Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, Lin Huida, 2022)

One of the biggest animation franchises in Mainland China, Boonie Bears began airing as a children’s cartoon show back in 2012 and has produced over 600 episodes across 10 seasons. The latest movie, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, xióng chūmò: chóngfǎn dìqiú), is the franchise’s eighth theatrical movie and again proved popular at the box office on its Lunar New Year release. As might be expected for a series revolving around woodland creatures, the first antagonist was a logger who later came round and teamed up with the animals to protect the forest, the franchise has a strong if potentially subversive ecological theme which reverberates throughout Back to Earth. 

In fact, the chief job of unreliable younger brother bear Bramble (Zhang Bingjun) is sorting rubbish into the appropriate bins to keep the forest tidy. Daydreaming he casts himself as superhero battling a giant trash monster symbolising the destructive effects of the buy now pay later philosophy of the modern consumerist society. In any case Bramble’s cheerful days of chasing ice cream and just generally enjoying life in the forest are disrupted when he’s almost wiped out by bits of a falling spaceship and becomes the repository for all of its knowledge. This brings him to the attention of alien space cat Avi who needs his brain to locate his ship but is also being chased by a gang of nefarious criminals led by an amoral entrepreneur who wouldn’t let a little thing like the survival of the Earth interfere with her desires for untold wealth and power. 

As it turns out Avi also has a few lessons to offer as to the costs of irresponsible industrialisation having been born in an ultra-advanced cat society buried deep in the Earth’s core. The over mining of a valuable mineral soon destroyed the environment forcing the cats to flee into space looking for a new home. Avi hopes to return to his home city which lies abandoned as a kind of cat Atlantis accessible only with a valuable necklace which he needs Bramble’s help to retrieve. To begin with, the relationship between the pair is less than harmonious, though they soon bond in their shared quest to stop the evil corporate entities taking over the ancient technology and causing the death of the forest through their insatiable greed. 

Then again as one of the other creatures had put it, “you can’t rely on Bramble”, cross that he never pulls his weight and is always off in a daydream or chasing the next tasty treat. While Avi poses as an adorable kitten trying to convince Bramble to use his brain to help get the spaceship back, the others become even more disappointed in him believing that he’s taken against the cat out of jealously and resentment. Yet the lesson that everyone finally has to learn is that it doesn’t matter if Bramble isn’t the smartest or most hard working because he is strong and kind and has plenty to offer of his own. His gentle bear hug eventually saves the world in healing the villainess’ emotional pain so she no longer has any need to fill the void with cruel and ceaseless acquisition. 

Aside from the gentle messages of the importance of protecting the forest from the ravages of untapped capitalism, after all “this is our only homeland”, the film packs in a series of family-friendly gags including a surprising set piece in which Bramble dresses up as Marilyn Monroe to recreate the famous subway vent moment from The Seven Year Itch, while a pair of eccentric scrap merchants with a taste for rhyme provide additional comic relief. Even in the villains get a lengthy cabaret floorshow to mis-sell their evil mission to the guys from the forest belatedly coming to Bramble’s rescue. In any case, thanks to everyone’s support and encouragement Bramble finally gets to become the hero he always wanted to be proving that he’s not unreliable and even if he doesn’t always succeed is doing his best. Boasting high quality animation, genuinely funny gags, some incredibly catchy tunes and well choreographed musical sequences along with a warmhearted sense of sincerity, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is another charming adventure for the much loved woodland gang.


Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is in UK cinemas from 27th May courtesy of The Media Pioneers (screening in a family-friendly English dub).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Being Mortal (来处是归途, Liu Ze, 2020)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Yun Ga-hyun, 2021)

Over the last few years it had seemed that feminism was beginning to take root in Korea with mass protests against the use of spy cams leading to a broader discussion of women’s rights in the still patriarchal nation with further social movements such as Escape the Corset highlighting persistent societal misogyny. Yet with the recent election of conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol who had run on an explicitly anti-feminist ticket hopes for real progress have been dashed. In her documentary filmed before Yoon’s victory, Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Boundary), director Yun Ga-hyun looks back at the last four years as she and her friends reflect on the nature of their activism, what they’ve achieved and what they hope to in the future. 

As Yun and her fellow activists relate, Flaming Feminist Action came together as an extension of the labour movement formed the wake of the 2016 Gangnam Station Toilet Murder Case in which a woman was killed by a male stranger who claimed he did it because women had rejected him. Female solidarity is indeed central to the movement, the first Reclaim the Night-style protest which we witness insistent that a safe space for women is a safe space for everyone while reminding each other that they are not alone but stand together in pursuit of change. 

The group also takes part in symposia in which they attempt to educate each other offering the kind of sex education not found in schools in order to give women back the agency over their own bodies in the knowledge that to exercise it can in itself become a political act. As such, we also see the group challenging traditional gender norms by symbolically shaving their heads and holding a body hair competition in challenging traditional beauty standards. One of the women reveals that her brother was so scandalised by her decision to cut her hair that he refused, perhaps jokingly, to let her back into the house. Meanwhile they also take aim at more widely held traditional values such as in their “Free the Nipple” event in which they went bare chested protesting the restrictive and discriminatory policies of social media platforms such as Facebook which routinely block imagery featuring female nudity tagging it as pornography. Similarly the women’s public protest is frustrated by the police force who immediately move in with blankets when they remove their shirts citing public obscenity laws while the women argue that the law is absurd while men aren’t challenged for walking around shirtless. 

As Yun herself reveals in her own to camera interview, some members of the group have been arrested several times while she has also been threatened with violence and one commentator on the Blue House website petitioned to have them all rounded up and executed. At the street safety protest, she also revealed that she’d received violent and misogynistic messages online and had reported them to police but they refused to do anything because the messenger had then blocked her meaning she could not ascertain his identity while he went on to troll other other feminist activists in the same way. Then again, there is also division within the movement, Yun explaining that she’d also been criticised for giving an individual interview at a protest which was against the movement’s policy while her support for gender fluid and non-binary people as well as trans women and other members of the LGBTQ+ community joining the protests was also a source of conflict.  

Nevertheless, the women also draw strength for all that they’ve achieved even if acknowledging there is a long way to go. Yun herself attempts to run for political office working with a new party dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights having given up on the idea of influencing mainstream parties from the inside. Others come to the conclusion that the clearest path to societal change lies in education while generating a sense of female solidarity that offers support to women facing deeper social issues such as domestic and/or sexualised violence along with workplace harassment and discrimination. “The way to win is just to endure” one of the women reflects while Yun too echoes that at the very least she never gave up even in the most difficult of moments as she prepares to move into a new stage of her life in activism. 


Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Camellia Sisters (Gái Già Lắm Chiêu V: Những Cuộc Đời Vương Giả, Namcito & Bảo Nhân, 2021)

The dark secrets surrounding three super rich sisters are dragged into the light by the mysterious disappearance of a prized robe in Bảo Nhân and Namcito’s operatic rom-com, Camellia Sisters (Gái Già Lắm Chiêu V: Những Cuộc Đời Vương Giả). Apparently the fifth in a series of thematically linked movies, the film finds the central trio trapped in the golden cage of their wealth while pulled in different directions by their conflicting desires but eventually brought back together after a series of unexpected revelations exposing the long buried truths of the remaining Ly family. 

Living in a huge European-style mansion up in the mountains, the oldest of the sisters, Han (Lê Khanh), rules with an iron fist maintaining the family name and finances as a well-known antiques dealer. Only the truth is that many of the “antiques” are fake and she’s roped in her more cheerful sister Hong (Hồng Vân) to assist her in a scam to push up auction prices while ensuring they never lose their most prized possession of the Phoenix Robe and most particularly to shady nouveau-riche businessman Lam Quach (Sĩ Nguyễn). Meanwhile, youngest sister Linh (Kaity Nguyễn), who is at pains to remind her boyfriend Gia Huy (Anh Dũng) that she is only a foster child, is fiercely ambitious and desperate to take over Empire Tower. When Gia Huy makes her an offer she can’t refuse to betray her sisters’ trust and help him and his dad get their hands on the robe in return for a giant promotion that would make all her dreams come true she hardly blinks but when the robe goes missing right before the auction she begins to discover that there is far more to all of this than she originally thought. 

Part of the problem is that there is apparently a curse on the women of the Ly family in that they are not permitted to marry unless a red camellia blooms in the middle of their white camellia field. Ha meanwhile is obsessed with maintaining the family name and influence partly through the allure of the curse which means she must be seen as virtuous but has secretly been carrying on with a married business associate for the previous 25 years, a romantic tragedy that has long been eating away at her soul as well as her pride in being the matriarch of this powerful family while only the mistress of a married man. Hong meanwhile is just the same, secretly living with one of their servants as man and wife but keeping up the pretence of the two spinster sisters living in their giant mansion spending all their time sourcing antiques for other people with far too much money who engage reckless spending as a kind of status war. Lam Quach mainly wants to take the robe so that Ha won’t have it while as we discover her desperation to keep it is largely sentimental if also in a similar fashion the desire to prevent it going back to her lover’s wife who apparently owned it originally. 

Linh, meanwhile, wants the robe in order to secure her own status insisting that “only power is the true purpose of this life” willing to betray her sisters to get it while insecure in her liminal status as an adopted child, not really one of the Ly family. Through her various investigations, she begins to discover the reason for her sense of disconnection with her sisters eventually reintegrated into the family in learning the truth. There is however a degree of naivety in her worldview, unduly shocked by her sisters’ duplicity in realising that most of their superrich aesthetic is superficial and founded on lies, Han selling fake antiques to people who just wanted to spend a lot of money on something ultimately pointless without really caring what it is only that they’ll be denying it to others while keeping up the mystery of the Camellia Sisters as a kind of marketing tool even if it’s made her miserable and as she later realises denied her the greatest joy of her life. 

As aspirational as their comfortable lives may seem, the superrich are also somewhat skewered as vacuous and backstabbing devoid of all human feeling in their insatiable material desires before Linh is shown the error of her ways in realising that she has been manipulated by just about everyone but familial love is more important than wealth or power. Operatic in scale and shot for a mammoth budget, Camellia Sisters is full on melodrama with its gothic overtones of the rot at the base of noble family but in any case suggests that each of the women is in their own way constrained by their frustrated desires while bound by outdated patriarchal social codes, eventually rediscovering a sense of solidarity in exposing the truth that allows them to reassume control over their collective destinies. 


Camellia Sisters screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

4 Kings (4 Kings อาชีวะ ยุค 90’s, Puttipong Nakthong, 2021)

Marginalised young men turn to internecine gang violence in ‘90s Bangkok in Puttipong Nakthong’s edgy youth drama 4 Kings (4 Kings อาชีวะ ยุค 90’s). In essence a high school delinquency movie, 4 Kings finds little glory in pointless macho posturing but suggests that the older generation is no different, a parade of absent or authoritarian fathers no better than the sons they criticise attempting to preserve their patriarchal authority through threats of violence while roundly rejecting the right of these young men to try to make a life for themselves simply because of their social class and a stigma surrounding vocational schools. 

In a framing sequence set around 2010, the hero Billy (Itchnakorn Pheungkiatrasmee) has become an embittered middle-aged man with a drinking problem bringing up his teenage daughter Amm alone though she holds only contempt for him. When Amm is caught up in gang violence and injured while he is unable to protect her, it forces Billy to remember his own past as a high school delinquent especially when he recognises her teacher as former gang rival. Flashing back to 1995, Billy is one of four guys representing their school as a street gang engaging in pointless fights with rival institutions while experiencing problems at home with his authoritarian stepfather who has already written him off causing him to temporarily move in with best friend Da (Arak Amornsupasiri) and his warmhearted mother. Da meanwhile has problems of his own as his girlfriend Au whose father is a local policeman has become pregnant and though he wants to do the right thing and raise his child his prospective father-in-law does not approve. 

Though they treat the boys like stray dogs and openly insist that they have no future nor any right to one, the fathers behave no better expressing their patriarchal authority though macho posturing. Au’s father more or less describes Da as a thug no good for his daughter insisting that only he has the right to decide who she dates or marries but then punches him in the face and threatens him with his service gun. Billy’s dad meanwhile barks that “there’s no point being nice to him” telling Billy to go sleep in a dog’s cage, insisting that he needs “discipline” because he has his father’s “vile blood” again punching him in the face and telling him to get lost and never come back. The only expression of masculinity the boys have ever learned is exerting their dominance through violence so it’s little wonder that they seek the same kind of validation in fighting each other in the streets with only the solace of the solidarity they find among their friends and allies. 

After all, everyone is telling them they have no future anyway because they attend a technical high school and are already at the bottom of the social ladder with no real prospect of moving up. The boys don’t know why they’re fighting each other merely owning the uniforms they’ve been given. When Billy is sent to prison after his stepfather refuses bail and decides to press charges on the theft of his camera, he ends up becoming friends with two guys from other gangs now each on the same side wearing the white T-shirts of prison inmates while finding themselves lost within an entirely different gang hierarchy of which the guards are at the top. Meanwhile even on the outside there are other elements too such as randomer drug dealer Yad who has a beef with technical students in general but is otherwise outside of their struggle. The former prisoners might individually have decided to put their differences behind them but are still members of their respective gangs and it’s a minor irony that the climactic act of violence which changes each of their lives occurs only after they’ve graduated and are no longer members of their respective schools. 

Even so as the framing sequence makes clear, the legacies of these intergenerational conflicts continue to echo into the present with Billy “wallowing in the past” as he struggles to raise his daughter she wondering if he really loves her or only feels an obligation while he struggles to get over his delinquent past even after having made a good life for himself as a successful contractor. 4 Kings certainly does not glorify gang violence even if it may celebrate the brotherhood between the young men who are basically good at heart just hotheaded and immature making bad decisions and paying a heavy price for them, but may in a sense also glamourise the same kind of macho posturing the film otherwise critiques especially in its post-credits sting teasing the possibility of a sequel if ultimately undercutting it with its otherwise positive conclusion healing the generational divide through emotional honesty. 


4 Kings screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hard Love (“炼”爱, Tracy Dong, 2021)

China’s rapid transformations throughout the 20th century have created perhaps not one but many generational divides. Even so the largest fracture point between the older generation and their offspring may be in their contradictory views of the institution of marriage. In a society where women are notoriously “Christmas caked” at 25, Tracy Dong’s Hard Love (“炼”爱, liàn ài) follows a series of women mainly in their 30s who are for various reasons currently attached. Though none of the women have entirely rejected the idea of marriage and or the traditional family it’s also true that they have different motivations, desires, and requirements than their mothers or grandmothers may have had. 

Indeed, in contrast with other nations where women are often invited to mixers and speed dating evenings for free because fewer attend, the organiser of an event at the film’s beginning laments that he can never find enough men. Some voices in the older generation wonder if men have simply lost interest in dating because there are of course so many other things to do in the contemporary society besides of course from the pressures of work. Others suggest that some women put too much pressure on their men to provide comfortable lives, though many of them also cite the changing nature of gender roles as a possible explanation suggesting that men feel emasculated and unnecessary in a world of independent women. 

Each of the women we see has achieved a degree of success and is in no need of a man to be able to support themselves in the modern society. In the film’s opening sequence, the camera pans over a series of banners at a marriage market in a park advertising older women looking for love many of whom already own property and have impressive careers. Meanwhile, their criteria for potential matches has also risen, many listing a minimum height requirement, educational background, or degree of professional attainment. They don’t call it a marriage market for nothing, many modern women seem to be approaching looking for a husband in the same way one would look for a house or job working off a checklist with a series of red lines on which they are unwilling to compromise. Perhaps you could see this as a kind of commodification and evidence of the victory of consumerism in the modern China, yet on the other hand perhaps it’s more that these women know what they want and that they deserve more whereas their mothers have been convinced that they should be grateful for whatever they can get. 

Meanwhile, as a man points out, the men around their age are mostly looking for younger women in part for practical reasons because they intend to start a family soon after marrying. Few are willing to consider a woman who has been married before or already has children, many still possessing a chauvinistic mindset threatened by a successful woman’s independence. One woman, Yue, recounts that her boyfriend’s mother took against her thinking that the apartment she shared with her son was too big and therefore an unfair burden on him even though Yue herself was shouldering the majority of the rent a factor which also seems to have eaten away at their relationship. Later she begins to date a sympathetic man who seems nice and says all the right things but still flirts with another woman while they’re out together. 

The implicit conclusion that each of the women seems to come to, though mostly by accident, is that they have other things in their lives more important to them than finding a husband. Career woman Maggie is taken to task by a friend who implies she’s unfeminine in being too “rational”, but reveals that the only experience she’s had that conforms to his description of love is when she was working for Uber. On a recent date on a yacht she thought she was falling in love but soon realised that what she liked wasn’t the guy but sailing. Another woman meanwhile describes Hello Kitty as the love of her life, while former actress Tao dedicates herself to caring for her daughter but contradictorily considers hiring an actor to play the father so she won’t feel left out. While the men especially in the older generation may have become a little romantic and sentimental, retreating from a consumerist trend in appealing to emotion, the women have begun to realise that marriage isn’t the be all and end all. Open to the possibility, they see no need to wait or settle for less but will continue living their lives whether Mr. Right decides to make an appearance or not. 


Hard Love screens in London at Picturehouse Fulham and in Edinburgh at Picturehouse Cameo on 10th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

The Wonder of a Summer Day (幻の蛍, Yuka Ibayashi, 2022)

A solitary teenage girl struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce gains a new perspective through a trip to grandma’s in Yuka Ibayashi’s charming indie drama, The Wonder of a Summer Day (幻の蛍, Maboroshi no Hotaru). Somewhat numbed emotionally, Kanata (Konoha Nogishi) is consumed with a sense of emptiness and has no idea what she wants to do in the future or even what her favourite food is while spending almost all of her time alone even going into school during the summer holidays to keep up her cleaning routine or work in the library. 

Part of this as we discover is that she doesn’t have a smartphone because her mother’s (Akiko Kikuchi) business running a small bar is struggling so she can’t join the group chat on phone-based social network LINE, the other girls in any case walking away before she’s fully time to explain even if she were going to. Kanata is certainly a very responsible young woman, often needing to get herself up and out because her mother rises late given the nature of her work, and helping out behind the bar when she gets home from school where she seems to be taking care of all the cleaning needs single handedly simply explaining “we’re supposed to rotate” when questioned by her eccentric science teacher as to why she has to do all of this extensive labour on her own. 

The science teacher is also surprised to learn that Kanata has no plans for the summer vacation planning to continue coming into school to do her various jobs, Kanata sadly wiping the word “summer” off the blackboard and cleaning the eraser afterwards. Then again, the teacher’s idea of fun is sitting in a bowling alley watching people bowl, prompting Kanata to begin wondering what fun might be or if there’s something she might like to do after all. “Life tends to provide us something we enjoy” according to the man at the grocery store, but she struggles to find an answer even refusing an invitation from her father to go to a local festival with her younger sister Sumire (Nonoka Ikeda) when he calls to borrow her old yukata.  

Part of the reason for her loneliness is rooted in the disintegration of the family unit. Not only is she harbouring a degree of resentment towards her father but has also been separated from her sister and feels acutely divided by the traditional social codes which mean that she and her mother have reverted to her maternal family’s name while Sumire and her father have kept theirs the same marking them as no longer family to the extent that she isn’t quite sure why Sumire regrets not having been allowed to attend their grandfather’s funeral. The situation is compounded by the fact that she suspects her father has a new girlfriend, her shock and distress palpable after spotting the three of them driving around looking like a family a pair of sisters excitedly crossing the road ahead of her while she remains frozen on the spot. 

Invited to spend a few days with grandma in the country along with Sumire, Kanata remains sullen and uncommunicative in contrast to her upbeat and cheerful sister who displays an unusual degree of emotional maturity in trying to take the moody teen to task. “You’re not the only person in this world with problems” she eventually fires back fed up with Kanata’s moods and hurt by her most recent barb basically blaming her for their parents’ divorce while insisting that she only makes trouble for those around her. Even so, a trip to find out of season fireflies finally allows the sisters to re-establish their bond with Kanata coming to accept her situation realising that she doesn’t have to cut off contact completely just because they won’t be living together and even if there are many things they may never do again there are plenty more they could do for the first time, like looking for fireflies. “If we keep walking we’ll end up somewhere” Sumire offers encouragingly as they find themselves temporarily lost during their brief summer adventure neatly proposing a metaphor for life and relationships as the sullen heroine begins to repair her fracturing family bonds letting go of her pain and resentment now a little less lonely if only in having shared her loneliness. 


The Wonder of a Summer Day screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Special Delivery (특송, Park Dae-min, 2022)

“Why is it so hard to live?” a little boy asks after finding himself on the run with a strange woman who seems to be the only person interested in helping him. Situating itself in an upside-down world of backstreet crime, Park Dae-min’s high octane thriller Special Delivery (특송, Teuksong) is in part about how hard it is to live amid constant moral compromise as the heroine finds herself torn between her better judgement and human feelings in trying to rescue her human cargo not only from the bad guys chasing him but from a duplicitous society. 

Technically speaking, Eun-ha (Park So-dam) is a delivery driver yet the services her firm provides are highly specialised promising to deliver anything anywhere by whatever means possible. In practice this often seems to mean transporting gangsters on the run from their hideouts to the nearest port before rival gangs can catch up with them as we see Eun-ha do with spectacular skill in the opening sequence. Other than the practice of frequently switching out license plates, what she’s doing in itself isn’t really illegal but is definitely crime adjacent and potentially dangerous. She is however well paid, arguing with her boss/mentor/father figure for a pay rate increase to an unprecedented 50/50 split in proceeds, though she lives a fairly modest life in a cosy apartment with her beloved cat Chubby whom she watches via security cam while waiting around for a fare. When her boss agrees to do a rush job for a Chinese gangster she tells him it’s a bad idea but ends up going along with it only to get drawn into the big news story of the day when a former pro-baseball player turned match fixing underworld figure blows the whistle and runs off with all the gang’s money. Eun-ha was supposed to drive him and his son Seo-won (Jung Hyeon-jun) to a port to leave the country but the bad guys who turn out to be corrupt police officers get there first and Eun-ha ends up with the kid and a bag full of money but no plan B. 

Drawing inspiration from John Cassavetes’ Gloria, the film develops into something of a buddy comedy as Eun-ha finds herself on the run with Seo-won having gone back for him after her boss suggested handing him off to an associate “who deals with children”. As we discover the child reminds her of her younger self being all alone with no other relatives or friends who could take care of him. Even when he reveals he might have a mother after all, it turns out to be a dead end because no one wants to get involved in this dangerously escalating underworld crisis. Yet the found family of the marginalised at the Busan junkyard where Eun-ha is based have more moral integrity than the world around them even if her boss’ solution for what to do about Seo-won isn’t ideal either. “Life is going alone” the corrupt police officer later sneers having repeatedly stated the necessity of staking one’s life to win such a big payout, but what Eun-ha is discovering is that it’s about going together trying to save the boy not only from the dangerously out of control corrupt police officers but from the moral bankruptcy of the contemporary society in which money is the only thing that matters. 

Overcoming both persistent sexism and societal discrimination Eun-ha proves herself a top operator in her field, Park choreographing a series of genuinely impressive car chases and visceral fight scenes as Eun-ha has to think her way through to take out the tougher, stronger bad guys while trying to protect Seo-won from danger on all sides. Her crime-adjacent existence tells her he’s not her responsibility but still she wants to complete her mission and deliver him somewhere safe much as she was rescued as a child by someone who might have felt much the same but chose to take her in anyway. With its neon lighting and retro score, Special Delivery harks back to an age of classic car chase thrillers with a stand-out performance from Parasite’s Park So-dam as a tough as nails getaway driver with nerves of steel fighting for humanity in an increasingly inhumane world. 


Special Delivery screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)