The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, Cheng Siyu, 2019)

“Chinese martial arts are unimpressive” sneers a Japanese soldier as a member of an aikido school which has just received permission to open in the martial arts homeland of Tianjin. Boasting surprisingly high production values in comparison with the average Chinese action movie streamer, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, huò yuán jiǎ zhī jīng wǔ tiānxià) once again sees a humble man stand up on behalf of all of China against an oppressive coloniser this time intent on fighting them on their own ground by beating the locals in a “fair” fight pitting Chinese boxing against Japanese martial arts. 

Set at a complex historical moment, the film opens with the news that new regulations have taken hold at the Imperial University which will introduce Western learning to China but that many fear it’s a ruse to open the door to a Japanese invasion. That does seem to be the case in Tianjin which is soon occupied by unpleasant and duplicitous Japanese military officers who plan on opening a martial arts school of their own to rival those already in the town and eventually take it over. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Wu Shu association is about to step down and is holding a contest to find his successor. The burly Zhao quickly sees off all challengers until the arrival of mysterious stranger Huo Yuanjia (Dennis To Yu-hang) places his victory in jeopardy. Zhao plays a few underhanded moves, but an irritated Yuanjia essentially lets him win knowing his next blow may kill him. Zhao seems like the wrong person to lead the association now that it is threatened by the Japanese but eventually encourages Yuanjia to take a stand refusing to allow the proud traditions of Tianjin to be destroyed by the burgeoning Japanese empire who brand China the “sick man of Asia”.

Indeed, from the offset the Japanese are shown to be cruel and dishonourable despite the captain’s early words that they should play strategically in their quest to colonise China. Colonel Takeda is in someways much more even handed, openly reprimanding his men for acting in a way that reflects badly on the Japanese such as ordering the entire school to attack Yuanjia after he defeats aikido champ Anbei. But even Takeda is playing the long game, hoping that he can break the spirit of the Chinese by defeating them at martial arts leaving them so demoralised that they will give up on all thoughts of rebellion. Yuanjia is not however so easily beaten and neither is China as he very directly says to the japanese soldiers who try to shut him down. He frames his battle as one that will decide the course of the entire nation, that if he fails to stand up to the Japanese now then China will forever be oppressed by foreign powers though as he’s also fond of pointing out, he’s “just” a porter that the martial arts society didn’t even really want to accept before he showed them what he can do.

Nevertheless, he finds himself torn by the admittedly well-worn plot device of a nagging wife who doesn’t like him going off fighting and would much rather he stay at home even if it means all of China falls. Even she eventually comes round and gives him a precious amulet that becomes his saving grace. Chinese kung fu is he points out all about love and the desire to protect, whereas as according to Takeda Japanese martial arts are all about conquest and destruction. Yuanjia tells him that there’s no need to look for a winner or a loser in a contest of martial arts, and that in the end he cannot win because his philosophy is soulless and little more than meaningless violence while his is rooted in love and country. Martial arts is about applying peace, he explains, not bullying the weak (which seems like an odd concession in its characterisation of China as a defenceless victim only Yuanjia can save). 

Running a tight 74 minutes, the film boasts a series of impressive fight sequences performed by genre star Dennis To along with a series of above average performances as the small band of Tianjin martial artists attempt to preserve their traditions while taking a stand against foreign incursion which might in is own way have a few uncomfortable implications in its nationalistic dimensions. Nevertheless, it boasts surprisingly good production values for a straight to streaming movie and largely manages to sell its admittedly familiar tale with considerable panache.


The Grandmaster of Kung Fu is released in the US on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 31 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (世间有她, Li Shaohong, Joan Chen, Sylvia Chang, 2022)

The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need  to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important. 

Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other. 

A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community. 

This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change. 

Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her. 

The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times. 


Hero streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, Bo Ren, 2021)

A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.

All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own. 

His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.

Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area. 

When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.


So Long Summer Vacation streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, Frant Gwo, 2023)

Back in what now seems like another world, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth became a Lunar New Year box office smash and was described by some as China’s first foray into big budget sci-fi. Adapted from a novel by Liu Cixin, the film was much about fathers and sons as it was about sacrifice and solidarity in the face of oncoming apocalypse all of which are quite traditional New Year themes. Arriving four years later, The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, liúlàng dìqiú 2) largely drops overt references to the Spring festival bar the repeated motif of journeying home, but does once again stress the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding the future of the planet.

Then again, it seems that many feel it’s not a good use of time or resources to address a problem that will occur in a hundred years when they are long dead. A prequel to the first film, Wandering Earth II begins in the early days of the Moving Mountain Project which is the plan to push the Earth onto a different orbit to escape the sun’s eventual implosion. Given its enormous expense and the reality that much of the population will simply be left to die, the majority of the public back the rival Digital Life program in which humanity would be saved by relocating to a new virtual reality. Where this virtual reality is supposed to be stored is not exactly clear if there is no Earth for it to exist on, but it’s clear that some consider the possibilities of the digital existence preferable to allowing millions to die in the tsunamis which will engulf the Earth as it uncouples from the moon’s gravitational pull. 

Chief among them is software engineer Tu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) who is griefstricken by the loss of his wife and child in a traffic accident and has been secretly working on creating a fully fledged AI simulacrum of his daughter Yaya. He tells his more practically minded colleague Ma (Ning Li) that he doesn’t have the right to define what is “real” while eventually jeopardising the Moving Mountain Project by prioritising his desire to save Yaya over saving the Earth and eventually creating the AI system that will become Moss, a possibly dangerous entity which decides the best way to save humanity is to destroy mankind. 

The first film’s hero, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), meanwhile is a rookie astronaut caught up in a terrorist incident carried out by militant opponents of the Moving Mountain project while enjoying an incongruously goofy courtship with fellow astronaut and future wife, Duoduo (Wang Zhi). This time around, he’s a dutiful son rather than conflicted father serving alongside his own dad who eventually becomes an example of intergenerational sacrifice as the old begin to make way for the young whose responsibility it now is to preserve the Earth. A nervous young aid serving the current premier later takes over the reigns and finds herself giving the same advice to a similarly nervous young man as they prepare to carry on the Wandering Earth project despite knowing that it will take thousands of years to complete. 

The ultimate message is therefore to choose hope, as Peiqiang later does striving to save the world even if it all turns out to be hopeless, rather than giving up and resigning oneself to one’s fate as many suggest doing when faced with the potential failure of their mission. As in the first film, the plan requires cooperation between nations and this time even more so as world powers must surrender their nuclear weapons to help blow up the moon. The Chinese premier looks forward to a day when governments can work on solving future problems rather than preparing for war, but then in an echo of the ongoing climate crisis some just don’t seem to see the point in dealing with something that won’t happen for a hundred years despite likely being among the first to complain no one did anything sooner when it finally affects them. Gwo adds a little whimsy in the technically pre-apocalypse setting with charming details such as Tu’s warm relationship with his dog-like robot helper and the general goofiness of Peiqiang’s attempt to court Duoduo while improving on the already polished visuals of the first film through several high impact set pieces but finally returns to its messages of hope and solidarity perhaps intended for a weary world attempting to find its own way out of a period of protracted strife.


The Wandering Earth II is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.

International trailer (English voice over, Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Liu Jiangjiang, 2022)

An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are. 

At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point. 

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl. 

These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself. 

Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.


Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)

Stonewalling (石门, Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka, 2022)

A young woman finds herself caught between one generation and the next while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka’s pressing examination of contemporary womanhood, Stonewalling (石门, Shímén). Faced with an impossible situation she makes a decision that is in someways very old-fashioned and others very modern but certainly as another young woman describes it, very naive. Realising she has very little control over the decisions of her life the woman struggles to reaccommodate herself to the contradictions of the modern China. 

At 20, Lynn (Yao Honggui) has moved to the city from her home in provincial Changsha and is studying to become a flight attendant. Pressed to make money to support herself and pay off her mother’s debts, she’s taken up part-time modelling work and is dating a fellow student who seems to be something of a social climber constantly pressuring her to improve her English and mingle with the internationalist set. Hoping to earn more money she finds herself acting on a suggestion from an acquaintance to sell her eggs and discovers she is pregnant. While the boyfriend pressures her into an abortion, she isn’t really sure and decides to return to her parents’ home. One there she discovers her mother is struggling to pay off compensation payments after a mistake at her obstetrics clinic resulted in a woman losing her baby. Rather childishly Lynn suggests that she carry her child to term and then offer it to the other woman in return for the cancellation of the debt. 

It’s a very feudal solution to a very contemporary problem. Lynn does not see it as selling her baby only a way to overcome the futility of her situation. Everyone around her tells her to have an abortion as if it were as simple as having a tooth pulled and there’s really not much need to think about it. The film seems to ask if the silent consequences of the three decades of the One Child Policy have profoundly affected the way people think about motherhood and childbirth, normalising abortion to the point of becoming numb to its emotional dimensions. Lynn tells her mother that she does not want the baby to die inside her, having apparently witnessed an abortion going wrong at the clinic though her mother only tells her not to be so silly. She knows she can’t raise the child herself and accepts the arguments of others that early motherhood will derail her life and prospects, but wants the child to survive and naively believes both that it will help heal another woman’s pain and be raised in a loving family with better prospects than she could ever give it. 

But it’s obvious that the man she’s dealing with who claims to be a cousin of the woman who lost her baby is in no way on the level and most likely intends something quite different for the child perhaps selling it on in China’s child trafficking network, another unintended consequence of the One Child Policy. He suggests the cruelest solution of all, that Lynn and her family should raise the baby for a year and then part with it to him which aside from its emotional implications destroys the point of giving it away in the first place in that Lynn needs to keep her pregnancy secret to avoid the social stigma of unwed motherhood while returning to her studies after giving birth. Meanwhile, through the contacts she made in egg donation Lynn finds herself shepherding other young women many of whom are from the persecuted Uyghur minority to shady appointments with men in hotel rooms who quiz them on their physical health and mental attitudes in what seems to be a matchmaking/surrogacy service. In any case, these women seem to have little value outside of their ability to bear “healthy” children. “What is the standard for health?” a Lynn asks the middleman only for him to tell her that he’ll know it when he sees it, leading her to fear he may reject her child once it’s born leaving her quite literally holding the baby. 

Left with little means of support, Lynn is forced to continue working throughout her pregnancy even though medical personnel imply she is malnourished and should make sure to get plenty of rest while eating a protein rich diet. The only reason she is given such care at all is ironically because of the accidental commercialistion of the baby, the middleman willing to fund its development in return for the end product. Lynn’s mother tries to reason with the middleman to take the baby as soon as its born fearing that he will change his mind or that Lynn will be unable to go through with it after bonding with her child but does not really appreciate how little power they have in this situation. Using shady connections, the middleman has engineered it so that Lynn is getting medical care as “Sylvia”, the woman whose baby died and whose name will appear on its birth certificate leaving Lynn with no legal right to it anyway. 

Her mother, meanwhile, trying to take agency over her own life has been sucked into an obvious pyramid scheme selling fancy skin cream and has gained a false sense of success in her new business enterprise, arguing with her husband and wanting to close down the outdated maternity clinic altogether. Lynn struggles with English but is caught amid the dichotomies of the modern China, translating between standard Mandarin and the local Changsha dialect while trapped between the need to support her parents and providing for the next generation leaving little room for herself, her own hopes and desires. A grim picture of life on the margins of the contemporary society, Huang and Otsuka’s pressing drama ends with rain and hazard lights along with a helpless sense of abandonment and little hope in sight.


Stonewalling screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Go Through the Dark (盲弈, Pu Yunhong, 2021)

“You should rely on yourself not on others. Success comes from your own efforts” a father tells his son, yet his words have a particular irony given the complicated nature of their relationship. Pu Yunhong’s mostly observational documentary Go Through the Dark (盲弈, máng yì) follows an 11-year-old boy who unwittingly became a social media star after winning a regional Go contest despite the fact that he is blind. At first Guanglin’s father seems supportive and caring, yet the boy often appears to be on the brink of tears and is near silent giving no real indication whether or not he actually likes the game of Go or is only doing it to please the father who has told him he has no other future solely because of his blindness. 

In any case, Guanglin has already achieved level four status after only two years and at a relatively young age even for a sighted child who devoted themselves solely to studying the game. Using a specially adapted board that allows him to play by touch, he seems genuinely heartbroken on losing out in the final match of a tournament, crying into his father’s shirt, but later events lead us to wonder if it’s merely disappointment that has him so upset or guilt mixed with fear in being unable to live up to his father’s expectations. It seems that Guanglin’s father has decided that his future lies in becoming a professional Go player, explaining that he had previously considered sending him away to train as a masseur expressing a rather outdated and prejudicial view of blindness in insisting there are no other possibilities for him, but there is an ongoing conflict of interest that sees him attempt to micromanage the boy’s affairs as if making a bid for vicarious success rather than earnestly supporting his son in order to see him fulfil his dreams. 

He first explains that they were offered a place at a Go school in Beijing but then that the school messed them around, accusing them of exploiting Guanglin to boost their image while having no real intention of helping him. Then they travel south to Xiamen following an offer from Mrs Wang who provides them with an apartment and offers to train Guanglin for free. But it’s still not enough for his father who complains endlessly that he feels ripped off and exploited, irritated by Mrs Wang’s suggestion he help out at the school while she seems to have some concerns about their potentially toxic co-dependency. Though his father is always pointing out that Guanglin will have to become independent someday, he takes frequent steps to prevent him doing so. Apparently suffering from severe separation anxiety, Guanglin does not attend school and is getting no conventional education nor does he have the opportunity to mix with other children of his own age and has poor social skills. Mrs Wang is concerned that he never chooses his own food to eat but accepts only what his father gives him, while there is something worrying in his tendency to simply eat a few bites and declare himself full with his father then finishing off his meal. 

The cause of Guanglin’s blindness, according to his father, is malnutrition caused by their poverty though Mrs Wang in particular is convinced that he may never have attempted to get proper medical care for his son. When she tries to encourage him to take Guanglin to a specialist who suggests that it might be possible for him to regain at least some of his sight, his father becomes indignant. His anxiety may be born of a genuine fear that surgery may make things worse or cause additional injury because of the affects of the anaesthetic but behind it all there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that he simply doesn’t want Guanglin to be cured because that would reduce his dependency on him while rendering him “ordinary”, no longer the blind Go player with no guarantee that he can learn to play the game the way that others play it. 

Even when his father puts him in a school in Beijing, the coach seems to agree with him that it would be “better” if Guanglin could delay the treatment on his eyes so the school would have the cachet of training the blind Go champion. Yet when he had put him in a school in his hometown, the coach there had humiliated Guanglin in front of the whole class calling his moves “cabbage-headed” and unacceptable for someone at his level. “No one wants to play with a loser” his father cruelly tells him, as Guanglin wanders around on his own rejected by the other kids who are mostly reading or playing video games yet often appearing at his most happy running around and standing behind his classmates listening to them play even when not included. Though often withdrawn, stressed and close to tears, Guanglin does his best without complaint while his father runs him down and rants about people not supporting their dream. It may be that pretty much everyone is exploiting Guanglin in one way or another, no one really thinking about his quality of life or future independence, but he is left with nowhere else to turn and only Go to cling to as an uncertain lifeline towards a better future. 


Go Through the Dark screens on 21st October as part of Cambridge Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hidden Letters (Violet Du Feng & Zhao Qing, 2022)

As the title cards that open Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing’s Hidden Letters explain, women in feudal China had little freedom. Subjected to cruel practices such as foot binding, they were forbidden from learning to read or write and often confined to their husband’s home where they were expected to sacrifice themselves in service of his family. As someone later describes it, Nushu was secretive script created by women to communicate with each other in acknowledgment of their shared suffering with tiny messages concealed in fans or handkerchiefs, yet even as contemporary women try to preserve it its messages are co-opted by male patriarchal authorities in an increasingly capitalistic society. 

In fact, the documentary tells us little about the history of Nushu and its creation in part because its history is opaque in its nature as a tool of subversion. What we do learn is that Nushu was discovered only in 1983 and that little of it survives because women’s writings were often burned with them lest this only means of communication be exposed. One of the documentary’s two primary subjects, Hu Xin, runs a museum dedicated to Nushu in a small rural town and has formed a close relationship with one of its last living inheritors, He Yanxin, who talks with her openly of the miseries of her life as a woman and the lifeline Nushu once extended to help make them bearable. Nevertheless, she stresses that her Nushu was necessarily covert and unlike that of Xin whose Nushu is public and incorporates song and dance. 

It may in a sense be surprising that Xin, who has dedicated her life to the secret writings of women oppressed by patriarchy, still holds fairly conservative views. She married a man she met at the museum but he was violent and finally forced her into a late term abortion after learning their child would be a girl. Now a divorcee, she is too embarrassed to attend a neighbour’s wedding in her hometown and continues to feel as if she has “failed” as a woman in not becoming a wife or mother with a happy family home. Even He Yanxin ironically points out that the Nushu women would attend a mountain shrine to pray for sons, though in any case you can understand why they would not want to bring a daughter into this world of cruel subjugation. “We were only slaves to men” Yanxin explains, recounting that she was not even allowed to look her brothers-in-law in the eye as she carried them water and was often uncertain which of them she was addressing. 

We have to ask ourselves how much has really changed. Simu, the documentary’s second subject, is a woman with a more modern outlook yet drawn to the traditional. An opera singer by trade she lives a comfortable life in Shanghai and has found strength and inspiration in the existence of Nushu. As we meet her she is engaged to a man who first seems sympathetic, but expresses more conservative views on taking her home to meet his family. Getting her to drink a bitter tonic to encourage conception he then tells her that they shouldn’t have children right away because they need to buy a house so that his mother can stay with them when the baby’s born. She can continue with her opera career (it comes with several government perks related to housing and other subsidies), but he wants her to take another part-time job, dismisses Nushu as a “hobby”, and insists that she dedicate herself entirely to their family leaving her no time for anything for herself. As she looks askance at the camera for help, it’s plain that her situation is in reality little different from that of a feudal woman trapped in her husband’s home robbed both of identity and of fulfilment. 

Simu eventually breaks off the engagement with the support of her comparatively progressive parents and especially of her mother, a doctor who recounts her own childhood in which her father, a coal miner, would not allow her sister to be educated. They were “liberated” by the Great Leap Forward’s false promise of “equality” which saw fit to acknowledge them as equal only when their productivity was required to be so. In any case, she believes society has in a sense devolved and that contemporary women face harder battles in a culture which once again judges them solely on their ability to bear children.

Disturbingly, the legacy of Nushu has itself been co-opted to enforce the very values that it rebelled against. The director of Xin’s museum, a man, claims that Nushu represents the virtues of true womanhood, obedience, acceptance, and resilience, that he feels have been lost in this modern society of independent women. Meanwhile, while Xin makes Nushu banners at a tourism convention her male bosses huddle round putting Nushu slogans on promotional knickknacks such as retractable chopsticks in the shape of nunchucks. They claim that Nushu must be monetised if it is to survive while robbing it of its soul, overruling a woman’s objection that naff tie ups with KFC are not the answer to this particular problem. At the opening ceremony for the Beijing Nushu Cultural Exchange Center there are only men onstage to unveil the plaque for some reason to theme of The Magnificent Seven. 

Leaving the city to follow the guiding light of Nushu, Simu writes letters to her ancestors reassuring them that it’s better now than it was then. Women have agency over their marriages, foot binding has been banned, and they can live self-reliant lives of freedom and independence. Considering her experiences, Simu’s words might sound a little idealistic, not quite as it is but as she would like it to be. Yet as another woman puts it, perhaps the responsibility of the women of today is to live up to the legacy of Nushu and its spirit of rebellion in once and for all shaking free of oppressive feudalistic and patriarchal social codes. 


Hidden Letters screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and is available to stream in the UK via BFI Player 14th to 23rd October.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Moon Man (独行月球, Zhang Chiyu, 2022)

A diffident everyman battles loneliness and despair only to become a selfless sacrifice for a world that left him behind in the latest film from the Mahua FunAge gang, Moon Man (独行月球, Dúxíng Yuèqiú). Not quite the raucous comedy that Mahua FunAge has become known for with popular hits Never Say Die and Hello, Mrs. Money, Moon Man is a more contemplative affair adapted from a South Korean manhwa by Cho Seok and equal parts absurdist exploration of the human condition and cathartic post-pandemic dramedy that insists there is always a homecoming in one way or another. 

Yue Dugu (Shen Teng) is proud to refer to himself as a “middle man” in that he has deliberately cultivated the image of Mr. Average in an intense attempt never to stand out from the crowd. On applying for an engineering job on a space programme he’s told the position has been filled but there’s an opening in maintenance. Yue didn’t really want to take it but does, as we later learn, after falling in love at first sight with Xing (Ma Li), the commander of a mission set to save the Earth from a meteor strike some years in the future. Being the kind of guy he is, Yue never makes an attempt to get close to her but thinks his chance has finally come when the mission is concluded successfully though Xing doesn’t appear to even know he exists. He decides to write a long love letter while listening to romantic music and consequently misses all of the alarms alerting him to the fact that something has gone very wrong, the mission is being aborted, and they all need to evacuate as soon as possible. Left behind as the rockets take off he can only look on in horror as a meteor strikes the Earth leading him to believe he is the sole survivor of the human race. 

Of course, that turns out not quite to be the truth. What starts out as Robinson Crusoe quickly becomes The Truman Show as Xing, who has found safe refuge on a nearby space base, realises someone was left behind and plans to livestream their daily life to give hope to the survivors on Earth who are now living a dismal post-apocalyptic existence underground. Recruiting a former live-streaming king, they try to set Yue up as an idealised propaganda hero but, as they are unable to communicate with him, Yue still thinks he’s the last of his kind and his behaviour cannot really be called inspirational seeing as he spends most of his time trying to crack the code to enter Xing’s quarters and having dinner with a mannequin he’s pasted her face on. Meanwhile, he’s also discovered that he’s not quite as alone as he thought but is trapped with a very angry kangaroo left behind by a research team. 

Yue was a lonely man before, but begins to experience true despair while quite literally alone on the moon wondering what the point of his life is especially if, as he assumes, Xing is no longer in this world. He contemplates suicide and then, after hearing radio static and coming to believe there may be someone else out there comes into his own trying to plot his escape by thinking outside of the box and proving himself a talented scientist. Struck again by despair he realises that cure for loneliness is knowing there’s someone there to keep the light on for you to guide you home only to see the Earth light up with a message intended to read “you are not alone” but which accidentally reads “you are no one” reinforcing Yue’s everyman status as a middle of the road guy who shouldered the burden that was handed to him and set out to save the world all while locked outside of it. 

Yue’s accidental heroism begins to soften Xing’s austerity as she gradually falls for this “awkward” man, while he learns to step up to the plate to protect her and the rest of humanity all of which lends hope to those trapped in the bowels of the Earth and encourages them to begin rebuilding even if at great personal cost. Shifting into Armageddon territory, it’s a nobody who finally saves the world in a final act of selfless heroism. Over the past few years, many may have felt as if they were alone on the moon or found themselves trying to parse grief on a mass scale while mourning the world they knew which had been so abruptly taken from them. Yet as the final title card puts it, the universe is vast, “we will meet again” and there will always be a homecoming in one way or another. Boasting excellent production values including some adorable animated sequences, Moon Man is a strangely cathartic experience filled with zany humour but also genuine hope for brighter future on the other side of the darkness. 


Moon Man is in UK cinemas now.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Give Me Five (哥,你好, Zhang Luan, 2022)

A struggling 30-year-old begins to repair his relationship with the difficult father he believed never liked him after being unexpectedly thrown back to the past and almost erasing himself from history in Zhang Luan’s sci-fi-inflected tale of filiality, Give Me Five (哥,你好, gē nǐhǎo). What begins as a Chinese riff on Back to the Future eventually skews closer to recent hit Hi, Mom which the Chinese title subtly echoes as the hero comes to appreciate the power of maternal love and sacrifice through bonding with the younger versions of his parents. 

Now 30 years old, Xiaowu (Chang Yuan) explains that he was long estranged from his grumpy father Wu Hongqi (Wei Xiang) and rarely visited him but has since become his main carer now that he is living with Alzheimer’s. Xiaowu makes his living as an e-sports entrepreneur which is not something former engineer Hongqi can well understand and in truth Xioawu doesn’t seem to be that successful as he’s been putting off proposing to longterm girlfriend Huahua because of an anxiety about his finances. When Hongqi suddenly jumps off a bridge for no apparent reason and ends up in a coma, Xiaowu is at first oddly pleased and immediately begins raiding his office looking for his bankbooks only to find a mysterious ring and an old diary penned by his mother who died when he was a baby. Putting the ring on sends him back to 1986 where he manages to mess up his parents’ meet cute, endangering his own existence. In order to put things right he has to go back in time Marty McFly-style to ensure his mum and dad fall in love just like they were supposed to. 

Back to the Future is a film from the 1980s expressing nostalgia for an idealised 1950s small-town America. Give Me Five to a degree romanticises the China of the mid-1980s but does so from an entirely different angle than the recent trend in 80s nostalgia which has taken hold in the West in that, other than a brief romantic moment featuring Teresa Teng’s Tian Mi Mi along with a few other retro hits, it is largely uninterested in pop culture or revisiting childhood memories but is attempting to draw a comparison between China before economic reform and the ultra-capitalist society of today. In what some might see as a simpler time, Xiaowu’s mother Daliu (Ma Li) is, as she’s fond of saying, a “model worker” in a factory which is in danger of closure while the “Biff” character, Qiang (Jia Bing), is a former employee who was dismissed for stealing coal. Having become wealthy after almost certainly doing something dodgy in Hong Kong he’s returned with a prominent Cantonese accent to buy the factory as part of a public-private partnership. A feisty young woman, Daliu sends him packing insisting she won’t let anyone disadvantage her fellow workers. 

The comparison is further borne out by the melancholy figure of Qin (Huang Yuntong) who dated Hongqi after getting the meet cute that was supposed to go to Daliu but thew him over for the promise of riches with Qiang only to be left lonely in her old age having unwisely betrayed love for material gain. Meanwhile, there’s an interestingly progressive element to the relationship between Daliu and Hongqi in which Hongqi is somewhat feminised as the domestic partner cooking and shopping for his wife while Daliu is the uncompromising model worker as she proves during a high impact welding competition while eight months pregnant. The couple first fall in love talking over industrial plans with Daliu offering advice from the shop floor to help improve educated engineer Hongqi’s designs. While interacting with his parents before he was born, Xiaowu gains the familial experience he always felt he lacked in being able to share a family meal while touched by the love that existed between his mother and father and the knowledge that his parents were at least blissfuly happy with each other even if it was only for a short time. 

Xiaowu had been resentful of his father that he never really told him how his mother died. He decides to try saving his mother’s life too and through his various experiences comes to an appreciation of maternal love not least through somehow being able to time travel into the womb to forge a more direct connection with her. In part an advocation for a more traditional filiality in which Xiaowu develops an understanding of the interplay between love and sacrifice between parent and child while coming to understand his relationship with his father after learning his family history, the film also offers a subtle rebuke against the consumerist society in idolising Daliu and her model worker attitude insisting that everything was better when people worked together for the good of all rather than for personal gain. It might be a slightly disingenuous message, Daliu’s factory life is indeed somewhat idealised, but there is something touching in Xiaowu’s eventual conversion and belated bonding with his heartbroken father. 


Give Me Five is in cinemas across the UK, Australia and New Zealand courtesy of CMC and Well Go USA in the US and Canada.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)