My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.

Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

Together (和你在一起, Chen Kaige, 2002)

together engIt’s a sad truth, but talent isn’t enough to see you succeed in the wider world. In fact, all having talent means is that unscrupulous people will seek to harness themselves to you in the hope of achieving the kind of success which they are incapable of obtaining for themselves. 13 year old Xiaochun is about a learn a series of difficult life lessons in Chen Kaige’s Together (和你在一起, Hé nǐ zài yīqǐ), not least of them what true fatherhood means and whether the pursuit of fame and fortune is worth sacrificing the very passion that brought you success in the first place.

Xiaochun lives with his father Liu Cheng in a small rural town where he is known for his prowess with the fiddle. In fact, he even gets called in to play some calming violin music at the birth of a local bigwig’s child. After a little boy emerges safely into the world, the bigwig tries to give Liu some money which he refuses but Xiaochun later takes. The big wig congratulates Xiaochun on his understanding of how the world works, unlike his honest and sentimental father.

However, what Liu wants for his son is success so he takes the boy to the big city and enters him in a violin contest. He comes fifth but the contest is rigged in favour of donors to the school and no one wants to take on a poor country bumpkin for a pupil. Eventually Liu convinces an eccentric, lonely professor, Jiang, to give Xiaochun lessons and the pair start to build up a paternal relationship. Xiaochun also makes friends with the beautiful but equally eccentric woman from upstairs, Lili, while his father tries to find work to pay for all these lessons. Eventually Liu ends up at a swanky recital and tries to get Xiaochun to switch to the more successful professor Yu who’s all cold calculation and designer sweaters. This sudden bid for mainstream success drives a wedge between father and son who have very different ideas of what it means to be a “successful” person.

Together isn’t quite the film it seems to set out to be. You’d expect professor Jiang’s broken heart to take more of a centre stage but no sooner have we invested our time in Jiang’s back story of tragic romance than Xiaochun is swept away to the corporate music factory that is Yu’s upscale apartment. We’ve already seen how money and status are everything in this game, donate big bucks to the school and your kid gets the shiny trophy regardless of their actual talent. A depressingly realistic scene right after the contest sees Jiang trying to give a lesson to a clearly disinterested boy while his trashily dressed mother yells at someone on a blinged up cellphone from the other room. When the pair angrily declare they won’t be coming back, the boy is strangely grateful to Jian for “letting him quit” this annoying hobby that his mum obviously made him practice as a kind of status symbol despite the fact he has no ear for music.

Liu is just too bumpkinish for Beijing life, he’s simple and honest which are not good qualities to have in a big city. He insists on wearing a big red hat all the time which screams “not local”, and he even keeps his money in it so, of course, it gets stolen. That said, it’s Liu who wants his son to have the big bucks and a secure life of the kind that Yu can offer him. He sincerely wants this for Xiaochun and is prepared to get out of his way if necessary. Jiang wanted to teach him music and would have done it for free. Yu wants to use him to bolster his own success and is prepared to manipulate him in extremely cruel ways in order to get what he wants out of him. Tellingly, Yu already had a prize pupil living his apartment who is now forced to compete with Xiaochun for Yu’s attention. Now there’s a better prospect on the table, she is being abandoned despite a host of promises and all her hard work. Yu is a businessman, Jiang is an artist.

Now the boy has to choose between three fathers and three futures as he considers just giving up and going home with his father, giving in to Yu’s corporate demands and losing the love he had for playing his instrument in a simple and heartfelt way, or following Jiang’s teachings which, ironically, are all about following the heart. After an extremely late and cruelly presented revelation, Xiaochun has even more to think about with this question but ultimately what matters is heart more than money as a hand knitted sweater proves warmer than an expensive fur coat.

Together has a number of structural problems that frustrate its passage either as a Hollywood influenced feel good tale of a poor boy and his violin or a gritty indie movie about how talent doesn’t matter in a world ruled by social status and reputation (which is sort of like a futures market in an odd way, everyone buying into something which doesn’t quite exist). Liu and Xiaochun meet a lot of nice “salt of the Earth” people in the big city (except for Yu) but are perpetually locked out of the next stage of the game through not having the right connections. Liu, in his simple and honest way, doesn’t understand this so he’s able to pressure right through it but his son who is more pure hearted but also practical finds navigating its series of traps and temptations endlessly confusing. Edging into sentimentality in the final third, Chen can’t quite bring his sonata to the crescendo he seems to be aiming for but still finishes with a warmly received round of applause.

Together was released in the UK by Momentum under the title Together with You (presumably to avoid confusion with Lukas Moodyson’s film of the same title released not long before) which is a more literal, if slightly awkward, translation of the original Chinese. The disc itself and menu screen both remain “Together”. The UK disc may be technically OOP but the film is also available in the US from MGM.