Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhao Liang, 2001)

Paper Airplanes posterCritiquing the modern China has become a persistent theme in contemporary Chinese cinema, but questions were being asked even in the immediate aftermath of the reformist period of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Zhao Liang’s Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhǐ Fēi) is on the one hand a sort of celebration of the new freedoms, but it’s also fuelled by the sense of confused hopelessness which engulfed many of those who came of age post-Tiananmen and could no longer rely on the iron rice bowl of the communist era while new opportunities largely failed to appear.

Zhao embeds himself deeply within a group of friends and relatives living a fairly bohemian existence on the fringes of the Beijing music scene. The film opens with a young man, Wang Yinong, cleaning a syringe with water while a young woman chats on the phone. Yinong has agreed to wait in for a friend, but then suggests going out to escort the woman home, as if he doesn’t quite want her to be there when the friend arrives. Shortly after, a young man in a leather jacket, Zhang Wei, turns up apparently having procured a small amount of drugs. Yinong asks him when he’s going to “kick” (the habit), to which he replies “in a few days” prompting an exasperated sigh from the woman next to him who exclaims that’s what everyone always says.

The rest of the film pivots around the various friends and their complicated relationships with drugs and the law. They get caught, often as part of complex entrapment schemes operated by the police, and are either fined and released or sent for rehabilitation which in the worst case scenario involves being sent to a reeducation labour camp. Only one of the group, Fang Lei, manages to evade the law but is himself later arrested and subsequently determines to kick the habit for good.

Fang Lei, sorting through a collection of pirated cassette tapes he sells on the streets in an attempt to earn a living (or at least money for drugs), puts it best when he says that by the time you realise that drugs are no good it’s already too late because you no longer need anything else. His sympathetic father sitting off to the side directly engages Zhao in one of the film’s few direct to camera moments when he pauses to remark that people need to see the stories of men like his son who have been left behind by their society, floundering around unable to find jobs with no one looking out for them.

Fang Lei does eventually manage to kick the habit, partly because he feels guilty for worrying his parents with his precarious lifestyle and partly, he admits, because this time he really wanted to. After getting off the drugs himself, he wants to help others do the same but knows all too well that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Another young woman, Liang Yang, attempts suicide by overdose after suspecting her boyfriend, a punk musician and fellow drug user, of cheating. She knows the drugs are bad for her and make her even more unhappy than she might be without them, but somehow she can’t seem to make the choice to live a different life and always finds herself returning to heroin. Unable to find a sense of positivity or an independent reason for living, she continues to seek escape from an unfulfilling existence in brief moments of drug-fuelled relief.

She too has a supportive mother trying to push her towards a more positive path, but the contrast here is starker. Liang Yang’s mother lives a humble existence little minding that she eats her dinner off a tiny tray on the floor of her kitchen and has learned to be happy with what she has. She doesn’t quite understand why her daughter can’t do the same. Fang Lei and Liang Yang’s boyfriend try to help her, even threatening to report her to the police so that she’ll have to go into rehab, but eventually have to concede defeat by giving her the money to buy methadone but leaving the choice of what to do with it up to her.

The “paper airplane” of the title is neatly explained by Yinong who, having been absent for much of the film, makes a surprise reappearance at its conclusion in a much reduced state. From a hospital bed he tells Zhao that he should call his film paper airplane because they’re bits of folded paper which sometimes fly very high but only for an instant before falling to the ground, paying a high price just for the chance to soar. Zhao had begun his film with a sense of youthful rebellion as these nihilistic youngsters forged a community of the dispossessed kicking back against an oppressive society, but he ends on a note of despair and futility which paints them as in some way trapped by the false promise of the modern China which denies them both freedom and a future. In an attempt to escape the crushing sense of impossibility and confusing lack of forward direction, they found fulfilment only in the “intense relaxation” of drug-induced highs but all too soon find themselves back on the ground again in the exact same place as they started with nothing much to show for their experiences other than regret and anxiety.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in conjunction with Chinese Visual Festival.

In Character (入戏, Dong Xueying, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Rib (肋骨, Zhang Wei, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Meili (美麗, Zhou Zhou, 2018)

Meili poser 2Though Mainland cinema has a famous aversion to the representation of LGBT lives on-screen, there does seem to have been a notable shift towards the positive in recent years with even big budget blockbuster comedies and family films offering subversive, if subtle, messages of tacit support. Nevertheless, lesbian life continues to be underserved with Fish and Elephant, often regarded as the “first” explicitly lesbian film from Mainland China, released only in 2001. Zhou Zhou’s Meili (美麗) is not an issue film nor does it make much of its protagonist’s sexuality but it does attempt to address the many difficulties she experiences in her life as a gay woman from a humble background.

Meili (Chi Yun) has a casual job in a laundry and lives with her high flying career woman girlfriend Li Wen (Zhou Meiyan) who is often forced to stay out late drinking to excess with colleagues in an attempt to climb the ladder. Li Wen receives the opportunity of an extended business trip to Shanghai and asks Meili to go with her only to change her mind abruptly at the last minute, fearing her colleagues will find out that she’s in a relationship with another woman and it will damage her prospects or perhaps even cost her her job. Though Meili was ambivalent about going anyway, the sudden reversal proves a huge shock, especially as she’s also been let go from her laundry job for having the temerity to ask about the annual leave policy.

Meanwhile, Meili is constantly pestered for money by her hard-pressed older sister (Li Shuangyu) who is married to a man (Wang Limin) so vile Meili can hardly bear to look at him. The reasons for her disdain will become apparent, but adding to the confusing family situation is a little girl being brought up by the couple which is apparently Meili’s. Meili is a lesbian with no interest in men which may hint at the reasons she intensely hates the child and resents the entire situation. Despite all that, however, Meili does not seem to be able to cut her sister off and finds herself going out of her way to help her even though she is herself in extreme difficulty.

Toughness and tenderness do seem to go together as we witness Meili set up an IV for her hung-over girlfriend, berating her for drinking too much yet again but caring for her anyway. Meili blows up at her brother-in-law’s, overturning their dinner table when he insults her in front of his friends, but shuts down when wounded by Li Wen, seemingly unwilling to engage in a probably destructive argument but dragged into one anyway. The relationship between the two women appears settled and positive despite the disparity of their socioeconomic statuses, but there are cracks and when Meili begins to suspect that Li Wen may be seeing a male colleague behind her back, perhaps as a cover or to improve her career prospects, she begins to wonder what they really are to each other.

For Meili who could not rely on her family, and had no future plans or real place to belong, Li Wen had become everything. “Shanghai” is a dream to the youngsters of Changchun who assume the gleaming city must be full of opportunity and excitement but it may well be one beyond their reach even if they manage to escape industrial town casual labour hell. Meili bears her difficult circumstances with fortitude. Obliged to live quietly and under the radar, she works hard and saves her money but is betrayed at every turn – by unscrupulous employers, by her toxic family, by her ambitious girlfriend, and even by her supportive and well meaning friends who reluctantly decide that they will have to leave her behind alone in order to chase their own dreams in the city. Having lost everything and all hope for the future, violent revenge seems an unavoidable consequence of her almost total oppression.

A popular name for baby girls, “Meili” means beautiful but there’s precious little beauty in Meili’s increasingly grey and hopeless world. Human selfishness, capitalistic avarice, and conservative patriarchal values conspire to rob her of all possibility for life or forward motion. There is no path out of poverty and little possibility of happiness in being able to live openly and equally with a woman by whom she is fully loved. Painting a bleak picture of life in post-reform provincial China, Zhou’s debut presents a refreshingly normalised depiction of a same sex relationship while making plain each of the various ways its heroine is backed into a corner by the oppressive and increasingly unequal society in which she lives.


Meili was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Zhou Mingying, 2018)

Land of Peach Blossoms posterIn Tao Yuanming’s 5th century fable, The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Shìwàitáoyuán) is a mythical utopia where people live in peace and harmony knowing nothing of the outside world. Zhang Derong, the founder of the Feast of Flowers restaurant, saw himself as creating something similar – a place beyond the outside world founded on collectivist principles where they make healthy people healthier through “emotional catering”. If it were not immediately obvious, the founder of Feast of Flowers is not entirely on the level but has promised great things to the young men who work in his restaurant and look up to him as if he were some kind of more ethical, caring Jack Ma.

His most devoted pupil, Tang Guangbin used to work in a nuclear power plant and had a sea view from his company dorm but he likes it here better because he feels “free” in his heart and soul. Like Guangbin, Zeng Qi also feels that as long as they follow The President’s teachings they will make the Feast of Flowers bloom all around the world spreading health and happiness as they go. The Feast of Flowers is indeed a cheerful place filled with dancing and a faux ancient fantasy Chinese village atmosphere. There is also, however, a dark side which will become apparent to the young hopefuls the longer they stay in the garden.

The truth becomes apparent first to the practically minded Wang Peiyuan who turned down more lucrative jobs to work at the Feast of Flowers because he bought into Zhang’s ambitious business plan and assumed there would be more opportunities down the line. Not only is his pay cheque lower than promised because of all the “training” he has to pay for, but it’s so far below market rate that he’s worrying about paying his mortgage and being able to feed his wife and child. Meanwhile, Zhang waxes lyrical about work ethics and insists that “training” his workforce until 5am and then starting again at 8 is all part of his grand plan to turn them into top entrepreneurs.

Guangbin excuses himself to a friend on the phone in case he sounds as if he’s been “brainwashed” as he fiercely sells Zhang’s philosophy as not only a way to become rich and successful but to make the world a better, more caring place – the kind of place he perhaps assumes China was before the ‘80s reforms which opened it up to Capitalism. Of course, Guangbin is too young to remember what it was like back in the ‘70s, but hears people tell him about solidarity and job security and he’s understandably envious. He’s made a big investment in Feast of Flowers and so it takes a long time before he’s prepared to accept that he is being exploited by an unscrupulous charlatan. Once he and some of the other guys figure out there won’t be any expansion of Feast of Flowers, prime jobs, or bonuses, they want to quit but they can’t because they’re in hock for all this “training” and will lose their unpaid salary because, ironically, they don’t have effective work place protections. 

Zhang runs the place as if it were a work cadre and himself the Chairman. He commands absolute loyalty and requires employees to self criticise, running regular hunts to find the most “self centred” of the workers with many keen to jump at the bait and even to accuse others on cue. Those who disagree and want to leave are dismissed as having “too many personal thoughts and opinions” when they should be concentrating on understanding The President’s philosophy. Guangbin once felt free inside the Feast of Flowers, but later came to feel that outside was “a world of freedom” and inside “a prison full of darkness” from which there is “no escape”.

As if to ram his point home, Zhang makes the workers listen to Red Detachment of Women and has a bizarre obsession with “retaking” the Diaoyu Islands (also known Senkaku islands) from the Japanese, even staging a surreal play in which the Feast of Flowers soldiers personally defeat the Japanese army and capture Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe while Moon Over Ruined Castle plays mournfully in the background. Disillusioned by modern China’s lurch towards soulless consumerism and yearning for a simpler time in which people supported each other in common endeavour (but secretly still wanting to get ahead), the youngsters at Feast of Flowers bought into Zhang’s duplicitous nonsense and allowed themselves to be brainwashed into serving his ideals rather than their own. The parallels are obvious, but Guangbin may sadly be right in believing that there is no escape from the soul crushing exploitation of the modern economy which promises so much and yet delivers so little.


The Land of Peach Blossoms screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 7.15pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Zhang Nan, 2018)

Stammering ballad poster“We all live our lives in silence” according to the subject of Zhang Nan’s Stammering Ballad (黃河尕謠, Huáng  Gǎ Yáo). A love song to a disappearing rural landscape, Zhang’s beautifully composed documentary follows an aspiring folksinger whose dreams of fame have taken him away from the land he loves so much as he tries to ensure the survival of traditional village culture by singing in the cities.

A college dropout, Zhang Gasong embraced his love of folk music while too embarrassed to return home. Honing his craft as he goes, he’s been travelling around the country for the last seven years going wherever someone wants to hear him play – though occasionally they might have to front him the train money to help him get there. Gasong is, it has to be said, an eccentric young man. A former bandmate laments Gasong’s “poor social skills” which led to the band’s breakup, while also remaining exasperated that Gasong just up and left, disappearing for years on end without a word, with little regard for their friendship. Still, he seems to have forgiven him enough to agree to play for Gasong’s big shot on China’s Got Talent.

China’s Got Talent might seem like a left field move for a traditional folk musician, but Gasong has his eyes on the prize. He wants to be the kind of star where everything gets done for him and all he has to do is play, but for the moment he’s busy touring small music venues and festivals singing for his supper and hoping the youth of China who have, like himself, abandoned their village homes for the convenience of city life, will eventually re-embrace the song of the earth.

That aside, Gasong has a conflicted attachment to the pastoral past. He always hated farming and ironically claims to loathe the familiar smell of wheat germ and freshly tilled soil, not to mention the physical toll of of the work. Nevertheless he maintains an attachment to the landscape and views it almost as an inheritance of which he has been robbed by the modern China. The place where he grew up is now largely in ruins after having been relocated to avoid a drought, and though he bitterly misses the familiar black donkey that once lived in the village he has to remember that it’s long been sold. A traveller now himself, Gasong is losing connection with his land and with his family, but desperately clinging to his ancestral legacy through the medium of song.

In the end, China’s Got Talent didn’t really get Gasong, but perhaps that’s for the best. Cameramen expecting disappointment found only relief when they came to interview the band afterwards. Though it’s a shame that the performance will never be aired, and the beautiful rural folksong will not be heard by the millions of Chinese viewers almost certainly tuning in for more energetic fare, Gasong remains undaunted. Wandering off once again he loses touch with his band members and resumes his nomadic travels as an itinerant musician. The grand irony is that these songs, so intrinsically linked with place, are themselves travelling and echoing in new locations looking for new pastures in which to take root as the modern China flattens mountains to build factories and moves families on from their lands while sending its young into the cities all alone.

Gasong, who has stammered since childhood, has found his voice through music though often struggles to make that voice heard in boisterous modern society. Like many of his generation he too has realised he cannot stay in his pastoral paradise, but has also discovered that the city doesn’t suit him. Most at home in the wide open spaces of his native Gansu, Gasong roams the land singing the song of the soil as he goes in the hope that it will one day echo and send the sound of home all around the world.


Stammering Ballad screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 1pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)