If You Are Happy (学区房72小时, Chen Xiaoming, 2019)

If you are happy poster 2“Win at the starting line” has become something of buzzword among parents eager to get their children the best start in the modern China where equality is no longer regarded as a social good. Even in the UK it’s not unusual for parents to go to great lengths to game the system so their children can get into the “better” state schools, but in China where educational background really can make or break a child’s future the stakes are obviously much higher. For the father at the centre of Chen Xiaoming’s biting debut, the ironically titled “If You Are Happy” (学区房72小时, X Fáng Xiǎoshí), the stakes are very high indeed as he bets pretty much everything – his family home, his career, and finally his integrity, on buying a grotty little flat in the rundown part of town where he grew up solely because it’s directly opposite the best primary school in the area.

University professor Fu (Guan Xuan) is a doting father to little daughter Cheng, but as keen as he is to keep up the facade of success his private life is falling apart. His wife, Jiayuan (Fu Miao), is suffering from long term depression and though Cheng seems cheerful, the atmosphere at home is frosty at best with husband and wife barely speaking. Meanwhile, Fu has also been carrying on an illicit affair with one of his students, Hang (Tu Hua) – a wealthy young woman whose mother (Rong Rong) is keen to send her abroad for graduate school to improve her prospects. Hang doesn’t want to go, she says because she’s become attached to Fu, but there are also rumours all over school about teachers accepting bribes to change students’ grades and the jury’s out on whether Hang has ulterior motives.

The main source of stress in Fu’s life is however his ongoing quest to buy a flat in the catchment area of a prestigious primary school. After two years of dashed hopes, an old friend working as an estate agent has a promising lead on a place that’s actually right by where they both grew up. Though the flat is in a bad state and really too small for a family (assuming they actually meant to live there), Fu is loathed to give up the opportunity even though he doesn’t have the ready cash together to seal the deal. Despite his outrage at the teachers who take bribes, he tries to force his friend to pull some strings before coming to the conclusion he’ll have to sell his flat. Fu goes ahead and lists it with another estate agent before even talking to his wife who is understandably not keen to move, insisting that the school around the corner is fine, only for Fu to snobbishly tell her that it’s fine for kids like Tao – a naughty little boy at kindergarten who accidentally slashed Jiayuan’s hand when he somehow got hold of a kitchen knife. 

Fu’s snobbishness is perhaps his defining characteristic. Forced to sell his family home, he bristles when the maid mentions that her son is looking for a flat, coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why he shouldn’t be able to afford it before accepting that money’s money no matter who it comes from. Auntie Niu’s (Xu Xing) son Bao (Liu Xiaodi) has troubles of his own, as they discover when paying him a visit and finding him near suicidal because his fiancée is thinking of breaking things off as her family have refused their blessing for the marriage until Bao can get hold of a flat in a very specific area. Bao’s case is frustrated because he’s not originally from Shanghai and a new law prevents non-locals from owning property. Luckily his fiancée is a Shanghai native but he doesn’t have the money to buy in the escalating Shanghai property market and only has this shot with Fu because he is a “motivated seller” and needs the deposit as soon as possible to put down on the property near the school.

Along with a superiority complex, Fu is also something of a prig and makes a point of being upstanding and respectable, even trying to return a box of expensive tea gifted by Hang’s wealthy businesswoman mother in the hope of currying favour. When someone gazumps him on the flat, he has a minor meltdown insisting on legal action and lamenting the decline of morality in the modern society, but then he turns around and does exactly the same to Auntie Niu despite knowing exactly what the flat means for Bao and having given his solemn word when signing the papers. Such duplicity is too much for Jiayuan who finally finds herself gaining the strength to defy her domineering husband to side with Auntie Niu who really has gone and got a lawyer when betrayed by Fu.

How much getting Cheng into a good school is about Cheng and how much about Fu’s status anxiety is up for debate, but nominally at least all of this is supposed to be for his little girl even though the stress of Fu’s ongoing quest is quietly destroying the family home, has sent his wife into a debilitating depression, and finally robbed him of his personal integrity as he continues to debase himself all in the hope of getting his hands on a really horrible flat in an otherwise undesirable area. Chen closes with a series of (seemingly) real interviews with parents who’ve considered bankrupting themselves just to move into the catchment area of a good school. Most of them concede it isn’t worth it, but are tempted all the same even if they intensely resent the way their society is going. After all, shouldn’t all children be starting in the same place? Why should one school be better than another, and why should the children have to pay for being born to parents with fewer resources to help them? There may not be real answers for any of these questions, but they’re ones the modern China continues to grapple with as the egalitarian past gives way to the moral dubiousness of a consumerist future.


If You Are Happy screens on 3rd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Wushu Orphan (武林孤儿, Huang Huang, 2018)

Wushu orphan poster 1Anti-intellectualism comes in for a subtle kicking in Huang Huang’s whimsical ‘90s drama Wushu Orphan (武林孤儿, Wǔlín ér). Less a tale of martial arts, Huang’s poetic debut suggests that perhaps brawn is always going to win over brain, but as brain has the moral high ground it needs to keep fighting all the same even if all it can do is mentally resist. Set in the modernising China of the late ‘90s, Wushu Orphan conjures an achingly nostalgic picture of sleepy rural life, burdened as it is by visions of the past as the next generation pin their hopes on becoming the new Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li all while neglecting their studies in expectation of martial arts glory.

Our hero, Lu Youhong (Jin Jingcheng), has just transferred to Zhige Wushu Academy to take up a post as their new Chinese teacher. In actuality, Youhong doesn’t have much of an education himself. He has no degree and is almost entirely self-taught which is why he’s wound up here after being turned down by everyone else. In fact, he only got this job because his uncle (Ma Zhongshan), who works at the school, has brought him in as a “catfish” to stir up the otherwise stagnant educational environment which is mainly inhabited by meat headed martial arts fanatics.

Unfortunately for Youhong, no one is very interested in education. All the kids just want to be the next Bruce Lee, and you don’t need to memorise the story of Mulan to become a martial arts master. Zheng Cuishan (Hou Yunxiao), however, has already memorised Mulan, and all the other poems in their reader too. He read them in their entirety when they were first assigned. The problem is, that Zheng Cuishan has been labelled a “special case”. With no aptitude for wushu, he’s mercilessly bullied by his classmates and is forever trying to run away. All he wants is to go home to his family, but they’re fishermen and Zheng Cuishan is afraid of the water so they can’t take him with them on their boat.

As might be assumed, the nerdy, bespectacled Youhong quickly notices an affinity with the obviously bright Cuishan who effortlessly aces all his tests and outright refuses to engage in violence. During one of his earliest lectures, Yuhoung breaks down the character in the name of their school which means “wushu”, explaining that it’s made up of the characters for “stop” and “weapons” because the point of martial arts is to preserve “peace”. His rationale provokes only bored stares from boys who’d rather be outside and a cynical laugh from feckless headmaster’s son Qin (Shi Zhi), lurking outside the window, while he struggles to impress upon his pupils the importance of knowledge as a compliment to physicality.

Going through their tests one day, after being unexpectedly asked to teach maths (and English) after the other teachers quit, Youhong notices that one of the boys got all the questions right but erased his answers before turning in the paper. Confused, he turns to his uncle for an explanation only to be told not to press the issue. This is a martial arts school. It’s considered deeply uncool to be seen succeeding in anything that’s not wushu, as if that were somehow a betrayal or a sign that one has not dedicated oneself entirely to martial arts. That’s one reason Cuishan is so mercilessly bullied, because he’s the intellectual holdout in a school full of meat headed cowards too afraid to buck the system or too brainwashed to know why they should.

In a moment of madness, Youhong snaps, cruelly crushing the dreams of his young charges when he tells them that martial arts are useless in the modern world. They’ll never be the next Bruce Lee, all they can hope for is a life of petty crime and street performance. Predictably he’s silenced by a fist headed straight for his face as if to say that violence is always going to win over rational thought, but Youhong refuses to be beaten. Even if he cannot “fight” these ideas he can still resist them by sticking to his principles and refusing to go along with the inherent weirdness of the school.

In this Cuishan follows him, no longer quite so afraid of the water and one step closer to achieving his dream of learning to swim. Perhaps if Youhoung has encouraged one mind away from the groupthink he’s done enough, emerging with a new conviction as he bravely stands up to a rude woman and her son “threatening” him with a toy gun on the train. Meanwhile, a 70-year-old martial arts master gets of out prison and pointlessly tracks down his geriatric rivals in order to prove himself the master of masters. Filled with nostalgic ‘90s Mandopop and an evocative retro score, Huang Huang’s debut is a visually striking tribute to the solidarity of outsiders swimming against the tide as they strive to keep hold of themselves in the oppressive groupthink of a relentlessly conformist society.


Wushu Orphan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Pema Tseden, 2018)

Jinpa poster 1Dreams, reality, and memory intertwine in Pema Tseden’s surrealist Tibetan western Jinpa (撞死了一只羊, Zhuàng le Yī ZYáng). Cycles of revenge and regret, killings accidental and deliberate, lost love, and inescapable karma bind two men or two parts of one whole as two travellers meet each other on the road, part, and then are perhaps reunited if in a more spiritual sense than literal. Moving away from the realism of Tharlo into mystical abstraction, Pema Tseden’s sixth feature is as obtuse as it is beguiling.

The titular Jinpa is an ultra cool truck driver in black leather and sunshades whose main jam is, incongruously enough, a Tibetan cover of O Sole Mio. Out on the road one day and distracted by the swooping flight a nearby bird, he accidentally hits and kills a sheep. Remorseful, Jinpa bundles the poor creature’s body into his cab, only to have to shift it into the back when he gets another passenger – a young wanderer (Genden Phuntsok) who later abandons his silence to explain that his name is also “Jinpa” and he’s on a quest for revenge against the man who killed his father 20 years ago. A decade long search has led him to Sanak where he hopes to find the man he’s looking for.

The men part company at the next turning, but the older Jinpa can’t seem to forget about his strange encounter. He takes the sheep for a proper funeral (before stocking up on lamb from a street stall), and pays a visit to lover where he unable to perform to anyone’s satisfaction. Jinpa hits the road again to look for his hitcher, either eager to prevent a crime which may add to his own karma, or simply to discover the end to the mystery.

Jinpa’s accidental slaughter of a sheep and the younger man’s quite deliberate quest for blood become somehow linked. Tracking the other Jinpa he finds himself at a tavern with a flirtatious barmaid (Sonam Wangmo) who gives him a few more clues, most particularly a possible identification of the man the other Jinpa might have been looking for but her tale is a strange one. The tavern goers’ background conversation is identical to the present moment, implying this is either one very boring spotlight hogger or that events are somehow occupying the same temporal space.

Shifting into hazy black and white for his flashbacks, Pema Tseden hints at the malleability of memory – as if one figure could easy be swapped out for another, past and present uncomfortably overlapping with memory as the unstable glue at their centre. The younger Jinpa’s prospective target, we discover, also has a son. Would he grow up to seek revenge against the man who killed his father? One circle closes, but another envelopes it just as quickly. A man kills a sheep, by accident, but perhaps there’s more that he’s atoning for than simply inattentive driving.

“If I involve you, it becomes your dream too” the opening text tells us citing a Tibetan proverb. Could the older Jinpa simply be dreaming a version of himself, or are the two men somehow inhabiting the same dreamscape? Events repeat, the two men walk the same path at different times, diverging and reuniting as they make their way towards whichever realisation is lying in wait for them.

Played by real life poet and actor himself called “Jinpa”, the eponymous hero oozes cool in his edgy rockstar getup and ever present sunshades, embodying the stranger in town a little too consciously as he wanders in search of his younger self. Produced by Wong Kar-wai and adapting Tsering Norbu’s novel The Slayer, as well as the director’s I Ran Over a Sheep, Jinpa is an unabashed exercise in style and mood, swapping the washed out iciness of the road for the colourful warmth of taverns, stores, and temples while memory remains a blur of radiating black and white frustratingly difficult to see in its entirety. Jinpa’s circular travels mimic his life, caught between cycles of violence and regret but hoping for forgiveness and eventual release. Abstract and inscrutable, Jinpa’s mythic fable nevertheless retains its strange power as its hero(es) attempt to free themselves from an inescapable spiral of existential despair.


Jinpa screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 29.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Li Xinyun, 2018)

lobster cop poster 1Sadly, Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Lóngxiā Xíngjǐng) is not the story of a team of intrepid crustaceans in a trench coat but an amusing tale of bumbling cops made good as their plan to hole up in a seafood joint pays out in unexpected ways. Actress Li Xinyun’s directorial debut is a surprisingly subversive affair proving once again that light comedy is becoming the satirical battleground of the contemporary Chinese cinema industry and dancing rings around the censors in the process.

Our hero, bumbling policeman Yufei (Wang Qianyuan), has a habit of tracking down the bad guys but letting them get away at the critical moment. When yet another mistake puts him on the chief’s naughty list, he finds himself up against rival Xu Xin (Wang Zheng) and given a month to figure out how drug dealers are getting their merchandise into the country. Taking his best squad with him – grandfatherly Neng (Liu Hua), tomboyish Hua Jie (Yuan Shanshan), and rookie Chen (Zhou You ), Yufei vows to crack the case. Noticing that a rundown crayfish restaurant he often stops in to relieve himself has an excellent view of a “logistics company” they suspect is responsible for importing the drugs, Yufei catches on the idea of turning restauranteur in order to stakeout his quarry.

The unexpected snag is that Neng always fancied himself as a bit of a cook and his crayfish unexpectedly takes off, which is good news in one sense because it means the gang can pay back some of the money Chen had to borrow from his wealthy mother to get the restaurant off the ground, but bad in that it’s very difficult to run a successful eatery and chase drug dealers at the same time – especially when the drug dealers become some of your best customers.

In order to make their cover more credible, the gang end up posing as a family with Neng as the cuddly dad, Yufei and Hua Jie as an improbable couple, and Chen as the adorable little brother. As the restaurant starts to take off the cover identities start to take over with only Yufei digging his heels in as he tries his best to catch the bad guys in order to best his police rival and prove himself to the chief. Nevertheless, like any good police squad the secret ingredient of success is fellow feeling and it’s brotherly love that eventually saves our confuzzled cops as they get themselves into a series of sticky situations with the equally bumbling “logistics” guys while accidentally carving a path towards kingpin The General (Li Jianren).

In a slightly surprising move given the usual censors’ board squeamishness, Li inserts a fair amount of subtle homoerotic content beginning with straight-laced policeman Xu Xin walking into a potential cruising situation with the very flamboyant General hanging around in the Gents for reasons seemingly unrelated to crime (though he does later enjoy a carriage ride with a pretty lady), while a regular visitor to the shop openly flirts with Neng who seems to, on one level at least, be receptive to his advances. While it’s true that both of the presumably gay guys (Neng aside) turn out to be “bad” in one way or another, it is a refreshingly ordinary kind of representation in which homosexuality is not in itself the joke and, in a tacit sense, almost totally normalised.

Then again it is the traditional family, in model terms at least, which eventually wins out as the guys begin to pull together to make their lobster restaurant a success and eventually learn to work as a team while embracing their own strengths so they can take down the bad guys. An entertaining mix of witty banter and slapstick martial arts underpinned by tasty food photography and a cheeky subversive spirit, Lobster Cop is a surprisingly surreal concoction and a promisingly off the wall debut from Li who manages to ground the often strange goings on firmly in the real while ensuring her losers make good story commands genuine warmth.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lost, Found (找到你, Lü Yue, 2018)

Lü Yue’s Lost, Found (找到你, Zhǎodào Nǐ) follows hot on the heels of Korean kidnap drama Missing but it is not, apparently, a remake but part of an increasing trend of global filmmaking in which an original scenario is developed for several territories simultaneously with Qin Haiyan’s script reportedly produced while the Korean version was shooting. Despite sharing the same plot outline, however, Lost, Found puts a distinctly Chinese spin on the central dilemma as its cynical heroine is forced to reassess her life choices and her entire relationship with her society when her daughter disappears.

Li Jie (Yao Chen) is a high flying, cynical lawyer who only cares about winning cases. At home, she’s mother to two-year-old Duo Duo and is currently engaged in a custody battle with her daughter’s father following the breakdown of her marriage to a successful surgeon. To help her out at home with her busy schedule, she’s employed a young woman, Sun Fang (Ma Yili), as a nanny but is at times jealous that her little girl seems more attached to the traditionally maternal home help than to her biological mother. Her worst fears are realised one day when she returns home to find dirty breakfast dishes still on the table and the flat empty. Worrying her mother-in-law has managed to snatch Duo Duo, Li Jie is reluctant to get the authorities involved but is eventually forced to acknowledge that something more serious may have occurred with Sun Fang nowhere to be found.

Talking to her former husband, Li Jie insists that a woman’s future shouldn’t be decided by love or marriage and that she wants Duo Duo to have more freedom but she’s distinctly slow to warm up the theme of female solidarity as shown by her callous treatment of the defendant in her divorce case in which she is trying to win custody on behalf of an adulterous husband by calling into question the wife’s mental stability. Despite the woman’s pleas as one mother to another, Li Jie coldly tells her that the circumstances are largely irrelevant – she is merely a lawyer wielding the law and will do her best to win the case because that is her job.

Forced to investigate the life of Sun Fang, however, her perspective begins to shift. Busy as she is, Li Jie did not perhaps pay as much attention to her nanny as she should have. She took the word of a neighbour with whom she was not particularly close that Sun Fang was a trusted relative with childcare experience without asking for documentation or employment records. Besides, Sun Fang was good with the child and Duo Duo seemed to like her so Li Jie felt comfortable leaving her in Sun Fang’s care. What she discovers is that Sun Fang had experienced many difficulties in her life which she, as an urban middle-class and highly educated woman, had largely been protected from. Because she personally had not suffered, she was content not consider the suffering of others and thought only of herself, even perhaps regarding possession of Duo Duo as something to be won on a point of pride rather than an expression of maternal love or a deeply seated belief that she could offer better care.

Despite its fairly progressive message of social responsibility and female solidarity, Lost, Found takes a disappointing turn for the conservative when it implies that Li Jie should ease back on her career to focus on motherhood rather than allowing her simply to re-embrace her love for her daughter without fear or anxiety. Yet it does also encourage her to contemplate the increasingly unequal nature of the modern China – men/women, town/country, rich/poor, destinies are decided largely by circumstances of birth rather than individual merit. If Li Jie had been born in the same place as Sun Fang, her life might have been much the same. Realising she should have taken more of an interest in the woman raising her child, Li Jie is forced to accept that her own privilege has blinded her and that she does indeed have a responsibility to others and to her society if most particularly to her daughter. A tense, frantic tale of frustrated motherhood, Lost, Found is at once a condemnation of modern disconnection and a quiet plea for a return to kindhearted altruism.


Lost, Found was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In Character (入戏, Dong Xueying, 2018)

In Character posterThere has of late been an unfortunate trend of historical revisionism in recent Chinese cinema which has sought to look back at the Cultural Revolution with a kind of fond remembrance for a more “innocent” time. Mostly coming from directors in their 50s and 60s who were themselves young during the last years of Maoism, films such as Feng Xiaogang’s Youth have attempted to draw a sharp contrast with the collectivist past and consumerist present as if to lament the passing of a kinder era, but have also largely located themselves within the cosseted group of youngsters working for the regime and therefore shielded from the intense cruelty of the age.

Songs of the Youth 1969, the debut (and to this date only) narrative feature film from director Ye Jing, is much the same in this regard in that it deliberately recreates his own longed for adolescence as young man fighting, he thought at the time, for a better China. Lamenting that the young people of today have no idealism, he describes the Cultural Revolution as a “rock ‘n’ roll movement” in which intellectual youth chased love and freedom through venerating Mao. Looking at footage of himself on screen, he urges the youngsters not to pity the kids in the square even though they were being “brainwashed” but to admire them because they were fighting passionately for something they believed in.

Dong Xueying, the director of In Character (入戏, Rù), came on board with the intention of exploring the living conditions of Chinese actors but quickly found herself sucked into an alternate reality in documenting the behind the scenes production of Songs of the Youth 1969 as Ye sends his cadre of youngsters off to an abandoned munitions factory in Sichuan for “the Cultural Revolution Experience”. During this time, they must prepare by living under contemporary conditions – wearing Red Army uniforms, surrendering their phones and other modern communication devices, and learning the various revolutionary songs which operated as a key part of the movement.

Although the young men and women are merely actors born long after the Cultural Revolution had ended, the “experience” quickly turns into a kind of social experiment along the lines of Stanford Prison as the intense mob mentality of the era begins to take hold. An early visit from Ye finds them furiously role playing, greeting him as if they were ghosts of his past waiting more than 40 years for his return. Playfully singing bawdy and suggestive songs, they embrace the sense of fun loving youth the director seems to be looking for but a fatal mistake by one young actor abruptly turns the tables, recalling the fear and danger that many must surely have felt in an era of intense suspicion puritanical scrutiny.

Many had openly laughed during rehearsals as they spouted the outdated Maoist quotations and learned the choreography for revolutionary ballet, but the fervour eventually takes hold and it’s not long before they begin turning on each other. First it’s a minor complaint blown out of all proportion about inattention and fiddling with fingernails instead of concentrating on collective concerns, and then an outright attack on one of their number who has made an obvious if understandable mistake – he asked for a few days off on hearing a relative was dangerously ill, and not only that, he misspelled Chairman Mao’s name in his apology letter. Jiang Siyuan’s request seriously upset Ye who is now convinced that the modern youth is selfish and irresponsible and that the youngsters still haven’t absorbed the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Upset that Jiang may have ruined all their hard work, the actors subject him to a Struggle Session in which he must self criticise while they each berate him for damaging the integrity of their common project.

Ironically enough, the “film” has taken the place of the revolutionary ideal, while Ye has become a kind of Mao figure as a faraway authority whom they must worship and placate to make their dream come true. Despite their modern upbringings, the actors quickly succumb to the worst tendencies of the age as they consent to oppress each other, going along with the austerity of the ideology which instructs them to rid themselves of their “selfish” instincts in order to serve the collective while simultaneously emphasising their individual will to ensure their place in the film which necessarily means that Jiang must surrender his human feeling and accept he may never see his grandfather again.

Ye promises them the time of their lives in an experience he hopes will be life changing in the same way, presumably, he feels his own youthful brush with the revolution to have been, but their memories of the munitions factory are likely to be less positive as they ruminate on the immediacy with which they were able to betray each other in service of an empty ideal. Dong’s camera captures not only the misguided romanticisation of the Cultural Revolution by those like Ye disillusioned with the path of modern China, but its frightening legacy in the ease with which such inhumanity takes hold.


In Character was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Rib (肋骨, Zhang Wei, 2018)

“You choose to live together because you love each other, and to enter holy matrimony with our blessing” a rigid priest ominously intones at the outset of Zhang Wei’s The Rib (肋骨, Lèi). This conflict between personal choice and a need for approval from authority figures to legitimise it is at the heart of Zhang’s empathetic exploration of transgender lives in contemporary China. Given the censors’ constant preoccupation with LGBT issues (40 minutes of footage were apparently removed to gain approval though at the request of the Catholic Church rather than the state authorities), his decision to focus on a transwoman’s struggle to get through to her religious father may be a surprising one but follows a wider trend in Chinese language cinema which is beginning to embrace such formerly untouchable subjects with increasing positivity.

The Rib is, however, as much a critique of oppressive Confucianist social codes and rigid religiosity as it is a plea for greater empathy and understanding in accepting others for who they are rather than forcing them to abide by outdated ideas of conservative conformity. Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) was assigned male at birth but identifies as female and wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, however, despite the fact that Huanyu is 32 years old she still needs her father’s signature on a consent form to get the operation and not only that, her father has to be filmed signing it in person in case there are any repercussions further down the line.

The major problem is, Huanyu’s father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi) is a devout Christian who even serves as a sign language interpreter during church services. Huanyu’s mother passed away when she was small and so Jianguo raised her alone. Given his strict religiosity he is unlikely ever to agree to the surgery and Huanyu has never felt able to discuss her gender dysphoria or sexuality with her father for fear that he wouldn’t understand. Those fears are borne out when Huanyu is forced to talk to him in order to move towards surgery. Jianguo thinks it’s a joke, and then some kind of mental illness which could be cured with the right treatment. He hosts an intervention with the priest and other attendees of the church in order to talk Huanyu out of her conviction that she is a woman and even goes so far as to set her up with a selection of pretty sex workers in the belief that Huanyu will change her mind after feeling “like a man” through experiencing “proper” sex with a woman.

Of course, all this really does is drive a further wedge between father and son. Jianguo lashes out. He goes to visit a friend of Huanyu’s, Liu Mann (Gao Deng), who has recently returned from undergoing reassignment surgery in Thailand (where it’s cheaper and there aren’t so many barriers), but rather asking pertinent questions he viciously berates her. Liu Mann, Huanyu’s closest confidante, is not herself certain that Huanyu should have surgery. Returning to work after her operation she found herself fired for not being the same person who left and though she’s suing them for unfair dismissal has discovered that one kind of unhappiness has merely replaced another. Jeered at in the street, enduring the sniggers from insensitive shop staff, and labeled a pervert for just trying to use the bathroom in a public place, Liu Mann has begun to fall into despair no longer believing that a happier future where she could live as herself in freedom is a real possibility.

Jianguo insists he knows his son best and blames Huanyu’s friends for corrupting her. Huanyu is 32, but Jianguo still exercises his paternal authority in loudly declaiming that he will not “allow” this situation to continue any further. Believing that the problem may be that Huanyu had no maternal input, he even starts romancing a woman from church who has no idea she is merely a tool in Jianguo’s mission to “save” his son, while furiously praying that Huanyu will soon marry and have children. The Church itself becomes, perhaps ironically, another vessel for rigid Confucianism as Jianguo ponders the end of his family line along with his dwindling authority and the effects of his son’s “sin” on his own good standing in the eyes of the community.

Yet through witnessing the increasingly destructive results of his actions Jianguo begins to reconsider. He listens to medical advice, attends seminars, and asks himself the true meaning of his faith. After all, if God is in heaven listening to prayers from his children below, then shouldn’t a father on Earth listen to his son’s wishes? Jianguo stops worrying about sin and asks more practical questions – is it safe, is it painful, will it end Huanyu’s life sooner, and weighs the degree of his child’s suffering against his ideology. Shooting in crisp black and white with only the startling red of Huanyu’s favourite dress, Zhang captures the dullness of Huanyu’s existence as she feels herself only half alive before ending on a note of vivid colour as the faces of transgender people fill the frame. A tender, empathetic exploration of a sensitive issue, The Rib is an important step forward for trans representation in Mainland China and a powerful plea for human decency and universal understanding.


The Rib was screened at the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival and the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)