Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (流浪北京, Wu Wenguang, 1990)

Wu Wenguang’s seminal documentary Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京, Liúlàng Běijīng) opens with a stark title card explaining that it was filmed between August 1988 and May 1990. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the film never mentions what happened between those dates and is in a sense defined by the things it doesn’t say. Often regarded as the father of Chinese independent documentary, Wu’s shooting style breaks with the accepted norms which had favoured meticulous control by shooting handheld and in 4:3 with a grainy camcorder as he interviews his counterculture friends accidentally documenting their lives on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

As the opening explains, his subjects are a group of 20-something bohemians who have each rejected their State assigned jobs and relocated to Beijing, without proper residence permits, to participate in an artistic and cultural revival in which anything seems possible. Zhang Ci was a magazine editor in her hometown but hated it and came to Beijing to be a freelance writer. Zhang Dali studied book binding in the city and stayed on living as a freelance painter, while his classmate Gao Bo did the same thing but is a freelance photographer. Also a freelance painter, Zhang Xiaping was working as a scenic artist in Yunnan and has only recently come to the capital, while Mou Sen, originally from Tibet, is a struggling avant-garde theatre director. 

While perhaps fulfilling the starving artist stereotype, what Wu discovers in the stories of his friends is a sense of despair and inertia at odds with the supposed hopefulness of the times. Ci often appears on the brink of tears as she talks about her life, obviously dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the harshness of her living conditions making use of the facilities at the near by university, offended and perplexed when foreigners compliment her on her bohemian lifestyle. Dali too declares himself bored with Beijing and its dull culture vultures while lamenting that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance artist, only foreigners have money to buy his paintings and there aren’t many of those around. There is perhaps a sense of artistic rivalry between Dali and Xiaping who appears to have achieved a degree of success preparing for a big solo show while complaining that she hates selling her paintings and would almost rather sell her body. 

Dali and Bo expand on the phenomenon of “Cen Fan” as they sheepishly convince friends currently doing better to spot them dinner, while Bo declares himself a vagabond at heart but also remarks on the various anxieties of living on the margins trying to make rent in a fracturing Beijing. They each insist that they live for their art, Mou Sen certain that there could be no life for him without theatre, but some also dream of more conventional lives, Ci and Dali longing for materialist comforts of a decent home and a car even if in his case he wants these things to facilitate his art rather than to improve the quality of his life. Increasingly despondent, they discuss the idea of going abroad, Ci eventually making a, it’s implied, cynical marriage to an older American man to get a visa to emigrate while Dali eventually marries an Italian and Xiaping an Austrian. When Bo takes a job in Paris, Mou Sen is the only one left behind yet even he had mused on the idea of marrying a European in order to see Europe while admitting the possibility he may find a nice Chinese girl he likes and simply marry her. 

The artists’ mass exodus seems to run in tandem with the shockwaves of Tiananmen, as if they have given up on the prospect of social revolution and concluded that their only future lies abroad. Shortly before we are told she has left for Vienna, Xiaping appears to suffer a period of mental distress culminating in a public breakdown in a KFC from which Mou Sen and Wu himself had to rescue her, an incident which seems overly pregnant with symbolism as if the rapid changes of the modern China have fractured her mind. Wu never mentions Tiananmen, how could he, and it seems he encountered a degree of resistance including distressing footage of Xiaping’s manic episode (not for reasons of taste or privacy but shame on the part of the authorities), but the sense of painful defeat echoes all the same in a well placed title card as the artists make their exit signalling both the death and the failure of this short-lived counterculture movement. 


Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Road (大路朝天, Zhang Zanbo, 2015)

“Build a good highway and honour local people” runs a banner at a construction site in Zhang Zanbo’s observational doc The Road (大路朝天, Dàlù Cháotiān), though as we’ll discover in the end they’ll do neither. An allegory for the progress of the modern China, Zhang’s chronicle of a Hunan highway lays bare the various states of decay at the centre of a contradictory society in which money rules all and there is no longer any such thing as wrongdoing only acts which must be compensated for. 

Divided into four sections, Zhang’s documentary first asks us, indirectly, who the highway is for. The State began this project in 2009 as part of an economic drive fuelled by a good old-fashioned public works programme improving infrastructure across the country. Yet the highway will have little direct benefit for those who live beside it, something to which the construction teams seem to pay little mind. An elderly woman living alone in a traditional home pleads with a team blasting away at the mountain behind her to stop because they still haven’t compensated her for damage to her house, but they routinely ignore her and later the son who returns to advocate on her behalf. Because of their explosions, the old woman has a hole in her roof and being elderly would not be able to repair it herself but the construction team continue to refuse to help, irritatedly blaming her for not understanding them because they speak different dialects while fobbing her son off explaining that he needs to contact a different department because compensation and repairs are not in their remit. 

A secondary problem is that though the highway is a government project it’s been outsourced to a private engineering firm who view their responsibility solely to fulfil the contract and build the road while the Party officials who hired them utter vaguely menacing phrases about quashing any and all opposition. The locals often don’t seem to have been aware that any construction would be taking place or that their land and homes may be zoned for demolition. They complain that they’ve not received compensation they were promised for previous infractions and largely remain uncooperative while the construction teams assume that they’re simply angling for more money while insensitively digging up old graves and destroying ancient shrines still in use by the local community. Saving a giant Buddha statue one of the construction leaders seems to feel some remorse, chastened by another bystander that Buddha is unlikely to look fondly on him now he’s put him out in the rain. The team then erect a makeshift canopy hoping at least to keep his head dry. 

Another farmer meanwhile complains that his tree is holy and has an earth deity underneath it, advising the team to get a priest to bless it first only to be reminded that there’s no way on Earth the Communist Party could be involved in something so superstitious. The farmer lets rip, openly calling the Party greedy and corrupt while others in the village agree that the State continues to confiscate their property without warning or fair compensation. “The government owns you and your tree!” the representative claps back, denying the locals any sense of personal agency as he continues to encroach on their daily lives, merely reminding them they’ll be adequately compensated for relocating which many of them, including the old lady and her son, eventually do.

Compensation is always being promised but is rarely delivered as the labourers find to their cost, offered danger money and bonuses for working in obviously unsafe conditions but refused even time off or expenses when injured on the job. Ironically enough, workers’ rights are at the forefront of no one’s minds even as a bust of Chairman Mao (born in this very area) rests on the boss’ dashboard. When they ask for fair pay or treatment, the workers, like the locals, are accused of being selfish and money grubbing actively standing in the way of their nation’s progress. Instead of looking after their employees, company bosses schmooze local authorities, often handing out little red packets to smooth the path ahead but the construction firm too eventually finds itself on the receiving end of governmental extortion when the local road bureau try to shut them down over missing permits and later send in armed thugs when they refuse to pay leaving some employees in the hospital with multiple stab wounds awaiting further compensation either from their company who put them in a dangerous position or from the state authorities. 

If all that weren’t worrying enough, inspectors at the site find multiple issues with build quality that could endanger public safety. They seem frustrated that corners have been cut and insist that certain sections be entirely rebuilt before the project can be passed. 37 bridges had apparently collapsed in China since 2007 presumably because of the same lax safety culture while it seems the company was never penalised for breaching regulations in part because of all that schmoozing. The workers and the locals, we later learn, eventually got a degree of compensation, but Zhang’s unflinching doc nevertheless lays bare the degree to which the modern China continues to consume itself in its all encompassing obsession with “modernisation”. 


The Road is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Single Woman (单身女人, Lin Xin, 2018)

What does it mean to be a single woman in contemporary China? Lin Xin’s talking heads doc Single Woman (单身女人, Dānshēn Nǚrén) is less concerned with the “Christmas cake” phenomenon than with ordinary middle-aged women who are living their lives without men. Many have been married before but are now divorced (Lin does not speak to any widows) while some are not strictly “single” having found someone new, but all have contradictory views on the nature of marriage, relationships, and independence even if united in their sense of disillusionment with modern men raised in a relentlessly patriarchal society. 

The project appears to have originated with local novelist Dong Li who as we discover is known for the erotic quality of her writing and is certainly among the frankest of the women when it comes to speaking of sexual desire. Having divorced her husband in 1997, Li explains that she went on looking for true love but found herself feeling exploited by men who were often overconfident in their sexual prowess and largely viewed relationships as a transactional activity, offering to cure the sexual frustration they stereotypically believed must be plaguing her in return for material favours. Li raises this point consistently while talking with some of the other interviewees who in the main seem to be her friends, even recounting an outlandish story of a married lover who lied about having a wife but bizarrely insisted on eating the genitals of various animals in order to increase his virility. 

Xiao Hua, a teacher, also mentions potential exploitation as an explanation for why she’s cooled on the idea of romance, explaining that after divorcing her adulterous husband even at the risk of losing contact with her son she found herself in a series of unsatisfying relationships with duplicitous men who milked her for money. Her rationale for turning someone down because “he was not qualified to love me” may sound cold and cynical, but has a degree of sense to it given her experiences with men who misused her or attempted to exploit what they saw as vulnerability in her perceived loneliness. 

Like many of the women, Xiao Hua had also been a victim of violence, another factor subtly raised by Dong Li as she talks to her friends about their lives as single women. Ya Lan dated her husband for eight years and married him only after overcoming his family’s objections yet later became a victim of domestic violence and eventually divorced. Unlike Dong Li and Xiao Hua, she found herself entering a relationship with a younger man which was genuine in intent though she later found him lazy and immature, treating her perhaps more like a mother in need of someone looking after him while she longed for someone to look after her. After that relationship ended she declared herself happy with the single life but has since found a more satisfying match in a devoted retiree and now that her son has married is planning to remarry herself. 

On the other hand, Chen Yuan is the only one of the women who has never been married and seems to have accepted the idea that she’ll remain single for the rest of her life though this does not appear to be her desire or intention. In fact none of the women except perhaps Dong Li entirely embraces the legitimacy of a woman’s right not to marry at all. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that a woman should be independent and that it is perfectly possible to be happy without a man even if she looks back with regret on the romantic choices of her youth wondering if she was perhaps too picky turning down a man who sincerely loved her solely because she was not sure he was really the one. Lili meanwhile married the man she loved and forged a conventional family but the relationship later suffered under the demands of everyday life raising children and her husband left her feeling that in the end they were simply incompatible. Despite the way it ended, Lili declares herself happy with married life but has no real desire to try again grateful in a sense to have experienced two different ways of living. 

Her experience could then not be more different than that of Mei Xiang who is actually the first of the women we meet as she tells a disturbing story about being attacked by the husband of her husband’s mistress. The man in question was actually her second husband whom she’d been persuaded to marry on the grounds of his “honesty” despite her misgivings, her first marriage had ended due to animosity from her husband’s parents who tried to convince her to give their daughter up for adoption in order to try again for a son under the demands of the One Child Policy. Her husband was never able to stand up to his family who refused to see the baby and the marriage broke down though now she wonders if they were over hasty and couldn’t perhaps have worked things out if they hadn’t been so young and impulsive. She hasn’t quite sworn off the idea of marrying again, sure that there are good men out there it’s just that she hasn’t yet met one, but seems to have filled her life with her charity work and prioritised self-fulfilment over social expectation. 

Ending on a rather ironic note, Lin takes us back to the school where Xiao Hua works as a group of children engage in a boys vs girls tug of war. Despite Mei Xiang’s declaration that there must be good men out there, Lin’s women haven’t had much luck locating them, each victims of deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes, but most haven’t given up hope of finding love and it seems deciding to be a single woman leading an independent life is still an unthinkable taboo. Nevertheless each of the women, Dong Li included, has found a degree of peace with their life choices and has at least the solidarity of her female friends to help her cope with a still unforgiving patriarchal society. 


Single Woman is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2, Herman Yau, 2020)

“Anger can destroy everything” according to the voiceover opening Herman Yau’s Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2), a thematic sequel to the original Shock Wave once again starring Andy Lau as a Hong Kong police bomb disposal officer battling serious threat to the island’s transport infrastructure but also picking up themes from the pair’s subsequent collaboration White Storm 2 in which the veteran actor had starred against type as a Batman-esque billionaire vigilante fighting a one man war on drugs. The villains here claim they want “change”, but in reality want little more than to burn the world, enraged by its refusal to recognise or remember them consumed as they are by wounded male pride. 

The hero, Fung (Andy Lau Tak-wah), finds himself suffering from amnesia after encountering the second serious accident of his professional life. When we first meet him, he’s essentially playing the same role as the first film, a cheerful, slightly cocky bomb disposal expert with a potentially reckless streak born of his willingness to risk his own life to save those of others. When he’s injured on a job, tricked by a random booby trap while trying to free a trapped cat, and loses his leg he reacts with characteristically upbeat stoicism quickly adjusting to his new prosthesis and determined to get back to work, training intensely with the help of his friend Tung (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who was also injured in the same blast only not so seriously. Despite passing all the fitness criteria Fung is fobbed off with an offer of a desk job in police PR, refused a return to the bomb squad as the panel quite openly admit not so much because they feel his disability impairs his ability to do the job as they fear public blowback should something go wrong and they be blamed for having hired a disabled person in the first place. 

It’s less a sense of discrimination than unfairness that fuels Fung’s growing sense of anger and resentment not only towards the police force but towards society in general which he now feels regards human beings as little more than disposable tools. He rejects the sense of himself as “disabled”, internalising a sense of societal shame keen to remind everyone that he is not impaired proving himself capable above and beyond the force’s criteria but is still rejected while Tung, who suffered only minor burns, is permitted to return to duty and even gets a promotion. His friends later recount that he became a different person after the accident, angry and embittered as if at war with the world. 

Yet after encountering a second accident, Fung loses his declarative memory which is to say he still has his everyday skills such as walking around (including using a prosthesis), getting dressed, brushing his teeth, using a computer and presumably the mechanics of bomb disposal but no longer remembers his own name or how he ended up in hospital now at least implicated in an act of major terrorism. Without his memories, Fung is a blank slate, freed from all the trauma and resentment that may have pushed him towards the dark side and returned to the innate goodness of a soul untouched by the world’s cruelty. The question is, which way will he turn, back towards the darkness or further into the light as the Fung they once new who willingly risked his life for others? In any case, he finds himself potentially misused by his well meaning ex Pong Ling (Ni Ni) who engages in some dubious psychology involving false memory implantation to convince him that he’s been working for the Hong Kong police undercover, hoping to engineer a softer landing for him than the realisation that he may be responsible for the deaths of at least 18 people as a member of an anarchist sect going under the apt name of “Vendetta”. 

Like Fung, the leader of Vendetta is an angry man resentful of having been forgotten by someone he cared about who had simply grown away from him. He rages against the world partly as a consequence of his aimless privilege having discovered his wealthy family made their money peddling opium with the assistance of the colonial authorities, but also as a direct result of childhood bullying and frustrated male friendship. Vendetta claims it wants to stop the world from getting “worse”, but all it really has is anger and the intense hurt of wounded pride. These men refuse to be “KO’d by this sick society” but in the end all they want is to be seen, to be recognised and remembered. To ease their sense of belittlement and impotence, they plan to burn the world by literally severing connections with it. 

Yau takes aim at the various systems which generate this kind of anger, hinting at the shockwaves of ingrained societal discrimination even if Fung internalises a sense of stigmatisation in his intense need to prove himself free of “disability”. Robbed of his memories, Fung’s anger dissipates allowing his natural capacity for selfless heroism to resurface along with a healthy desire to reflect on his own behaviour, at least as much as can he rely on the sometimes duplicitous vagaries of memory both his own and that of others as he searches for the truth of himself and his “vendetta” with the world. Torn between risking his life to save others and blowing it all to hell, Fung ends up doing both, sending shockwaves throughout his society in a deeply ambivalent act of personal and societal redemption. 


Shock Wave 2 is available to stream in the UK until 12th May as part of the Chinese Cinema Season. It will also be released on DVD/blu-ray on 7th June and digitally on 14th June courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Weekend Lover (周末情人, Lou Ye, 1995)

Lou Ye’s troubles with the censors began at the very beginning of his career. Shot in 1993, his first feature Weekend Lover (周末情人, Zhōumò Qíngrén) was held up until late ’95, making ’94’s Don’t Be Young his accidental “debut”. Set in the contemporary era the film nevertheless has a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia coupled with air of nihilism that perhaps distressed the censors more than the otherwise potentially problematic bohemian setting, finding the post-Tiananmen generation floundering in a changing China in which the dream of freedom has long since flown. 

In one of many title cards, Lou opens with a lengthy piece of text claiming that this is a true story, a claim he will return to with the closing card the fantastical quality of which perhaps undermines the idea of its “reality”. The author of the text claims that this is a story some did not want to tell but mostly because it makes them sad to recall bygone days for reasons we will come to understand. Nevertheless, the filmmakers claim to have tracked down the central figure of Lixin (Ma Xiaoqing) who has agreed to share her story, which turns out to be the story of two men, violent thug Axi (Jia Hongsheng) and sensitive musician Lala (Wang Zhiwen), who find themselves bound for confrontation in order to lay claim to the affections of Lixin. 

Axi is the “weekend lover” of the title, a high school boyfriend of Lixin’s who used to spend weekends in her apartment while her parents were out but later went to prison for killing another boy who threatened their relationship. Lixin vows to wait, but ends up meeting Lala in a case of mistaken identity tasked with venturing into the unfamiliar world of back street pool halls to find a man in plaid in order to deliver something on behalf of Axi. The pair start dating, but Axi returns unexpectedly some years later put out to realise that Lixin has forgotten him and quite literally moved on. Hoping to get her back he threatens Lala and later Lixin herself, remaining somewhat obsessed with recapturing the past while little more than a violent street thug with nothing to offer other than intimidation. 

One could see Axi and Lala as embodiments of past and future with Lixin trapped painfully in an interminable present. Lala dreams of becoming a singer, eventually joining a band with whom Lixin also becomes friends hanging out in the beatnik bohemian space of the disused building she decribes as a “jail” they repurpose as their arena. Yet even this potential future is flawed. The band’s leader (Wang Xiaoshuai) explains to Lala that they will disband after their big concert as most of the members are going abroad, perhaps he will even go to America. There is no future for any of them in China while Lala rejects the idea he may stay and marry Lixin, realising she has not completely severed her connection to Axi believing their relationship is doomed to failure. 

Westernisation is indeed a persistent background theme from the discarded Coke cans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Lipton tea in Axi’s rundown room to the fancy new fast-food restaurant where Lixin works going under the name “California Rainbow”. These Bohemians dream of Western freedoms aside from the power of consumerism, longing for the right to seize their artistic potential but finding themselves continually constrained by a society they do not understand. “We drank a lot, always felt we were the most miserable and that society didn’t understand us. Later I came to realise it’s not that society didn’t accept us it’s that we didn’t understand society” Lixin explains in voiceover apparently from the vantage point of “many years” later in which she seems to have in part at least rejected her countercultural youth and developed an understanding of the contemporary society. 

Nevertheless, the film closes with both her wilful self-exile and an improbably optimistic coda which may only be a reflection of her dream followed by the title card which suggests that the couple may find happiness but only “many years later” in another city. “We felt the whole world belonged to us, as if everything would last forever. But we didn’t know what would happen.” Lixin laments, recalling her brief moment of youthful freedom later ruptured by the re-introduction of the violent past in a touch of rather elliptical irony that perhaps evokes Lou’s later taste for non-linear narrative. Moody yet imbued with a kind of youthful ennui, Weekend Lover’s frequent use of title cards, pop music, and self-consciously cool imagery may never quite coalesce beyond their various influences but edge towards an attempt to capture youth in a new age of anxiety caught between the death of idealism and the opportunities of a newly consumerist economy. 


Weekend Lover is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Musical sequence (English subtitles)

Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Lou Ye, 1994)

Lou Ye’s complicated relationship with China’s censorship board has been well documented though it is certainly not a recent phenomenon and has in fact plagued him from the very beginning of his career. His first feature, Weekend Lover, was shot in 1993 but not passed for release until two years later technically making 1994’s Don’t Be Young (危情少女, Wēi Qíng Shàonǚ) his cinematic debut. This might seem surprising seeing as Don’t Be Young flirts with themes the censors find problematic, an ethereal gothic ghost story perhaps permissible solely because the spectres can be read as existing only in the mind of the troubled, traumatised young woman at the film’s centre though the spirit that haunts is perhaps that of the age and of a traumatised China caught between failed revolution and rapidly expanding economic prosperity. 

As the heroine, Lan (Qing Yu), tells us this is the story of “another time, another place”. Unable to separate fantasy from reality, she nevertheless goes on to narrate a dream she later claims not to remember and in any case can no longer revisit. On smashing a bottle in the street she retrieves a device which seems to be the engine of a music box that once belonged to her mother and acts as a kind of key to an alternate reality that soon bleeds into her contemporary life. In the present, Lan is a nervous young woman struggling to deal with her mother’s death in an apparent suicide, watched over by her patient doctor boyfriend Lu Mang (You Yong) but after discovering a strange book similar to one her mother owned containing a floor plan and a letter after taking shelter from the rain under the porch of an abandoned mansion she finds herself investigating her own history. 

The dream world, shot in an ethereal blue, seems to exist sometime in the 1950s, Lan’s clothes and those of her boyfriend and the other people around her suddenly shifting without warning as she finds herself crossing over while everyone else appears in pale face as if this were the world of the dead, or a “hell” as an elderly woman later describes it. Lan insists that “everything is real” though the borders between the two worlds become increasingly thin even as the plot developments become ever more outlandish leading to a confrontation with a mad scientist veterinarian and his nefarious attempts at human experimentation with a weird drug that causes those who take it to lose control over their nervous systems. The scientist insists that science makes him a god with the right to dominate the world while the secondary villainess (Nai An) turns out to be a scorned nurse blackmailed into helping to “ruin” Lan over her murder of a patient who tried to assault her by pulling out his oxygen tubes. Only the earnest Lu Mang who is strangely absent for much of the action after leaving to “take an exam” but mostly wandering moodily around noirish rail stations served by atmospheric steam trains, is present to represent “science” as a force for good but ultimately ends up defending Lan in the most prehistoric of ways. 

Nevertheless, what she begins to uncover is a complicated family legacy running through romantic failure, adulterous liaison, and broken connections all contained in the house she inherits after decoding the messages from the dream. Lou throws in a series of unexpected cinematic allusions, including one to Ozu’s Late Spring as a lodger randomly peels an apple with intense melancholy, while drawing inspiration from the Hong Kong New Wave. Yet the key aesthetic is gothic horror as Lan finds herself trapped by generational trauma, witnessing her grandmother bound in cobwebs while attacked by razor-wielding spectres apparently keen to stop her further investigating her traumatic past. Finally she laments that all that remains is an “empty and beautiful end”, apparently returning to the present which is perhaps equally frightening in its sense of oppressive anxiety by abandoning the music box and thereby closing the door on the nightmarish dream world of haunted houses and cursed legacies. Nevertheless, the young couple seem to have beaten back the attempts of the older generation to reassert their control and emerge into a new society with a new sense of freedom if not quite liberation. 


Don’t Be Young  is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Reunions (吉祥如意, Da Peng, 2020)

Comedian, actor, and general multi-hyphenate Da Peng (AKA Dong Chengpeng) scored box office hits with his first two features, superhero parody Jian Bing Man and musical dramedy City of Rock, but The Reunions (吉祥如意, Jíxiáng Rúyì), a reworking an earlier short, marks a definite shift in his personal style if not exactly devoid of laughs or warmth. Partly a muted personal meditation on the price of success and the compromises of the modern China, Da Peng’s Spring Festival movie in contrast to the sentimental norm finds a family on the brink of disintegration but discovers within that a sense of sad resignation rather than failure or disappointment. 

Comprising of Da Peng’s earlier short given the English title of “A Reunion”, the first 40 minutes or so act as a kind of verbatim docudrama starring a professional actress, Liu Lu, as Da Peng’s cousin Lili (who later features in the part two “A Final Reunion” making of redux) alongside members of his family including his mother and father playing themselves. Da Peng had apparently intended to film a kind of personal history/tribute to his grandmother exploring the various ways she lived her day to day life preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations, but during his stay which was his first in many years his grandmother sadly passed away. During the making of sequence, he begins to wonder if his visit home to make the movie may have caused his grandmother’s health to decline or if he was simply unaware that she had already become ill because he failed in his duty as a grandson staying away so long. 

As he puts it, in the city he is a different person with a different life largely forgetting about his family back in rural China. The main crisis of the New Year period is not however his grandmother’s death but the pending decision of what to do with uncle Ji Xiang who suffered brain damage after an illness a few decades previously and is unable to take care of himself. Filial wisdom says the burden falls on Lili, but she too lives in the city and has her own life with a small child to take care of meaning that it would be difficult for her to take her father home to live with her, not to mention the potential difficulties of uprooting him from everything he’s known. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lili and her father had long been estranged as her mother divorced him after the illness and moved to the city when Lili was a teenager. During the making of sequence, the actress playing Lili asks for clarification in her motivation stating that the one thing she doesn’t understand is why she hasn’t visited her family in over 10 years, but the only answer she receives is an awkward silence. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of the grandmother relations between the siblings begin to fray as old conflicts bubble to the surface, Da Peng’s uncle and aunt complaining that they cared for Ji Xiang and his mother all this time on their own and would appreciate some help but fail to see how any of the secondary suggestions of the other siblings pitching in as grandma had wished are realistic. Others insist that prior to his illness Ji Xiang was the most filial of the siblings, frequently helping out his brothers and sisters with jobs at the oil field where he worked and generally making sure to take care of everyone only to be semi-abandoned by them now he is no longer to look after himself. The presumably engineered argument from the movie later spirals out of control, the actress playing Lili pleading with the siblings to stop, while her real life counterpart looks on impassively from behind the camera, the fate of Ji Xiang still seemingly undecided. 

Yet quizzed by a fan at a Q&A after the screening of A Reunion, Da Peng doesn’t have an answer for why he decided to make the film, any messages he might have hoped to convey beyond a sense of loss and regret lost amid his desire to capture a moment of family life, his mother appearing on camera in a brief interview sequence avowing that she believes that with grandma gone this will probably be the last New Year, the siblings no longer having a common reason to come together. Someone even mentions that the family is only here this time because of Da Peng’s film, calling into question the ethical dimensions of his decision to put his relatives on camera. He closes on a poignant note with some home video from New Year 2008, presumably the last time he was home, featuring his grandmother and Uncle Ji Xiang in happier times harking back to an essential sense of loss in the all the missed opportunities of absent years now that there will be no more next times or home to go back to. 


The Reunions is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

All About Ing (小伟, Huang Zi, 2019)

A small family finds itself pulled in different directions in the wake of a medical emergency in Huang Zi’s poetic family drama All About Ing (小伟, Xiǎo Wěi). The three are perhaps in slightly different places, each longing for freedom from one thing or another but finding themselves bound by a sense of legacy while haunted by both past and future as they attempt to reorient themselves around their shared loss, searching for new ways forward while always looking back. 

Opening with the poignant image of an empty chair, Huang slowly walks us into the “Ing” home (not their name though each of their names contain it) as patriarch Weiming (Ko Hon-man) gets a haircut from his wife while his son Yiming (Howard Sit Lap-Yin) lazes on the sofa behind. The sense of familial harmony is however soon broken as mother Muling (Janis Pang Hang-ying) chases down her indifferent son while her husband has recently entered hospital with a condition that appears to be much more serious than he thought it to be. Firstly criticising the hospital unsure if he’s getting the best care because the place seems “too new”, Weiming is convinced there’s nothing seriously wrong with him because the doctor says he can go home in a few days. Muling, however, is aware the reality is a little different and has decided not to tell her husband that he has advanced liver cancer letting him believe he merely has “cirrhosis”. 

Divided into three arcs following each of the family members as they attempt to come to terms with the ways their lives will change, the first part of the film follows Muling as she finds herself carrying the burden of family all alone trying to keep them together while her son dreams of escaping abroad and her husband is in continual denial about the state of his health. Perhaps she wants to escape too, her friends at a factory cafeteria gossiping about a mutual acquaintance who was so set on going abroad that she apparently left her husband to marry a wealthy old man living in Cyprus. “What freedom? Is abandoning her son and husband freedom now?” her friend asks while Muling pensively stirs her soup thinking something much the same, later identifying with the lonely old granny who keeps wandering off from the flat next-door while her family it seems don’t even really bother to look for her. Will that be her future too, wandering all alone like a living ghost forgotten by those closest to her? 

A teenage boy Yiming is not particularly primed to see things from his mother’s perspective, longing for escape through studying abroad keeping the news of his acceptance at university in the US a secret from Muling just as she keeps the extent of Weiming’s illness a secret from him. He resents her for her thinking “something bad” will happen to his father while slacking off in class, rejecting her offer of an introduction to a cram school run by a friend but cheating on his homework by copying another girl’s answers. Like Muling’s friend, Yiming’s classmates are convinced there’s no future for them in China joking about jobs as security guards or successful shop merchants while determined to seek their fortunes abroad perhaps partly out of a sense of teenage rebellion against constraining family mores. Yet Yiming is also struggling to process the idea of death experiencing strange dreams of a ruined village he eventually visits with his father on a last trip back to his hometown. 

Weiming’s elderly mother looks not unlike the escaped granny framed vaguely from behind, while his brother too appears somewhat ghostlike as if frozen in time dressed in an old-fashioned donkey jacket and carrying a mysterious photo tube. The two boys he meets on a misty beach who do not acknowledge his presence appear like ghosts of their younger selves while Weiming himself has begun to haunt the landscape ominously looking in through a window at his wife and son on the other side. The family went back to visit Weiming’s family grave but they can’t find it, the town now in ruins while a holiday resort is currently under construction slowly taking over the mountain featured in a picture the family retrieve of Weiming’s father they will later hang on their living room wall. “I want to change the world” Yiming idly mutters on the train home though Weiming doesn’t hear him, the son poignantly turning round to share something with his father after they return home only to find his chair empty. Another his elliptical long shots, Huang closes by returning to his opening POV once again a ghost exiting the space as if returning to a familiar chair while the family attempts to repair itself, moving forward in memory of the past not trapped by it but carrying it with them as they go. 


All About Ing is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

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)