I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, Sun Haipeng, 2021)

A diffident young man learns to unleash the lion inside while battling the fierce inequality of the modern China in Sun Haipeng’s heartfelt family animation, I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, xióngshī shàonián). With its beautifully animated opening and closing sequences inspired by classic ink painting and the enormously detailed, painterly backgrounds, the film is at once a celebration of tradition and advocation for seizing the moment, continuing to believe that miracles really are possible even for ordinary people no matter how hopeless it may seem. 

The hero, Gyun (Li Xin), is a left behind child cared for by his elderly grandfather and it seems regarded as a good for nothing by most of the local community. Relentlessly bullied by a well built neighbour who is also a talented lion dancer, Gyun finds it impossible to stand up for himself but is given fresh hope by a young woman who makes a dramatic entrance into the village’s lion dance competition and later gifts him her lion head telling him to listen to the roar in his heart. 

The young woman is presented as an almost spiritual figure embodying the lion dance itself, yet later reveals that her family were against her practicing the traditional art because she is female exposing the persistent sexism at the heart of the contemporary society. Gyun’s heart is indeed roaring, desperately missing his parents who were forced to travel to the city to find work while leaving him behind in the country hoping to earn enough for his college education. Part of the reason he wants to master the art of the lion dance is so that he can travel to the city where his parents can see him compete, while privately like his friends Kat and Doggie he may despair for his lack of options stuck in his small hometown. 

But even in small towns there are masters of art as the boys discover when directed to a small dried fish store in search of a once famous lion dancer. Perhaps the guy selling grain at the market is a master poet, or the local fisherman a talented calligrapher, genius often lies in unexpected places. Now 45, Qiang (Li Meng) is a henpecked husband who seems to have had the life-force knocked out of him after being forced to give up lion dancing in order to earn money to support his family, but as the film is keen to point out it’s never really too late to chase a dream. After agreeing to coach the boys, Qiang begins to reclaim his sense of confidence and possibility with even his wife reflecting that she’s sorry she made him give up a part of himself all those years ago. 

Then again, Gyun faces a series of setbacks not least when he’s forced to travel to the city himself in search of work to support his family taking his lion mask with him but only as an awkward burden reminding him of all he’s sacrificing. Taking every job that comes, he lives in a series of squalid dorms and gradually begins to lose the sense of hope the lion mask granted him under the crushing impossibility of a life of casual labour.  The final pole on the lion dance course is there, according to the judges, to remind contestants that there are miracles which cannot be achieved and that there will always be an unreachable peak that is simply beyond them. But as Gyun discovers sometimes miracles really do happen though only when it stops being a competition and becomes more of a collective liberation born of mutual support. 

In the end, Gyun can’t exactly overcome the vagaries of the contemporary society, still stuck in a crushing cycle of poverty marked by poor living conditions and exploitative employment, but he has at least learned to listen to himself roar while reconnecting with his family and forming new ones with friends and fellow lion dancers. While most Chinese animation has drawn inspiration from classic tales and legends, I Am What I Am roots itself firmly in the present day yet with its beautifully drawn backgrounds of verdant red forests lends itself a mythic quality while simultaneously insisting that even in the “real” world miracles can happen even for lowly village boys like Gyun when they take charge of their destiny not only standing up for themselves but for others too.


I Am What I Am screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as the opening movie of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 15.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, Lin Huida, 2022)

One of the biggest animation franchises in Mainland China, Boonie Bears began airing as a children’s cartoon show back in 2012 and has produced over 600 episodes across 10 seasons. The latest movie, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, xióng chūmò: chóngfǎn dìqiú), is the franchise’s eighth theatrical movie and again proved popular at the box office on its Lunar New Year release. As might be expected for a series revolving around woodland creatures, the first antagonist was a logger who later came round and teamed up with the animals to protect the forest, the franchise has a strong if potentially subversive ecological theme which reverberates throughout Back to Earth. 

In fact, the chief job of unreliable younger brother bear Bramble (Zhang Bingjun) is sorting rubbish into the appropriate bins to keep the forest tidy. Daydreaming he casts himself as superhero battling a giant trash monster symbolising the destructive effects of the buy now pay later philosophy of the modern consumerist society. In any case Bramble’s cheerful days of chasing ice cream and just generally enjoying life in the forest are disrupted when he’s almost wiped out by bits of a falling spaceship and becomes the repository for all of its knowledge. This brings him to the attention of alien space cat Avi who needs his brain to locate his ship but is also being chased by a gang of nefarious criminals led by an amoral entrepreneur who wouldn’t let a little thing like the survival of the Earth interfere with her desires for untold wealth and power. 

As it turns out Avi also has a few lessons to offer as to the costs of irresponsible industrialisation having been born in an ultra-advanced cat society buried deep in the Earth’s core. The over mining of a valuable mineral soon destroyed the environment forcing the cats to flee into space looking for a new home. Avi hopes to return to his home city which lies abandoned as a kind of cat Atlantis accessible only with a valuable necklace which he needs Bramble’s help to retrieve. To begin with, the relationship between the pair is less than harmonious, though they soon bond in their shared quest to stop the evil corporate entities taking over the ancient technology and causing the death of the forest through their insatiable greed. 

Then again as one of the other creatures had put it, “you can’t rely on Bramble”, cross that he never pulls his weight and is always off in a daydream or chasing the next tasty treat. While Avi poses as an adorable kitten trying to convince Bramble to use his brain to help get the spaceship back, the others become even more disappointed in him believing that he’s taken against the cat out of jealously and resentment. Yet the lesson that everyone finally has to learn is that it doesn’t matter if Bramble isn’t the smartest or most hard working because he is strong and kind and has plenty to offer of his own. His gentle bear hug eventually saves the world in healing the villainess’ emotional pain so she no longer has any need to fill the void with cruel and ceaseless acquisition. 

Aside from the gentle messages of the importance of protecting the forest from the ravages of untapped capitalism, after all “this is our only homeland”, the film packs in a series of family-friendly gags including a surprising set piece in which Bramble dresses up as Marilyn Monroe to recreate the famous subway vent moment from The Seven Year Itch, while a pair of eccentric scrap merchants with a taste for rhyme provide additional comic relief. Even in the villains get a lengthy cabaret floorshow to mis-sell their evil mission to the guys from the forest belatedly coming to Bramble’s rescue. In any case, thanks to everyone’s support and encouragement Bramble finally gets to become the hero he always wanted to be proving that he’s not unreliable and even if he doesn’t always succeed is doing his best. Boasting high quality animation, genuinely funny gags, some incredibly catchy tunes and well choreographed musical sequences along with a warmhearted sense of sincerity, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is another charming adventure for the much loved woodland gang.


Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is in UK cinemas from 27th May courtesy of The Media Pioneers (screening in a family-friendly English dub).

Original trailer (no 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.

Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Wang Shuchen & Yan Dingxian & Xu Jingda, 1979)

Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority. 

As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble. 

Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations. 

Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression. 

Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites. 


Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Wan Laiming, 1961/1964)

The late 1950s to mid-1960s would come to be known as a golden age of Chinese animation ushered in by the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio under the aegis of Wan Laiming who along with his brothers had produced China’s very first animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Dànào Tiāngōng) was conceived soon after Iron Fan’s release but its production was derailed firstly by the continuing Sino-Japanese War and then by the Chinese Civil War that eventually brought Mao Zedong to power. Produced in two parts released in 1961 and 1964 but screened together only in 1965, the film would ironically prove to be the studio’s last before being closed down during the Cultural Revolution. 

Most particularly in this context, the story of Sun Wukong might seem ill-advised even in its definitive cultural capital adapted like Princess Iron Fan from the well-known Journey to the West. The Monkey King as all know is a mischievous scamp forever causing trouble because of his resistance to following the accepted rules of mainstream society, something one might think anathema to a rigid, increasingly authoritarian regime. Yet in the Wans’ characterisation, Sun Wukong is also a good, socialist hero in the guise of a chaotic Robin Hood robbing the Heavens not for himself but to share with all the little monkeys waiting for his return on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits certain that such luxuries should not be limited to the gods alone and seeking to redistribute them on Earth (if only among his friends). 

Even so, at the heart of the story is a challenge to the celestial authoritarianism of the Jade Emperor and the godly elites who live quite literally in another realm. Lamenting that he is unable to train the little monkeys properly because he can’t get his hands on a weapon befitting his majesty, Sun Wukong is advised to swim to the underwater palace of the East China Sea Dragon and ask him to find something suitable, which he does, but nothing proves up to the talents of the great Monkey King. Finally, hoping to get rid of him, the Dragon King shows Sun Wukong the Gold Cudgel which calms the sea and tells him he can have it if he can take it away. Annoyingly, the Cudgel responds exactly to Sun Wukong’s magic and becomes his trademark giant staff leaving the Dragon King with a problem he can only take to the Jade Emperor. Thereafter succeeds a continuing debate as to how to deal with the Monkey King problem which begins with the decision to tempt Sun Wukong to Heaven by offering him a fancy title and position so they can hopefully keep an eye on him. 

This is perhaps a minor irony and element of subversive satire amid the corruptions of a newly collectivist society in which flattery and title inflation are becoming a persistent problem. Put in charge of the stables, Sun Wukong immediately sets all the horses free which is less of a problem than it sounds and considerably improves conditions for all, only it annoys the austere Horse General who makes the mistake of revealing to Sun Wukong that he’s not really “in charge” at all, sending him right back down to the mountains where he offends the gods by appointing himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” in an affront not only to their majesty but the celestial order itself. Some still feel appeasement is the way, that humouring Sun Wukong by pretending to respect his made-up title and convincing him to come back with a better position is the best way to minimise his rebellion but they fail to learn their lessons. On being told he can’t eat the fruit in his garden until a banquet is held and then discovering he’s the only one not invited and everyone is merely humouring him with The Great Sage stuff Sun Wukong is once again offended, deciding he’ll go anyway and then getting extremely drunk and trashing the whole place. 

For this some feel he must die, but Sun Wukong refuses to expire even surviving being baked alive in a pot. Drawing inspiration from classic Peking Opera, the Wan brothers allow Sun Wukong to defeat each of the gods’ various challengers using both his cunning and agility in a series of beautifully choreographed action sequences which leave him standing defiant a thorn in the side of authoritarian power if perhaps one with his heart in the right place, living for the anarchic joy of sharing all his spoils with the ordinary monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The 2012 restoration of the film keeps both halves together but also reformats the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to a “modern” widescreen in addition to giving it a 3D makeover. Nevertheless, the flawless and inventive animation along with beautifully painted backgrounds drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings coupled with the use of Peking Opera instrumentation and choreography lend the film a charmingly timeless quality while the subversive themes of resistance to rigid authoritarianism seem to take on new import most particularly in the present day. 


Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

Kiangnan 1894 (江南, Wu Xiaogang, 2019)

“Remain true to our original aspirations. In honour of China’s military industry” runs the dedication card at the end of the thrilling animated adventure Kiangnan 1984 (江南, Jiāngnán). Sponsored by Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co Ltd, the modern successor of the Kiangnan Arsenal, the film is both an unabashed love letter to the city of Shanghai and a celebration of Chinese engineering that, albeit subtly, reinforces China’s status as a powerful, technologically advanced nation fully prepared to defend itself militarily if threatened. 

Set in the late 19th century at the close of Qing dynasty, the film opens in fantasy as mechanical engineering enthusiast Lang (Ma Yang) dreams himself a king in a steampunk land daringly flying a celestial aircraft above a platoon of walking houses. Of course, he soon wakes up in a less fantastical world but is fascinated by the iron warships in the harbour and gets himself into trouble sneaking into the Manufacturing Bureau to show his friends a cool steamboat he’s found in a warehouse. Challenged by a young girl, Yulan (Zhang Qi), whose dog he ends up accidentally kidnapping as he escapes, Lang knocks over a candle and burns the whole place down, earning himself massive debts for the warehouse’s repair. To help pay them off, Yulan suggests he join the Manufacturing Bureau as an apprentice but the master, Chen (Zhou Yemang), who turns out to be her father, is a hard taskmaster offending Lang’s pride in refusing to take him on as anything other than a lowly assistant. 

All of that is somewhat secondary to the main plot which begins two years later as a cohort of Japanese spies desperately attempt to prevent a set of blueprints for a gatling gun reaching the Manufacturing Bureau. The historical Kiangnan Arsenal was founded as part of the Self Strengthening Movement which aimed to bolster the nation’s defensive capabilities, producing both firearms and warships at the beginning of the first Sino-Japanese war. This Kiangnan is however slightly more fantastical in its steampunk futurism which sees the workers wearing biomechanical aids extending to metallic gloves on their hands. The “Flying Fish” which captured Lang’s imagination was a high tech steamboat unbeknownst to him piloted by Chen’s late son who fell in battle, bravely making use of his experimental technology to serve his country. “Ordinance is essential for the greatness of our nation” Chen avows when agreeing to attempt to build the gun even without the plans, “faced with a great war we should do our best in duty bound”. 

Yet Chen’s grief-stricken rejection of Lang despite realising his genius, along with his rather sexist sidelining of his talented daughter, perhaps undermines his statement in allowing his personal feelings to holdback progress. Lang, meanwhile, patiently hones his craft while continuing to hope that Chen will one day allow him to become a real mechanic as his true apprentice, eventually building on the legacy of the Flying Fish to craft his own high tech steamboat complete with gatling gun and sailing it into the heart of danger carrying fresh supplies. A dreamer, Lang’s vision of a more technologically advanced future is fulfilled in a coda taking place 60 years later in which Communist China launches its first submarine at the Jiangnan Shipyard, the scene then shifting to an image of the modern Shanghai with its distinctive towers and high-rise cityscape. 

Patriotic concerns aside, the film also provides several opportunities for Lang to show off his equally proficient skills in martial arts, sparring with Yulan, fighting off gangsters, and efficiently dispatching the Japanese spies one of whom actually dies by his hand in quite a calculated manner which though not violent or gory is perhaps out of keeping with the family friendly flavour even as it once again demonstrates his cool-headedness, ingenuity, and heroism, while the persistent militarism has an uncomfortable quality given that the target audience is younger children. Nevertheless, such concerns are likely to fly over their heads thanks to the frequently exciting fight scenes and derring-do as Lang and Yulan take on spies and conspirators while working hard to achieve their dreams, “stubbornly” as the closing suggests refusing to give up on their future. Featuring bold steampunk design and painterly backgrounds showcasing major Shanghai landmarks, Kiangnan 1894 is an action-packed historical drama which aside from a slightly unpalatable militaristic fervour is also an impassioned defence of the right to dream as a path towards technological innovation.


Kiangnan 1894 screens at Vue cinemas across the UK from 23rd October courtesy of The Media Pioneers.

UK release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Jiaozi, 2019)

2755835c-570e-44bc-b2f2-515f706369bd_64fa474eb6b5a53c36be9bcd9311f283ce949be6_w1290_h1905Can you choose who you are, or is your identity constructed by accidents of birth and the society all around you? It’s a complicated question and even more so if you happen to have been born part demon thanks to a cosmological mixup. An origin movie of sorts for the titular hero familiar to most from classical Chinese folklore, Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Nézhā zhī Mótóng Jiàngshì) asks just that through the story of an extremely naughty, all powerful little boy who might be evil or just misunderstood and resentfully lonely because of the prejudice held against him by those fearful of his differences.

The trouble begins with the Chaos Pill which can pull power from sun and moon equally, threatening the integrity of the universe itself. Thankfully, the Heavenly King manages to split it into the Demon Pill and the Spirit Pill, enclosing both inside a lotus flower. He intends to send the Spirit Pill into the third son of general Li Jing (Chen Hao) and has put a curse on the Demon Pill so that it will be destroyed by lightening in three years’ time. Predictably nothing goes to plan because drunken deity Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) fails to stop the evil Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei) sending his minions in to steal the Spirit Pill and use it for his own ends. The Demon Pill ends up in the son of Li Jing, Ne Zha (Lü Yanting), who emerges from his mother’s womb as a bouncing ball of flesh before transforming himself into a small boy and proceeding to wreak havoc all over town.

Doting parents Li Jing and Madam Yin (Lü Qi) refuse to believe their son is all “bad” but recognise that they have a duty to the townspeople who are quickly fed up with Ne Zha’s antics and traumatised by years of being terrorised by “demons”. They would rather do away with the irascible little rascal, but could it be that he’s just bored and lonely? Given the increased demon threat, Madam Yin is often away slaying things and regrets she doesn’t have more time for her son while the other kids are afraid of him, both for quite rational reasons and also because his main way of making friends is quite mean. Increasingly resentful at being shunned as a “demon”, Ne Zha strikes back at the villagers in ways which are really just naughty rather than actually “evil” but obviously aren’t going to win him any friends.

Having failed to get help from the Heavenly Father who has predictably waltzed off for a bit as gods seem to do anytime there’s an actual problem in the mortal realm that they probably caused through inefficient planning, Li Jing decides to lie to his son that he’s really the Spirit Pill and has a duty to slay demons and help mankind. The deception begins to work. Imprisoned in a painting where Zhenren tries to teach him useful magic, Ne Zha takes his new responsibilities seriously, eventually escaping and trying to rescue a little girl who has been kidnapped by a water troll. Sadly, he goes about it all wrong and the townspeople embrace their prejudice to jump to the conclusion that he kidnapped the kid himself and has become even more dangerous.

Meanwhile, evil Shen Gongbao faces a similar problem as a deity shunned because he’s jaguar spirit who took human form. Allying with the villainous Dragons who have been given an ironic punishment to run a prison from which they can’t escape either, he gives the Spirit Pill to their bright hope Ao Bing (Han Mo) who, mirroring Ne Zha, struggles to accept his “evil” parentage and continues to do good and noble things behind his parents’ backs. Meeting by chance, the pair became friends but inevitably have to do battle before realising that they are two halves of one whole and thus represent a kind of salvation in linking hands rather than raising them.

Ao Bing, despite himself, is the more filial in that he thinks he has to accept the “destiny” his parents have given him as a liberator even if he doesn’t quite agree with their methods or reasoning. Ne Zha, by contrast, concludes that his fate is to resist his fate. He might not win, but he’ll fight it all the way and decide for himself who he is rather than allowing others to tell him. Genuinely funny, filled with amusing gags, and packed full of heart, Ne Zha is a gorgeously animated family fantasy and an impassioned advocation for living by your own principles while refusing to be bound by the unsolicited opinions of others.


Currently on limited cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia in the UK, and Well Go in the US.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

White Snake (白蛇:缘起, Zhao Ji & Amp Wong, 2019)

White Snake posterOne of the best known classical Chinese folktales, Madame White Snake has already inspired a host of cinematic adaptations, most famously Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. CGI animation White Snake (白蛇:缘起, Báishé: Yuánqǐ), co-produced by Warner Bros. in the US and China’s Light Chaser, takes a different tack in imagining a prequel to the original legend that hints at a wider destiny for the eponymous Bai Suzhen and the doctor Xu Xian. Like other similarly themed family films, White Snake is also a surprisingly progressive, if melancholy, love story which insists that love is love and does not, or should not, change if you discover the person that you love is a little different than you first thought – in this case, that she’s giant snake demon in beautiful human form.

A framing sequence opens with Bai Suzhen, here called Xiao Bai / Bianca, lamenting to her friend Xiao Qing / Verta (Tang Xiaoxi) that though she has meditated for 500 years she cannot achieve enlightenment and feels the block is due to a memory that she cannot recall. Xiao Qing then gives her a jade hairpin which casts us back 500 years to the Tang Dynasty and a time of chaos in which an evil general has ordered the mass killing of snakes in order to steal their energy for black magic purposes to improve his relationship with the emperor. The snake demons declare war and Xiao Bai is sent to assassinate the general but is injured before she can complete her mission. Washing up on a nearby shore, she is rescued by a local boy, Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), who happens to be a snake hunter. Having lost all her memories, Xiao Bai thinks she is human and bonds with Xuan as they team up to investigate her past with the hairpin as their first clue.

We are told that the land is in chaos and that the peasantry is cruelly oppressed by onerous loans and unjust treatment at the hands of the feudal lords. The general is forcing them to kill snakes and deliver them to him as a kind of tax incentive while threatening their livelihoods if they fail to comply. Despite participating in snake culls, however, Xuan is a kind and energetic young man who is also the village’s herbalist and dreams of becoming a doctor. Having rescued Xiao Bai, he does his best to help restore her memory and vows to be at her side protecting her no matter what. On figuring out that she is really a snake demon, his devotion doesn’t change and he stays with her all the same even knowing that she will be in danger if anyone else learns of her true identity.

Xuan may insist that your fate’s your fate but you can choose how you live, but he also acknowledges that “life is short and sorrows long”, affirming that it’s better to live in the moment making happy memories for less cheerful times. Then again, as Xiao Bai says, you can’t always do what you want and this is indeed a “heartless world” with rules which must be followed. As in any good fairytale, Xiao Bai and Xuan are divided by being on opposing sides of a supernatural plane with differing conceptions of time and eternity. As his song says, “this floating world is but a dream”, and Xiao Bai’s sojourn among the humans is likely to be a short one. Suspected of treachery, Xiao Bai’s good friend (or perhaps a little more than that) Xiao Qing volunteers to wear the Scale of Death, pledging her own life in place of Xiao Bai’s if she fails to fetch her back within three days only to immediately take against Xuan possibly for reasons unconnected to her distrust of humans who, she has been taught, are universally treacherous and hostile to snakes.

Of course, the original legend and the opening framing sequences are clues that this isn’t going to end happily but then with eternity to play with perhaps nothing is ever really as final as it seems. Beautifully animated with gorgeously rendered backgrounds and a melancholy romantic sensibility, White Snake is a huge step forward for Chinese animation which pays tribute the classic legend while creating a universe all of its own with sequel potential aplenty.


White Snake screens on 7th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival on 27th July.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English & Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Have a Nice Day (大世界 / 好极了, Liu Jian, 2017)

Have a Nice Day poster 1Even when everything is pointless, still you have to try to live. “Spring is spring”, as the opening quote by Leo Tolstoy proclaims and so there is life even among the ruins which, in this case, exist in the mysterious “development zone” somewhere in the modern China. This backstreet noir takes place in a world of near apocalyptic dilapidation though the effect is more one of incompleteness than destruction, as if an over excited city planner had randomly started projects one after another but suddenly tired of each of them. Jack Ma may have affirmed that everyone has a dream in his heart, but the dreams here are small and mostly unattainable, locked into a claustrophobic atmosphere of inescapable despair.

Xiao Zhang (Zhu Changlong), a lowly construction driver, decides to seize his chance of happiness with both hands in lifting a vast sum of cash which belongs to mob boss Uncle Liu (Yang Siming). Uncle Liu, however, is busy torturing his childhood friend for supposedly sleeping with his wife. He sends his best guy, enigmatic hitman Skinny (Ma Xiaofeng), after Zhang but before Skinny can get to him, Xiao Zhang is is picked up by “inventor” Yellow Eyes (Cao Kou) whose X-ray specs have spotted the money and decided it’s too good an opportunity to miss. He takes off with his kind-of-girlfriend (Zheng Yi) who is also the sister-in-law of a guy who works with petty gangster Lao Zhao (Cao Kai) who is the guy Xiao Zhang took the money from in the first place. Meanwhile, the mother of Xiao Zhang’s girlfriend has asked her niece, Ann Ann (Zhu Hong), to have a look into what’s going on with Xiao Zhang because he’s been sending some very suspicious messages.

Everything here is in transit. Hitman Skinny is fond of telling people that he’s “just passing through” but so is everyone else, there is nothing here to stop for, except that it’s impossible to escape. All the significant places are also points of transit or hope for connection – the “Integrity” internet cafe, a “business” hotel, a road which leads nowhere through a landscape permanently “under construction”. Everything is half formed or falling down, the world is indistinct as if it hasn’t discovered its own identity and has tried to cobble something together from the back streets of other cities glanced in violent movies from somewhere far away.

Xiao Zhang, (almost) our hero, is almost the same – he tells Skinny that his dream was to be a man like him rather than the spineless coward he feels himself to be because guys like him always seem so cool in the movies. Doubtless Skinny doesn’t seem so “cool” with his foot on Xiao Zhang’s chest, but Xiao Zhang’s need is as much about escape as it is a matter of practicality. Though the practicality is ironic enough – he wants the money to pay for more plastic surgery for his fiancée whose face has apparently been ruined by a botched operation. Xiao Zhang hopes they can escape to South Korea, world capital of cosmetic procedures, where they can repair what the modern China has destroyed.

It isn’t difficult to see why Have a Nice Day (大世界, Dàshìjiè, previously titled 好极了, Hǎojíle) rubbed the censors the wrong way. Liu’s vision of the China of today is a lawless wasteland in which despair and inertia reign while those of the post ‘80s generation flail wildly in the wind, drinking in overseas culture from Hong Kong and the West and wanting more than their society can give them. In a running joke everyone has a startup idea they’re sure will be the next big thing but when it comes right down to it, even with the money they’ve no idea what they’re doing. Two boys chatting idly about the future find only futility with one lamenting that if he wanted to make it he’d have gone to England to study, only for the other to ask what the point would be now the UK has left Europe. He has a radical startup idea of his own – a restaurant! After all, people will always need to eat. You have to admire his practicality, even if bemoaning his lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, the cousin of Xiao Zhang’s fiancée and her boyfriend, having figured out that Xiao Zhang really does have the money and intending to take it from him, fantasise about finding their own “Shangri-La”. Breaking into a lengthy karaoke-style video sequence, Liu paints a jagged picture of Ann Ann’s visual ideology which quickly descends into a mish-mash of Mao-era socialist propaganda posters and their collections of cheerful country women enthusiastically driving tractors and juggling sheep while posing in traditional Chinese dress with children in neckerchiefs reading improving literature. Everything is for sale, even apparently the innocence of the past. A friend of Lao Zhao’s expounding on the nature of freedom describes it as a three tiered system – the farmer’s market, supermarket, and online, your degree of personal autonomy and happiness reduced to a question of how the place you buy your groceries informs your sense of self worth.

Rampant capitalism has led to moral as well as physical decay as the half-finished buildings collapse under the weight of national hubris, a weathered statue standing in for a real life policeman as the hollow representation of the authority of an absent regime. Animated with an oddly naturalistic minimalism and filled with whimsical absurdity, Have a Nice Day serves as a condemnation of the last 30 years of Chinese history but it does so with a wistful irony. After all, it’s not as if things are much better anywhere else.


Have a Nice Day is released in UK Cinemas on 23rd March courtesy of Mubi. Check the official website to find out where it’s screening near you.

International trailer (English subtitles)