Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Liang Ming, 2019)

A young woman rides the waves of changing times in Liang Ming’s Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Rìguāng Zhīxià). Perhaps innocence is something slightly painful you’re better off without, but awakening to life’s light and shade can be a difficult process. Gu Xi (Celeste Lv) is suffering with a dull ache in her jaw and the solution is, apparently, merely pain killers but you can only numb yourself so long before you have to make a choice of whether to go on living with the pain, or free yourself from it. 

A young, if slightly immature woman, Gu Xi has a job in a local hotel and lives alone with her half-brother, Gu Liang (Wu Xiaoliang), who, until recently, has eked out a living as a fisherman. A recent oil spill revealed to have occurred some time ago but covered up by the authorities has put paid to that, while Xi also finds her job under threat because she has an undocumented status and there is shortly to be some kind of inspection. Having grown up without a mother and entirely ignorant of who her father might have been, Xi feels acutely anxious about her circumstances and is dependent on Liang for a sense of security. It is therefore unsettling for her when he develops an interest in the sophisticated Qingchang (Wang Jiajia), daughter of local mob boss Zhou (Chen Yongzhong) and a recent returnee from South Korea where she had been living with her mother. 

A mirror image of Xi, Qingchang is everything she she’s not. Xi is well known for wearing her brother’s clothes, dressing like a tomboy for reasons that are a combination of poverty and affection, where Qingchang has wardrobes full of the latest fashions brought back with her from overseas including a beautifully crafted Hanbok featuring an elaborate embroidered design. As much as she’s resentful and intimidated, Xi can’t help admiring the slightly older woman, captivated by her sense of self assuredness, and eventually develops a sisterly bond with her even while fearing that she may steal her brother away. 

A further intrusion, however, disrupts their tentative familial bonding. A fisherman found dead and floating on the sea hints at a burgeoning turf war between local bosses Zhou, Qingchang’s father and Liang’s employer now that he’s taken a job as a security guard at the docks, and Jiang (Tao Hai), a melancholy Christian who owns the hotel where Xi had been working. Though warned by others that Jiang seemed “creepy”, Xi feels indebted to him because her job at the hotel was saved after she approached him to intervene. Her habit of recording the conversations around her to listen to later presents her with a problem when she discovers that Zhou may have bumped off the fisherman himself and is planning to frame Jiang for the crime. Jiang, it seems is also receiving protection money to ensure the fishermen’s safety, apparently a promise he wasn’t able to keep. Xi is pulled three ways. She loses confidence in Qingchang who is now both tainted by association and a figure of mild discomfort, while fearful that if she reveals what she knows, serves justice and repays a debt by clearing Jiang, she will ruin her brother’s happiness and risk his rejection. 

Trapped in he realms of childhood, what she most wants is to preserve her status quo. Liang is everything to her – brother, father, and somewhat uncomfortably a figure of romantic impossibility. Her feelings towards Qingchang are mired in complexity, a nascent attraction perhaps underlying her sense of jealousy either misdirected through her complicated feelings for her brother or simply finding its anchor for the first time. An angry speech at her brother’s birthday party during which she inappropriately reads out a semi-explicit passage from a lesbian novel hints at an attempt to resolve an attraction she feels is taboo, though it is unclear for whom it is directed. As with most young people, she must come to an accommodation with the fact that her world is changing. A childhood promise that she and her brother would never marry, preserving their family of two forevermore, was always unrealistic but she struggles to let go of the idea of permanence in a childish sense of familial security. Like the oil polluting the seas, her world is coloured by uncertainties but like anyone else she discovers that her agency is limited and whatever choice she makes others will make their choices too. That dull ache in her jaw is a reflection of the ills of the world around her, an inconvenient tooth that needs to be plucked out and discarded leaving only the cold comfort of adult wisdom behind in its place. 


Wisdom Tooth screens on March 11/14 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Diao Yinan, 2019)

wild goose lake poster 1Chaos and desperation are about as far as it’s possible to get from the image of the modern China the nation’s cinema has been keen to project, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves in the murky world of The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Nánfāng Czhàn de Jùhuì). Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice followup finds the director in much the same territory only this time embracing the absurdity of existential flight as his twin heroes seek impossible escape in the garish neon of a provincial underworld.

Diao opens on the rain-drenched streets as sullen gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waits impatiently for a rendezvous with his estranged wife Shujun (Wan Qian), only to be met by a stranger – “bathing beauty” Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), who explains she won’t be coming. A lengthy flashback reveals that Zenong is currently on the run after getting embroiled in a dispute over turf assignments at some kind of gangster briefing session during in which one of his guys shot one of the Cat brothers’ men in the leg. To settle the matter, the boss proposes a good old-fashioned competition to see who can nick the most bikes in one night with the winner getting the prime spot, but Zenong doesn’t know he’s been set up and mistakenly kills a policeman after being attacked by Cat Eyes. Realising there’s no longer any way out for him, Zenong’s last hope is to keep the police at bay long enough to get back in touch with his wife and convince her to turn him in to the police so that she can claim the reward money.

Like many men of his generation, Zenong couldn’t find the kind of honest work that would allow him to provide for his family and so he left home. Too ashamed to own his no-good gangster ways, he stayed away for five years but all that’s on his mind is family and this is the only chance that he will ever have to provide for them. Shujun isn’t even really sure she wants anything to do with her absentee husband, but is dragged back into his orbit once again harassed by the police every step of the way.

In striking contrast to most Chinese crime dramas, these police are far from a force for order. Describing Wild Goose Lake as a lawless land, they have their very own briefing to formulate a plan to catch Zenong but aren’t averse to underhanded tactics like threatening Shujun and trying to undermine her attachment to her husband through a fabricated story about a pregnant girlfriend. The line between cop and thug isn’t so thick as you’d think it would be, and you can’t trust the police any more than brotherhood or honour amongst thieves.

Devoid of morality, Wild Goose Lake is indeed a chaotic place defined by shifting loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Fights break out without warning, plans change, and there are no safe spaces. Bumbling as they are, the police are everywhere watching everything and trying to blend in. Anyone might be a cop, or secretly working against you. Zenong is on the classic wrong man path, except that he’s the right man and he knows it. He might not have pulled the trigger if he knew it was a policeman he was firing at, but pull the trigger he did and now he’ll have to make peace with it. Trying to outrun the law only so long as to subvert it, he finds himself slipping past checkpoints distracted by pointless officiousness and consistently evading the net.

When Shujun is unable to make it to the rendezvous, Aiai offers to take her place by turning Zenong in and claiming the reward money to pass it on to Zenong’s wife (minus a small fee), meaning they will need to trust each other until the mission is completed. Aiai, a dejected young woman supplementing her income with casual sex work as one of the “bathing beauties” found at the lake, longs to escape her dead end existence, eventually telling the policeman she’d use the reward money to open a small store back in her hometown. Like Shujun, she lives in a fiercely patriarchal, unforgiving society  from which there is little sign of escape or independence. Yet, as afraid of everything Zenong represents as she eventually becomes, Aiai remains steadfast and true, keeping her promise and paving the way towards a brighter future for Shujun and her son away from the haphazard chaos of Wild Goose Lake. An absurdist fable drenched in neon, Diao’s conception of life on the margins of provincial China is as bleak as they come but eventually finds space for positivity on returning to a world more ordinary in which two women walk away from the traumatic past arm in arm and the law has to be content to let them go.


The Wild Goose Lake was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English captions)

Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Bi Gan, 2018)

Long Day's Journey into Night poster“It’s living in the past that’s scary” an old friend advises the hero of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Dìqiú Zhòu de Yèwǎn). He knows she’s right, but like the best film noir heroes, the past is the place he can’t bear to visit or to leave. Stealing a title from a Eugene O’Neill play about a dysfunctional family individually lost in the fog of self-delusion and unable to escape the legacies of past trauma, Long Day’s Journey into Night is the story of a man looking for lost love but finding it only within the confines of his own memory, transient yet also eternal.

Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili on the death of his father. As becomes apparent, there is nothing much of interest for him in a home he has avoided for years though an unexpected inheritance – a stopped clock his father could not stop looking at in the days before his death, yields unexpected treasure in the form of a black and white photograph of a young woman whose face has been burned out by a cigarette. Meanwhile, Luo walks us back through his own sad life story beginning at the turn of the Millennium when a recent divorce led to him letting down a friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi) – a roguish gambler, who was later murdered by gangster Zuo (Chen Yongzhong). Chasing the man who killed his friend, Luo tracks down his lover who bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the photograph. She tells him her name is “Wan Qiwen” (Tang Wei), and fascination soon turns into romance. As Luo has already hinted to us, Qiwen is the woman who defines his dreams – another of the disappeared, a ghost of memory which won’t let him rest.

Like the hero of Kaili Blues, Luo spends the rest of the picture looking for the missing – the mother who abandoned him in childhood, the man who killed Wildcat, and of course Qiwen. A haunted man, Luo chases ghosts and spectres of memory, attempting to repair his damaged world but perhaps half hoping not to find what it is he’s looking for and risk losing the beauty of its absence. Qiwen spins him a tale a worthy of any film noir femme fatale – of a jealous boyfriend and an impossible future. We can only be together if we live in the stars, she tells him, contributing to a noirish sense of futility which seals Luo inside a looping bubble of perpetual heartbreak and unresolvable longing.

For Luo all women and none are Qiwen whose emerald clad image echoes in every female face he sees. Memories of Qiwen and of his mother mingle uncomfortably, overlap and become one as he looks for explanations behind his twin abandonments and the heavy wound he carries in his heart. In his opening voice over, Luo tells us that dreams rise up within him and he rises with them as if his body were made of hydrogen, but that his memories are made of stone – heavy, immutable, and impossible to escape. Yet the dreamland is precious to him, because it’s the only place he can see Qiwen and where she is all he sees. Luo’s answers, if they come at all come only in dreams where the jumbled elements of his ongoing investigation reorder themselves, come together, and present a new truth holding its own transitory revelations.

In a dream Luo meets another woman who looks just like Qiwen only this time called Kaizhen with whom he trades eternity for transience and to whom he eventually gifts both. Luo’s wandering dream takes place on the winter solstice – literally the longest night on Earth, but is still too short. Drenched in perpetual rainfall, this Kaili is a lonely place of darkness and neon – a perfect encapsulation of Luo’s interior world, shaped by film noir and tragic romance which nevertheless gives way to a 3D dreamscape free of the selective editing which makes memory an unreliable narrator. Luo says that the difference between film and memory is that films are all false while memory holds both truth and lies, but in dreams dualities coalesce and absolutes disappear in a union of truth and fiction, transience and eternity. Bi Gan builds on the aching poetry of Kaili Blues for beautifully composed exploration of memory and desire mediated through frozen time and a single endless night.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (no subtitles)

Kaili Blues (路边野餐, Bi Gan, 2015)

Kaili blues poster 5“There is bound to be one who will return, to fill an empty bamboo basket with love.” intones the lonely poet at the centre of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (路边野餐, Lùbiān Yěcān) part way through his strange odyssey through the tiny yet infinite village of Dangmai, a place either out of time or entirely made of it. Longing, regret, the temporal impossibilities of memory, injustice, disappointment – a lifetime’s unresolved emotional trauma works its way into a dreamlike exploration of the past as a work in progress, half built but already obsolete. Time is just memory mixed with desire, in the words of another poet, and contrary to conventional wisdom, perhaps it does not flow ceaselessly in only one direction.

Our hero is Chen (Chen Yongzhong) – a middle aged doctor and published poet who once served time prison and inherited the money to start his clinic from his mother who passed away while he was inside. His major preoccupation in life is his young nephew – the son of his half-brother, the aptly named Crazy Face (Xie Lixun). Crazy Face is, to put it mildly, not a reliable father and often locks his son, Weiwei (Luo Feiyang), in their apartment while he wastes his life drinking and gambling. Chen has taken it upon himself to ensure the boy is well looked after – taking him on days out to the amusement park, buying him nutritious dinners, and just generally keeping him company. Chen is even prepared to adopt the boy, but Crazy Face is resentful and vindictive, irritated their mother left the family home to Chen and not to him. Eventually, Crazy Face “sells” Weiwei to an old man in another town, Zhenyuan, and Chen decides to try and fetch him back while delivering a long overdue message from his assistant to a man she once knew there before the cultural revolution who is now gravely ill.

Chen himself was once abandoned in Zhenyuan, by the mother who now haunts his dreams with the sound of lusheng pipes and memories of the Miao people who are now themselves rapidly disappearing. All Chen can see of her in his dreams is her shoes with their floral embroidery, distorted by their journey in the water. His assistant urges him to burn some paper money for her that she can use in the afterlife but to do it when no one’s looking – such ancient superstitions, like the lusheng pipes, are not to be seen or heard in the new “modern” China. Even Chen’s clinic is due to be pulled down, rendering the animosity between himself and his unhinged brother all the more pointless.

Looking for the lonely boy, who is also in a way himself, Chen chases ghosts of future and past. His passage to find the famed lusheng players and the last remnants of the Miao is precipitated by an act of fate – a young man’s attempts to kick start his motorbike to give his “girlfriend” (he seems to think that what she is, she may feel differently) Yangyang (Guo Yue) a lift fails miserably and she gets one from someone else, enabling Chen to climb on. Later we learn the young man’s name is Weiwei, and his mission is that he wants to make time run backwards because Yangyang is leaving to go to Kaili to work as a “tour guide” (it remains unclear who needs a tour in Kaili) and says she will only return if he can “turn back time”. Whether this Weiwei is somehow the teenage version of the boy Chen was looking for or not, he shares his obsession with imagined time, scrawling fake clocks on trains so that time really will be running backwards as one train passes another as if travelling into the past.

If the future can yield its ghosts then the past can too. A young hairdresser is the spitting image of Chen’s late wife who, according to a story he tells her disguised as that of a friend, he discovered had died while he was is in prison but had written him several letters in advance to hide the truth. Chen’s strange life, his time “on the streets” and accidental involvement with a stoic loanshark who accepted the death of his son at the hands of an enemy but demanded vengeance for his severed hand, might as well have been a dream for its all meandering disappointments. The gangster is now a horologist, as luck would have it. Even dreams have their logic. Only on arrival at his secondary destination does it all come together, the dream world and the real somehow merging and becoming whole once again. The past is a call that can’t be answered, but must be heard all the same.


International trailer (English subtitles)