Changfeng Town (长风镇, Wang Jing, 2019)

“One strange thing follows another in this town” according to a world weary saloon owner attempting to process the mysterious theft of a handful of billiard balls. Like a magical realist fable, the village at the centre of Wang Jing’s whimsical nostalgia fest Changfeng Town (长风镇, Chángfēng Zhèn) exists slightly out of time, located at the intersection of memory and longing filled both with a sense of existential ennui and the comforting aimlessness of childhood. Yet even here where time passes and doesn’t the ironies of small-town life pervade as the older hero reflects on the wilful secrets and everyday mysteries which exist even in those places where everyone knows everyone and gossip is the lifeblood of the community. 

Narrated by the young “Scabby” (Song Daiwei), so nicknamed because of a prominent scar on the back of his head, Changfeng Town weaves together several stories set across one theoretical summer as seen through the eyes of a group of small boys continually on their periphery. Set comfortably in a “nostalgic past”, the atmosphere of the town shifts from a restrained post-war, early ‘60s tainted innocence towards something perhaps closer to its more logical position somewhere in the early to mid 1980s which of course places it after the Cultural Revolution but before Tiananmen Square in a China filled with a sense of hope and possibility for a brighter future mirroring perhaps Scabby’s own sense of growing adolescent energy. 

Nevertheless, Changfeng Town is a strange place where strange things do indeed happen though less one after another than all at once. Missing billiard balls, a plague of mice, a purifying flood, arrivals and disappearances each changing the unchanging town in small but marked ways, it’s nevertheless a sense of loneliness that defines each of the intersecting tales most of which have to do with misplaced or unfulfilled love. Redhead (Pema Jyad), the teenage ringleader of the local kids nicknamed for his red rinse hairdo, pines for the most beautiful girl in the village, Cai-xia (Luo Wenqing), half-sister of Scabby’s friend Four Eyes (Liu Xinrong) and box office girl at the local picture house, yet she has taken a liking to lovelorn poet Guang (Tao Taotao) who has just had his heart broken by the local school teacher. Redhead’s widowed mother (Cui Nan), meanwhile, has been carrying on an affair with the married local dentist (Wei Xidi), apparently an open secret in the village, while beloved truck driver Xi-shan (Chen Gang) continues to carry a torch for her knowing his love is impossible because he was involved in the accident which killed her husband. 

Known only as The Mute (San Shugong), an old man travels to the station every day with his parrot presumably hoping to meet someone who never arrives. One of the boys says his mother told him that he does so because he mistakenly thinks he can travel to other places by watching the trains go by, but no one really knows because no one really bothers to try to communicate with him. Some attempt to leave the village, occasionally returning like the much changed Redhead now dressed like someone who’s been to the city bringing back with him gifts of modernity such as a remote control Transformer that provokes a falling out between Four Eyes and Scabby which adds to the narrator’s growing sense of disillusionment, but to return is in many ways to fail, to be consumed by nostalgia and unable to move forward. Changfeng Town is also a charming trap. Scabby will soon outgrow it as spring travels towards autumn, the bald spot on the back of his head which gives him his name fast disappearing rendering him Scabby no more. Yet it will always in a sense be there for him, its residents permanently happy even as people come and go. 

Mirroring the ending of The 400 Blows, one of several films playing in the local cinema which also include Spring in a Small Town, A Touch of Zen, Steamboat Bill, Jr, and Nights of Cabiria among others, Wang closes with a freeze frame leaving Scabby “running towards the unknown” abandoning nostalgia in search of the elusive happiness of those who remain behind. Shot with a wistful ethereality, Changfeng Town marries an earthy, small-town rurality with an ironic absurdism as the various stories of its melancholy protagonists weave in and out of each other while remaining strangely unknown in the ever constant, ever changing village of nostalgia.


Changfeng Town streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Looming Storm (暴雪将至, Dong Yue, 2017)

The Looming Storm posterGreat changes were afoot in China in 1997. While the rest of the continent contended with the Asian Financial Crisis, China saw the death of reformer Deng Xiaoping who had begun the business of putting the nation’s economy on a modern footing – something which was still very much in progress under the then premier, Jiang Zemin. The old unprofitable factory cities and the work unit system were on their way out, but with little in the way to replace them save the hope for a new and glorious future. The hero of Dong Yue’s debut, The Looming Storm (暴雪将至, Bào Xuě Jiāngzhì) has an unhappy destiny in that his name uses characters which could be translated as “unnecessary remnant of a glorious nation”. He, like many of his generation, is one caught out by his country’s sudden shifts and finds himself living out a fantasy, chasing at shadows and eventually destroying himself in a misdirected attempt to attack a society which has all but forgotten him.

We begin at the end – in 2008, Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) is released from prison as a parolee, awaiting the return of his ID card and along with it his official existence as a member of society. Flashing back to 1997, Guowei is the security officer at the local factory. Having proved himself efficient in catching petty criminals thieving from the communal resources, Guowei gets himself a “model worker” commendation and the nickname “Detective Yu”. Fancying himself as a top investigator and there being very little to do in this no horse town, Guowei is, in a sense, excited when another body of a young woman turns up near the factory closely matching the pattern of other recent murders and hinting at a serial killer. Seeing as the police are short staffed in any case, the local sheriff decides to humour Guowei by allowing him to go on trying to solve the case on his own.

Guowei investigates the crime with methods he’s learned from hardboiled movies – staking out the crime scene and asking awkward questions in an illicit local disco where, it is suggested, some of the victims may have been earning money through casual sex work. He becomes obsessed with shadowy figures, faces hidden by raincoats, who lurk on the periphery anonymous and almost unseen but yet unsettling. Guowei finds and chases his quarry, only to abandon a friend in need while the suspect gets away leaving Guowei with only his shoe as a possible clue.

During his model worker speech, Guowei somewhat milks the occasion but proudly states that he intends to live a “meaningful live”. Given the depressing drudgery of his existence it’s unclear how he intends to do that, but then his “investigation” becomes his great and glorious destiny – something which will bring both meaning and acclaim to his otherwise meaningless existence. Like many of his age, Guowei has learned to be proud of his contributions to society through his work but remains unaware that the security bureau is not well respected. Everyone knows Guowei is a pure hearted sort who cannot be corrupted and pretends to respect him for it, but in reality they find him priggish and ridiculous. Unbeknownst to him to there have been many more mysterious thefts he’s never discovered because the entire factory and even his own assistant are engaged in a complex system of bribery to cover them all up.

When the factory is unceremoniously shut down, all Guowei is left with is his need to find the killer. Striking up a relationship with a pretty sex worker, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan), who dreams of opening her own hair salon in Hong Kong – another new horizon in 1997 though one she fears she may never see, Guowei perhaps has another shot at building a “meaningful life” but rejects it, suppressing his natural desires for his obsessive pursuit in deciding to use his new muse as bait. Time and again, Guowei backs away from the reality, unwittingly sacrifices friends and lovers in service to his self created narrative in which he is a hero seeking justice whose victory is all but assured. Having discovered the truth, Yanzi’s eyes are opened – she has woken up from the beautiful dream of a possible future while Guowei is still boyishly dreaming of becoming a hero in an unheroic world.

Dong paints the industrial factory town in tones of washed out browns and greys as the rain falls without end, muddying the streets and thickening the air. Having made a life changing transgression, Guowei is asked what the point in any of this really was and seemingly has no answer, his fantasy perhaps shattered by his single act of horrifying violence intended for the world in which he lived which had already robbed him of so much, but vented on a possibly innocent party all because of a personal conviction more akin to prejudice. A victim of changing times denied his future, the “meaningful life” that would allow him to greet the new century with head held high, Guowei creates a new narrative for himself in which he can be the hero but there is a storm always looming and Guowei has been swiping at ghosts flickering on the peripheries of his fracturing mind. Eventually Guowei too decides it’s time to leave this place only to find no way out from the blizzard conditions which continue frustrate the path towards his future.


The Looming Storm screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 plus Q&A with director Dong Yue on 9th July at 9.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)