Only Cloud Knows (只有芸知道, Feng Xiaogang, 2019)

930161b9ca654d4cac056b550c6d0542If contemporary Chinese cinema has one message, it’s come home to China. Feng Xiaogang, however, has never been keen to go with the flow for all of his occasionally problematic affection for the nation as it was before the ‘80s reforms. A co-production with New Zealand, unabashed romantic tearjerker Only Cloud Knows (只有芸知道, Z Yǒu Yún Zdào) seems primed to speak directly to the diaspora audience, asking if perhaps the meaning of the word “home” has changed, less place than people and, therefore, infinitely portable.

In the present day, recently widowed Dongfeng/Simon (Huang Xuan) prepares to say goodbye to his late wife, Yun/Jennifer (Yang Caiyu), by travelling back through their long years together facing many ups and downs as they strove to make a life for themselves in the laidback greenery of the New Zealand countryside. Dongfeng travels first to the small town where they started a humble restaurant, cooking the kind of food Westerners expect rather than the authentic Chinese dishes they fear no one will try, and using their English names “for convenience”. While there they employ a friendly waitress, Melinda (Lydia Peckham), who is something of a free spirit saving up money to travel to distant lands, touring Asia and Africa.

Though they are blissfully happy, life is not without its difficulties. Working so hard to make the restaurant a success leaves them with time for little else and wondering if they’ve perhaps lost sight of something important. Dongfeng no longer plays his flute, and Yun worries that he’s sacrificed a part of himself to provide for her, becoming a slightly different person in the process. Obsessed with blue whales, Yun craves protection and security, the kind of things many associate with a building a stable home, but she also yearns for freedom and for something more than ordinary happiness. Minor resentment creeps in born of that central contradiction. Dongfeng wants to give Yun the kind of security he assumes she needs by betting everything on the restaurant, but all she really wants is him.

Nevertheless, protection and security were the things which attracted her to Dongfeng in the first place as symbolised by her obsession with blue whales. Somewhat improbably, his hotheaded decision to start a fight with a man who cut them up in a carpark and then insulted Yun only endears him to her further and also gets him a commendation from a local policeman who even tells him he might be cut out for life on the force, but to ease back on the violence because New Zealand is a peaceful place. There are things, however, that one cannot be protected from and as much as fate gives it also takes away. Yun craves protection because she feels insecure in an existential sense, convinced that she is “unlucky” and originally reluctant to agree to Dongfeng’s proposal in fear that she is destined to make him unhappy.

Sadly, that prediction eventually proves correct though through no fault of her own. Lucky in love, the couple face their share of hardships from an inability to start a family to losing beloved pets and dealing with illness, but there’s no joy without sadness and if your time together is shorter perhaps it is equally sweet. In his opening monologue, Dongfeng muses, quoting poetry, that time moved slower in the past and there was only enough of it to love one person before telling us that his life has been about one woman. Only Cloud Knows is the story of how he learned to say goodbye, but also of a 20-year love that endures to transcend time.

Apparently inspired by the true life love story of one Feng’s friends and collaborators, Only Cloud Knows has a rare kind of authenticity in its deeply felt romance which somehow seems all the more real for its clichéd genesis. Foreshadowings of partings echo throughout, reminding us that all love ends one way or another and it’s the ones left behind who mind it most, but rather than dwell on the maudlin, Feng shows that life goes on even in the midst of heartbreak. Houses change hands, old owners with teary eyes making space for bright-eyed youngsters full of hope for the future, while those who are leaving bequeath their unlived years to those they love with hopeful generosity. What Dongfeng discovers is that home is where the heart is, even if the heart is forever in the past.


Currently on limited release in US/UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

More than Blue (比悲傷更悲傷的故事, Gavin Lin, 2018)

More than blue poster“What’s so romantic about eternity?” asks the heroine of Gavin Lin’s remake of the 2009 Korean film More than Blue (比悲伤更悲伤的故事, Bǐ Bēishāng gèng Bēishāng de Gùshì). As the title, which literally translates as “a sadder than sad story”, implies More than Blue is another addition to Taiwanese cinema’s growing roster of melancholy romantic melodramas though this time one which rips a page from the “jun-ai” notebook as its selfless pair of lonely lovers engage in acts of mutual self sacrifice in an attempt to make each other “happy” while remaining quietly miserable as they contemplate a future which may not actually exist.

The hero, nicknamed K (Jasper Liu), lost his father to leukaemia when he was 16. His mother left shortly afterwards on learning that he too had the same disease, unable to cope with the pain of watching her son fade in the same way her husband had. Resigning himself to a life of loneliness, K eventually met “Cream” (Ivy Chen Yi-han), a cheerful and outgoing girl who lost her entire family in a traffic accident. The pair become friends, go to the same university, and eventually move in together but despite a brief fumble and innocent kiss their relationship remains entirely platonic. 10 years later, they’re working for the same record company where Cream is a lyricist and K in promotion. K’s illness is worsening and there’s no sign of a transplant. He has never told Cream about his medical history and now fearing that the end is near, he decides that the best thing to do is to push her towards a nice guy who can look after her after he is gone.

As someone else later points out, K’s decision is a little chauvinistic. Not only has he made it entirely alone, but he’s done so on fairly mercenary terms which imply Cream is not capable of looking after herself rather than solely of hoping to cushion the blow for the time when she must eventually lose him. After all, all relationships end one way or another and it’s impossible to live a life without loss without isolating yourself entirely from the rest of the human race. Then again, that had been K’s original reaction to his mother’s abandonment. Only Cream was able to bring him back into the world again through her goodhearted cheerfulness. K wants to spare her the pain of losing him and of being left behind alone, but perhaps that isn’t his decision to make.

Echoing the title of the movie, K affirms that it’s getting used to loneliness that is “sadder than sad” while also insisting that if anyone could understand the nature of love then no one in the world would suffer because of it. What K has is the wounded nobility of the jun-ai hero who has decided that it is his duty alone to suffer and that by suffering himself he can prevent his loved one from feeling the pain, but of course his emotional aloofness only makes things worse for everyone. Determined to make a brighter future for Cream, he smiles through the tears but neglects to consider that she may prefer a shorter present with him than a long life without. All his pointless romantic engineering amounts to is a silly waste of time during which they might both have been happy if only someone had found the courage for emotional honesty in the face of eventual heartbreak.

Lin wastes no time in letting us know this will be a tragic story through the slight disconnect of a framing sequence which casts the central romance as a lengthy flashback narrated by a peripheral figure to a frustrated music producer and her A-list idol star (played by real life singer A-Lin) who have fallen in love with an unrecorded track, “A Kind of Sorrow”, penned by Cream and performed by K. The song itself references the “darkness” within the pair born of their mutual losses, but also the light that love has brought into their lives. Cream gets into an argument with a poppy idol (who proves more astute than she at first seems) over the use of the world “eternity” within a love song. She doesn’t believe in the idea of eternity because love only lasts until one of the lovers is gone. Eternity, as we later discover, is found in the moment or more precisely in the moment of togetherness which is something both K and Cream have rejected in their escalating attempts at selfless nobility which have made them both individually miserable.

The lesson seems clear – just make the most of the time you have without worrying about the future and live honestly in the moment without regrets. Sadly, it’s a lesson the lovers of More than Blue fail to learn until it’s too late. Melodrama to the max it may be, and the strangely comic tone somewhat out of sync with the eventual destination, but there is real dark heart in More than Blue’s belief in the eternity of love even if also in its inherent tragedy.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Kind of Sorrow as performed by A-Lin

A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Rao Xiaozhi, 2018)

A Cool Fish posterThe genial loser is fast becoming a staple of contemporary Chinese cinema. Rao Xiaozhi’s second feature A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Wúmíng zhī Bèi) is the latest in a long line of comedies to make the “diaosi” world its home as a collection of disappointed and increasingly desperate failures become embroiled in a complex web of cosmological coincidence. China’s famously draconian censorship regulations ensure that the ending of this caper will be bittersweet at best, but even so a brief brush with violent crime does at least allow a bouncing back if only through hitting rock bottom and emerging with greater clarity.

Small town hicks “Bra” (Zhang Yu), short for “Cobra”, and Big Head (Pan Binlong) have talked themselves into a gangland future, planning a big city heist after getting their hands on a stolen gun and motorbike. Unfortunately, not everything goes to plan and they end up robbing a mobile phone shop next door to the bank rather than the bank itself because the security guard was too intimidating. Not only that, they manage to send their getaway bike into a tree while trying to escape by muddling the clutch with the accelerator meaning they have to escape on foot. Crawling in through an open window, they find themselves in the home of the spiky Jiaqi (Ren Suxi) who is paralysed from the neck down and completely unafraid to make use of her one remaining weapon – an extremely loud and imperious voice. Jiaqi is also the sister of widowed security guard Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) who was once an auxiliary police officer and harbours a desire to get back on the force which he feels he could fulfil through investigating the robbery and retrieving the gun on his own initiative. Meanwhile, Xianyong’s boss, financially troubled property developer with a complicated family set up Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), is on the run from gangsters to whom he has massive debts.

Like the cool fish of the title, Bra and Big Head are young men with impossible futures who find themselves cast out from mainstream society with no real way back in. No education, no connections, no job prospects or family – their futures look bleak. Bra sees himself as a gang boss in waiting even if Big Head is his only henchman, but the guys are no master criminals and despite their claims of working their way up in the crime world it’s clear they aren’t cut out for such cutthroat antics. Xianyong, by contrast, had opportunities but squandered them and then lost everything in a tragic turn of events for which he must bear some of the responsibility. Despised by his teenage daughter, humiliated by the gangsters chasing Gao Ming, and burdened by the guilt of having caused the accident that ruined his sister’s life, all Xianyong wants is to hit back and prove himself a someone, which means he’s coming for another pair of losers not so different from himself.

Rao Xiaozhi rolls the familial in with the political through rooting all of Xianyong’s various problems in his very male failures as a compromised father figure. Having lost his wife in a tragedy of his own making, Xianyong is resented by his daughter who has reverted to her mother’s maiden name out of shame while he engages in underhanded scams to bolster his fragile sense of self worth. Meanwhile, all Big Head dreams of is a small house in his hometown and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Xia (Ma Yinyin), who has come to the city in search of money. Big Head thinks she doesn’t want to marry him because he isn’t rich, but Xia’s reluctance turns out to be misplaced shame in having engaged in sex work and no longer seeing herself as good enough for the small town wholesomeness of a man like Big Head, never guessing he might go to such extreme lengths just to prove himself worthy of her.

Trapped by the crushing impossibility of life in a rapidly developing, relentlessly unfair, patriarchal, and conservative society each of our heroes takes desperate measures to enact their escape but quickly discovers that escape is a spiritual more than material matter and cannot be bought through transgression. This being China, crime cannot pay and so our guys cannot hope to emerge heroically from their less than heroic foray into gun toting criminality but even so you’d have to admit that their futures are brighter for having hit rock bottom and woken up with a better sense of self and a degree of forward motion. Rao’s ramshackle world of lovelorn little guys daring to dream of a (modestly) brighter future perfectly captures the bleak romanticism of the “diaosi” phenomenon and proves strangely difficult to resist save for its crushingly “necessary” finale.


Currently on limited release in UK Cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

International trailer (English subtitles)