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)