Being Mortal (来处是归途, Liu Ze, 2020)

A young woman finds herself haunted by a sense of erasure in Liu Ze’s moving family drama Being Mortal (来处是归途, lái chǔ shì guītú) adapted from the novel by Li Yanrong. As the title might suggest, the questions the heroine faces are those of mortality and of the realities of death and ageing in contemporary China as she struggles to decide what the best thing to do is when it comes to caring for her ageing parents. Highlighting both the social changes born of increasing modernity and the pressures of an ageing society, Liu’s drama has few answers but explores the strain caring for those who will not recover can place on those around them. 

At 30, Tian (Tang Xiaoran) makes the difficult decision to accept a job transfer and return to her hometown in order to help her mother, Wenxiu (Li Kunmian), care for her father, Jianguo (Zhang Hongjing), who has been suffering with dementia for the past few years. Though we do not hear much about her life in the city, it’s also true that part of the motivation for moving lies in her unsatisfying relationship with a married co-worker who refused to leave his family. A friend suggests that he may have been reluctant to make the move in part because of Tian’s responsibility to her father, viewing him as a burden he was unwilling to bear. At the wedding of a hometown friend, she rekindles a relationship with her high school boyfriend, Qin Mu (Shi Xiaofei), the two of them being the only ones among their classmates to have remained unmarried. But as both the romance and Jianguo’s illness progress, the need to care for him also places a strain on the couple’s relationship with constant confusion as to the shared responsibilities and uncertainty for the future. 

Tian does have an older sister, Hua (Wang Tan), who is already married and has a child of her own yet lives some distance away and is able to help only financially though her money is often refused. Feeling guilty and seeing the toll caring for Jianguo is taking on her mother and sister, Hua suggests that it might be time to consider a nursing home or else a professional carer but Wenxiu and Tian are reluctant believing they’d be abandoning him or failing in their responsibility of care. Even so the rapid progression of his dementia which intensifies when he is hospitalised with pneumonia places an increasing strain on the two women, Wenxiu at one point snapping and shouting at Jianguo after he has soiled himself. As the women argue, Qin Mu finds himself trying to clean the old man up only to be shooed away by a regretful Wenxiu after she’s pulled herself together and retreat to the bathroom where Tian can hear him retching. This momentary crisis brings the couple’s relationship to a crunch point, Tian telling Qin Mu he can leave and he doing so without much of a protest. 

Much of the drama revolves around the effects of Jianguo’s illness on those around him, but he often has heartbreaking moments of lucidity sobbing in terror and frustration the first time he wets himself as his wife and daughter even in their own shock and confusion do their best to help him. “I’m completely worthless” he later cries, returning a pained gaze and muttering “I’m sorry” before trying to stab himself in the neck after hearing Wenxiu snap “stop tormenting me” in a moment of frustration. Meanwhile he keeps saying that he wants to go home, back where they lived years ago haunted by the figure of a small boy reminding him of the son they lost to illness in childhood. 

Tian is perhaps lucky in that despite the One Child Policy, she does have a sister and is not entirely alone even in the spectre of her impending orphanhood no matter how her relationship with the similarly burdened Qin Mu may turn out as he contends with his hardline former soldier father pent up with his own sense of embittered resentment. Nevertheless, Liu captures a sense of the despair among women like Tian facing a series of dilemmas in considering the best way to care for her parents as they age while also worrying for her own future in a sometimes uncertain society. Though essentially low key and naturalistic determined to present a sense of everyday ordinariness Liu’s sweeping transitions between moments in time along with flights into Chinese opera and the occasional dream sequence lend a note of poignancy to the familial tragedy at the film’s centre. 

Being Mortal streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

River of Salvation (一江春水, Gao Qisheng, 2020)

“But life’s supposed to be good, isn’t it?” the heroine of Gao Qisheng’s indie drama River of Salvation (一江春水, yī jiāng chūn shuǐ) asks an old lady who has just explained that she’s considered taking her own life because of its inescapable misery. The film’s title may in its way be ironic in that there’s no real sign of salvation for anyone in this quiet backwater of rural China where as we discover no one is quite who they say they are. 

The hopelessness of 32-year-old Rong’s (Li Yanxi) existence is emphasised in the opening scenes in which she gets dressed up and heads to the port to pick up her fiancé’s mother only to be told that she won’t consent to the marriage partly because her intended’s first wife was a refined, elegant woman of much higher status while her son, Sanqiang (Chen Chuankai), is rough and boorish. Rong walks home feeling humiliated but also as if a last shot at happiness has been taken away from her. Sanqiang is also her boss at the moribund massage parlour (seemingly legitimate and offering only foot massages) where she works which is itself in the midst of financial difficulty. Meanwhile, she’s also the sole carer for her 18-year-old younger brother, Dong (Zhu Kangli), who spends most of his time playing video games and hanging out with his delinquent girlfriend, Jing (Yang Peiqi). 

As dull as her life seems, we can also see that Rong has a degree of anxiety and may be attempting to hide something about her past. She seems unusually cagey when her friend and workplace colleague Jinhua (Liu Jun) tries to invite her to a recently opened dumpling shop while almost always wearing a face mask claiming to be allergic to UV light. When the police are called due to a workplace altercation, she finds herself hiding in the basement obviously not wishing to encounter them. Yet as she discovers pretty much everyone in this small backwater town is hiding something or as Jinhua puts it is different on the inside. The guy on the front desk (Xi Kang) has been embezzling money to cover a gambling problem while even the lovely old lady (Huang Daosheng) with whom Rong bonds has not been entirely honest with her even while selling dreams of a better life. 

The central crisis is itself motivated by dishonesty in Jing’s claim that she is pregnant, later (perhaps falsely) stating that she made the whole thing up in order to test Dong shortly after reciting her own tearful monologue about the kind of life she wants but fears she can never have. The relationship between Jing and Dong encourages Rong to reflect on her own adolescence which contains more than a few troubling elements the film never sufficiently explores even while it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt over something which is later revealed to be a triviality. People ask her if she hasn’t thought of moving on, but she tells them that she doesn’t know how to do anything else essentially trapped in dead end small-town China where the only hope of escape seemingly lies in marrying a man with means. 

Making up her mind, Rong begins teaching Dong how to be independent in the light of her impending absence while he too steps into adulthood in finding his own direction and striking out in search of it. Having faced her past, Rong quite literally burns her mask perhaps hinting at a return to a more authentic self yet pushed into a strategic retreat released from the purgatorial limbo of her small-town life but left with no place to go. Shot in 4:3, Gao’s static camera lends an additional air of stagnation to Rong’s otherwise stultifying existence which is not itself unhappy except in its concurrent anxiety and pervasive sense of hopelessness. There may be no river of salvation, but Rong does at least begin to unpick the duplicities of the world around her in unmasking the various personas she encounters while digging out their hidden truths until finally deciding to face her own and gaining with it a kind of liberation if not perhaps one which engenders a great deal of hope for the future. 

River of Salvation screens in London at Picturehouse Finsbury Park, 17th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Lan Yu (蓝宇, Stanley Kwan, 2001)

“It’s not really over as long as there are memories” the cynical hero of Stanley Kwan’s haunting romantic tragedy, Lan Yu (蓝宇, Lán Yǔ), is reminded by his earnest lover only to find himself both immersed in and comforted by nostalgia, “because I feel you never really left”. Inspired by a subversive yet hugely popular erotic LGBTQ+ web novel thought to have been written by a Chinese woman in exile in the US Kwan’s aching melodrama is one of very few Mainland films to deal directly with the subject of homosexuality but is also a melancholy meditation of the frustrated liberations of post-Tiananmen China. 

In 1988, hero Handong (Hu Jun) is perhaps the personification of an age of excess. In a sharp suit and sunshades, he plays the ladies man while repressing his homosexuality in an act of superficial conformity. His money can buy him anything, and to begin with it buys him Lan Yu (Liu Ye) a cash-strapped architecture student turning to sex work to make ends meet, only to discover himself drawn to this “weird” young man who doesn’t really care about his consumerist success save asking with a melancholy air if he’s ever been to America. As we later discover, Lan Yu had wanted to study abroad but travel was not such an easy matter in late ‘80s China while even some years later he has trouble organising a passport and visa. Handong as a wealthy businessman may have no such trouble, perhaps his money really can buy him anything after all even a superficial sense of liberty in what is still an oppressive and authoritarian society. 

For Handong, sex with men may be a way of expressing a freedom he does not really believe he has endangering his relationship with Lan Yu by picking up another random student in a park while reminding him that “this kind of stuff isn’t serious”. “So what is serious for you?” Lan Yu not unreasonably asks, but it may be a difficult question for Handong to answer. What’s serious for Lan Yu is the authenticity of his feelings. He is uninterested in Handong’s wealth, saving the money that he gives him rather than spending it, ironically making good on Handong’s joking suggestion “maybe you’ll bail me out if I’m broke one day”. 

In the pivotal sequence set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protest, it is nevertheless Handong who finds a kind of liberty in accepting the reality of his feelings for Lan Yu overcoming his internal conditioning which convinces him that love is a weakness. Meanwhile, Lan Yu’s revolution evidently fails in the chaos of the protests, Handong cradling him as he weeps for all he’s seen. It’s this liberation that allows them to engage in a conventional romance, Handong buying a suburban villa he puts in Lan Yu’s name where they can live together as a couple albeit discreetly. But in the end Handong cannot let go of a sense of conventionality, eventually sacrificing his love for Lan Yu for a traditional marriage which later fails presumably because of its essential inauthenticity or at least Handong’s inability to accommodate himself with it. 

Torn in two, he makes his money through dodgy deals with Russian businessmen themselves perhaps also experiencing a degree of political confusion. They turn down Handong’s invitation for champagne hinting they’d rather go shopping for their wives. Yet Handong also aspires towards Japan, then at the height of its economic success, buying fancy clothes for country boy Lan Yu which lend him the air of a sophisticated Tokyoite. But Japan like China and Russia is also about to experience a moment of instability quite literally bursting Handong’s bubble while he is left to carry the can for his company’s not entirely above board business practices after his influential father dies. Saved by Lan Yu’s unwavering love for him, he abandons his consumerist conceits and immerses himself a world of simple comforts living in his small flat which is, ironically enough, rented at a preferential rate from Lan Yu’s Japanese boss. 

Through his various experiences, Handong rediscovers a sense of pure joy and contentment in his newly simple life of domesticity in which his relationship with Lan Yu appears to be accepted by his sister, brother-in-law, and best friend, but Kwan hints at sense of uncertainty in the anxious canted angles and frequent mirror shots that return us to the opening sequence. The men have in a sense exchanged roles, Lan Yu now guiding Handong in this changing society. Yet the bleakness of the ending suggests that these changes will never come to fruition, a literal construction accident resulting in a romantic tragedy that leaves Handong both trapped and comforted by the nostalgic past in the memory of Lan Yu and the idea of the better society he came to embody. 

Lan Yu screens in London at Prince Charles Cinema 12th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Trailer (English subtitles)

ON STAGE (登場, Zhang Yaoyuan, 2021)

Lead singer of alternative rock band Second Hand Roses, Liang Long has been a sometimes controversial figure previously known for his shaved head and androgynous appearance often appearing onstage in female clothing and heavy makeup. Ironically enough Zhang Yaoyuan’s documentary ON STAGE (登場, Dēngchǎng) captures him mostly off, now with a full head of hair as he prepares for a New Year concert in his home area of Shenyang in the North East while simultaneously shooting a movie later released as No Problem directed by Looking For Lucky’s Jiang Jiachen.  

Zhang also hails from the North East and the area does seem to be important to the film, a banner above the stage at one point bearing the message “Develop the North East” with the film crew also wondering if their film can help do the same only for Liang to correct them that “revive” might be better than “develop” seeing as the area had been prosperous in the past but is now struggling without the oil industry. Meanwhile, he’s joined in the discussion by Wang Hongwei, star of Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu which the pair later reference while lamenting the decline of the North East before going on to describe the modern day Hegang as a kind of film city but not in an altogether good way each scandalised that apartments are so cheap it’s more cost effective for film crews to buy rather than rent even if they make a loss when they sell at the end of the shoot. Meanwhile, the gang later go on tour paying a visit to the China–North Korea Friendship Bridge in Dandong with two crew members engaging in separate mini rants about North Korea tricking China into paying more than their fare share by pulling out early. 

In any case, Liang is certainly cineliterate, shooting a Wong Kar-Wai-esque intro video for his upcoming concert set to Quizás, Quizás, Quizás and featuring a woman walking sadly through the streets. Another crew member decides to have another pop at Japanese directors, mystified by their admiration for natural light having sworn off ever working with Shunji Iwai again because he wanted to do things his own way. Doing things his own way is however something that’s very important to Liang as he explains to a caller on a radio show “I must keep my style from inside to outside”. The caller had somewhat impolitely explained that she originally thought his eccentric appearance seemed “nutty” but later came to understand it wondering if it’s something that Liang was doing deliberately only for him to answer that he’s fine with people describing him as crazy because he knows he’s “normal”. “When I’m in an artistic state, everything goes natural. Nothing weird” he adds, implying that his appearance is merely the purest expression of his artistic intent though it’s true enough that others may not always approve of his use of makeup or androgynous dress. Nevertheless, the concerts seem to attract a coterie of diehard fans copying his style often dressing in rose-patterned shirts and dresses with wigs and makeup, Liang later asking a photographer to go out and film them because he says they enjoy being appreciated. 

Liang does indeed seem to be a savvy operator, also interacting with his fans through live streaming which he describes as more difficult than performing onstage though he does seem pretty nervous hanging around in the wings waiting for the intro to finish ahead of his big New Year concert. Meanwhile, he’s frequently seen taking photo ops with fans and family members of the crew, in general pleasant to be around if occasionally impatient never grandstanding or pushing his fame but hanging out with his crew drinking and swapping stories. Even so he’s scathing when asked for recommendations of contemporary bands complaining that there’s “no one worth respecting” because most are artistically stagnant trading on past glory rather than coming up with new ideas. Stagnancy is not perhaps something of which you could accuse him given how incredibly busy he seems to be in just this short period of his life, never really stopping between rehearsing for the New Year show, shooting the movie, and live streaming for his fans. Shot in a crisp black and white, Zhang’s observational documentary frames him a garrulous yet contemplative man perhaps most at home onstage in the most natural state of his pure artistic vision. 

ON STAGE screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

After the Rain (两个星球, Fan Jian, 2021)

When the Great Sichuan Earthquake struck in 2008, 69,000 people lost their lives while a catastrophic blow was dealt to local infrastructure. With the One Child Policy then still strictly enforced, parents who had lost children in the disaster were offered government assistance in order to conceive a second child. It might be crass to describe these children as “replacements”, yet in one sense that is what they were intended to be. Jian Fan’s observational documentary After the Rain (两个星球, liǎng gè xīngqiú) follows two such children and their traumatised parents as they try to move on as a family in the wake of tragedy. 

Sheng is still haunted by his inability to rescue his daughter, Rain, from beneath the rubble of her school house. He and his wife Mei have decided to take part in the IVF programme and are hoping for a girl, believing in a sense that they’d be getting their daughter back. IVF doesn’t work out for them, but Mei conceives naturally a few months later and gives birth to a baby boy, Chuan. On what should be an unambiguously happy occasion, the sense of disappointment is palpable, Sheng in particular feeling cheated and resentful to have been denied a reunion with his daughter. Ying and her husband, meanwhile, are also unsuccessful with IVF but are simultaneously struggling to rebuild a relationship with their second daughter, Ranran, for whom they had to pay the second child fine subsequently sending her to stay with relatives in the countryside before bringing her back when their eldest girl, also called Rain, was killed in the earthquake. 

Both children are over burdened with the knowledge that they owe their existence to their sibling’s death, Mei bluntly telling Chuan that Rain’s life was sacrificed for his while later revealing that she sometimes dressed him as a girl as an infant while Ranran is forced to reckon with her parents’ decision to send her away only to be recalled when her sister died. At a memorial event other mothers discuss what they’ve told the children they conceived after the earthquake about their older siblings with most disapproving of Mei’s blunt approach fearing that such knowledge will burden their children or leave them feeling guilty and unloved but Mei is unrepentant. After all it is in a sense the truth. Because of the One Child Policy, the existence of these children would not have been possible had their elder sibling not have died in a such a horrifying way. 

Even so, Sheng in particular struggles to bond with his son catching himself letting it slip out that he wasn’t allowed to spend time with his daughter so he’s little interest in doing so with Chuan refusing to take him out to an amusement park harping on about how wasteful Chuan is and how much money he’s costing him. He constantly runs the boy down, criticising his performance at a school sports day and snapping at him at home with the obvious consequence that Chuan mainly ignores him and stays close to his mother though she is also at times unsympathetic, angry with him for crying while in pain after a medical procedure. 

A heartbreaking sequence sees little Chuan all alone and looking lost amid the graves at a memorial event for the earthquake while his parents talk with others in the same position, as if for a minute they’d forgotten he existed. Trapped in grief, Sheng still lovingly washes one of his daughter’s dolls on the rooftop and seems at times torn and remorseful complaining that it made him feel sad inside to notice there was no light in Chuan’s eyes but still harbouring resentment towards him as if blaming his son for “replacing” his daughter. Ying meanwhile recounts all the ways Ranran is different from Rain as if the differences sometimes upset her even if she is in a sense closer to her than she had been to her older daughter leaving her with an additional sense of guilt. 

“Losing a kid leaves your heart empty” Ranran’s grandma remarks each of the parents still struggling to come to terms with their loss while the children equally struggle to accept the absence of an older sibling they never knew of whose loss they are constantly reminded and expected to mourn. Nevertheless they are all doing their best trying to move past their grief and rebuild their lives but ultimately unable to let go of the traumatic past while their children grow away from them left with only loneliness and resentment. 

After the Rain screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 25 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Journey to the West (宇宙探索编辑部, Kong Dashan, 2021)

An eccentric middle-aged man’s search for alien contact sends him on a quest for enlightenment in Kong Dashan’s deadpan epic Journey to the West (宇宙探索编辑部, Yǔzhòu Tànsuǒ Biānjí Bù). Inspired by the classic Chinese tale of the monk Tang Sanzang who journeyed west in order to bring true Buddhism to China in the company of the anarchic monkey king Sun Wukong, Kong’s comical adventure finds its awkward hero longing for connection in contemporary China his search for the extraterrestrial a means of provoking the next great human evolution in the belief that on the discovery of alien life humanity would immediately abandon its petty disagreements and live in perpetual harmony. 

Kong opens however with some VHS footage from 1990 in which UFO-obsessive Tang (Yang Haoyu) is interviewed for a documentary before flashing forward 30 years to the present day in which Tang has made little progress. The magazine which he edits, Universe Exploration, is on the brink of bankruptcy with his exasperated boss Mrs Qin (Ai Liya) already holding tours for prospective sponsors none of which go particularly well. As we later discover, Tang’s obsession has dominated his life resulting in the breakdown of his marriage while his daughter later died by her own hand it seems in part because of the same despair he too feels in his inability to understand the purpose of human existence. His quest is partly one for answers, though his theories often sound unhinged as he patiently explains about messages in the white snow of a detuned analogue television or pays visits to psychiatric institutions believing that psychopaths whose brains are wired differently may be better able to receive extraterrestrial signals. 

On the other hand, his way of life is not perhaps that different to that of his namesake Tang Sanzang in his wilful aestheticism insisting that the desire for better food along with sex for reasons other than procreation is merely a consumerist trap actively blocking the path towards human evolution which he believes he will discover in contacting extraterrestrial life. In his theory, if the Earth is like a grain of sand in the desert of the universe then it’s illogical to assume there are not other beings out there whom he assumes will be far advanced not only in technological terms but also in morality. But then, as a poet he later meets on his journey west into the mountains eventually asks him what if the aliens don’t have any answers either and have in fact come to Earth in order to ask the exact same question for which Tang seeks the solution?   

Inevitably, the conclusion that he comes to is that the answer lies within, that humanity is the universe and each person a single word in a great poem centuries in the making that might in its conclusion allow us to understand why we live if only we can go on connecting with each other to form new sentences in the great unfinished journey towards enlightenment. Then again, Mrs Qin hints at the mean spiritedness of the contemporary society in her conviction that if there are aliens out there who want to come to Earth it’s probably to rob it, while out on the road Tang is taken in by a bizarre scam involving the body of an alien in a freezer you can only see if you are the chosen one which requires the willingness to pay $99.99 to man running the alien embassy on Earth though it does at least result in Tang receiving a mysterious bone which does seem to be crucial to his quest once he runs into monkey king stand in Sun Tiyong (Wang Yitong) who wears a saucepan on his head and claims to have received a mission to retrieve a stone ball stolen from a lion statue’s mouth from a mysterious alien entity. 

Ever mindful of the contemporary realities, Kong throws in several ironic nods to the censors board Tang repeatedly reminded that he must always find a “scientific” explanation for bizarre phenomena rather than succumbing to “superstition”. Travelling west with Sun and a small team including his drunken friend and a young woman the same age as his daughter would have been if she’d lived, Tang does indeed undergo a kind of vision quest culminating in the apotheosis of Sun into Wukong while a strange man in a red hat riding a tiny UFO-like cart always seems to be one step ahead of them. Shot in a faux documentary style complete with direct to camera interviews and occasional breaking of the fourth wall, Kong’s hilariously deadpan, absurdist epic sees Tang journeying west in search of the meaning of life only to be confronted by the vastness of the universe and discover himself, and the answer he seeks, already in its embrace. 

Journey to the West screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Clip (English subtitles)

A New Old Play (椒麻堂会, Qiu Jiongjiong, 2021)

“A new play always tells an ancient tale” according to an intertitle a little more than half way into Qiu Jiongjiong’s three-hour Brechtian epic of mid-20th century Chinese history as witnessed by a Sichuan Opera performer, A New Old Play (椒麻堂会, Jiāo Má Táng Huì). Inspired by the life of his grandfather, Qiu’s absurdist drama is a cradle to grave journey through turbulent times but also a questioning of the nature of art at the intersection of politics and commerce, its uses and misuses in a constantly evolving society. 

As the film opens a pair of grim reapers kick start a pedal bike rickshaw and deliver a summons from the King of Hell to Qiu Fu (Yi Sicheng), now in his 70s one of the finest clowns of the Sichuan Opera. Qiu Fu does not want to accept that he is dead and tries to run away but running away from death will always be a futile endeavour. Oxey and Horsey will escort him to the Ghost City and the afterlife where he will be relieved of all his pain and suffering after drinking Mother Meng’s Soup of Oblivion. But if it all just disappears in the end, what was the point of it all? Two young lovers discuss between them their immediate fate and decide to stay on in limbo where they still remember their love. Qiu Fu wonders how he’s supposed to perform Sichuan Opera for the King of Hell if all his memories and long years of perfecting his craft have been taken away, but is told that each of us has a “secret code” that can never be erased his presumably being clowning. When everything else is gone, Sichuan Opera will survive. 

Then again Qiu Fu has found himself playing many different roles in the course of his life beginning with plucky orphan, convincing former nationalist soldier turned stage performer Pocky (Qiu Zhimin) to train him up as an apprentice. Pocky meanwhile will turn out to be on the wrong side of history, a Nationalist loyalist quickly outmanoeuvred by the times in which he lives. One moment, the troupe is performing pro-Nationalist patriotic fare with titles such as “The Patriot Beggar” and “Behead Ma Miao” crying “down with traitors” in front of signs which say “save the nation fight communism” only to find them replaced by those which read “save the nation down with Chiang Kai-shek”. A fearful Pocky sends the troupe to Taiwan but discovers Sichuan Opera doesn’t travel as well as he’d assumed, the actors quickly reduced to begging and finding even that somewhat competitive. 

Qiu Fu’s greatest performance may even have been when dragged onstage by the communists as an example during a lecture on opium addiction having been forced to endure going cold turkey, claiming that his Lenin suit is far superior to the fine robes he once wore as an opium addict. The “theatre of joy” is now “the people’s theatre” but the promised new era almost immediately disappoints. Red brick buildings sit incongruously amid the traditional houses with their ornate tiled roofs while Oxey and Horsey lurk forever in the shadows waiting to escort those succumbing to the famines provoked by the Great Leap Forward though even they are afraid to use their rickshaw in this age of austerity. No longer the representatives of a new world, the troupe finds itself on the wrong side of the Cultural Revolution, Pocky branded a reactionary warlord while others are forced to wear signs reading “theatre tyrant” or “gangster” only for Qiu Fu to turn his humiliation into a show clowning for the local children who giggle at them in their funny hats as they stand in the courtyard in front of the theatre displaying their sins for all to see. Before too long Qiu Fu is forced to brick himself up inside a pig sty while his wife (Guan Nan) is encouraged to divorce him testifying to his faults before a judgemental panel of ideological purists. Once rehabilitated he must once again play the beggar, cast as a villain forevermore. 

Qiu Fu’s memories seems to end soon after the Cultural Revolution though he must have lived on a little longer, the story of his life told to a series of ghosts caught up in a kind of bureaucratic hell apparently undocumented in the land between life and death. Now you see him, now you don’t, Qiu Fu’s life both eternal and gone an instant. Using a series of deliberately theatrical stage sets, Qiu’s beautifully ethereal production design is somewhere between Roy Andersson and Arthur Rackham’s Brothers Grimm in its oneiric mists and pale-faced ghosts, Qiu Fu always sporting a bright red nose and gnome-like little red beanie accompanied by a pair of oversize glasses to remind us of his age. Imbued with an ironic sense of humour, the tale is sometimes broken by a series of Brechtian intertitles written in the rhythms of Sichuan Opera the techniques of which Qiu repurposes to fantastic effect, boats travelling on seas of silk, or small boys floating away on clouds above model cities and armies at war. Is it life or death that’s a dream? Both or neither perhaps it’s all the same a cyclical opera to be performed in perpetuity telling an old story in a new way from here until eternity. 

A New Old Play screens in New York March 18 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown 3 (唐人街探案3, Chen Sicheng, 2021)

Cerebral sleuth Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) and his larger than life uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) are back on the case in the third instalment in the Detective Chinatown franchise (唐人街探案3, Tángrénjiē tàn àn 3) picking up as promised in Tokyo as the duo take on another locked room mystery on the invitation of dandyish local investigator Hiroshi Noda (Satoshi Tsumabuki). This time around, the mystery is only tangentially connected to a Chinatown though the solution in itself does indeed lead back towards the Mainland and the complicated relations between China and Japan, while Qin in particular finds himself confronting the idea that oligarchy is in fact the “perfect crime”. 

Hired by a yakuza boss, Watanabe (Tomokazu Miura), accused of offing a Thai rival, Su Chaiwit, following a dispute over development rights in the local Chinatown, Qin and Tang Ren quickly find themselves hamstrung by their own discovery of evidence which further implicates their client and brings them to the attention of top cop Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) who wastes no time telling them to mind their own business. Meanwhile they are also being pursued by muscly Thai detective Jaa (Tony Jaa) working for the other side. In a new high tech motif, the guys are each handed a simultaneous translation earbud which allows the Japanese and Chinese guys to converse with each other in their own languages though Hiroshi often chooses to speak directly in Mandarin instead while the Thai contingent exclusively use English. Unlike previous instalments the duo do not venture into the local Chinese community and Chinatown itself is merely territory contested by Japanese yakuza and South East Asian gangsters. 

Even so Qin and Tang Ren find themselves at a nexus of cross-cultural conflict caught between the cops, yakuza, and Thai gangsters each looking not so much for the truth but some kind of advantage for their side all of which culminates in a hilarious series of mixups at a morgue. Once again, Tang Ren falls in love with a local woman, in this case Su Chaiwit’s secretary Anna Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa) who is certain Watanabe is guilty and later apparently kidnapped by a crazed serial killer (Shota Sometani) just by coincidence. Of course, all this cycles back towards the franchise’s growing mythology, Qin pursued and manipulated by the mysterious entity known only as “Q” which, as we learn, is as obsessed with the idea of the perfect crime as Qin largely in that they think they’ve perfected it in the stranglehold placed over civilisation by a shady elite. 

In this, the film may be taking aim at hidden oligarchy and the immorality of growing social inequality, but in its Japanese setting Chen is also freer to take potshots at contemporary Chinese society such as in Tang Ren’s confusion that they can’t simply bribe the police to get Qin out of jail when he is wrongfully arrested. “Justice and equality require sacrifices” Qin explains after solving a grim riddle only to be asked some difficult questions about the nature of justice and his own role within it by a manipulative villain, but in a classically censor-friendly move ends the movie with a brief monologue declaring that “justice always prevails and light overcomes darkness”, he and his team recommitting themselves to fighting “vices”, and presumably the shady elitism fostered by Q, wherever they arise. 

Like Detective Chinatown 2’s New York setting, the vision of Japan on display is deliberately stereotypical from an Akihabara cosplay carnival to tasks involving masked kendo fighters and a sumo wrestler, not to mention bumbling comedy yakuza forever threatening to cut off their fingers, the Shibuya Scramble set piece, or a playful homage to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Meanwhile, Chen continues his taste for huge ensemble action such as the complex slapstick routine that opens the film and now traditional end credits sequence featuring the cast dancing to theme tune “Welcome to Tokyo” dressed in the classic green detective mac worn by Qin. Truth be told, the solution to the central mystery is heavily signposted and slightly unsatisfying though Chen’s visualisations of Qin’s deductions are expertly rendered even as the hero’s growing confidence as a crimefighter unbalances his relationship with the increasingly silly if goodhearted Tang Ren. Boasting a host of A-list Japanese acting talent, the film also makes space for an unexpected cameo from one of the most recognisable faces in Sinophone cinema before teasing a further instalment to take place in London, home to the greatest consulting detective of them all. 

Detective Chinatown 3 is available to stream in the UK via iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Sky, and Virgin Media courtesy of Cine Asia.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Shen Yu, 2020)

The left behind children of decaying industrial China find themselves at the mercy of a corrupted parental legacy in Shen Yu’s neo-noir tragedy The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Tùzi Bàolì). Each longing for escape but living in defeat, the three young women at the film’s centre search for signs of possibility in a world they fear has already rejected them but encounter only darkness and futility brokered by the broken adults apparently unable or unwilling to parent or protect them from the world their indifference has forged. 

Beginning at the narrative’s conclusion, Shen introduces us to a frantic woman, Qu Ting (Wan Qian), an anxious man Shui Hao (An Shi), and the confused Ma (Pan Binlong) as they desperately search for their missing daughters apparently kidnapped for a ransom none of them could ever hope to be able to pay. Fed up with the whole thing, Shui Hao determines to go to the police while Qu Ting is reluctant, fearful that the kidnappers will kill their daughter Shui Qing (Li Genxi), Ma simply going along with it. At the police station, however, they receive a call to say the girls are safe and Shui Qing is already at home but there’s more going on here than we first assumed other than Ma’s sudden heart attack on being told that his daughter Yueyue (Zhou Ziyue) has simply gone to visit a friend in another town. 

Flashing back some days before the climactic night, we realise that Shui Hao and Qu Ting are long separated and Shui Qing is living a miserable life rejected by her stepmother who coldly tells her to stay out a little longer because her parents are visiting and they don’t want any “outsiders” at dinner. At an open air noodle stand, she happens to catch sight of the radiant Qu Ting realising her mother has returned but unsure if she recognises her. The two women awkwardly reconnect, Qu Ting making it clear that she will be leaving in a few days and isn’t keen on having a teenage girl cramp her style, but gradually bond as they begin to spend more time together. 

What immediately becomes clear is that Qu Ting is somewhat arrested and emotionally immature, hanging out with Shui Qing’s high school friends Jin Xi (Chai Ye) and Yueyue as if she were a teenager but inappropriately allowing them to drink wine at dinner as if they were on a girls’ night out. Lonely and rejected by her stepmother Shui Qing longs for approval, but also to save her mother who is currently living in an abandoned theatre and seemingly desperate for money she claims is for a “project”, later implying that when it’s over she may start a business and be with her daughter full time but soon enough Shui Qing is pulled into an urban world of gangsters and loansharks governed by rules she is ill-equipped to understand. 

Her friends, meanwhile, have their own problems. Rich kid Jin Xi carries self harm scars on her arms and seems to be the only one at school not wearing a uniform. Her wealthy parents work away in the city and so Jin Xi is largely left alone as abandoned and fearful as Shui Qing but also filled with resentful anger. Yueyue perhaps has the opposite problem in that she feels trapped by her controlling, abusive father, Ma. Raised by wealthy relatives until her father returned, Yueyue longs to be free of him but he refuses to let her go even though the relatives are keen to adopt her and can obviously promise a more comfortable way of life and better opportunities for the future than the impoverished Ma. 

“Everyone’s looking for a carefree paradise” according a mournful pop song heard on the radio and it’s certainly true of the three girls and Qu Ting each looking for something more if unsure exactly of what it is or how to get it. Shui Qing yearns for maternal approval but ends up playing mother while Qu Ting finally accepts her corrupted maternity only in the most tragic of maternal sacrifices in attempting to protect her daughter from the radiating darkness her return has cast over her life. “It doesn’t matter if our dreams sink they’ll just be floating bottles” the girls cheerfully uttered, but each of them find themselves unanchored longing for the security of parental affection and dependability but left largely alone quasi-orphaned by the demands and contradictions of the modern China. Shen’s melancholy neo-noir is a stark coming-of-age tale which finds little place for innocence in the contemporary society relegating it only to the space of memory a casualty of parental disconnection and adolescent futility. 

The Old Town Girls streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Wang Yun Fei, 2021)

Sun Wukong comes to believe in his own soul while standing up to a cruel and oppressive reincarnated demon king intent on destroying the world in Wang Yun Fei’s anarchic family animation The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Xīyóujì zhī zài shì yāo Wáng). Reborn is in a sense also what Sun Wukong becomes in Wang’s defiantly egalitarian adventure which sees the regular crew from Journey to the West becoming temporary guardians to an adorable ball of anthropomorphised qi while The Great Sage Equal to Heaven contemplates what it is to be a “demon” and if he’s necessarily as “bad” or “evil” as some seem to believe him to be. 

As usual, Wukong (Bian Jiang) is travelling with the monk Tang Sanzang (Su Shangqing) and fellow demons Bajie (Zhang He) and Wujing (Lin Qiang) heading to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. On the way, they stop off at a temple where Wukong and his friends end up causing a ruckus by eating some of the temple’s treasured manfruit from a tree which only produces 30 every 1000 years. 1000 years doesn’t seem so long to Wukong so he thinks little of it but is later caught out by two snooty monks, grows indignant, and gets into a fight with an immortal eventually destroying the tree in temper only to realise that he’s accidentally released Yuandi (Zhang Lei), the ancestor of all the demons sealed within the tree thousands of years previously by a Buddhist monk who sacrificed all of his qi to do so. Threatened with being re-imprisoned himself and determined to rescue Tang who has been kidnapped, Wukong has no choice but to stop Yuandi before he reassumes his full strength in around three days time. 

Meanwhile, the trio is joined by a tiny manfruit-like ball of qi Wukong nicknames “Fruity” (Cai Haiting), originally reluctant to take him with them but advised that his qi is the best weapon against Yuandi. As the film opened, Wujing had been contemplating what it means to have a soul, Tang reassuring him that when he feels he has one it will be there. Following through on the egalitarian message, he later says something similar to Yuandi, certain that all sentient creatures are equal, but the moody Wukong remains sullen and resentful constantly insulted as an “evil” demon while internally convinced he can’t be anything else. Yet despite himself he takes on a paternal role while looking after Fruity who later explains to him that there are good demons and bad and that he has a kind soul. 

Yuandi by contrast merely rolls his eyes when most of his demon minions are cut down, lamenting that they had become weak and the weak do not deserve to live. In the process of searching for his own soul, it’s this cruel and oppressive worldview that Wukong and the others must finally resist, protecting Fruity while battling the darkness with the confidence of self knowledge as their best weapon. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the Buddhist world is not exactly free of corruption either, the two snooty monks instantly looking down on Tang ironically because of his unostentatious attire uncertain why they’re expected to share their treasure with someone so seemingly undeserving. Then again, when they’re sent off to petition the Jade Emperor quite the reverse is true as they’re kept waiting outside while heaven’s border guard painstakingly fills out paperwork in only the best calligraphy while insisting each petition should be treated impartially no matter who it comes from even though the monks had quite clearly expected to jump the queue. 

Selling a positive message of self-acceptance and universal equality The Monkey King: Reborn also boasts a series of thrilling and elegantly drawn action sequences as the trio face off against the forces of darkness, along with some zany humour and Wukong’s characteristically anarchic energy not to mention the unbelievably cute yet somehow profound Fruity who can’t bear all the senseless carnage and depletes himself to cure the innocent townspeople of their demonic corruption. In the end it’s not only Wukong who is reborn as he realises that nothing’s ever really gone forever, just altered in form, while it is possible to repair damage done with humility leveraging the power of self-acceptance against a dark and selfish desire for destruction. 

The Monkey King: Reborn is released in the US on DVD & blu-ray Dec. 7 courtesy of Well Go USA in an edition which includes both the original Mandarin-language voice track with English subtitles and an English dub.