First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Raman Hui, 2018)

Monster Hunt Poster 2Despite numerous production difficulties, Monster Hunt went on to become a bona fide box office smash and international pop culture phenomenon on its release in 2015. Children and adults alike fell in love with the adorable little radish monster Wuba who, in grand fairytale tradition, is the secret heir to all of Monsterdom and the subject of a prophecy which posits him as the long awaited unifying force set to restore equality between humans and their Monster brethren. By the time this sequel, Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Zhuō Yāo Jì 2), rolls around, things are looking up for Wuba seeing as no one’s actively trying to eat him, but like so many kids in modern China he misses his human mum and dad who made a difficult decision at the end of the last film that Wuba should live with Monsters in Monsterland because it just wasn’t safe for him in the human realm.

Consequently Wuba has been living happily in the forest where the Monsters have made a little village for themselves. The Monster village is a place of laughter and song where everyone is welcome and they dance cheerfully all night long. That is, until evil monsters turn up looking for Wuba again, destroying the village and leaving him on the run all alone back in the human world. Meanwhile, Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) are on a quest to look for Tianyin’s long lost dad – a famous monster hunter who left Tianyin behind as a child to keep him safe, just like Tianyin had to leave Wuba. Nevertheless, though Tianyin and Xiaolan have developed a sparky domesticity, they’re both unwilling to admit how much they miss little Wuba and wish they could go get him back from Monsterland even if they know he’s probably safer hidden away from those who might want to do him harm. While looking for Tianyu and Xiaolan, Wuba gets himself semi-adopted by a very odd couple of chancers in the form of shady gambler Tu (Tony Leung) and his monster partner Ben-Ben.

Once again the theme is family. Monster Hunt spoke, perhaps, to all those separated families in modern China or more particularly to the children in revealing that parents sometimes have to make difficult choices and end up living apart from their kids so that they can give them a better life. Monster Hunt 2 accepts the premise but then provides an emotional correction in making plain the pain Tianyu and Xiaolan feel on being separated (perhaps forever) from Wuba, until they eventually settle on tracking him down and facing whatever dangers come their way together. They come to this realisation after saving a mother and son who’ve been (unfairly) arrested by the Monster Hunt Bureau and witnessing their happiness just in being together despite the sticky situation they may be in.

Meanwhile Wuba, sad and alone, is happy to have found himself a surrogate family in the form of kindly Ben-Ben and the spiky Tu – a virtual mirror of Tianyu and Xiaolan when they first met. As in the first film, Tu originally takes Wuba in because he wants to sell him to Madame Zhu (Li Yuchun) – a woman he has cheated in both love and money, whose patience apparently knows no end. This brief episode of Wuba and his two new uncles is a subversive one in terms of mainstream Chinese cinema, and unlike the early union of Tianyu and Xiaolan there is little comedy in the easy coupledom of Ben-Ben and Tu who become two men raising a child together in relative happiness. This is perhaps the reason for the strange coda in which Tu and Ben-Ben have a brief chat about girls, relegating Tu’s earlier awkward admission of affection one more of brotherhood than love and affirming their total heterosexuality (both the female love interests are also from the same species, just to make things crystal clear).

Yet the message is strong – families want to stay together, parents want to be with their kids and kids want to be with their parents so maybe the world should just let them, even if those families aren’t quite like everyone else’s. With much better production values than the first film and a much more consistent tone, Monster Hunt 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor though it treads more or less the same ground and is content to meander between several set pieces with more than a few seemingly extraneous sequences of Tu getting up to mischief or Xiaolan using her feminine wiles on a nerdy inventor (though these at least add to the more complex arc of the feminised Tianyu and masculine Xiaolan each moving towards a gender neutral centre). Monster Hunt 2 maybe more of the same and little more than the next instalment in a series, but nevertheless its winning charm and gentle warmth are enough to ensure there will still be devotees of Wuba ready to reserve their seats for the inevitable part three.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas. Screening locations for the UK, Ireland, US and Canada available via the official website.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Raman Hui, 2015)

Monster Hunt posterA runaway box office hit and veritable pop culture phenomenon, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Zhuō Yāo Jì) is nothing more than a slice of family friendly entertainment in the vein of a dozen other live-action/animation hybrid fantasy films. The monsters are cute, yes, and there is enough darkness here to rival Lord of the Rings, but there’s a little more going on under the surface of this otherwise heartwarming tale of a persecuted minority and its hidden princeling. A family drama of epic proportions, Monster Hunt speaks directly to China’s left behind children and to those who, perhaps, were worried their destiny had always been misplaced.

Set sometime in the distant fantasy past, Monster Hunt takes place in a universe in which men and Monsters co-exist but, owing to their defeat in a war, the Monsters have been forced back into the forests and mountains away from humankind many of whom no longer even believe they exist. However, there is fresh strife among the Monsters forcing a pregnant Queen to flee along with her retainers, straying into the human world in hope of saving her baby. Luckily she finds herself in a small village presided over by a kindly mayor with a limp, Tianyin (Jing Boran), who is also the son of a long missing Monster Hunter but much prefers domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing to hunting Monsters. The Queen manages to “transfer” her baby to Tianyin just before she dies, leaving him quite literally holding the baby assisted only by cynical bounty hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe).

Inspired by ancient folklore, Monster Hunt plays the chosen one trope to the max as Tianyin wrestles with his destiny while the baby, a true king displaced from his throne, awaits in ignorance. Like many contemporary fantasy tales, Monster Hunt also revels in subverting genre norms with its noticeably feminised hero. Tianyin is the son of a great warrior, but it’s his grandmother who practices kung fu and goes out looking for her long lost son, while Tianyin professes his love of domesticity, staying home cooking and sewing. His simplicity and softness is contrasted with the more masculine figure of the cynical Monster Hunter Xiaolan who becomes Tianyin’s casual love interest and the putative “father” in the loose family unit they form with the tiny baby radish-like figure they eventually christen Wuba.

The formation of a family unit in itself proves a problematic development for both Tianyin and Xiaolan who have both been abandoned by their own families and left to fend for themselves (with almost opposite results). Resentful at having been cast out by his apparently “heroic” father, Tianyin has definite views about the nature of fatherhood and the mistakes he does not wish to repeat with his own children while Xiaolan has grown wary of forming attachments altogether and strives to remind herself that she is only looking after Wuba until he’s big enough to sell on the Monster Hunter black market. Nevertheless, the pair cannot help becoming “accidental” parents even if they must first make a mistake they later need to rectify in trying to abandon their charge for financial gain. Tianyin “repeats” the “mistake” of his own father but finally comes to understand it for what it was – a father’s sacrifice of his paternal love to keep his child safe. Something that will certainly ring true for children who may be living apart from their own parents for reasons they don’t quite understand.

Yet a fairytale darkness is never far away as Tianyin and Xiaolan consider selling off little Wuba to a dodgy mahjong obsessed Monster fence (Tang Wei) who apparently knows how valuable he is but is planning to sell him to a local restaurant anyway. Despite the fact that everyone has forgotten Monsters exist, Monster meat is a delicacy reserved for the super rich (a subtle dig at China’s eat anything that can’t run faster than you philosophy ushered in by the sight of caged monkeys at the roadside) and little Wuba does look quite like a tasty daikon radish.

Cute monsters getting chopped up and eaten may be a horror too far for sensitive young children (if it weren’t for the fact the Monsters are all inspired by veggies Monster Hunt might be the greatest proselytising mechanism for vegetarianism the world has ever seen) but rest assured, little Wuba is quite the resourceful little tyke and he does after all have a grand destiny awaiting him. A tribute to unlikely heroes, gentle men, feisty women, and atypical families, Monster Hunt is an oddly subversive family friendly adventure and one which has clearly hit its mark in capturing the hearts of a whole generation who will doubtless be excited for the further adventures of Wuba as he moves closer towards his own Messianic destiny.


International trailer (English captions)