Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Summer Palace (颐和园, Lou Ye, 2006)

Summer palace posterThe personal is political for Lou Ye. Much as he had in Purple Butterfly, Lou paints love as a spiritual impossibility crushed under the weight of political oppression, though this time he leaves his protagonists breathing but wounded. Summer Palace (颐和园, Yíhé Yuán) is a member of a not exactly exclusive club of films deemed too controversial for the Chinese censors’ board. In truth, there are a number of reasons Lou’s wilfully provocative film might have upset the government, but chief among them is that he breaks a contemporary cinematic taboo in setting the Tiananmen Square massacre as the political singularity which causes the implosion of our protagonists’ youth, rendering them stunned, arrested, and empty. Personal and national revolutions fail, leaving nothing in their wake other than existential ennui and an inability to reconcile oneself to life’s disappointments.

In the late ‘80s, Yu Hong (Hao Lei) gets a scholarship to study in Beijing and prepares to leave her home in a small rural town near the North Korean border for the promise of big city life. Yu Hong craves sensation, she wants to live life intensely and the inability to connect on a true, existential level leaves her feeling progressively empty and confused. A chance meeting with another girl in her dorm, Li Ti (Hu Lingling), brings her into contact with Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) – a brooding intellectual and latterly the love of Yu Hong’s life, though one she becomes too afraid to embrace.

Yu Hong’s personal revolution, her quest for spiritual fulfilment largely through physical contact, occurs in tune with the chaos of her times. This is Beijing in 1988. The air is tense, anxious, as if hurtling towards an unavoidable climax. Yu Hong is not particularly political. She sees the protests, perhaps she agrees with them, but when she boards a pick up truck full of students waving banners and singing songs she does so more out of excitement and curiosity than she does out of commitment to political reform. Her tempestuous love affair with Zhou Wei mirrors the course of her city’s descent into chaos. Everything goes wrong, her heart is broken, something has been damaged beyond repair. Tiananmen Square, referenced only obliquely, serves as the event which traps an entire generation shell shocked by the brutal obliteration of their youthful hopes for a better world, leaving them imprisoned in a kind of limbo which prevents the natural progression from the innocence of youth to seasoned adulthood. They want the world to be better than it is but had the belief that it ever could be so brutally ripped away from them, that they are left with nothing more than a barren existence in which they cannot bear to touch the things they desire because they cannot believe in anything other than their own suffering.

Yu Hong’s early college days, marked as they are by rising anxiety, are also jubilant and filled with possibility. She dances innocently, nervously in a disco with Zhou Wei while a cheerfully wholesome piece of ‘50s American pop plays in the background – it’s this image Lou returns to at the end of the film. Something beautiful and innocent has been destroyed by an act of political violence, ruining the hearts of two soulmates who are now forever divided and bound by this one destructive incident. Yu Hong drops out of university and goes back to the country, bouncing around small town China occasionally thinking of Zhou Wei as an idealised figure of the love she has sacrificed, while Zhou Wei goes to Berlin and occasionally thinks about Yu Hong and missed opportunities. When they meet again years later it’s not an act of fate, or faith, or love but a prosaic interaction that leaves them both wondering “what now?”. There’s no answer for them, the future after all no longer exists.

As in Purple Butterfly, Lou makes history the enemy of love. Yu Hong didn’t ask for Tiananmen Square, she wasn’t even one of its major participants simply a mildly interested bystander, but she paid for it all the same in the way that history just happens to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The youthful impulsivity, the naivety and craving for new sensations and expressions of personal freedom are eventually crushed by an authoritarian state, frightened by the pure hearted desire of the young to take an active role in the direction of their destinies. The quest for love and freedom has produced only loss and listlessness as a cowed generation lives on in wilful emptiness, their only rebellion a rejection of life.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 10th September 2018.

Short scene from the film featuring “Don’t Break My Heart” by Heibao (Black Panther) which is also referenced in the poster’s tagline.

Repatriation (송환, Kim Dong-won, 2004)

Repatriation posterIt is sometimes said that citizens of a divided nation suffer more from the manipulation of the division than from the division itself. Kim Dong-won’s landmark 2004 documentary Repatriation (송환, Songhwan) tackles this issue from the side in examining the lives of “unconverted” political prisoners – spies from the North who endured years of torture yet never abandoned their core ideology. Kim tells their stories with warmth and empathy, but cannot avoid the various ways they have been used and misused as proxies in a long dormant war, sometimes willingly but sometimes not. Personal friendships aside, Kim’s view of the ex-prisoners is coloured by the political attitudes of his times in which the left, deeply wounded following the subversion of the hard won fight for democracy, longs to see the right’s claims of the North as mere propaganda and perhaps idealises the positive qualities of life North of the border only to have their illusions shattered and their hopes once again dashed

Back in 1992, a priest asked director Kim Dong-won for the use of his car. He was bringing a pair of “unconverted” long term prisoners to the village and needed help. Despite his reservations Kim agreed and against the odds, Choi and Kim were warmly welcomed into the small community who came together to look after the two old men regardless of their controversial beliefs and pasts as spies sent down from the North more than 30 years previously.

“Unconverted” is, strictly speaking, the preferred language of the North. The South refers to the same prisoners as “converts-to-be”, which is to say that the normal practice for captured spies is a period of lengthy torture designed to force the captives to “convert” from North Korean communism to regularised South Korean anti-communism. The language in itself is telling, and Kim frames his tale as one of faith and martyrdom with the Unconverted painted as true believers who never wavered even in the face of extreme suffering and persecution. Indeed, the suffering itself only strengthened their resolve and legitimised their struggle – if they are prepared to go this far to obliterate your ideas, then your ideas must after all have power.

This idea of an almost religious belief in the righteousness of North Korean “socialism” seems to have caught Kim’s attention, but he is not blind to the darker sides of their continued indoctrination. Kim and Choi have frequent get togethers with others in the same position, singing North Korean folksongs and communist anthems while they extol the virtues of a land they’ve not set foot in since they were young men, pining for a homeland that might not exist anymore. The Unconverted want to go home, but those of a more practical mindset might wonder what would happen to them if they could – will they be welcomed with open arms as they seem to think, or be treated with suspicion as returnees who’ve lived freely in the South which has, after all, released them willingly?

Meanwhile, belief in the “goodness” of the North begins to crumble with increasing improvement in relations which gradually lays bare the truth of the Communist state, suffering heavily thanks to the fall of the Soviet Union and ongoing economic reforms in China. Pervasive governmental corruption had encouraged many to feel that any and all information regarding the evils of North Korea must be lies created to spread fear as part of a vast propaganda machine and so when much of it turned out to be the truth it was a double blow to an already wounded left whose revolution had been betrayed when a newly democratic Korea went ahead and elected the dictator’s chosen successor. The Unconverted become a political pinball – if the South lets them go home some will praise their compassion, but many more will read it as a defeat while the North may well make full capital out of their returned heroes’ unbreakable resolve while also using them to attack the “cruel” South for treating them so badly and refusing to allow those still imprisoned to return.

Yet Kim’s concerns are human before they’re ideological – these are men who want to go home and someone is telling them that they can’t. The Uncoverted are mere pawns in an ongoing ideological game being played by two sides of a never-ending civil war. The division itself remains weaponised by both sides, each seeking to use it to demonise the other and no matter your personal ideology the inhumanity of making political capital of ordinary people ought to be disturbing. What Kim proves, however, is that a kind of “reunification” is possible – that friendships can be formed across ideological lines and that a peaceful coexistence can be won over common ground so long as there is the will to find it.


Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018: Documentary Fortnight.

Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Kit Hung, 2009)

Soundless Wind Chime posterTwo transients find love in the crowded streets of Hong Kong, only to lose it again and long for its return. Deliberately obscure, Kit Hung’s debut Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Wúshēng Fēng Líng) is an elegy for lost love, a poetic meditation on the power of memory and a treatise on the art of letting go. Though the lovers manage to construct a world for themselves shielded from the external chaos, its shell gradually fractures under the pressure of real world concerns until tragedy finally intervenes and shatters it forever.

Ricky (Lu Yulai), a mainlander recently arrived in Hong Kong, lives with an aunt (Wella Zhang) who makes a living through prostitution, while he makes ends meet as a delivery boy at neighbourhood eatery. One day, he pauses on the job to watch a foreign juggler (Hannes Lindenblatt) at which point his wallet is stolen by a foreign pickpocket who we later learn to be a German speaking Swiss man named Pascal (Bernhard Bulling). Pascal is currently in an abusive relationship with the juggler whose act is a set up to attract a crowd so that Pascal can rob the captivated spectators. After being beaten up and then brutally raped by his boyfriend, Pascal ups and leaves, eking out a living through juggling on the streets. Arriving at Ricky’s restaurant, he gives him his wallet (and ID card) back and the two strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, living together first at Ricky’s aunt’s and then getting their own place where they can truly be themselves.

To begin with the relationship is a rather happy and open one. Though Ricky decides to leave his aunt’s place immediately after she figures out that he is gay and in a relationship with Pascal, she does not disapprove of his sexuality and only stops to warn him not to invite his ailing mother to Hong Kong because she doesn’t know what the fallout will be from realising her sister is a prostitute and her son is gay all at the same time. Likewise, the lively ladies at the restaurant all seem fairly accepting (or perhaps just oblivious) of Ricky’s relationship with Pascal, impressed by his juggling skill and including him in their after hours mahjong games. The young couple do however have their differences, notably in Pascal’s self destructive streak which sends him back into Hong Kong’s gay nightlife scene while Ricky would rather just spend time home alone together.

The disjointed, non-linear narrative opens in the middle with Ricky making his way to Switzerland in search of Pascal, in a spiritual more than literal sense. Whilst there he runs into another man, Ueli, who looks exactly like Pascal even if he is nothing like him in spirit. The film’s title is inspired by the Chinese belief that a soul lingers after it leaves the body, attaching itself to an animal in order to stay longer and make its last goodbyes. Traditionally, a wind chime is though to reveal the presence of spirits, and it is this Ricky has come looking for as the wind chime outside Ueli’s antique shop gleefully trembles as if it were pleased to see him.

Ricky’s memories spiral away from him as snow covered Switzerland echoes sunny Hong Kong, each thought and action recalling some part of his life with Pascal while he grows closer to the wounded, grieving Ueli whom he believes, on some level, to be Pascal returned to him in another form. Later, Hung shifts the action to the Mainland where Ricky has returned to look after his dying mother, working as a taxi driver to make ends meet. Unable to find Pascal, uncertain whether his soul has flown to Hong Kong where they made their home or the place where he was born, Ricky has himself returned to source and prompted Ueli to make his journey in reverse, bringing him news of Pascal but also perhaps promising an end rather than a beginning.

Hung wears his influences on his sleeves – his style owes much to Wong Kai-Wai but more particularly to Tsai Ming-Liang as his frequent forays into surrealistic musical interludes make plain. Yet his narrative is confused and overly impressionistic, withholding essential pieces of information which would make sense of the more obscure elements such as the lost luggage receipt Ricky takes with him to Switzerland and the contents of the bag he ultimately obtains. Deeply melancholic and filled with a wistful sense of longing – the soundless wind chime of the title lying silent yet attentive, Hung’s dreamlike debut is a strangely affecting exploration of grief and transience as his hero learns how to live after love, abandoning his pain to realms of nostalgia and rediscovering the peaceful emptiness of ordinary silence.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Li Yu, 2001)

513cslBr5wLThe first narrative feature from former documentarian and TV presenter Li Yu, Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Jīn Nián Xià Tiān) is touted as the first film from mainland China to explicitly deal with lesbian life in modern Beijing. Necessarily shot under the radar to get around China’s strict censorship requirements, the film almost disappeared after “getting lost” on return from the Venice Film Festival (where a mishap with missing reels apparently led to a less than stellar reception though Li did eventually pick up an award) but went on to feature in a number of international festivals even if not quite welcomed at home. Imperfect and somewhat clumsy in execution, Fish and Elephant is nevertheless as whimsical as its title might suggest if only in its ironically abstracted need for detachment.

Xiaoqun is approaching 30 and unmarried. Despite her mother’s pleas and the needling of relatives Xiaoqun has no desire to marry. She supports herself well enough as an elephant keeper at the zoo and lives alone in a small apartment. A desire for independence is not the only reason Xiaoqun chooses to remain single – she is gay. Unable to state this fact openly, Xiaoqun is often forced to attend various blind dates set up by her mother who emotionally blackmails her by bursting into tears on the phone. Nevertheless, she eventually develops a flirtation with a young woman, Xiaoling, who owns her own clothing store at the market. Before long the women have moved in together and established an easy domesticity only for Xiaoqun’s mother to turn up unannounced determined to see her daughter wed. As if that weren’t enough, Xiaoqun’s long lost ex, Junjun, also arrives without warning apparently on the run from the police for “bank robbing”.

Perhaps because of the need to shoot covertly, Li’s script is structurally threadbare involving several large narrative jumps but the quality of unseen incompleteness plays into the film’s central theme in that the lives of women like Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are often invisible and hidden from view. We observe the two women’s courtship obliquely and in stages as they flirt (tentatively), wait for each other, are frustrated by exes, and finally come to a kind of agreement framed against the turquoise of of Xiaoqun’s bedroom wall which makes the pair look uncomfortably like the goldfish trapped inside her aquarium. Even this is unspoken and uncertain, hands tentatively grasped in trying to confirm that the situation has been read correctly until it is quite literally sealed with a kiss.

Xiaoqun, at least, is not so afraid to tell people what she is, only they never seem to believe her. Her uncle, berating her for turning down all the suitors he finds and reminding her that it’s the “proper thing” for women to marry and bear children, asks her what the problem is, to which Xiaoqun replies that she’s told him plenty of times before – she’s “no interest in men”. The uncle cannot process this information and offers to find a therapist to help with Xiaoqun’s supposed “issues”. Similarly, she decides to tell it straight to one of her dates – “I don’t like men, I like women”, but he refuses to listen. It seems he’s familiar with the concept, but doesn’t really believe in it and assumes Xiaoqun is trying to skip out on the date without giving him a proper chance by saying something outrageous.

Each time Xiaoqun calmly explains her life choices, everyone just ignores her. Either they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept that her sexuality is a good enough “excuse” for refusing to conform to the social order. Not until she finally attempts to come out to her mother does Xiaoqun actually say “I am gay” and then only very quickly followed directly by an explicit explanation of what she means. Unfortunately her mother still can’t quite get it, the language and cultural gap too vast to bridge. Like the young person’s pop song she’s always listening to, it’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that the world is moving so fast.   

Eventually Xiaoqun’s mother starts to come round and considers going against the social order by marrying again herself despite her supposedly inappropriate age. Marriage, however, seems an unhappy business all round and none of the men we are introduced to are particularly appealing. The men in Xiaoling’s shop bark at their girlfriends and criticise the slutty clothes, or try to harass Xiaoling into dropping the price while her boyfriend hovers in the background and places a territorial hand on her shoulder almost as if he knew why she just gave a quite massive discount on an expensive shirt to the woman currently trying it on for size. Xiaoqun’s mother is divorced, her father having left the family (and an apparently unhappy marriage) for another woman. Yet everyone seems intent on railroading the two women into this culturally demanded alleyway of misery.

For the most part, Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are content to simply ignore the world around them and live peacefully together like two fish in a bowl. Conspiratorially linking hands under the table as Xiaoqun’s mum reels off her marriage spiel and leaning in close to light one cigarette from another, they perhaps take pleasure in mocking the social order directly under her nose while worrying what the fall out might be should the truth be discovered. The relationship is threatened not particularly by the marriage plots, but by the presence of Junjun who places a wedge between the verbally uncommunicative lovers and another burden of secrecy on the already burdened Xiaoqun.

Li concludes by splitting the narrative into its three component strands, opting for a perhaps unwise slide into absurdity as Junjun embarks on a last stand though it does provide an opportunity for another (accidentally?) misogynistic/homophobic remark from a police officer. The film ends on a wedding, at which Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are conspicuously absent despite being expected and as a couple. Perhaps they are just “busy” having recently recovered from their momentary romantic drama, but their failure to appear also reinforces their committed isolation in which they are content (for good or ill) to hide themselves away, existing only for each other.


US release trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)