Wu Kong (悟空传, Derek Kwok, 2017)

Wu KongAs it stands, contemporary Chinese cinema is veering dangerously close to Monkey King fatigue. Stephen Chow brought his particular sensibilities to the classic Journey to the West before Donnie Yen put on a monkey suit for Cheang Pou-soi, both of which were quickly followed by sequels. Eddie Peng is the latest to pick up the staff for Gallants’ Derek Kwok, though this is a much more youthful incarnation of the iconic hero, acting as a kind of prequel to recent incarnations and as a coming of age tale for the titular “demon” as recounted in the popular online novel Legend of Wukong by Jin Hezai. Told in grand style, Kwok’s Wu Kong (悟空传, Kōng Zhuàn) is a star studded box office extravaganza but embraces both extremes of its family friendly, mainstream blockbuster thrills.

So, Sun Wu Kong (the Monkey King), as you know, was born from a stone atop Mount Huaguo  – a remnant of a giant who attempted to battle the heavens but was defeated. Heaven fears the existence of the mischievous demon and determines to destroy him but he’s saved by a teacher who gives him a human form and the name Sun Wu Kong. Devastated by the destruction of his homeland, Wu Kong (Eddie Peng) vows revenge on the Heavens and travels to voice his concerns in person. Resenting his “destiny” Wu Kong focusses his attentions on destroying the divine astrolabe which ascribes fate to all beings, but little does he know that its guardian, Hua Ji (Faye Yu), wants his heart for herself so that she might rule all of Heaven and Earth.

Kwok opens with a beautifully designed sequence modelled after traditional chinese ink paintings in which he recounts the pre-history and birth of the demon later known as Sun Wu Kong. Unlike some other recent attempts to tackle this famously fantastical world, Wu Kong boasts fabulously high production values as well as much better special effects than most Chinese blockbusters, and it helps that Eddie Peng is not burdened with spending the majority of the movie in prosthetics.

Nevertheless for all the lack of actual plot, there is a lot going on and the brisk pace of the exposition filled opening is hard to follow (but, thankfully, details are unimportant). As in his other adventures, Wu Kong ends up with a collection of friends and enemies including love interest Azi (Ni Ni) – the equally rebellious daughter of Hua Ji who has just returned from 100 years in “re-education” exile and fiercely resents her mother’s cruel and controlling nature. Likewise her half brother, Erlang (Shawn Yue) has also arrived home at just the right/wrong moment and is conflicted in his views towards the Heavens – wanting to be accepted as a true “immortal” but also wanting to protect his little sister, so obviously unhappy with the ruling regime. Two more cohorts appear in the gadget laden Juan Lian (Qiao Shan) – a kind hearted man with a hopeless crush on Azi, and the lovelorn retainer, Tian Peng (Oho Ou), still pining after his childhood sweetheart who was exiled to the mortal world.

Much of the central drama occurs after Wu Kong, Erlang, and Tian Peng destroy “The Bridge of Destiny” and are cast down to the mortal world themselves along with Juan Lian and Azi. Finding themselves in a desperate village which happens to be on the former site of Mount Huaguo, the five start to believe they’ll never be going home and discuss staying to help the villagers defeat the “Cloud Demon” which has been stealing all their water. Interacting with the villagers teachers each of them some vaiuable lessons, but “destiny” is still waiting, and trying to change the fate of these desperate people may have disastrous, unforeseen consequences.

Once again, Wu Kong’s battle lies in the Heavens and may end up costing more than it gains. Kwok’s direction is conventional in one sense, but also manages to add a youthful energy which befits the film’s message. Wu Kong’s rebellion is the same as many a young a man – against a pre-ordained fate. As he puts it in the punkish final title cards, he will not be blinded by the sky or bound by the Earth – he will decide his own destiny and will never submit himself to the authority of any god or Earthly power. Attempts at melodrama largely fall flat, as does the unwise decision to shift to fantasy sequences for moments of high emotion, not to mention the inclusion of a sappy pop song to really ram home the theme of tragic romance, but whatever Wu Kong’s failings it succeeds brilliantly in its primary objective as an admittedly vacuous summer blockbuster primed to speak to the hearts of hemmed in teens everywhere.


Currently on UK release at selected cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Soul Mate (七月与安生, Derek Tsang, 2016)

soulmateLike the rest of the world, China, or a given generation at least, may be finding itself at something of a crossroads. The past few years have seen a flurry of coming of age dramas in which the melancholy and middle-aged revisit lost love from their youth but Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate (七月与安生, Qīyuè yǔ Anshēng) seems to be speaking to an older kind of melodrama in its examination of passionate friendship pulled apart by time, tragedy, and unspoken emotion. The story is an old one, but Tsang tells it well as its twin heroines maintain their intense, elemental connection even whilst cruelly separated.

Qiyue (Sandra Ma Sichun) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) met at 13 years old and quickly became inseparable. Ansheng, a free-spirited and energetic young girl, came to the aid of the shy and bookish Qiyue but was herself in need a kind of rescue thanks her unusual family circumstances. The child of a busy single mother, Ansheng was often left to fend for herself but Qiyue’s parents are goodhearted people and keen to take on the additional responsibility of caring for their daughter’s only friend. However, the usual cause of tension arrives when 18-year-old Qiyue falls for the handsome Jiaming (Toby Lee). Ansheng, feeling a little jealous and left out, has complicated feelings towards her friend’s boyfriend who seems to be attracted to her further complicating the already intense relationship between the three. Not wanting to break her friend’s heart, Ansheng decides it’s time for her to embrace her free-spirited nature and hit the road even if it takes her away from the most important person in her life.

Years later, Ansheng is a respectable office worker. Jiaming, now a city boy himself, is stunned to spot her on a train even if his attempts to thrust a business card into her hand are met with less than enthusiastic reception. No longer in touch with Qiyue, Jiaming like much of the country has been fascinated by an ongoing web novel, Qiyue and Ansheng, which Qiyue has apparently been writing and is hoping Ansheng knows how to get in touch with her. Sadly, she does not. The three friends appear scattered but how could such intense relationships have ended so abruptly and finally?

Necessarily close in their youth, the two girls are a classic case of opposites attracting as the quiet and thoughtful Qiyue idolises her impulsive, extroverted friend. Their initial separation comes at cost as it pushes each into their opposing sides – Qiyue pursuing her education whilst planning an early marriage, and Ansheng living life on the road hooking up with shady guys and cadging meals by out drinking louts. A disastrous trip brings the differences home as the shared awkwardness regarding their relationships with Jiaming frustrates their essential intimacy and threatens to throw up an unscalable wall between the two women.

Jiaming does his best to get in the way, vacillating between the two girls and ultimately making what is probably the best decision but in the most cowardly and selfish of ways. The two eventually find themselves out of sync, just as Ansheng is thinking of settling down, Qiyue finds the strength to spread her wings but somehow or other they are perpetually kept apart. The film goes to great lengths to emphasise the platonic nature of the two women’s relationship despite the obvious tension between them but it’s difficult not to read Ansheng’s ongoing struggles as a tragic case of a woman in love with her oblivious best friend. Later on the film presents the interesting idea of a nontraditional family in the two women raising a child which is almost their own thanks to the extremely tight triangular relationship of their teenage years, yet it quickly undercuts it with a perfectly executed dramatic twist.

Drawing beautifully nuanced performances from his lead actresses, Tsang crafts an affecting tale of the power of female friendship which transcends all obstacles in its essential unbreakable quality which brings both joy and pain to each of the women even in their inevitable separation. Drawing inspiration from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai who is also thanked in the end credits, Tsang moves beyond Hana and Alice for a deeper kind of sadness found in a shot echoing Iwai’s thematically similar Love Letter suggesting the essential melancholy of an enduring yet severed connection.


Soul Mate was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

I-Am-Not-Madame-Bovary-posterFeng Xiaogang, often likened to the “Chinese Spielberg”, has spent much of his career creating giant box office hits and crowd pleasing pop culture phenomenons from World Without Thieves to Cell Phone and You Are the One. Looking at his later career which includes such “patriotic” fare as Aftershock, Assembly, and Back to 1942 it would be easy to think that he’s in the pocket of the censors board. Nevertheless, there’s a thin strain of resistance ever-present in his work which is fully brought out in the biting satire, I am not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián).

Truth be told, the adopted Western title is mostly unhelpful as the film’s heroine, Liu Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), is no romantic girl chasing a lovelorn dream to escape from the stultifying boredom of provincial bourgeois society, but a wronged peasant woman intent on reclaiming her dignity from a world expressly set up to keep people like her in their place. Feng begins the movie with a brief narrative voice over to set the scene in which he shows us a traditional Chinese painting depicting the famous “Pan Jinlian” whose name has become synonymous with romantic betrayal. More Thérèse Raquin than Madame Bovary, Pan Jinlian conspired with her lover to kill her husband rather than becoming consumed by an eternal stream of romantic betrayals.

Xuelian has, however, been betrayed. She and her husband faked a divorce so that he could get a fancy apartment the government gives to separated people where they could live together after remarrying sometime later. Only, Xuelian’s husband tricked her – the divorce was real and he married someone else instead. Not only that, he’s publicly damaged her reputation by branding her a “Pan Jinlian” and suggesting she’s a fallen woman who was not a virgin when they married. Understandably upset, Xuelian wants the law to answer for her by cancelling her husband’s duplicitous divorce and clearing her name of any wrongdoing.

Xuelian’s case is thrown out of the local courts, but she doesn’t stop there, she musters all of her resources and takes her complaint all the way to Beijing. Rightfully angry, her rage carries her far beyond the realms a peasant woman of limited education would expect to roam always in search of someone who will listen to her grievances. When no one will, Xuelian resorts to extreme yet peaceful measures, making a spectacle of herself by holding up large signs and stopping petty officials in their fancy government cars. Eventually Liu Xuelian becomes an embarrassment to her governmental protectors, a symbol of wrongs they have no time to right. These men in suits aren’t interested in her suffering, but she makes them look bad and puts a stain on their impressive political careers. Thus they need to solve the Liu Xuelian problem one way or another – something which involves more personal manipulation than well-meaning compromise.

Bureaucratic corruption is an ongoing theme in Chinese cinema, albeit a subtle one when the censors get their way, but the ongoing frustration of needing, on the one hand, to work within a system which actively embraces its corruption, and on the other that of necessarily being seen to disapprove of it can prove a challenging task. Xuelian’s struggles may lean towards pettiness and her original attempt to subvert the law for personal gain is never something which thought worthy of remark, but her personal outrage at being treated so unfairly and then so easily ignored is likely to strike a chord with many finding themselves in a similar situation with local institutions who consistently place their own gain above their duty to protect the good men and women of China.

A low-key feminist tale, Xuelian’s quest also highlights the plight of the lone woman in Chinese society. Tricked by unscrupulous men, she’s left to fend for herself with the full expectation that she will fail and be forced to throw herself on male mercy. Xuelian does not fail. What she wants is recognition of her right to a dignified life. The purpose of getting her divorce cancelled is not getting her husband back but for the right to divorce him properly and refute his allegations of adultery once and for all. Xuelian wants her good name back, and then she wants to make a life for herself freed from all of this finagling. She’s done the unthinkable – a petty peasant woman has rattled Beijing and threatened the state entire. Making oneself ridiculous has become a powerful political weapon. All of this self-assertion and refusal to backdown with one’s tail between one’s legs might just be catching.

Adding to his slightly absurdist air, Feng frames the tale through the old-fashioned device of an iris. Intended to recall the traditional scroll paintings which opened the film, the iris also implies a kind of stagnation in Xuelian’s surroundings. Her movements are impeded, her world is small, and she’s always caught within a literal circle of gossip and awkward, embarrassing scenes. Moving into the city, Feng switches to a square instead – this world is ordered and straightened but it’s still one of enforced rigidity, offering more physical movement but demanding adherence to its strict political rules. Only approaching the end does something more like widescreen with its expansive vistas appear, suggesting either that a degree of freedom has been found or the need to comply with the forces at be rejected but Xuelian’s “satisfaction” or lack of it is perhaps not worth the ten years of strife spent as a petty thorn in the government’s side. Perhaps this is Feng’s most subversive piece of advice, that true freedom is found only in refusing to play their game. They can call you Pan Jinlian all they please, but you don’t need to answer them.


I am not Madame Bovary was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Someone to Talk to (一句頂一萬句, Liu Yulin, 2016)

someone to talk to illustrated posterYouth looks ahead to age with eyes full of hope and expectation, but age looks back with pity and disappointment. Adapting her father’s novel, Liu Yulin joins the recent movement of disillusionment epics coming out of China with Someone to Talk to (一句頂一萬句, Yī Jù Dǐng Yīwàn Jù). Arriving at the same time as another adaptation of a Liu Zhenyun novel, I am Not Madame Bovary, Someone to Talk to takes a less comical look at the modern Chinese marriage with all of its attendant sorrows and ironies, a necessity and yet the force which both defines and ruins lives. Communism believes love is a bourgeois distraction and the enemy of the common good (it may have a point), but each of these lonely souls craves romantic fulfilment, a soulmate with whom they might not need to talk. The desire for someone they can connect with an elemental level becomes the one thing they cannot live without.

In the prologue, Aiguo (Mao Hai) is a young and dashing military officer about to marry the glowing Lina (Li Qian). The pair are blissfully happy and just so in love it might not be bearable. They can tell each other everything and they talk for hours. About to hand over their application to register a marriage, shaking with excitement, the new couple are interrupted by two extremely unhappy people there for the opposite reason – divorce. They’re in the wrong place, but someone asks them why they want to separate only for the woman to tersely reply that they don’t talk anymore. Aiguo and Lina look at them askance, they can’t envisage anything like that ever happening to them.

Flash forward a few years and Aiguo has left the military (along with its fancy uniform) far behind him to become a lowly cobbler in a rundown village. The marriage has obviously gone cold. Aiguo and Lina have a little daughter, Baihui (Li Nuonuo), but barely exchange a few words with each other and the ones there are are usually hot and angry. It seems to be an open secret in the village but eventually someone tips Aiguo off that Lina is spending too much time with a handsome local wedding planner, Jiang (Yu Entai). Not wanting to believe it, Aiguo brushes the rumour aside but then again it makes sense. Forcibly exposing his wife and her lover, Aiguo delivers an ultimatum but fails to repair the broken connection. When Lina leaves, he vows revenge, threatening to kill one or both of the illicit lovers but, unable to find her, is forced to address his ambivalent emotions in a more contemplative way.

Despite all of the hopes and expectations of Aiguo and Lina’s early romance, their life together has run its course, frustrated by a series of issues no one wants to talk about. No longer in the military, Aiguo’s economic status is low and unlikely to improve. Lina, perhaps, wants more than Aiguo can give her and the atmosphere in the house is tense and cold. Their daughter, Baihui, wants the latest toy car that her wealthier friends have but Aiguo, even if he could perhaps find the money, does not want to buy it for her, offering the excuse that it will distract her from her studies.

Told from Aiguo’s point of view the film is less kind to Lina who has found herself trapped in a marriage to a man she no longer loves. Her choice is not one of economic escape, though her equally married lover is clearly wealthier and better educated than Aiguo, but motivated by the simple desire to find “someone to talk to”. Jiang is married to a local baker whom Aiguo eventually tries to recruit into his revenge plot, cruelly ruining her happiness in enlightening her to the truth. In a much worse position than Aiguo, Xinting (Qi Xi) considers suicide not only out of the humiliation of being a betrayed spouse (turning violence on herself where Aiguo plans to turn it on others) but of the knowledge of the position that an abandoned wife finds herself in. Aiguo’s 39 year old unmarried sister Aixiang (Liu Bei) knows this pain well enough and has experienced a life of suffering and loneliness after herself attempting suicide following an unhappy love affair. Once married or not, prospects for women past the common age of marriage are not good and whatever anyone might have said about women holding up half the sky, it almost impossible to survive alone.

Everyone tells Aiguo to let Lina go but he stubbornly holds on to his anger and the pain of betrayal. After a while he decides to just forget about it but custom dictates he take some kind of revenge hence he plans to take a kind of vacation pretending to look for her. On his travels he finds more misery and heartbreak by re-encountering an old school friend whose marriage has also collapsed but she has learned to be much more stoical about it than Aiguo and gives him some valuable advice. Yes, everyone should talk more – especially about the things which are hard to discuss within the context of a marriage but equally the fact that Aiguo and Lina no longer talked was merely the manifestation of the unbridgeable gulf that had developed between them. There are no happy marriages in Someone to Talk to, perhaps love really is an unhelpful bourgeois distraction, but Aiguo at least still seems to believe in its potency even if it has betrayed him, finally realising he ought to be thinking about the future rather than living in the past. Perhaps no one is able to escape this particular kind of culturally enforced loneliness, but no one will ever find out by continuing to suffer needlessly trapped inside their own delusions.


Someone to Talk to was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

Crosscurrent (長江圖, Yang Chao, 2016)

crosscurrent poster“Time, like a river, flows both day and night” as the narrator of Yang Chao’s poetical return to source Crosscurrent (長江圖,  Chang Jiang Tu) tells us early on. Like the crosscurrent of the title, ship’s captain Chun sails forth yet also in retrograde as he chases a love he can never truly embrace. Truth be told, the philosophical poetry of a lonely sailor condemned to sail a predetermined course at the mercy of the winds and tides is often obscure and confused, like the half mad ramblings of one who’s spent too much time all alone at sea. Yet his melancholy passage is more metaphor than reality, or several interconnected metaphors as water yearns for shore but is pulled towards the ocean, a man yearns to free himself of his father’s spirit, and mankind yearns for the land yet disrupts and destroys it in its quest for mastery. Often frustrating in its obscurity, Crosscurrent’s breathtaking visuals are the key to unlocking its meditative sadness as they paint the beautiful landscape in its own conflicting colours.

Gao Chun (Qin Hao), a melancholy young man, is mourning the death of his father in all the ways the river expects. Taking over his father’s cargo boat, Chun dutifully catches and keeps the blackfish that is the keeper of his father’s spirit, only once it starves to death will his spirit be free. Though the boat is a large one, Chun has only two other members of crew – his uncle, Xiang, and longstanding deckhand Wusheng. They have little business but Wusheng has managed to find them a new client who needs something or other transported on the hush hush. Once the mysterious cargo has been loaded, Chun manages to negotiate some extra hush money seeing as there’s obviously something not quite right here.

Part way through their journey up the Yangtze River, Chun finds a mysterious ledger hidden away on the boat which contains a number of poems each annotated with the name of a particular harbour. Linked to the book, Chun also encounters a mysterious woman, An Lu, and eventually strikes up a relationship with her during one of his infrequent returns to shore. Chun and An Lu are travelling in the same direction yet also through and past each other. Meeting and parting the pair re-encounter each other on land or make do with fleeting glances from sea to shore but An Lu (Xin Zhilei) is no ordinary woman, each time the same yet strikingly different as she too makes her way towards the origin of all things.

The name of the mysterious woman is “An Lu” – “safe land”. Chun, a sailor adrift on the wide river is always looking for safe harbour and generally finds it waiting for him, even occasionally put out at his lack of arrival. What or who she is remains obscure. An Lu is at once a harbour girl, prostitute, nun, hermit, and lover of all mankind who belongs to no man but refuses no one. Chun yearns for her, slowing the passage of his boat to look for her among the thick foliage of cliffside pathways. Yet there are reasons why they can only be together for short spaces of time. As the sea and the shore, theirs is a relationship of permanent though frustrated, ebbing connection.

As he follows An Lu, Chun reads his poetry like scripture and travels the river against the tide heading for its origin. The life giving river becomes a kind of metaphor as Chun witnesses how its gifts have been misused and subverted by man who wants to master it rather live with its obvious beauty. Passing through ruined villages, Chun eventually makes a gruelling two day passage through the Three Gorges Dam. This giant, manmade structure cleaves the land in two, leaving our two lovers forever separated as the past from the future. The river which flows both day and night, no longer flows at all.

Equal parts spiritual and geographical odyssey, Crosscurrent is a tale of man and landscape, of nationhood, history, and memory all condensed into a wide flowing river. Lyrical yet obscure, its truth is opaque and difficult to discern yet no less deeply felt. Shooting on 35mm and using mostly natural light in harsh conditions, Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary, capturing all of this infinite sadness with an eternal aesthetic beauty. China swims against the tide as Chun and An Lu draw closer only by pulling further apart but all there may be at the end of the journey is the anxious comfort of eternal waiting.


Crosscurrent was screened as part of the 7th Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2017)

Raymond Yip Wai-man’s Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Juézhàn Shíshén) was scheduled to open at Chinese New Year but eventually found itself delayed and awkwardly repositioned as a Valentine’s Day date movie. Something of a rarity, there is no real romance in Cook up a Storm though it may inspire a post-movie visit to the nearest Chinese restaurant with its deeply felt tribute to classic Chinese cuisine and the raucous social gathering that often goes with it. Yip does his best to throw in as many themes as possible from the familiar tradition vs modernity to fathers and sons and the undue influence to China’s new ruling class who possess extreme wealth but (apparently) no taste. Most of these get somewhat lost in the meandering script which eventually falls into a conventional tournament narrative as two very different chefs face off in the kitchen before realising they have more in common than not.

Laidback young man Sky (Nicholas Tse) has inherited the traditional and extremely popular Seven restaurant in a tiny alleyway as yet untouched by the rest of the city’s lurch towards modernisation but all that is set to change when a Michelin starred Korean/Chinese chef, Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa), is given the opportunity to open a high class restaurant right across the street. Sky is not particularly worried as he knows they aren’t chasing the same clientele but Ahn continues to muscle in on his business from outbidding him at the fish market to blocking the entrance to Seven’s restaurant with fancy customer cars.

Seven and Ahn’s restaurant Stella eventually find themselves rivals in a TV cooking competition where Ahn’s modern take prizing innovation and elaborate presentation is directly contrasted with Sky’s traditional skills but there are other conflicts lurking in the background as Ahn’s corporate backers fuss about the marketing and Sky obsesses over proving himself to his estranged father who is currently the “god of cooking” and a world champion celebrity chef.

Half Korean Ahn honed his skills abroad cooking for European royalty and has never quite “got” Chinese cuisine which he finds stagnant, turned off by its fierce traditionalism. Street cook Sky does not care for Ahn’s “tricks” which distract from the simple purity of the food. Yip is pulled between the two extremes, painting the tiny alleyway as unrealistic for trying to stave off the march of time yet seing something to respect in their fierce defence of their community and way of life which is constantly under threat. Ahn, though originally cold and driven, is not quite the villain he seems as he quite clearly recognises a fellow craftsman in Sky and is willing to extend at least a professional courtesy to him even if he doesn’t immediately leap to his defence. After a number of setbacks and reversals, the two men patch up their differences by coming together to fight a common enemy which represents both future and past in the twin pronged assault of the heartless developers and Sky’s soulless father.

Corporate greed is the film’s central villain as these super rich businessmen continue to ride roughshod over the little guy from refusing to queue for a table to threatening to burn the whole place to the ground if they don’t get their way. Ahn, having accepted their offer to run “his own” restaurant quickly discovers that he is just another short order talent fit to be cast aside when another hotshot rears their head. Caring only for money and status, the restaurant owners have no love for food which, in the film’s terms, is the ultimate betrayal.

Betrayed is the way Sky feels towards his long absent father who skipped town after telling him he had no feeling for cookery leaving him with lingering feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Sky is determined to prove his father’s life philosophy wrong by demonstrating that it is possible to be both successful and a good person. Sadly, only one of these is destined to work out for him (Yip’s vision of the new China is not altogether charitable) but then Sky’s idea of “success” is very different to his father’s and to that of the development wave currently washing over his neighbourhood.

In keeping with the New Year theme food is the main focus and Yip does his best to give the simple art of cooking all of the shine it truly deserves piling visual tricks on top of well choreographed action sequences more akin to a martial arts film than your usual food fiesta. The narrative may be a familiar one, two cooks enter everyone leaves full, but then that’s more or less what is expected from a New Year movie. Inconsequential and somewhat throwaway, Cook up a Storm still manages to pack in enough gentle comedy and tributes to the power of community as found family to make up for its otherwise insubstantial nature.


HK trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)