Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Jia Zhangke, 2020)

Returning to his rural hometown, Jia Zhangke embarks on an alternate history of China in the 20th century through the prism of literature in the poetically titled documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Yīzhí Yóu Dào Hǎishuǐ Biàn Lán). Taking its title from an off the cuff though strangely profound comment from the witty and loquacious Yu Hua, Swimming is the third in a loose series of documentaries focussing on artists following Dong and Useless each of which were completed over a decade ago. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Jia opens with a lengthy sequence of elderly people in a canteen. The first of his 18 chapters is titled simply “eating”, and as we quickly infer hunger will be a constant background presence for each of our writers who recount their sometimes difficult rural childhoods and the paths which eventually led to them becoming chroniclers of provincial life. The earliest stretches are dedicated to legendary author Ma Feng who passed away in 2004 but it’s some time before we even get to his literary work, struck as we are by his role as an agrarian moderniser who ingeniously saved his village through collective action, bringing the villagers together in a plan to purify the water before irrigation to reduce the alkaline quality of the soil which had made it impossible to farm. Eventually we’re introduced to Ma’s daughter who begins to fill in his biography from a personal perspective while explaining how it was that he came to be known for his naturalistic depictions of the lives of ordinary rural folk in the early days of Communism. 

That idealism soon takes on a darker hue, however, in the story of Jia Pingwa who recounts his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in which his father was sent sent away for “re-education” after being falsely accused of receiving training as a KMT spy in the ‘40s. In Jia Pingwa’s early childhood eating was indeed a concern, something which he later says caused tension in the family that was only eased by the presence of his grandmother but even she couldn’t keep them all together after the institution of the communal kitchen. Perhaps more austere than you’d expect, Jia Pingwa admonishes his daughter, also a published poet, that she should fulfil her role as a wife and mother before that as artist, and that being a poet doesn’t always mean one lives poetically. Nevertheless he recounts the widening of horizons which occurred as China began to open up in 1980s, an influx of foreign art that introduced him to “the West” but also left him in an artistic quandary in the search for new yet authentic directions. 

A little younger than Jia Pinghua, the 1980s is when the extremely animated Yu Hua came of age, revealing an unexpected effect of the Cultural Revolution that led to his artistic destiny as he found himself re-imagining the endings of books which had long since fallen apart and existed for him only in fragments. Training first as a dentist but finding it not to his liking, Yu Hua longed to broaden his horizons and began writing seriously with the hope of getting a better job, eventually enrolling in university in Beijing in 1989 which he recounts somewhat incongruously as cheerfully uneventful. 

There is indeed a kind of micro framing in Jia’s concentration on rural China as a place to one side of wider society or politics. Just as Yu Hua casually ignores the reasons why others might find it interesting to have been a student in Beijing in 1989, Liang Hong opens by recounting that the year was 1997 which was the year Hong Kong returned to China but she was so busy that as an event it hardly registered for her. Like Yu and Jia Pingwa she recounts a difficult rural childhood in which her mother was rendered ill and later died due to the demands of country living while her kindhearted though feckless father struggled to manage his small family. While the men concentrate on their own paths, Liang mostly talks of her family, the sister who sacrificed her future for her siblings, and later her own son who talks of learning about his history through mother’s books though he no longer remembers the rural dialect and his associations with the area are mainly to do with playing with his cousins on visits to his mother’s family home. 

Liang’s son is the last and least deliberately staged of Jia’s frequent cutaways to local people reciting brief snippets of literature by the four authors and others often in praise of the land. Between lengthy talking head sequences, he switches from present day to historical stock footage showcasing the lives of ordinary people as they play cards, eat, or hurry on their way from one place to another. Spiralling out and away from Fenyang and back around again what Jia presents is less a literary survey than a rural history which is in its own way also mythologised as the wounded soul of the modern China. 


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue screens at the BFI Southbank on 24th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

Love Poem (情詩, Wang Xiaozhen, 2019)

“Dedicated to my dear wife” runs the ironic closing statement of Wang Xiaozhen’s meta marital drama, the equally ironically named Love Poem (情詩, Qíngshī). A love poem does indeed appear if in slightly different contexts, full of adolescent ardour and unrealistic promises of eternal devotion, while the marriage at the film’s centre begins to fracture under the weight of its focus. “I went too far to make this film” director Xiaozhen sighs, breaking the fourth wall in a moment of self-reflection that asks what’s left behind if you mine your personal life for art. 

Wang plays, at least, a version of himself, a film director harangued by his extremely fraught real life wife Zhou Qing who, in the handheld claustrophobic opening sequence which consists entirely of a long take focussed solely on her as she holds their snack-obsessed daughter in the back of the car, repeatedly accuses Xiaozhen of having an affair before asking for a divorce when they reach the house of her grandfather who lies dying and bedridden. The pair argue about the usual things, money mainly, but also the application of it. Xiaozhen is irritated by what he sees as his wife’s disrespect of his family having left their daughter with his parents over the summer but given them a token payment which might be the most insulting of all, no real use in failing to cover the child’s expenses while commodifying a family service which ought to be given if not exactly freely then with the expectation of reciprocity. She meanwhile later accuses him of exploiting her father who died shortly afterwards in order to make to his previous film while also failing to care for the family economically. He alternates between angrily implying that he indeed has been having an affair and pleading with his wife not to divorce him, claiming that he’s done nothing wrong while admitting that there might be someone else he fancies but it’s never gone further than that. When Xiaozhen gets into the back of the car with his wife, the fourth wall seems to dissolve entirely. He tries to comfort her, reminding Qing that it’s “only acting” even as their personal lives seem to have bled into the screen unbidden. 

Appearing an hour in only after this emotionally intense conclusion to the opening episode, the title card divides one “scene” from another as we find the couple again only changed. Xiaohzen picks up Qing, the camera now static and mounted on the bonnet, but this time she’s wearing glasses and has a calmer, softer demeanour. We can gather that in this scene she’s roleplaying the part of the “other woman” her first half counterpart was so incensed by, though the setting has changed to some years previously as Xiaozhen crassly elaborates on his romantic dilemma revealing that his girlfriend may be pregnant in which case he’ll be getting married and becoming a father, before confessing his feelings to another woman. She rightly takes him to task for his inappropriate declaration of love, taking the other woman’s side, while he expounds on his now or never emotional logic insisting that he had to say something now before the window forever closes but indifferent to the consequences for either of his two women. Once again the lines start to blur, the conversation diverges from its scripted direction while Xiaozhen the director reasserts himself. Qing becomes upset, reminding him that she’s not a professional actress and that his insistence in forcing her into the role of his lover is nothing if not cruel. “You don’t even see me as human” she complains, wondering if Xiaozhen views her as anything more than a prop for his movie making, while he admits in a shockingly honest moment that “seeing you cry makes me feel happy”.  

What are we to make of these scenes from a marriage, scenes and a marriage which are clearly in some senses and others “staged”? Xiaozhen is both director and husband, terrorising his wife and exploiting his relatives in order to create his art, but perhaps discovering that when you mine your personal life for inspiration all that’s left is a burrowed out husk of a former love. Then again, is this film actually a love poem in itself, an apologia of an imperfect husband to a long-suffering wife forced into a role she might not have elected to play? Truth and fiction and seem to blur uncomfortably in Wang’s meta meditation on the relationship between art and life, the performative qualities of “husband” and “wife”, and the potential costs of acting out your personal dramas onscreen but even in his self-lacerating cruelty Wang leaves himself the escape valve of irony as the emotional intensity dissipates in the Hong Sang-soo-esque cutesiness of the closing titles. 


Love Poem screens at the BFI Southbank on 17th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (流浪北京, Wu Wenguang, 1990)

Wu Wenguang’s seminal documentary Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京, Liúlàng Běijīng) opens with a stark title card explaining that it was filmed between August 1988 and May 1990. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the film never mentions what happened between those dates and is in a sense defined by the things it doesn’t say. Often regarded as the father of Chinese independent documentary, Wu’s shooting style breaks with the accepted norms which had favoured meticulous control by shooting handheld and in 4:3 with a grainy camcorder as he interviews his counterculture friends accidentally documenting their lives on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

As the opening explains, his subjects are a group of 20-something bohemians who have each rejected their State assigned jobs and relocated to Beijing, without proper residence permits, to participate in an artistic and cultural revival in which anything seems possible. Zhang Ci was a magazine editor in her hometown but hated it and came to Beijing to be a freelance writer. Zhang Dali studied book binding in the city and stayed on living as a freelance painter, while his classmate Gao Bo did the same thing but is a freelance photographer. Also a freelance painter, Zhang Xiaping was working as a scenic artist in Yunnan and has only recently come to the capital, while Mou Sen, originally from Tibet, is a struggling avant-garde theatre director. 

While perhaps fulfilling the starving artist stereotype, what Wu discovers in the stories of his friends is a sense of despair and inertia at odds with the supposed hopefulness of the times. Ci often appears on the brink of tears as she talks about her life, obviously dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the harshness of her living conditions making use of the facilities at the near by university, offended and perplexed when foreigners compliment her on her bohemian lifestyle. Dali too declares himself bored with Beijing and its dull culture vultures while lamenting that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance artist, only foreigners have money to buy his paintings and there aren’t many of those around. There is perhaps a sense of artistic rivalry between Dali and Xiaping who appears to have achieved a degree of success preparing for a big solo show while complaining that she hates selling her paintings and would almost rather sell her body. 

Dali and Bo expand on the phenomenon of “Cen Fan” as they sheepishly convince friends currently doing better to spot them dinner, while Bo declares himself a vagabond at heart but also remarks on the various anxieties of living on the margins trying to make rent in a fracturing Beijing. They each insist that they live for their art, Mou Sen certain that there could be no life for him without theatre, but some also dream of more conventional lives, Ci and Dali longing for materialist comforts of a decent home and a car even if in his case he wants these things to facilitate his art rather than to improve the quality of his life. Increasingly despondent, they discuss the idea of going abroad, Ci eventually making a, it’s implied, cynical marriage to an older American man to get a visa to emigrate while Dali eventually marries an Italian and Xiaping an Austrian. When Bo takes a job in Paris, Mou Sen is the only one left behind yet even he had mused on the idea of marrying a European in order to see Europe while admitting the possibility he may find a nice Chinese girl he likes and simply marry her. 

The artists’ mass exodus seems to run in tandem with the shockwaves of Tiananmen, as if they have given up on the prospect of social revolution and concluded that their only future lies abroad. Shortly before we are told she has left for Vienna, Xiaping appears to suffer a period of mental distress culminating in a public breakdown in a KFC from which Mou Sen and Wu himself had to rescue her, an incident which seems overly pregnant with symbolism as if the rapid changes of the modern China have fractured her mind. Wu never mentions Tiananmen, how could he, and it seems he encountered a degree of resistance including distressing footage of Xiaping’s manic episode (not for reasons of taste or privacy but shame on the part of the authorities), but the sense of painful defeat echoes all the same in a well placed title card as the artists make their exit signalling both the death and the failure of this short-lived counterculture movement. 


Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Road (大路朝天, Zhang Zanbo, 2015)

“Build a good highway and honour local people” runs a banner at a construction site in Zhang Zanbo’s observational doc The Road (大路朝天, Dàlù Cháotiān), though as we’ll discover in the end they’ll do neither. An allegory for the progress of the modern China, Zhang’s chronicle of a Hunan highway lays bare the various states of decay at the centre of a contradictory society in which money rules all and there is no longer any such thing as wrongdoing only acts which must be compensated for. 

Divided into four sections, Zhang’s documentary first asks us, indirectly, who the highway is for. The State began this project in 2009 as part of an economic drive fuelled by a good old-fashioned public works programme improving infrastructure across the country. Yet the highway will have little direct benefit for those who live beside it, something to which the construction teams seem to pay little mind. An elderly woman living alone in a traditional home pleads with a team blasting away at the mountain behind her to stop because they still haven’t compensated her for damage to her house, but they routinely ignore her and later the son who returns to advocate on her behalf. Because of their explosions, the old woman has a hole in her roof and being elderly would not be able to repair it herself but the construction team continue to refuse to help, irritatedly blaming her for not understanding them because they speak different dialects while fobbing her son off explaining that he needs to contact a different department because compensation and repairs are not in their remit. 

A secondary problem is that though the highway is a government project it’s been outsourced to a private engineering firm who view their responsibility solely to fulfil the contract and build the road while the Party officials who hired them utter vaguely menacing phrases about quashing any and all opposition. The locals often don’t seem to have been aware that any construction would be taking place or that their land and homes may be zoned for demolition. They complain that they’ve not received compensation they were promised for previous infractions and largely remain uncooperative while the construction teams assume that they’re simply angling for more money while insensitively digging up old graves and destroying ancient shrines still in use by the local community. Saving a giant Buddha statue one of the construction leaders seems to feel some remorse, chastened by another bystander that Buddha is unlikely to look fondly on him now he’s put him out in the rain. The team then erect a makeshift canopy hoping at least to keep his head dry. 

Another farmer meanwhile complains that his tree is holy and has an earth deity underneath it, advising the team to get a priest to bless it first only to be reminded that there’s no way on Earth the Communist Party could be involved in something so superstitious. The farmer lets rip, openly calling the Party greedy and corrupt while others in the village agree that the State continues to confiscate their property without warning or fair compensation. “The government owns you and your tree!” the representative claps back, denying the locals any sense of personal agency as he continues to encroach on their daily lives, merely reminding them they’ll be adequately compensated for relocating which many of them, including the old lady and her son, eventually do.

Compensation is always being promised but is rarely delivered as the labourers find to their cost, offered danger money and bonuses for working in obviously unsafe conditions but refused even time off or expenses when injured on the job. Ironically enough, workers’ rights are at the forefront of no one’s minds even as a bust of Chairman Mao (born in this very area) rests on the boss’ dashboard. When they ask for fair pay or treatment, the workers, like the locals, are accused of being selfish and money grubbing actively standing in the way of their nation’s progress. Instead of looking after their employees, company bosses schmooze local authorities, often handing out little red packets to smooth the path ahead but the construction firm too eventually finds itself on the receiving end of governmental extortion when the local road bureau try to shut them down over missing permits and later send in armed thugs when they refuse to pay leaving some employees in the hospital with multiple stab wounds awaiting further compensation either from their company who put them in a dangerous position or from the state authorities. 

If all that weren’t worrying enough, inspectors at the site find multiple issues with build quality that could endanger public safety. They seem frustrated that corners have been cut and insist that certain sections be entirely rebuilt before the project can be passed. 37 bridges had apparently collapsed in China since 2007 presumably because of the same lax safety culture while it seems the company was never penalised for breaching regulations in part because of all that schmoozing. The workers and the locals, we later learn, eventually got a degree of compensation, but Zhang’s unflinching doc nevertheless lays bare the degree to which the modern China continues to consume itself in its all encompassing obsession with “modernisation”. 


The Road is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Single Woman (单身女人, Lin Xin, 2018)

What does it mean to be a single woman in contemporary China? Lin Xin’s talking heads doc Single Woman (单身女人, Dānshēn Nǚrén) is less concerned with the “Christmas cake” phenomenon than with ordinary middle-aged women who are living their lives without men. Many have been married before but are now divorced (Lin does not speak to any widows) while some are not strictly “single” having found someone new, but all have contradictory views on the nature of marriage, relationships, and independence even if united in their sense of disillusionment with modern men raised in a relentlessly patriarchal society. 

The project appears to have originated with local novelist Dong Li who as we discover is known for the erotic quality of her writing and is certainly among the frankest of the women when it comes to speaking of sexual desire. Having divorced her husband in 1997, Li explains that she went on looking for true love but found herself feeling exploited by men who were often overconfident in their sexual prowess and largely viewed relationships as a transactional activity, offering to cure the sexual frustration they stereotypically believed must be plaguing her in return for material favours. Li raises this point consistently while talking with some of the other interviewees who in the main seem to be her friends, even recounting an outlandish story of a married lover who lied about having a wife but bizarrely insisted on eating the genitals of various animals in order to increase his virility. 

Xiao Hua, a teacher, also mentions potential exploitation as an explanation for why she’s cooled on the idea of romance, explaining that after divorcing her adulterous husband even at the risk of losing contact with her son she found herself in a series of unsatisfying relationships with duplicitous men who milked her for money. Her rationale for turning someone down because “he was not qualified to love me” may sound cold and cynical, but has a degree of sense to it given her experiences with men who misused her or attempted to exploit what they saw as vulnerability in her perceived loneliness. 

Like many of the women, Xiao Hua had also been a victim of violence, another factor subtly raised by Dong Li as she talks to her friends about their lives as single women. Ya Lan dated her husband for eight years and married him only after overcoming his family’s objections yet later became a victim of domestic violence and eventually divorced. Unlike Dong Li and Xiao Hua, she found herself entering a relationship with a younger man which was genuine in intent though she later found him lazy and immature, treating her perhaps more like a mother in need of someone looking after him while she longed for someone to look after her. After that relationship ended she declared herself happy with the single life but has since found a more satisfying match in a devoted retiree and now that her son has married is planning to remarry herself. 

On the other hand, Chen Yuan is the only one of the women who has never been married and seems to have accepted the idea that she’ll remain single for the rest of her life though this does not appear to be her desire or intention. In fact none of the women except perhaps Dong Li entirely embraces the legitimacy of a woman’s right not to marry at all. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that a woman should be independent and that it is perfectly possible to be happy without a man even if she looks back with regret on the romantic choices of her youth wondering if she was perhaps too picky turning down a man who sincerely loved her solely because she was not sure he was really the one. Lili meanwhile married the man she loved and forged a conventional family but the relationship later suffered under the demands of everyday life raising children and her husband left her feeling that in the end they were simply incompatible. Despite the way it ended, Lili declares herself happy with married life but has no real desire to try again grateful in a sense to have experienced two different ways of living. 

Her experience could then not be more different than that of Mei Xiang who is actually the first of the women we meet as she tells a disturbing story about being attacked by the husband of her husband’s mistress. The man in question was actually her second husband whom she’d been persuaded to marry on the grounds of his “honesty” despite her misgivings, her first marriage had ended due to animosity from her husband’s parents who tried to convince her to give their daughter up for adoption in order to try again for a son under the demands of the One Child Policy. Her husband was never able to stand up to his family who refused to see the baby and the marriage broke down though now she wonders if they were over hasty and couldn’t perhaps have worked things out if they hadn’t been so young and impulsive. She hasn’t quite sworn off the idea of marrying again, sure that there are good men out there it’s just that she hasn’t yet met one, but seems to have filled her life with her charity work and prioritised self-fulfilment over social expectation. 

Ending on a rather ironic note, Lin takes us back to the school where Xiao Hua works as a group of children engage in a boys vs girls tug of war. Despite Mei Xiang’s declaration that there must be good men out there, Lin’s women haven’t had much luck locating them, each victims of deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes, but most haven’t given up hope of finding love and it seems deciding to be a single woman leading an independent life is still an unthinkable taboo. Nevertheless each of the women, Dong Li included, has found a degree of peace with their life choices and has at least the solidarity of her female friends to help her cope with a still unforgiving patriarchal society. 


Single Woman is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Weekend Lover (周末情人, Lou Ye, 1995)

Lou Ye’s troubles with the censors began at the very beginning of his career. Shot in 1993, his first feature Weekend Lover (周末情人, Zhōumò Qíngrén) was held up until late ’95, making ’94’s Don’t Be Young his accidental “debut”. Set in the contemporary era the film nevertheless has a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia coupled with air of nihilism that perhaps distressed the censors more than the otherwise potentially problematic bohemian setting, finding the post-Tiananmen generation floundering in a changing China in which the dream of freedom has long since flown. 

In one of many title cards, Lou opens with a lengthy piece of text claiming that this is a true story, a claim he will return to with the closing card the fantastical quality of which perhaps undermines the idea of its “reality”. The author of the text claims that this is a story some did not want to tell but mostly because it makes them sad to recall bygone days for reasons we will come to understand. Nevertheless, the filmmakers claim to have tracked down the central figure of Lixin (Ma Xiaoqing) who has agreed to share her story, which turns out to be the story of two men, violent thug Axi (Jia Hongsheng) and sensitive musician Lala (Wang Zhiwen), who find themselves bound for confrontation in order to lay claim to the affections of Lixin. 

Axi is the “weekend lover” of the title, a high school boyfriend of Lixin’s who used to spend weekends in her apartment while her parents were out but later went to prison for killing another boy who threatened their relationship. Lixin vows to wait, but ends up meeting Lala in a case of mistaken identity tasked with venturing into the unfamiliar world of back street pool halls to find a man in plaid in order to deliver something on behalf of Axi. The pair start dating, but Axi returns unexpectedly some years later put out to realise that Lixin has forgotten him and quite literally moved on. Hoping to get her back he threatens Lala and later Lixin herself, remaining somewhat obsessed with recapturing the past while little more than a violent street thug with nothing to offer other than intimidation. 

One could see Axi and Lala as embodiments of past and future with Lixin trapped painfully in an interminable present. Lala dreams of becoming a singer, eventually joining a band with whom Lixin also becomes friends hanging out in the beatnik bohemian space of the disused building she decribes as a “jail” they repurpose as their arena. Yet even this potential future is flawed. The band’s leader (Wang Xiaoshuai) explains to Lala that they will disband after their big concert as most of the members are going abroad, perhaps he will even go to America. There is no future for any of them in China while Lala rejects the idea he may stay and marry Lixin, realising she has not completely severed her connection to Axi believing their relationship is doomed to failure. 

Westernisation is indeed a persistent background theme from the discarded Coke cans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Lipton tea in Axi’s rundown room to the fancy new fast-food restaurant where Lixin works going under the name “California Rainbow”. These Bohemians dream of Western freedoms aside from the power of consumerism, longing for the right to seize their artistic potential but finding themselves continually constrained by a society they do not understand. “We drank a lot, always felt we were the most miserable and that society didn’t understand us. Later I came to realise it’s not that society didn’t accept us it’s that we didn’t understand society” Lixin explains in voiceover apparently from the vantage point of “many years” later in which she seems to have in part at least rejected her countercultural youth and developed an understanding of the contemporary society. 

Nevertheless, the film closes with both her wilful self-exile and an improbably optimistic coda which may only be a reflection of her dream followed by the title card which suggests that the couple may find happiness but only “many years later” in another city. “We felt the whole world belonged to us, as if everything would last forever. But we didn’t know what would happen.” Lixin laments, recalling her brief moment of youthful freedom later ruptured by the re-introduction of the violent past in a touch of rather elliptical irony that perhaps evokes Lou’s later taste for non-linear narrative. Moody yet imbued with a kind of youthful ennui, Weekend Lover’s frequent use of title cards, pop music, and self-consciously cool imagery may never quite coalesce beyond their various influences but edge towards an attempt to capture youth in a new age of anxiety caught between the death of idealism and the opportunities of a newly consumerist economy. 


Weekend Lover is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Musical sequence (English subtitles)

Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Lou Ye, 1994)

Lou Ye’s complicated relationship with China’s censorship board has been well documented though it is certainly not a recent phenomenon and has in fact plagued him from the very beginning of his career. His first feature, Weekend Lover, was shot in 1993 but not passed for release until two years later technically making 1994’s Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Wēi Qíng Shàonǚ) his cinematic debut. This might seem surprising seeing as Don’t Be Young flirts with themes the censors find problematic, an ethereal gothic ghost story perhaps permissible solely because the spectres can be read as existing only in the mind of the troubled, traumatised young woman at the film’s centre though the spirit that haunts is perhaps that of the age and of a traumatised China caught between failed revolution and rapidly expanding economic prosperity. 

As the heroine, Lan (Qing Yu), tells us this is the story of “another time, another place”. Unable to separate fantasy from reality, she nevertheless goes on to narrate a dream she later claims not to remember and in any case can no longer revisit. On smashing a bottle in the street she retrieves a device which seems to be the engine of a music box that once belonged to her mother and acts as a kind of key to an alternate reality that soon bleeds into her contemporary life. In the present, Lan is a nervous young woman struggling to deal with her mother’s death in an apparent suicide, watched over by her patient doctor boyfriend Lu Mang (You Yong) but after discovering a strange book similar to one her mother owned containing a floor plan and a letter after taking shelter from the rain under the porch of an abandoned mansion she finds herself investigating her own history. 

The dream world, shot in an ethereal blue, seems to exist sometime in the 1950s, Lan’s clothes and those of her boyfriend and the other people around her suddenly shifting without warning as she finds herself crossing over while everyone else appears in pale face as if this were the world of the dead, or a “hell” as an elderly woman later describes it. Lan insists that “everything is real” though the borders between the two worlds become increasingly thin even as the plot developments become ever more outlandish leading to a confrontation with a mad scientist veterinarian and his nefarious attempts at human experimentation with a weird drug that causes those who take it to lose control over their nervous systems. The scientist insists that science makes him a god with the right to dominate the world while the secondary villainess (Nai An) turns out to be a scorned nurse blackmailed into helping to “ruin” Lan over her murder of a patient who tried to assault her by pulling out his oxygen tubes. Only the earnest Lu Mang who is strangely absent for much of the action after leaving to “take an exam” but mostly wandering moodily around noirish rail stations served by atmospheric steam trains, is present to represent “science” as a force for good but ultimately ends up defending Lan in the most prehistoric of ways. 

Nevertheless, what she begins to uncover is a complicated family legacy running through romantic failure, adulterous liaison, and broken connections all contained in the house she inherits after decoding the messages from the dream. Lou throws in a series of unexpected cinematic allusions, including one to Ozu’s Late Spring as a lodger randomly peels an apple with intense melancholy, while drawing inspiration from the Hong Kong New Wave. Yet the key aesthetic is gothic horror as Lan finds herself trapped by generational trauma, witnessing her grandmother bound in cobwebs while attacked by razor-wielding spectres apparently keen to stop her further investigating her traumatic past. Finally she laments that all that remains is an “empty and beautiful end”, apparently returning to the present which is perhaps equally frightening in its sense of oppressive anxiety by abandoning the music box and thereby closing the door on the nightmarish dream world of haunted houses and cursed legacies. Nevertheless, the young couple seem to have beaten back the attempts of the older generation to reassert their control and emerge into a new society with a new sense of freedom if not quite liberation. 


Don’t Be Young  is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

China’s Van Goghs (中国梵高, Yu Haibo & Kiki Yu Tianqi, 2016)

“You can just take a picture!” a frustrated driver calls out to “painter worker” Zhao Xiaoyong as he makes a long delayed attempt to express himself artistically by painting the streets of his rural hometown in the style of European artist Vincent Van Gogh. Xiaoyong is one of several men attempting to survive in a declining industry, a painter of knock off replicas of famous works of art produced for the foreign market in the small town of Dafen, Shenzhen known as one of China’s largest “oil painting villages” since an enterprising Hong Kong businessman kickstarted the movement back in the tumultuous year of 1989. 

Though the title may at first seem ironic, referring to the “fake” paintings at its centre, Yu Haibo and Kiki Yu Tianqi’s strangely moving documentary China’s Van Goghs (中国梵高, Zhōngguó Fán Gāo) explores the conflicts which continue to define the lives of the artists who as they put it paint to live but take their art extremely seriously and possess tremendous technical skill but are forced to stifle their own creative instincts while producing meticulous copies for a mere pittance. As Xiaoyong laments, they find it difficult to attract and keep apprentices because you can earn more at the factory, while one of his colleagues ironically admits that they had to set up a production line in order to complete an unusually large order though following the financial crisis those are largely thin on the ground. 

Xiaoyong is a Van Gogh obsessive, as are many of the artists of Dafen, and longs to visit Amsterdam in order to see the originals up close. Ironically enough, their biggest market is indeed the Netherlands, and his most important client has invited him to visit several times previously though Xiaoyong and his wife continue to argue over the expense. His eventual visit is however heartbreaking, his eyes a deep well of pain and confusion as he finds himself overcome with disappointment and disillusionment. He thought his client owned a fancy gallery, but his paintings are being sold in a pokey knock off souvenir shop for three times what he was paid to paint them which was only around €8 to begin with though they took many hours to complete. Later talking to another artist about his trip he remarks on how overcome he was seeing Van Gogh’s originals, but the experience also destroys the sense he had of himself as an artist, reminding him that he is “just” a craftsman making diligent copies while leaving him with the desire to create something meaningful of his own. 

Earlier in the film, Xiaoyong had travelled back to his rural hometown for the anniversary of his father’s death breaking down in tears while reflecting on the various ways his poverty has defined his life, denied an education and orphaned at young age. Back in Dafen, meanwhile, his teenage daughter who lives with grandparents in order to attend high school visits home and declares herself fed up with education, as if she’s wasting her time unable to keep with the curriculum silently crying in the corner while her parents continue working. Xiaoyong sympathetically laments he didn’t have the opportunity to learn very much but has taught himself to open his mind and has obviously become a skilled craftsman with canny business skills only to find himself falling for his own mystique serious about his craft but unaware of the various ways he is being exploited by the Western art economy.

What he’s doing may in a sense be dubious though no one seriously thinks they’re buying a Van Gogh original for €30, but who is to say what really is “authentic” art or suggest that Xiaoyong’s artistry is worth any less solely because someone painted what he painted before? Can a meticulous copy be in itself a separate work of art resplendent in its technical prowess? Xiaoyong says he fell in love with Van Gogh’s paintings because of his discovery of beauty in poverty, he and his friends tearfully watching the 1956 Hollywood biopic Lust for Life fiercely identifying with the artist’s struggles as they too try to accommodate painting to live with their desire for creative expression. In a strange moment, Xiaoyong recalls a dream he had in which he met Van Gogh and told the artist that he had almost become him, but Xiaoyong’s salvation eventually comes in a meeting of the two worlds, painting a portrait of his ageing grandmother her face a labyrinth of lines born of a long life of rural hardship. Sure, you can just take a picture, but it isn’t quite the same.


China’s Van Goghs is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Reunions (吉祥如意, Da Peng, 2020)

Comedian, actor, and general multi-hyphenate Da Peng (AKA Dong Chengpeng) scored box office hits with his first two features, superhero parody Jian Bing Man and musical dramedy City of Rock, but The Reunions (吉祥如意, Jíxiáng Rúyì), a reworking an earlier short, marks a definite shift in his personal style if not exactly devoid of laughs or warmth. Partly a muted personal meditation on the price of success and the compromises of the modern China, Da Peng’s Spring Festival movie in contrast to the sentimental norm finds a family on the brink of disintegration but discovers within that a sense of sad resignation rather than failure or disappointment. 

Comprising of Da Peng’s earlier short given the English title of “A Reunion”, the first 40 minutes or so act as a kind of verbatim docudrama starring a professional actress, Liu Lu, as Da Peng’s cousin Lili (who later features in the part two “A Final Reunion” making of redux) alongside members of his family including his mother and father playing themselves. Da Peng had apparently intended to film a kind of personal history/tribute to his grandmother exploring the various ways she lived her day to day life preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations, but during his stay which was his first in many years his grandmother sadly passed away. During the making of sequence, he begins to wonder if his visit home to make the movie may have caused his grandmother’s health to decline or if he was simply unaware that she had already become ill because he failed in his duty as a grandson staying away so long. 

As he puts it, in the city he is a different person with a different life largely forgetting about his family back in rural China. The main crisis of the New Year period is not however his grandmother’s death but the pending decision of what to do with uncle Ji Xiang who suffered brain damage after an illness a few decades previously and is unable to take care of himself. Filial wisdom says the burden falls on Lili, but she too lives in the city and has her own life with a small child to take care of meaning that it would be difficult for her to take her father home to live with her, not to mention the potential difficulties of uprooting him from everything he’s known. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lili and her father had long been estranged as her mother divorced him after the illness and moved to the city when Lili was a teenager. During the making of sequence, the actress playing Lili asks for clarification in her motivation stating that the one thing she doesn’t understand is why she hasn’t visited her family in over 10 years, but the only answer she receives is an awkward silence. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of the grandmother relations between the siblings begin to fray as old conflicts bubble to the surface, Da Peng’s uncle and aunt complaining that they cared for Ji Xiang and his mother all this time on their own and would appreciate some help but fail to see how any of the secondary suggestions of the other siblings pitching in as grandma had wished are realistic. Others insist that prior to his illness Ji Xiang was the most filial of the siblings, frequently helping out his brothers and sisters with jobs at the oil field where he worked and generally making sure to take care of everyone only to be semi-abandoned by them now he is no longer to look after himself. The presumably engineered argument from the movie later spirals out of control, the actress playing Lili pleading with the siblings to stop, while her real life counterpart looks on impassively from behind the camera, the fate of Ji Xiang still seemingly undecided. 

Yet quizzed by a fan at a Q&A after the screening of A Reunion, Da Peng doesn’t have an answer for why he decided to make the film, any messages he might have hoped to convey beyond a sense of loss and regret lost amid his desire to capture a moment of family life, his mother appearing on camera in a brief interview sequence avowing that she believes that with grandma gone this will probably be the last New Year, the siblings no longer having a common reason to come together. Someone even mentions that the family is only here this time because of Da Peng’s film, calling into question the ethical dimensions of his decision to put his relatives on camera. He closes on a poignant note with some home video from New Year 2008, presumably the last time he was home, featuring his grandmother and Uncle Ji Xiang in happier times harking back to an essential sense of loss in the all the missed opportunities of absent years now that there will be no more next times or home to go back to. 


The Reunions is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)