. 

A fierce nationalist, Domon is also a misogynist whose sexual proclivities run to extreme violence. Sadly, his views are not so far from the mainstream as might be hoped – the heartless yakuza think nothing of silencing Renko and then disappearing her body, while Tama’s assault is something bought and paid for. On TV, Domon appears on a panel discussing the comfort woman issue and unsurprisingly refuses to acknowledge it while the increasingly exasperated female contributor points out that the use of comfort women was not only a state sponsored crime but a crime against women which speaks volumes about current social attitudes. Domon insists that the Japanese women who “served” as prostitutes overseas were soldiers, while the “foreign” women were soulless money hungry mercenaries who deserved everything they got. In his view, all of today’s problems are down to “selfish” career women who should get back in their boxes as quickly as possible so everything can go back to “normal”.

The wartime legacy hangs uncomfortably over modern Japan as ultra nationalists like Domon harp on about their time in service, exploiting their fallen comrades for personal and political gains. Kantake too, it seems, has fought in a war and is the son of a former kamikaze pilot of the kind despised by men like Domon who themselves have continued to live even in defeat. Drugs and foreign wars link two eras and two continents, not to mention two men, as Kantake reflects on the true “kamikaze” spirit as seen in the beautiful flight of the Condor coasting on the winds above the Andes. It is indeed a gust of wind which saves him as he decides to fulfil Tatsuo’s quest for vengeance, remaining true to their brotherly bond and attempting to wipe the slate clean by eliminating the corrupting forces which deny each of them the right to live as full members of their society. Asked for his life story by a dying man, Kantake begins to speak but all too quickly is urged to “forget about Showa” – a partial plea for making peace with the past, getting rid of nationalism, the yakuza, the hierarchical and patriarchal society in favour of something kinder and more honest built out of its ashes.


Kamikaze Taxi screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 1st July at 6pm plus Q&A with director Masato Harada.

HD re-release trailer (no subtitles)

Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Jang Sun-woo, 1990)

The Lovers of Woomook-baemi posterJang Sun-woo, a former political activist and underground filmmaker, is best remembered for formal experimentation and pointed social commentary, but his third feature The Lovers of Woomook-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Umukbaemi Eui Sarang) stands out in his filmography in its fiercely naturalistic portrayal of working class life on the margins of a society in flux. Based on a novel by Park Yeong-han, The Lovers of Woomook-baemi is a classic melodrama with infidelity at its core but it’s also a story of futility, the destructive effects of patriarchal social codes and toxic masculinity, and the frustrated promises of a new era for those excluded from its various benefits.

Jang begins his tale in the middle as Bae Il-do (Park Joong-hoon), a frustrated husband, returns home late to a troubled “wife” (Yoo Hye-ri) who promptly kicks him out again. Complaining furiously, Il-do dreams of another woman, Gong-ryae (Choi Myung-gil), with whom he had a brief affair, idly thinking that he might have been happy if he hadn’t got his current partner pregnant and got himself stuck with her for life even if they aren’t technically “married” in the legal sense.

Moving backwards, we see Il-do, having failed in Seoul, returning to his home village with his common-law wife Sae-daek and infant child after an offer of work in a small seamstressing firm. The only man among a room full of mostly elderly women, Il-do is something of a novelty but is also taken by the woman on the machine next to him, Gong-ryae, who he later learns is also unhappily married and intensely lonely in her small town existence. After some initial indecision, the pair embark on an affair (still illegal at the time of the film’s release) but their prospects for future happiness seem slim given the restrictive quality of their lives.

The world that Jang depicts, for all its naturalistic flair, is intensely misogynistic. Il-do’s early recollections of Gong-ryae revolve around her bad marriage to an impotent man (Lee Dae-Geun) who mercilessly beats her – indeed, we later see her turning up for work after suspicion has arisen about her relationship with Il-do with a black eye and bruises on her face while the other women giggle over the obvious awkward gossip. Domestic violence is, however, just a part of life in the village and the older women in particular view it as a sign of a healthy marriage. One woman even exclaims that she wishes she had a man to beat her but thinks she’s unlikely to find anyone given her age and the fact that she already has numerous children.

Il-do, by contrast, proves somewhat popular among the ladies at the shop because of his relative lack of machismo. Like Gong-ryae, Il-do is also a victim of domestic violence – his wife beats, slaps, and attacks him verbally, later even dragging home home by the testicles along a very public walk of shame. He is not above violence or aggression but as in much of Jang’s work, male violence is a sign of weakness rather than strength and each of Il-do’s violent episodes is more to do with defeat and repressed emotion than it is about strength or conquest. This also seems to be true for Gong-ryae’s husband whose violence and jealously is perhaps a reaction to his impotence, but when we later meet him we find a man much like Il-do. Chastened, Gong-ryae’s husband politely asks the man who bedded his wife if he knows where she is and if he sees her to please tell Gong-ryae that he’s sorry and wants her to come home.

As he does with Gong-ryae’s husband, Jang plays with our sympathies and allegiances, switching perspective to reveal to us that villains and victims are often one and the same. Sae-daek originally seems like our villain – a shrewish, henpecking “wife” who won’t let our hero go despite the evident toxicity of the pair’s non-marriage, but seen from her point of view we understand her plight. After running away from a violent home environment she winds up a bar hostess in the city where she builds up a spiky relationship with Il-do which goes south when he gets her pregnant. Despite this being the age of illegal adultery, it’s not so much a marriage certificate that binds a man and a woman together for good or ill but a child. As a neighbour puts it, a woman might leave her husband, but what sort of woman leaves a child? Sae-deok cannot care for her child alone and she cannot abandon it with Il-do and so she must keep him no matter how much personal suffering she must endure as the common law wife of a no good philandering ne’er do well.

Il-do likes to drift off into philosophical reveries in which he idly remarks on the futility of his existence, but in a very real sense he’s not wrong. He tried life in the city but it didn’t want him and he came home. Sae-deok, oddly enough, likes it in the village with its sense of community especially among the other put upon and oppressed women who attempt to support each other (whilst accidentally supporting the mechanisms which continue to oppress them), but there’s no pretending there’s anything more to life in Woomuk-Baemi than work and drink. Il-do knows this, as does Gong-ryae, and it’s their mutual sense of existential ennui which finally forces them together in an impossible attempt to rebel against the futility of their existence through transgressive sex and an attempt at emotional connection.

In the end, Il-do is dragged (by the short and curlies) back into the past – literally, as Sae-deok takes him back to his mother’s house to complain about the terrible way she’s been treated. Creating a scene outside, Sae-deok eventually manages to get through to her mother-in-law who had previously rejected her because of her lowly peasant background and history of sex work, enabling the two women to bond in their shared disappointment with Il-do who has now failed as a “man” on every possible level. Briefly reuniting with Gong-ryae in the greenhouse in which they used to meet, now reduced to ruins, Il-do declares that his love is like a mummy – wrapped so well it will endure for thousands of years without decay, but it’s already too late. Choices have been made, implicitly, which cannot be reversed. Jang leaves his protagonist where he started – frustrated and inert, suffering without hope in an oppressive environment which he knows, in his heart, he does not possess the courage to resist.


Available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes an audio commentary in English from film scholars Darcy Paquet and Marc Raymond, and Tony Rayns’ documentary The Jang Sun-woo Variations, as well as a 36 page bilingual booklet featuring essays by Rayns and film critic Lee Yeon-ho. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Kon Ichikawa, 1991)

noh mask murders posterFor one reason or another, Japanese mystery novels have yet to achieve the impact recently afforded to their Scandinavian brethren. Japan does however have a long and distinguished history of detective fiction and a number of distinctive, eccentric sleuths echoing the European classics. Mitsuhiko Asami is just one among many of Japan’s not quite normal investigators, and though Noh Mask Murders (天河伝説殺人事件, Tenkawa Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) is technically the 23rd in the Asami series, Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation sets itself up as the very first Asami case file and as something close to an origin story.

Ichikawa, though he may be best remembered for his ‘60s arthouse masterpieces, was able to go on filmmaking where others perhaps were not precisely because of his forays into the populist with a series of mystery thrillers including several featuring top Japanese detective Kindaichi (who receives brief name check in Noh Mask Murders). Published by Kadokawa, Noh Mask Murders is produced by Haruki Kadokawa towards the end of his populist heyday and features many of the hallmarks of a “Kadokawa” film but Ichikawa also takes the opportunity for a little formal experimentation to supplement what is perhaps a weaker locked room mystery.

Asami (Takaaki Enoki) begins with a voice over as four plot strands occur at the same temporal moment at different spaces across the city. In Shinjuku, a salaryman drops dead on the street, while a young couple enjoy a secret tryst in a secluded forest, a troupe of actors rehearse a noh play, and Asami himself is arrested by an officious policeman who notices him walking around with a dead bird in his hand and accuses him of poaching. As he will later prove, all of these moments are connected either by fate or coincidence but setting in motion a series of events which will eventually claim a few more lives before its sorry conclusion.

To begin with Asami, he is a slightly strange and ethereal man from an elite background who has been content to drift aimlessly through life to the consternation of his conservative family which includes a police chief brother. He harbours no particular desire to become a detective and is originally irritated by a family friend’s attempts to foist a job on him but gives in when he learns he will have the opportunity to visit Tenkawa which is where, he’s been told, the mysterious woman who helped him out with the policeman in the opening sequence keeps an inn. Hoping to learn more about her, he agrees to write a book about the history of Noh and then becomes embroiled in a second murder which links back to the Mizugami Noh Family which is currently facing a succession crisis as the grandfather finds himself torn over choosing his heir – he wants to choose his granddaughter Hidemi (Naomi Zaizen) who is the better performer but the troupe has never had a female leader and there are other reasons which push him towards picking his grandson, Kazutaka (Shota Yamaguchi).

As with almost all Japanese mysteries, the solution depends on a secret and the possibilities of blackmail and/or potential scandal. The mechanics of murders themselves (save perhaps the first one) are not particularly difficult to figure out and the identity of the killer almost certainly obvious to those who count themselves mystery fans though there are a few red herrings thrown in including a very “obvious” suspect presented early on who turns out to be entirely incidental.

Ichikawa attempts to reinforce the everything is connected moral of the story through an innovative and deliberately disorientating cross cutting technique which begins in the prologue as Ichikawa allows the conversations between the grandchildren to bleed into those of Asami and his friend as if they were in direct dialogue with each other. He foregrounds a sad story of persistent female subjugation and undue reliance on superstition and tradition which is indirectly to blame for the events which come to pass. Everyone regrets the past, and after a little murder begins to see things more clearly in acknowledging the wickedness of their own actions as well as their own sense of guilt and complicity. Noh is, apparently, like a marriage, a matter of mutual responsibility, fostering understanding between people and so, apparently is murder, and one way or another Asami seems to have found his calling.


The Road Home (我的父亲母亲, Zhang Yimou, 1999)

The Road Home PosterChinese cinema, it could be said, has been looking for the road home for quite some time. Not only is the past a relatively safe arena for present allegory, but even among the previously hard edged fifth generation directors, there’s long been a tendency to wonder if things weren’t better long ago in the village. Zhang Yimou certainly seems to think they might have been, at least in the beautifully melancholic The Road Home (我的父亲母亲, Wǒde Fùqin Mǔqin) in which a son returns home after many years away and reflects on the deeply felt and quietly passionate love story that defined the life of his parents.

In the late ‘90s, a successful businessman, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), drives back to his rural mountain village on hearing of the sudden death of his father, Changyu (Zheng Hao ) – a school teacher. The village’s mayor explains to him that for some years his father had been desperate to improve the local school and, despite his advanced age, had been travelling village to village raising money until he was caught in a snow storm and taken to hospital where they discovered he had heart trouble. The mayor wanted to pay for a car to fetch Changyu, but Yusheng’s mother Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) wants him to be carried back along the road to the village in keeping with the ancient tradition so he won’t forget his way home.

The problem, as the mayor points out, is that like Yusheng, most of the other youngsters have left the village and there just aren’t enough able-bodied people available to make Zhao Di’s request a realistic prospect. Zhang’s film is not just a warm hearted love story, but a lament for a lost way of life and a part of China which is rapidly disappearing.

This fact is poignantly brought home by Yusheng’s realisation that his parents’ love, set against one kind of political turbulence, was a kind of revolution in itself. In the Chinese countryside of the 1950s, marriages happened through arrangements made by (generally male) family members, no-one fell in love and then decided to spend their lives together. Yet Zhao Di, a dreamy village girl whose own mother was so heartbroken by the death of her husband that she was blinded by the strength of her tears, dared to believe a in romantic destiny and then refused to accept that it could not be.

Zhang begins the tale in a washed out black and white narrated by the melancholy voice over of the bereaved Yusheng whose first visit home in what seems likes years is tinged with guilt and regret. His father wanted him to be a teacher in a village school, but Yusheng left the village and like most of his generation took advantage of changing times to embark on a life of wealth and status in the city. As remembered by their son, the love story of Zhang Di and Luo Changyu is one of vivid colour from the freshness of the early spring to the icy snows of winter.

An innocent love, the courtship is one of sweet looks and snatched conversations. Zhao Di, captivated by the new arrival, listens secretly outside the school and waits for Changyu on the “road home” as he escorts the children back to the village. Yet these are turbulent times and even such idyllic villages as this are not safe from political strife. The burgeoning romance between a lonely village girl and earnest young boy from the city is almost destroyed when he is ordered back “to answer some questions” for reasons which are never explained but perhaps not hard to guess. Zhao Di chases him, the totality of her defeat crushing in its sense of finality but again she refuses to give up and remains steadfast, waiting for her love to reappear along the road home.

Though “the road home” carries its own sense of poignancy, the Chinese title which means something as ordinary as “my mother and father” emphasises the universality of Yusheng’s tale. This is the story of his parents, a story of true and enduring love, but it could be the story of anybody’s parents in a small rural village in difficult 1950s China. The world, Zhang seems to say, has moved on and consigned true love to an age of myth and legend while the young, like Yusheng, waste their lives in misery in the economic powerhouses of the city never knowing such poetical purity. China has been away too long and lost its way, but there will always be a road home for those with a mind to find it.


International trailer (English voiceover)

Not One Less (一个都不能少, Zhang Yimou, 1999)

not one less posterIt’s tough being a kid in rural China. Childhood is perhaps the rarest of commodities, all too often cut short by the concerns of the adult world, but then again sometimes childish innocence can bring forth the real change in which grownups have long stopped believing. Zhang Yimou is no stranger to the struggles of life in China’s remote villages, but in Not One Less (一个都不能少, Yīgè Dōu Bùnéng Shǎo) he crouches a little closer to the ground as one tenacious little girl finds herself thrust into an unexpected position of authority and then cast away on an odyssey to rescue a lost sheep.

The girl, 13-year old Wei Minzhi has been brought over from an adjacent village to substitute for the local teacher whose mother is ill, meaning he needs to take a month off to go back to his own remote village and look after her. The problem is that no-one would agree to spend a month teaching little kids in a rural backwater for almost no money. Wei Minzhi graduated primary school which makes her one of the most educated people around and at least means that she’s a little way ahead of some of the other kids and, to be fair, teaching methods here generally end at copying the lessons from the master book up onto the blackboard so the kids can copy them down and study in their own time. Given the relative poverty of the village, children often drop out of school altogether because their parents need them at home. Teacher Gao has promised Wei 10 extra yuan if the same number of kids are still coming to school when he comes back as there were when he left.

Documenting daily life in the village, the early part of the film strikes a warm and comedic tone to undercut the hardship the villagers face. The Mayor, apparently a slightly dishonest but well meaning sort, is doing his best but the village is so poor that the children turn desks into beds and huddle together to sleep in the school. Chalk is strictly rationed and resources are scarce. Wei takes to her new found authority with schoolmarmish tenacity but struggles to exert her authority over her charges, and especially over one cheeky little boy, Zhang Huike.

When Zhang Huike disappears one day and Wei finds out he’s been sent to the city, she becomes fixated on the idea of going after him to drag him back and make sure she gets her 10 yuan bonus. The quest is a fallacious one – it will coast Wei far more than the 10 yuan bonus to get to the city and back so it’s hardly cost effective, but Wei is a literal sort and doesn’t tend to think things through. Nevertheless, the need to figure out how to get Zhang back does finally get her teaching as she gets the kids to help her do the calculations of how much money she’s going to need and to figure out how to get it.

If life in the village was tough, the city is tougher. When Wei arrives and tries to find Zhang, she winds up at the dorm of a construction site which is peopled exclusively by children who are (presumably) all working here to help their families out of poverty. Zhang, however, got lost on the way to his new job and is currently wandering the city alone, staring enviously at meat buns until someone takes pity on him and hands him one. Luckily he later meets a kind restaurant owner who takes him in off the street and gives him food in return for dishwashing. Wei, meanwhile, is completely at a loss as to how to look for Zhang. She hits on the idea of fliers but doesn’t think to leave contact details beyond the name of her school – after all, everyone in the village knows where the school is so why wouldn’t they in the city. Later someone recommends she try TV only for her to become semi-exploited for a human interest story on rural education in which the rabbit-in-the-headlights Wei can do little more than burst into tears and plead for Zhang’s return.

Wei’s single-mindedness may eventually reap rewards, but it’s impossible to escape the fact that it was motivated out of pure self interest. She wanted her 10 yuan bonus, and she never stopped to think about anyone’s else situation so long as she got it. Thus when scouts arrive from a nearby sports school with an amazing opportunity for one of her pupils, she tries to mess it up just so she’ll get the money. Similarly she’s determined to bring Zhang back even after visiting his home and meeting his bedridden mother who explains the family situation that necessitates sending her 11-year-old son away to work on a construction site. Despite having been warned about the chalk shortage, she allows half of it to get ground into the floor because she’s too busy trying to assert her authority to realise the (accidentally) destructive effects of her own actions. Nevertheless, her bullheadedness does eventually pay off. Asked about his experiences in the city, Zhang Huike remarks that the city is “beautiful and prosperous” before looking sad and admitting that he’ll never forget that he had to beg for food. Cities, it seems, are teeming hubs of wealth and success but they’re also cold, lonely, and so anonymous that small boys like Zhang get lost amid the hustle and bustle of the individualist life.


International trailer (English voice over)