The Crossing (过春天, Bai Xue, 2018)

The Crossing posterReally, when it comes right down to it, a border is not much more than an imaginary line drawn across a piece of paper intended to bring order to a formless world. People have fought and died over the positioning of such lines for centuries, but then when all is said and done the boundaries which matter most are the internal ones and everybody has their lines they will not cross. An internal war over the nature of that line is very much at the centre of Bai Xue’s melancholy coming of age drama The Crossing (过春天, Guò Chūntiānin which a young girl living a life on top of borders geographical, emotional, and legal, begins to discover herself only through transgression.

It’s Peipei’s (Huang Yao) 16th birthday, but the most important fact about that for her is that she is now of legal working age and can get a part-time job. Peipei’s parents split up some time ago and now she lives with her flighty mother (Ni Hongjie) in Shenzhen while attending a posh high school in Hong Kong where she doesn’t quite fit in considering her comparatively humble background. This is brought home to her by her insensitive best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) who wants the pair to go on holiday together to Japan at Christmas while full-well knowing that there is no way Peipei can get the money together in time. Desperate to go, Peipei has been selling cellphone cases at school and now has her part-time job but it’s all very slow going. When Jo convinces her to bunk off and party with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells she ends up getting herself involved in a cellphone smuggling operation thanks to Jo’s no good boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun). 

Peipei’s problem is the time old one of falling in with the wrong crowd, but then we most often catch her alone and it’s a lonely figure she cuts through the busy streets of her bifurcated world. Young but tough and angry, Peipei thinks she knows what she’s doing but is caught on the difficult dividing line between adolescence and adulthood and her attempts to claim her independence are filled with determined naivety. Resentful of her mother’s seeming indifference and parade of useless boyfriends, she wants to grow up as soon as possible but it’s not so much the daring and adventure that draws her into the orbit of Sister Hua’s (Elena Kong may-yee) gang of thieves as the camaraderie. Peipei likes being part of a “family”, she likes the maternal attentions of the spiky Sister Hua, and she likes being valuable even if on some level she realises that her usefulness will fade and that her growing loyalty to the gang is largely one sided.

“The big fish eat the little fish. Never trust men” Sister Hua later advises her, and it is indeed good advice if offered a little too late. Peipei knows she’s a little a fish, which is perhaps why she sympathises so strongly with the miniature shark trapped in a tank at the palatial mansion owned by Jo’s absentee aunt. Nevertheless, she tries to swim free only to find herself sinking ever deeper into a murky underworld she is ill-equipped to understand. Her first anxious crossing with a handful of iPhones in her backpack is a fraught affair, but carrying it off without a hitch an oddly empowering experience. Even so, when Sister Hua considers swapping the phones for a gun Peipei hesitates. In essence it’s the same – perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the cargo is, and Sister Hua’s “love” is indeed dependent on a job well done, but the stakes here are sky high. It’s not such a fun game anymore, as Peipei realises spotting a badly wounded gang member hovering outside having apparently received punishment for some kind of transgression.

Meanwhile she finds herself in another kind of interstitial space altogether when caught between best friend Jo and bad boy Hao. Jo, spoilt and self-centred, assumes her family will send her abroad to study and is later shocked by the realisation that her sexist dad thinks she’s not worth it, expects her to marry young in Hong Kong, and intends to invest all the money in her brother instead. Jo didn’t care much for Hao before and even jokingly offered to bequeath him to Peipei when she left, but now all her dreams are crumbling and she suspects he’s losing interest it’s a different story. Playing with fire, Peipei finds herself drawn to Hao who becomes something between white knight and big brother figure in the confusing world of crime until his protective instincts begin to bubble into something else. The pair bicker flirtatiously but also shift into a shared space born of their mutual dissatisfaction and desire to gain access to the Hong Kong inhabited by the likes of Jo whose vast wealth has left her blind to her own privilege.

Peipei crosses lines with giddy excitement, but only through burning her bridges does she begin to discover her own identity caught as she is between Hong Kong and China, between rich and poor, between the going somewheres and not, and between innocence and experience as her exciting adventure in the world of crime eventually blows up in her face. A rather strange title card informing us that efforts to limit smuggling at the border have been redoubled (seemingly ripped right out of the Mainland censor’s notebook) finally gives way to something calmer and more meditative as Peipei awakens to a new understanding of herself and the world in which she lives, looking out instead of up and ahead rather than behind as she resolves to keep moving forward as if there were no more lines to be crossed.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pegasus (飞驰人生, Han Han, 2019)

Pegasus poster 1Traditionally speaking, New Year has often been a time for reconsidering one’s life choices, but can it ever really be too late to make up for past mistakes and charge ahead into a better future? The hero of Han Han’s New Year racing drama Pegasus (飞驰人生, Fēichí Rénshēng) is determined to find out as he tries to bounce back from disgrace and failure to prove to his young son that he was once a great man and not quite the hangdog loser he might at first seem. His battle, however, will be a tough one even with his best guys by his side.

Zheng Chi (Shen Teng) dreamed of racing glory and won it. He was a champion, the face on billboards across China, but a minor scandal put paid to his success and his driving and racing licenses have been suspended for the last five years during which time he’s been humbled and lived a workaday life as a fried rice stall vendor raising a young son alone. Now that his suspension is up for reconsideration, he’s beginning to wonder if he might be able to return to his rightful place at the centre of the podium but he’ll have to eat a considerable amount of humble pie if he’s to convince anyone that he’s a person worthy of respect now that he has nothing.

Director Han Han is, among other things, also a rally driver himself though his positioning of the sport within his tale of middle-aged loserdom is a slightly awkward fit. Racing is an expensive hobby, it quite literally relies on the involvement of those who have vast resources of disposable cash they can use to sponsor drivers so they can improve their equipment. Though a driver’s skill, and their relationship with a co-driver, are not insignificant parts of the equation, it is nevertheless true that money rules all when it comes to buying advantage (perhaps much like life).

Chi’s problem isn’t just his age, but that he’s up against extremely rich young guys with inherited wealth like his rival Zhengdong (Huang Jingyu) – a pretty boy with celebrity following and seemingly infinite resources. Han sets Chi’s struggle up as one of the chastened everyman – someone who came from nothing and made it only to crash and burn but still has the desire to get up and try again. He struggles on through various obstacles including bribing a driving instructor to get his licence back and charming a suspension board into letting him back in the game but discovers that friendships formed when successful might not survive a fall from grace. He can’t get the same kind of access as he could when he was riding high and no amount of chutzpah will make up for the disadvantage incurred through not having the kind of wealth that enables Zhengdong’s ongoing rise to glory.

Nevertheless, perhaps Zhengdong is simply a realist when he advises those looking for absolute fairness not to bother getting involved with racing. He’s not a bad guy, if somewhat insecure in feeling as if his own success has been enabled only by Chi’s fall from grace and perhaps he wouldn’t be top of the podium if the best driver hadn’t been hounded off the track. What we’re left with is an awkward admission that what makes the difference is men like Zhengdong deciding to feel philanthropic, though in this case he does so out of a sense of sportsmanship and a not entirely altruistic desire to prove himself by ensuring the participation of a worthy rival. Given this boost, Chi’s quest necessarily leaves the realm of the everyday loser and returns to the rarefied one of success enabled by privilege.

The final messages are also somewhat ambivalent in their death or glory, live full throttle intensity as Chi’s lectures on driving become lectures about life, affirming that those who win are the ones who drive fastest while making the fewest mistakes. Chi is not unencumbered, he has his son and therefore a responsibility to another which is sometimes forgotten in his own quest for glory which, we are reminded, carries risk and danger. Perhaps what we’re asked is if the gentle pleasures of a simple life selling fried rice for decades are worth giving up the hyper acceleration of a life measured in seconds following a dream. Chi might have found his answer, but it comes at a cost and he’s not the only one who’ll be paying it. As New Year messages go, it’s a decidedly mixed one which might not offer much positivity for the average middle-aged loser longing to relive their glory days in service of a dream which might long have flickered out in an increasingly unequal society.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fragile House (海上城市, Lin Zi, 2018)

thefragilehouseposterAmong the many concerns of recent Chinese cinema, economic inequality and the fate of the family loom large. Lin Zi’s debut, The Fragile House (海上城市, Hǎishàng Chéngshì), neatly brings the two together in the tale of one ordinary family who’ve managed to carve out a degree of comfort for themselves but at great cost. Economic strain threatens the very idea of family, or at least of “family” as has traditionally been defined. The Huangs pay their respects to their elders and enact the rituals expected of them, but remain mere individuals drifting endlessly without direction in pursuit of an inflated ideal of middle-class respectability.

Lin opens on the most important family occasion of all – New Year’s Eve. The Huangs have gathered together as expected with even oldest son and heavily pregnant daughter-in-law in attendance, but there is an unexpected visitor. Cui Ying’s sister Cui Na has come calling but not to join the festivities – she’s come to claim a debt and is refusing to leave the Huang’s sofa until she gets her money. In an extreme power move, the Huangs have called the police to have her removed – an act of intense pettiness which results in little more than ruining everyone’s New Year by getting half the family detained at the local police station.

Originally from the country, Cui Ying and her husband work for a construction firm but there’s trouble on the horizon because Cui Ying, who seems to be in charge of payroll, hasn’t been given the construction funding by the developers who keep fobbing her off meaning she can’t pay her workers. The workers are understandably upset and angry, some resorting to thieving materials in lieu of their wages while quietly seething with resentment towards Cui Ying who swans around in her fancy car while they can’t pay their bills or feed their families.

Likewise, Cui Na finds it difficult to accept her sister’s excuses when she takes in her lovely middle-class family home. If she really has no money why doesn’t she sell the house or her car? Cui Na thinks it’s adding insult to injury when the Huangs throw a party to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild rather than paying her back, but then holding a celebration on the one month anniversary of a child’s birth is one of the many things which a “family” must do to be a family.

Yet this family is one already divided. Lin splits the screen in three, imprisoning the Huang’s in their own individual bubbles on a night devoted to the idea of togetherness. While Cui Ying and her sons pointedly do not eat their New Year dinner at a table in the back, her husband Jian perches on the edge of the sofa, while her sister remains petulantly all the way over to the side. The Huang’s have worked hard for this house, but this evening is one of the few times they will all occupy it at the same time. Jian will soon depart to play nightwatchman at the yard – they’ve no money to pay someone else to watch the place, while youngest son Chaochao has developed the habit of going to the local internet cafe to play games online rather than come home to an empty house, neglecting his studies in the process.

Though his father is more sympathetic and encourages him to find something else to do if he finds school does not interest him, Cui Ying eventually decides to send her son away, absenting him from the family altogether. She does this in the hope of training him to become a model citizen – something the school’s prominently displayed signs declaring “one lifestyle” seem to promise, but does not stop to consider the weakening bond between herself and her children with her oldest son already in the city and, like she with her own family, only coming home for the obligatory family occasions.

Chaochao seems to have picked up on his parents’ plight, that their constant search for success has left them with little more than constant anxiety and exhaustion. You couldn’t blame him for a desire to drop out, declining to fight a battle it’s impossible win. Lin’s constantly shifting aspect ratios, letterboxing, and colour variations highlight the claustrophobic quality of the Huangs’ existences as they go about their individually boxed lives while clinging fast to the idea of familial connection to provide some kind of framework in an increasingly chaotic world but even this is not immune from the corruption of money and the fragility of the house rests on the very forces which constructed it.


Screened as part of the BFI’s 2019 Chinese New Year programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Way Out (出路, Zheng Qiong, 2016)

a way out posterThe duplicitous dichotomies of the modern China have become a permanent fixture in the nation’s cinema though mostly as a symbol of conflicted ideologies as some yearn for a return to an imagined past egalitarianism and others merely for a brake on the runaway train of capitalist materialism. Zheng Qiong’s documentary A Way Out (出路, Chūlù) follows the lives of three youngsters chasing the “Chinese Dream” albeit in their own particular ways only to discover that, in the end, despite the best intentions of those who might seek to lessen the advantages of privilege, birth may be the biggest factor in deciding one’s destiny.

Zheng opens with a little girl, Ma Baijuan, in rural Gansu. Her sing-song voice playing over her cheerful stride to school through the narrow mountain paths hints at a natural curiosity, a desire to know the “why” of everything, but Baijuan is only reciting by rote what it is says in her school book. Her education, which is received at a village school segregated by sex where she is one of only two little girls learning simple facts about the world around her while the boys next-door get a crash course in elementary maths, is largely a matter of questions and answers rather than thought or enquiry. Nevertheless, she excitedly tells us that she will soon be going on to the middle school in the nearest town and then hopefully to a college in Beijing after which she will make a lot of money and buy a new house for her family with a proper well so they can get water.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Xu Jia has already repeated the final year of high school twice in the hope of bettering his exam grades to get into a good university. Like many of his contemporaries, Xu sees a degree from a reputable institution as the only “way out” of small town poverty. He is willing to sacrifice almost anything to make it happen and thinks of little else than achieving his dream of a getting a steady job at a stable company and then getting married in order to reduce the burden on his ageing single mother.

Xu may think that a white-collar job is the only path to success but others do not quite see things the same way. Yuan Hanhan is introduced to us as a 17-year-old “high school drop out” but is in fact a talented artist and bona fide free spirit. After brief stint in a hippy cafe, she eventually achieves her dream of studying abroad at art school in Germany where she struggles to adapt to the relatively laidback quality of European society, affirming that in a developed nation like Germany no one sees the need to go on developing. She complains that Germans only need to do their routine jobs like little stones arranged in a line by the country – perhaps an ironic statement given the restrictive nature of Chinese society but also one with its own sense of logic which places the insistent work ethic clung to by Xu on parallel with an economic model which may already be out of date.

Xu gets his start as a telephonist making cold call insurance sales where the staff are drilled like a military cadre to regard their pencils as machine guns as their mics as grenades, their jobs not means of survival but an enterprise for the common good which drives tax receipts to benefit the entire nation. In a sense he has found his “way out” though his life will be one of soulless corporate drudgery, a fact brought home by his mother’s casual appraisal of his wedding album which features her son in a series of intensely romantic photographs in which he has “absolutely no expression”. Meanwhile, Hanhan remains a free spirit. Even if she never quite felt at home in Germany, she maintains a healthy interest in the wider world and is determined to forge her own path rather than become simply one of many identical “little stones”. For Baijuan, however, the future is much less rosy. Her grandfather, commiserating that perhaps she didn’t have the kind of aptitude for schooling that she might have liked, regards a woman’s education as unimportant, as Baijuan’s only “way out” is a “reliable” man whom they would like to find for her as soon as possible.

As Hanhan puts it in her philosophical closing speech, when it comes down to it birth is the most important factor of all. Simply by being born wealthy in Beijing she had advantages that others do not have. Baijuan’s fate is sealed in being born to a poor farming family in a remote rural region, while Xu constantly refers to his “family situation” as the reason he feels he has to become a success as soon as possible, hitting all the social landmarks at all the expected junctures. Each of our protagonists is looking for a “way out” of their unsatisfactory circumstances, and each of them finds it, but perhaps not quite in a way everyone would view as ”satisfactory”. Zheng’s vision of the new China is one in which the old ideology has failed, leaving behind it only an entrenched social hierarchy from which there may be no “way out” save a willing refusal to comply.


A Way Out was screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival’s New Year programme at the BFI Southbank and is also available to rent online via Vimeo.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Island (一出好戏, Huang Bo, 2018)

the island poster 1Comedy seems to have regained its bite of late. Filmmakers seeking to deliver pointed barbs at the modern China are pulling away from the traditionally safe areas of the period drama for a natural home in satire which for the time being at least is running rings around the censors’ board, albeit in a subdued fashion. The directorial debut from comedic actor Huang Bo, The Island (一出好戏, Yìchū Hăoxì) offers a mini lesson on the perils of untapped capitalism, tyranny, propaganda and “fake news” agendas in the form of a genial romcom in which a nice guy loser makes himself the king and wins the heart of his fair princess only for his empire to crumble under the weight of his own conflicted moralities.

On the day a meteor may or may not be on course to fall to Earth, dejected middle-aged office worker Ma Jin (Huang Bo) is off on a “team building” trip with his colleagues which involves a lengthy journey on an aquatic bus. Ma seems to owe money to just about everyone but swears he will soon pay them back, meanwhile he’s also hoping to get close to office beauty Shanshan (Shu Qi ) on whom he has a longstanding crush. At long last, it seems like Ma’s ship has finally come in – on checking his lottery numbers, Ma realises he’s the jackpot winner and can probably quit his boring job as soon as they dock, possibly even sweeping Shanshan off her feet as he does so. Alas it is not to be as seconds later the meteorite strikes engulfing the duck boat in a tsunami and eventually marooning the entire party on a deserted rocky island somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Huang wastes no time mocking modern consumerism. Ma Jin is now a millionaire but it couldn’t matter less. Likewise, slick boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) is at a similar impasse. He’s supposed to be in charge, an innovator and entrepreneur with all the ideas and a clear path to success but he is stunned and can only scream into the ocean while vowing to use his vast wealth to buy a new ship. The passengers look for leaders, some sticking with their social superior Zhang while others start to flock to the energetic bus driver Wang (Wang Baoqiang) who offers more practical solutions having discovered an abundant crop of fruit trees during an early exploration of the terrain. Wang used to be a monkey keeper and quickly assumes control with an authority born of strength and dominance as well as the withholding of the means to survive from those who do not submit to him.

It’s not long before some of the passengers long to be free of his oppressive yoke and the ideal opportunity arises when capitalist boss Zhang chances on a ready supply of capital in the form of a shipwrecked, upside-down boat which is laden with supplies. Ma Jin and his cousin Xing (Lay Zhang) follow Zhang who later institutes a market economy using playing cards for currency which offers the illusion of freedom but traps the employees in a system of capitalistic wage slavery while Zhang gets “rich” at the top of the pile. Ma Jin and Xing eventually grow disillusioned with their increased status at Zhang’s side when they realise he doesn’t have a plan for getting off the island and has given up on the idea of returning to civilisation.

Pitting two sides against the other, Ma Jin manages to create unity under a system of communism with capitalist characteristics (you see where he going with this?) in which he reigns as something like first among equals. Ma Jin’s “communist” utopia filled with laughter, song, and impromptu dance sequences is only born when he realises he’s missed the date to claim his lottery ticket and that there’s nothing worth going back for whether civilisation still exists or not. With his new found status, he’s finally able to get close the emotionally wounded Shanshan but becomes increasingly conflicted as the “fakery’ required to keep his regime in place begins to weigh on his mind, especially when a boat is spotted on the horizon and the entire system seems primed to crumble. Ma Jin gives in to his worst instincts at the instigation of his even more corrupted cousin who brands the boat visionary a false prophet, a madman who can’t accept the wonders of the new regime.

Only when confronted with Shanshan’s genuine emotion for the man he was pretending to be does Ma Jin wake up from his embittered fever dream to realise the dangers of the world he has created out of his own sense of inferiority, and particularly the harm done to his cousin who perhaps always felt a little oppressed just by him. The message is however compromised by Ma Jin’s otherwise positive realisation that lack of money was not as big a barrier to his success as lack of self confidence and avoidance of truthful emotional connections which of course undermines the central criticism of the increasing inequalities of modern Chinese society just as the ironic coda undoes the anti-consumerist message. Nevertheless, though overlong The Island successfully marries its romantic comedy core with its satirical aspirations thanks to the committed performances of the always radiant Shu Qi who invests the underwritten Shanshan with the necessary levels of wavering earnest while Huang Bo brings his usual hangdog charm to the role of the corrupted everyman.


International trailer (English subtitles)

This Is Not What I Expected (喜欢你, Derek Hui, 2017)

This is not what i expected poster 1The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, as they say, but the course of true love never did run smooth. The debut directorial feature from editor Derek Hui, This is not What I Expected (喜欢你, Xǐhuan Nǐ) is, to be frank exactly what you’d expect it to be but that only works in its favour. A classic tale of opposites attracting, This is Not What I Expected takes its cues from The Shop Around the Corner only this time it’s not pen pals and music boxes but big business and culinary communication.

Ditzy chef Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu) has been having an affair with her caddish boss whom she decides to teach a lesson by carving a rude message into the bonnet of his car. Only, in a motif which will be repeated, she got the wrong one and has actually left her mark on the car of uptight international hotel magnate Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Jin is after some new hotels to acquire so where should he fetch up at other than the one where Shengnan works? Jin hates pretty much everything about the second rate establishment including the food which is when Shengnan’s sleazy boss asks her to cook up something special to stop Jin from leaving. Cleverly analysing the leftovers from Jin’s rejected meals, she cooks him something to remember and succeeds in capturing his heart. Intrigued, Jin decides to stay on the condition that Shengnan cook all his meals from now on. However, Jin has no idea that Shengnan is the culinary mastermind he can’t stop thinking about and is increasingly irritated by all of their bizarre encounters.

Despite their superficial differences, Shengnan and Jin are perfectly in tune, their culinary messages perfectly understood by each on an elemental level. In real life, however, things are quite different. Jin, a ruthless if eccentric businessman with a mania for precision and a terror of anything remotely out of place, finds Shengan’s happy go lucky, disaster prone existence particularly difficult to understand. Hoping to escape her, he even gives Shengnan an electronic tag that will set off an alarm whenever she’s close by so the pair can avoid each other and the chaos that seems to happen when they meet.

Meanwhile, the conflicts continue to expand in the background. Shengnan doesn’t have much of an issue still being single past the socially acceptable age, but worries that she’s not getting anywhere in her career and will be stuck sous-cheffing forever despite her obvious talents while getting her heart broken by sleazy players like her odious, ambitious boss. Rosebud, the ironically named hotel, is hardly a top tier establishment and probably too much bother for Jin to consider taking on if weren’t for his strange fascination with the cook. His extended stay is beginning to raise eyebrows with his coldhearted father/boss while a mild conflict begins to flicker in his heart when he realises the business plan requires firing the entire kitchen staff and hiring a three star Michelin chef.

Hui does perhaps over egg the pudding in creating a “romantic” rival for Shengnan once she discovers that Jin also employs a (female) “private chef” whose return from vacation might explain why he abruptly stopped dropping by the hotel (and her apartment where he’d virtually moved himself in). The lines between desire and hunger remain increasingly blurred as the two women resentfully vie for the position of tastemaker, tussling over which of them understands Jin better and truly deserves to be the one providing him with sustenance. Yet as the personal chef finally comes to realise (a few steps ahead of Jin), what Jin’s hungry for is no longer just food, what he needs is something more organic than a contractual relationship.

Jin is, in a sense, an embodiment of heartless modern capitalism, raised to be “despised” in order to preserve “solitude” and a “clear mind”. Jin’s austere father is all about order and control, he doesn’t like the emotional because it’s irrational and unpredictable, but the straw that finally breaks Jin’s back is when he tells him that the food at the hotel can’t be “too good” because it would be “distracting” for the clients. For the first time, Jin begins to question his ideology and realises that perhaps it wasn’t so much that he enjoyed eating alone as that he convinced himself he did to avoid thinking about the fact that no one wanted to eat with him. An epiphany born of a strange blow fish fever dream shows him that life in Shengnan’s world, for all of its problematic chaos, could be charming not to say warm even in the rain. It’s not what he expected, but it’s good – like an expertly prepared meal, best to savour it while it lasts.


Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Looking for Lucky (寻狗启事, Jiang Jiachen, 2018)

Looking for lucky posterA literal shaggy dog story, Jiang Jiachen’s Looking for Lucky (寻狗启事, Xún Gǒu Qǐshì) is not just the tale of one hapless young man’s attempt to regain his mentor’s approval in the form of his prize pooch, but of that same man’s desperation for a “lucky” break that will set him on a path to middle-class success without the need to debase himself through bribery. A melancholy exploration of the perils and pitfalls of youth in Modern China Jiang’s indie dramedy finds little to be optimistic about, save the faith that nature will run its course and perhaps you will end up where you’re supposed to be even if you have to go on a wild dog chase to get there.

Zhang Guangsheng (Ding Xinhe) is an ambitious grad student from a humble background. With graduation looming, he’s preoccupied about turning his educational investment into a solid job opportunity. Luckily he’s spent the last three years playing errand boy for his professor, Niu, who has all but promised him a cushy faculty job as long as he continues to play his cards right. Everything starts to go wrong when Guangsheng is asked to dog-sit while Niu is away and unwisely delegates the responsibility to his drunken grumpy father (Yu Hai) who loses him after the dog supposedly bites a stuck up little boy who was teasing him. Guangshang does his best to find the dog before Niu gets home, even succumbing to buying a new dog just in case, but all to no avail.

The reason Guangshang needs to find the dog isn’t just guilt and embarrassment at having potentially caused emotional distress to someone he respects, but because he knows that the failure to cope with this minor level of responsibility may ruin his relationship with Niu. Again, the relationship itself is not what’s important so much as what it can do for his career prospects. Guangshang is from a humble background and lacks the resources to buy his way to success as other young people often do – an endorsement from someone like Niu is his only chance to catapult himself into a steady middle-class life. Thus he’s spent the last three years bowing and scraping, debasing himself to be Niu’s go to guy and now it’s all going to out of the window thanks to his dad’s mistake.

A neurotic intellectual, Guangshang’s relationship with his polar opposite of a father is already difficult even before the dog incident. Guangshang’s dad is one of China’s many “laid off workers”, unceremoniously made redundant from a job for life as part the nation’s longterm economic modernisation. An embittered, angry man Guangshang’s dad quarrels with everything and everyone, sees scams everywhere, and has a much more cynical, world weary belief system than his kindhearted, idealistic son. The pair do, however, have something in common in their striving to live “independently” on their own skills alone. Abhorring the corruption of their society in which nothing is done fairly and money rules all, they each stubbornly refuse to give in and do things the “normal” way, not wanting the kind of success than can be bought.

Guangshang might be prepared to humiliate himself by playing servant, but he has his pride and doesn’t like seeing his poverty deployed as a weapon against him – especially by a “wealthy” friend who has looked at all the files and “admires” Guangshang’s perseverance, nor by his mother and her immensely calm second husband who are only too happy to give him the money to “buy” a university position, but not to help his father when he gets himself into trouble (again). Yet what Guangshang eventually discovers is that he has not lived as far from the systems of corruption as he had assumed – a realisation that both bolsters and destroys his sense of self confidence as he begins to understand his father’s true feelings while his sense of security in his academic prowess threatens to implode.

Everybody wants something – usually money, sometimes advancement, but no one can be trusted and nothing is done for free out of the goodness of one’s heart. Guangshang, without money, pays in other ways and then is cruelly undercut by someone else forced to do the same only in a sadder, even more morally dubious fashion as Niu is exposed for the corrupt figure he really is despite his “scholarly” standing. “Let nature take its course” Guangshang is urged by a fortuneteller he turns to in desperation for an indication of the whereabouts of his missing dog, but Guangshang is a young man in a hurry and has no time to wait around for a less than enticing fate. Yet for all the suffering and petty disappointments, justice is eventually served, patience rewarded and the virtuous victorious. Maybe it does all come right in the end, so long as you’ve the patience to let the dog off the leash and enough faith to see him safely home.


Looking for Lucky was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)