Never Stop (超越, Han Bowen, 2021)

“And what comes after the finish line?” an anxious novice asks of his mentor who has little answer for him, his singleminded pelt towards the end of the road later convincing him “running never leads anywhere” even as he continues to run away from his sense of shame and inadequacy. One of a number of sporting dramas emerging in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics, Han Bowen’s Never Stop (超越, Chāoyuè) ultimately suggests that in life there is no finish line while “winning” is perhaps more a state of mind than a medal and a podium. 

This is however a lesson former champion Hao Chaoyue (Zheng Kai) struggles to learn after his sprinting career comes to an abrupt halt. In 2009, he won gold in the Asian Games and publicly proposed to his reporter girlfriend in the middle of a packed stadium. 10 years on, however, he’s a washed up middle-aged man whose business is failing and marriage falling apart. His protege, Tianyi (Li Yunrui), is still flying high but approaching his late ‘20s is now also experiencing similar problems as Chaoyue had previously compounded by the fact he suffers from ADHD and is prevented from taking his medication because of anti-doping regulations which has left him mentally drained through overstimulation. 

Later, Chaoyue describes the athletes’ existence as like that of a lab rat forced to run around for little more reward than food and water. Nevertheless the source of all his problems is in his stubborn male pride, unable to accept the reality which is that he lost to nothing other than time in the perfectly natural decline of his ageing body which coupled with the extent of his injuries left him unable to maintain the peak physical performance of his earlier career. Petulantly quitting his original team, he tries an international super coach who refuses to sugarcoat the reality that Chaoyue has simply aged out of international athletics while throwing in a few racist micro-aggressions for good measure. Unable to move on, he attempts to trade on past glory but ironically continues to run away from his problems in refusing to accept he has no head for business while discouraging his young son from pursuing athletics despite his apparent love and aptitude for sports. 

Tianyi’s plight meanwhile highlights the external pressures placed on sporting idols in the internet age, his career suddenly on the rocks when he’s spotted taking pills and and damages his reputation losing his endorsement deals. Having idolised Chaoyue and essentially followed in his footsteps he now finds himself directionless and wondering what to do with the rest of his life. The appeal in running for him at least may have been in, as Chaoyue had described it, the intense focus and single-mindedness of the short distance sprinter in which everything except the runner and the finish line disappears, but without his medication Tianyi finds it increasingly difficult to concentrate often slow off the blocks in his initial confusion. 

The problem the runners face is ultimately one of self-confidence, motivated to give up on believing that they cannot fulfil the internalised ideal they have of a champion. Chaoyue remains unwilling to “lose”, running his business further into the ground and damaging his relationships with those around him out of stubbornness rather than making a strategic retreat or attempting to reorient himself in accepting he may need help with making his sneaker shop a conventional “success”. Feeling betrayed, he refuses to let his son run because running doesn’t lead anywhere but continues to run away from the humiliating spectre of failure rather than face it head on. Tianyi meanwhile looks for guidance and unable to find it struggles to find independent direction, but in confronting each other the two men begin to regain the confidence to keep going redefining their idea of success as striving for rather than reaching the finish line.

An unconventional sporting drama, Han’s inspirational tale nevertheless promotes perseverance and determination as the former champions overcome their self-doubt to realise that you don’t have to just give up if you feel you’ve lost your way and that there are always other ways of winning. There may be no finish line in life, but there are ways to go on living when your sporting life is over not least in supporting the sporting endeavours of others or as the post-credits coda less comfortably suggests monetising your name brand to build a sportswear empire that enriches both yourself and the nation. A late in the game slide towards a patriotic finale cannot however undo the genuine warmth extended to the struggling athletes as they resolve to keep on running no matter what hurdles lie in their way.


Never Stop streams in the US Sept. 15 to 21 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Dong Runnian, 2019)

What is love, and in the end does it really matter? It’s a question the mostly middle-aged couples of Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Bèi Guāng Zhuāzǒu de Rén) who perhaps assumed they were past such existential questioning find themselves contemplating after an unprecedented event causes the disappearance of seemingly random people from all over the world giving rise to the rumour that those taken were those truly in love. But if that’s so, what does it mean for the overwhelming majority left behind, suddenly lonely and uncertain wondering if they’ve been spared or judged and found wanting for their lack of emotional fulfilment. 

At 10am one spring morning, a brief flash of light creates a slight temporal disturbance causing a small percentage of the population to simply vanish. No one knows what happened or where they’ve gone, but the connection is later made that many seem to have been taken in pairs giving rise to the theory that the disappeared are the only true lovers. This is a minor problem for some of the left behind who have lost spouses twice over, not only literally but emotionally in realising that their loved one was in real, deep love with someone else. Meanwhile, those not taken begin to wonder why, questioning the validity of their relationships, doubting that their loved ones really love them but not quite daring to ask the same question in reverse. 

Dong opens the film with a vox pop session questioning several people about the nature of love, some of whom we’ll get to know better and others not. Our hero, school teacher, Wenxue (Huang Bo), unconvincingly claims that he does not put any stock in the admittedly unscientific theory that only true lovers were taken and that the rumours have not affected him or his wife but as we later see they have profoundly unsettled his unexceptional, middle-class family life which was at least superficially happy or perhaps merely unhappy in the most ordinary of ways. Before the light, we see him annoy his wife by waking her up smoking in bed before they have perfunctory, routine sex over which they discuss Wenxue’s hopes for promotion and whether or not it’s appropriate to schmooze with the headmaster to smooth the path. The fact they weren’t chosen eventually becomes a kind of embarrassment, the promotion going to a man whose wife disappeared on him for the slightly strange reason that being betrayed in love somehow grants him the moral high ground. Wenxue, like many, goes to great lengths to excuse himself, getting a fixer to photoshop pictures of his wife along with train tickets to make out she was in another town when the light descended.

Meanwhile, Li Nan (Wang Luodan), a woman who was in the middle of trying to divorce her husband when the light struck finds herself accosted by his mistress (Huang Lu) demanding to know where he is seeing as he did not ascend with her. The obvious conclusion is that he had another woman, but the quest forces each of them to reassess their true feelings towards the missing man, the mistress desperate to prove she wasn’t just an “adulteress” but a woman in love, and the wife that she really is ready to let him go. A young woman (Li Jiaqi) who threatened to commit suicide by jumping off a roof when her parents tried to stop her marrying her boyfriend (Ding Xihe) suddenly doubts her feelings when her parents disappear together while she and the man she thought she loved are left behind. A petty thug (Bai-ke), in the only subtle implication of a same sex love, becomes obsessed with the idea that his friend has been murdered by a TV presenter who had been bothering him and his death has been covered up to look like one of the disappearances, perhaps again hoping to find evidence against a romantic rejection. 

Talking to another man in a similar situation Wenxue is given a dressing-down, reminded that he’s been extremely self-involved and that the problems he’s now able to see in his marriage thanks to the light were there all along, only now he’s refusing to face them in a much more direct way. He couldn’t or chose not to see that his wife was lonely and filled with despair while flirting with an equally lonely woman at work. His confrontation with her provokes his only real moment of emotional reckoning as they each reflect on the fantasy of romance and its capacity to dissipate when realised. Walking in on his teenage daughter getting dumped for the first time he’s perhaps in the best position to offer advice, even if it’s of the fairly prosaic kind to the effect that she’ll get over it in time. “Your lies make me ashamed” she’d fired back at her parents’ middle-aged hypocrisy, a very ordinary marriage in which perhaps the “love” has gone, in one sense, but equally might be succeeded by something else. “It’s alright, you will know it in the future” Wenxue tells his heartbroken daughter but might as well be talking to himself, beginning to feel the love after love in conceding that perhaps this is what “love” is rather than any kind of “rapture” literal or otherwise. A beautifully pitched meditation on the consequences of love, the madness, violence, and loss, Gone with the Light finds its release in stillness and a gentle contemplation of that which remains when everything else is burned away. 


Gone with the Light streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Vortex (铤而走险, Jacky Gan Jianyu, 2019)

“Only with money are you treated like a person” according to cynical gangster Xia Tao, another embattled soul turning to the dark side to try and survive after multiple betrayals in a cruel and unforgiving society. Anchored by a standout performance from comedian Da Peng in a rare dramatic role, Vortex (铤而走险, Tǐng’érzǒuxiǎn) sees one feckless young man falling into a web of criminality after succumbing to the temptation of an easy fix to all his problems. As he and others will discover, however, actions have consequences and there are no victimless crimes. 

Liu Xiaojun (Da Peng) is an embittered young(ish) man left orphaned and resentful after his policeman father died on the job. Nominally a mechanic with his own repair shop he also has a self-destructive gambling problem that’s left him deep in debt to local mobsters. He tries to hit up an old friend, Brother Wan (Cao Bingkun), recently released from prison, but he offers him a job rather than money, explaining that it’s only crime adjacent not actually illegal. All he has to do is drive unregistered cars back to the depot where Wan can resell them, and he’ll get 10,000 a pop. Xiaojun isn’t really into crime so he’s reluctant to take Wan up on his offer, trying his policeman uncle (Cao Weiyu) for yet another loan instead, but when he blows that too in reckless gambling he realises he has no other choice. The plan goes badly wrong, however, when the car Xiaojun is supposed to pick up turns out to be occupied and he finds himself in a fight with the Xia brothers. He manages to get it back to the depot but there’s another problem. The car was carrying cargo, a little girl, Qiqi (Audrey Duo / Doo Ulantoya), hidden in the boot apparently at the centre of a kidnapping plot. 

Xiaojun wants to call the police, but Wan is against it. He urges him to dump Qiqi somewhere and hope the authorities find and return her to her parents, but Xiaojun finds himself keeping the little girl. When Qiqi’s frantic mother calls the cellphone that was left in the car he realises she’s worth around two million and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. After all, it’s a win/win. Xiaojun isn’t going to hurt Qiqi like the kidnappers might so he’s keeping her safe and he gets to pocket the money in return. 

So begins his series of moral justifications for the vortex of crime that began with his decision to drive the car for Wan which was itself caused by his gambling problem and addiction to quick fix solutions. Later, we can see that his self-destructive streak is a kind of despair, an act of self-harm taken in revenge against the unfairness of losing his father who apparently did everything right but paid a heavy price in attempting to serve justice. Xiaojun unfairly blames his uncle for failing to save his dad in choosing to do his job as a policeman and fiercely resists his well-meaning, paternal attempts to save him from his life of crime adjacent activity, but later perhaps comes to understand after unwisely becoming involved in the kidnapping plot, bonding with the innocent Qiqi, and then bitterly regretting his foolishness in placing her in danger to chase the money. 

Yet money, as Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) says, is only thing that counts and you’re nothing without it. Xia Tao too turned to crime following parental betrayal, no longer seeing the point in playing by the rules if all it gets you is a lifetime of righteous suffering. Wan’s bar hostess friend, Zhao Qian (Li Meng), seems to be mixed up in the plot too though as her role becomes clear we realise that she has also succumbed to a quick fix solution out of desperation, trying to save a man she loves but later describes as “only a friend” by resorting to desperate measures to ensure he gets a life saving operation. Even little Qiqi seems to feel betrayed by mum and dad, answering Xiaojun’s question about who she thinks loves her more with a sad “neither”, while asking not to be returned to her mother because she’s been stopping her seeing her father and she misses him.  

As we later find out, there might be quite a good reason for that which Qiqi is too young to understand, but still she wants to try and find him and seems cheerful enough with Xiaojun while he says he’ll help her. Until then, Xiaojun becomes an awkward paternal presence, touched by Qiqi’s earnestness and lost in a moral quagmire trying to work out where the best place to send her might be while still hoping to get his hands on the cash. Redeeming himself by, in a sense, paying the ransom by deciding to prioritise saving Qiqi from the Xia brothers, Xiaojun begins to extricate himself from the vortex of crime, rediscovering a more positive paternal presence of his own in forgiving uncle Wang and his own father in coming to an understanding of their choices through being forced to make his own. A minor condemnation of the modern China’s wealth obsession and growing social inequality, Vortex finds its villains less villainous than one might expect, succumbing to the slippery slope of criminality in desperation and a sense of abandonment in a society which seems content to leave them behind.


Vortex is represented by Fortissimo Films.

International Trailer (English subtitles)

Super Me (超级的我, Zhang Chong, 2019)

Can you dream yourself into a better reality, or should you concentrate on being your best self in this one? That’s a dilemma that the hero of Zhang Chong’s Super Me (超级的我, Chāojí de Wǒ) barely has time to think about as he battles despair-fuelled hopelessness and possibly unrequited love for the beautiful woman who runs his local cafe. If only I were rich, he might well think, but though poverty is undoubtedly a factor in his malaise it’s his sense of inferiority which has him beaten down and all the money in the world won’t change that. 

We first meet Sang Yu (Darren Wang Talu) on a subway train where he recites a mantra to himself about how he’s “not an ordinary man”, he has the ability to work under pressure, and though his parents died and he has no friends those are merely tests from God which he has overcome. He is “brilliant and talented, diligent and motivated”, he expects success will soon arrive only he hasn’t slept a wink in the last six months because of the constant night terrors which plague him such as the one we’re about to witness. Sang Yu is asleep, and a nightmare is stalking him. 

Killed by having his head plunged through the train’s floor, Sang Yu wakes up and we realise his waking life is also quite depressing. A 20-something screenwriter, he’s behind on his rent and in debt to his friend/agent while unable to work because of his insomnia. Wandering around in a daze after being evicted from his apartment and getting his laptop stolen, he writes a note to his friend telling him he’ll have to pay him back in the next life and prepares to jump off the roof opposite the cafe where his true love, Hua (Song Jia), works, only to be saved by the intervention of the jian bing seller (Chin Shih-chieh) from down below who advises him to try waking up from his dreams before he gets killed by reminding himself that he is dreaming. Sang Yu takes him at his word and manages to emerge from the dreamworld unscathed clutching the weapon that once belonged to his attacker. After selling the antique sword to weapons brokers, he realises he’s sitting on a cash cow, routinely looting the dreamworld of many of its treasures and quickly harnessing its power to become a wealthy and successful man. All of which gives him the courage to finally approach Hua, wielding his newfound economic power to invest in the apparently failing cafe. 

A modern day take on Jack and the Beanstalk, Super Me finds its nice guy hero corrupted by his wealth, abandoning his artistic dreams and becoming a debauched playboy living in a five star hotel even if he continues to pine for Hua while his friend, Sangge (Cao Bingkun), reverts to being something like a minion riding on his coattails to enjoy the life of the rich and famous without really having to do anything. The irony is that the money and the fancy clothes give Sang Yu the confidence to talk to Hua, but those aren’t things she particularly cares about and may in a sense actually turn her off. Enjoying romantic evening walks, she guesses he’s a screenwriter from his veiled hints about robbing the dreamworld and is interested more in his artistic self than the wealthy man of mystery, all of which gives Sang Yu the inspiration to finish that screenplay which of course becomes a hit beyond his wildest dreams. 

After a while, Sang Yu starts to suspect there must be a cost involved in all this good fortune, realising that he’s traded some of his life away in return for riches and will perhaps never be free of his nightmares. Yet, as a cruel gangster tells him, everyone’s wealth comes at the sacrifice of life, echoing his earlier thoughts that those who are successful are either those who’ve chosen to sacrifice things that others won’t or are unscrupulous thieves and exploiters. “A person who betrays himself can never control his own destiny”, according to the gangster. Asleep or awake, Sang Yu realises he’s battling himself, that there are no quick fixes, and illusionary success is as hollow and as fleeting as the dreamworld from which he has perhaps failed to learn the appropriate lessons. As the old man told him, perhaps what he needs is to wake up, not only to life’s possibilities but to his own. Echoing his earlier The Fourth Wall, Zhang allows Sang Yu to walk through a door into a “better” reality which is perhaps the one he inhabited before but was too intimidated to actually live in. He hasn’t definitively beaten his demons, but perhaps subdued them while his new life seems determined to reward him for his choice in unexpected ways. Nevertheless, can you trust this reality more than any other? There may be no way to know, but you’ll have to learn to trust it all the same. 


Super Me is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Animal World (动物世界, Han Yan, 2018)

Animal World Poster 1Greed is good. So Michael Douglas once told us many years ago and if Animal World (动物世界, Dòngwù Shìjiè) is anything to go by, the Gordon Gekkos of the world have not changed their tune. Inspired by Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor, Han Yan’s anarchic gambling drama is the latest in a long line of films to ask serious questions about a perceived moral decline accompanying the rapid economic development of the Chinese state occurring largely during the lifetime of the pure hearted hero Zheng Kaisi (Li Yi Feng) who has been dealt a bum deal and is doing very little to resist it. Describing himself as “crazy” (not unfairly, as it turns out), Kaisi is perhaps the last good man but his resolve is severely tested when he finds himself trapped aboard the good ship Destiny and forced to bet his life on a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Kaisi was one of the smartest kids in town but his father’s early death when Kaisi was eight and his mother’s long term illness have left him all alone in the world. Defeated and without hope, Kaisi’s only job is playing a sad clown at a local arcade and, in a failing he continues to find humiliating, he has to rely on childhood friend and putative sweetheart Qin (Zhong Dongyu), who is also his mother’s nurse, for the money to pay the medical fees that keep his mum in an actual room and not out in the corridor with all the other paupers. Another childhood friend of Kaisi’s, Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), claims to be in a similarly sticky situation and offers Kaisi a sweet deal if only he’ll consent to mortgaging the family apartment. Reluctant but backed into a corner, Kaisi agrees only to realise that not for the first or last time Li Jun has thrown him under the bus and he’s now on the hock for all his friend’s debts which seem to belong to a shady underworld kingpin by the name of Anderson (Michael Douglas). Anderson offers him a way out – he can win it all back and more if he agrees to submit himself to a high stakes game of chance way out in international waters aboard a disused warship called “Destiny”.

Describing himself as “crazy”, Kaisi has a strange fascination with clowns which extends past his occupation and directly into his psyche. Imprinted with a violent kids’ cartoon in which a vigilante clown metes out justice with a smile during a traumatic childhood incident, Kaisi feels as if there is a clown trapped inside him which wants to come out at moments of intense emotionality. Floating away in flights of fancy, he reimagines his enemies as weird space creatures and sees himself cut them down with twin samurai swords in the cramped environment of an otherwise empty subway car. Reality and imagination become blurred as we watch Kaisi run through a scenario in his head only to cut back to the “real” world where he more often than not decides to let things go. Despite his internal crazy clown, Kaisi is a defeated and passive figure who has been drifting aimlessly without hope or purpose, too afraid even accept the affection of his childhood sweetheart Qin due to his internalised insecurity regarding his lack of financial stability.

Dealt a bum deal by life, Kaisi has been relegated to an oppressed underclass with little chance of escape. He is, however, honest and pure hearted unlike his dodgy real estate broker friend, Li Jun. “Destiny” becomes a microcosm for exploring the evils of capitalism as the players quickly realise that they are only involved in a sub game – while they risk their lives at the gaming tables, the fabulously wealthy are busy betting on them from behind two way mirrors. Shady impresario Anderson gives a rousing introduction to proceedings, but pointedly omits to add anything about cheating. Cheating is not just allowed, it is encouraged, to a point at least, and playing the angles strongly advised. Games of chance are never quite just that and Kaisi’s finely tuned mathematical brain finally gets an excuse to kick back into action after a long period of wilful indolence.

Repeatedly, Kaisi is told that “loyalty” means nothing in this “animal world” where the only thing that counts is “profit”. While he is good hearted and originally taken in by the schemes of others, he is not naive and is able to see the “animal world” for what it is even if he refuses to become a full part of it. Maintaining his faith in the power of friendship proves to be a mistake, but still Kaisi realises that he’d much rather be a “clown” ridiculed for his principles than a soulless mercenary who’d sell out a friend for money. His attitude perhaps stands in stark contrast to those around him who’ve each found themselves at the Destiny for different reasons, some more eager than others to give in to their desperation. A mild critique of the heartlessness of a fiercely competitive society and its inbuilt societal inequalities, Animal World is a beautifully designed, surreal and anarchic tribute to fighting the good fight even if everyone else thinks you’re a “crazy clown”.


Animal World is released in UK cinemas from 29th June courtesy of Cine Asia. Check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you including screenings across Europe and the rest of the world!

Original trailer (Mandarin, no subtitles)