The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, Frant Gwo, 2023)

Back in what now seems like another world, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth became a Lunar New Year box office smash and was described by some as China’s first foray into big budget sci-fi. Adapted from a novel by Liu Cixin, the film was much about fathers and sons as it was about sacrifice and solidarity in the face of oncoming apocalypse all of which are quite traditional New Year themes. Arriving four years later, The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, liúlàng dìqiú 2) largely drops overt references to the Spring festival bar the repeated motif of journeying home, but does once again stress the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding the future of the planet.

Then again, it seems that many feel it’s not a good use of time or resources to address a problem that will occur in a hundred years when they are long dead. A prequel to the first film, Wandering Earth II begins in the early days of the Moving Mountain Project which is the plan to push the Earth onto a different orbit to escape the sun’s eventual implosion. Given its enormous expense and the reality that much of the population will simply be left to die, the majority of the public back the rival Digital Life program in which humanity would be saved by relocating to a new virtual reality. Where this virtual reality is supposed to be stored is not exactly clear if there is no Earth for it to exist on, but it’s clear that some consider the possibilities of the digital existence preferable to allowing millions to die in the tsunamis which will engulf the Earth as it uncouples from the moon’s gravitational pull. 

Chief among them is software engineer Tu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) who is griefstricken by the loss of his wife and child in a traffic accident and has been secretly working on creating a fully fledged AI simulacrum of his daughter Yaya. He tells his more practically minded colleague Ma (Ning Li) that he doesn’t have the right to define what is “real” while eventually jeopardising the Moving Mountain Project by prioritising his desire to save Yaya over saving the Earth and eventually creating the AI system that will become Moss, a possibly dangerous entity which decides the best way to save humanity is to destroy mankind. 

The first film’s hero, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), meanwhile is a rookie astronaut caught up in a terrorist incident carried out by militant opponents of the Moving Mountain project while enjoying an incongruously goofy courtship with fellow astronaut and future wife, Duoduo (Wang Zhi). This time around, he’s a dutiful son rather than conflicted father serving alongside his own dad who eventually becomes an example of intergenerational sacrifice as the old begin to make way for the young whose responsibility it now is to preserve the Earth. A nervous young aid serving the current premier later takes over the reigns and finds herself giving the same advice to a similarly nervous young man as they prepare to carry on the Wandering Earth project despite knowing that it will take thousands of years to complete. 

The ultimate message is therefore to choose hope, as Peiqiang later does striving to save the world even if it all turns out to be hopeless, rather than giving up and resigning oneself to one’s fate as many suggest doing when faced with the potential failure of their mission. As in the first film, the plan requires cooperation between nations and this time even more so as world powers must surrender their nuclear weapons to help blow up the moon. The Chinese premier looks forward to a day when governments can work on solving future problems rather than preparing for war, but then in an echo of the ongoing climate crisis some just don’t seem to see the point in dealing with something that won’t happen for a hundred years despite likely being among the first to complain no one did anything sooner when it finally affects them. Gwo adds a little whimsy in the technically pre-apocalypse setting with charming details such as Tu’s warm relationship with his dog-like robot helper and the general goofiness of Peiqiang’s attempt to court Duoduo while improving on the already polished visuals of the first film through several high impact set pieces but finally returns to its messages of hope and solidarity perhaps intended for a weary world attempting to find its own way out of a period of protracted strife.


The Wandering Earth II is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.

International trailer (English voice over, Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Mama’s Affair (阿媽有咗第二個, Kearen Pang, 2022)

A middle-aged woman finds her desire to take back her life after the failure of her marriage frustrated by her teenage son’s resentment and the lingering patriarchal social codes of the contemporary society in Kearen Pang’s familial dramedy Mama’s Affair (阿媽有咗第二個). The “affair” of the title is an ironic take on her new maternal relationship with a young man she takes under her wing framing it as in a way cheating on her son which is clearly the way he feels about it, while it’s clear that some still view her desire to find fulfilment outside of her role as a wife and mother as a betrayal of her family. 

Before her son was born, Mei-fung (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) was a top talent manager at a record label but gave up her job at her husband’s insistence after suffering a miscarriage. With her son, Jonathan (Jer Lau of boyband Mirror), about to graduate high school and hoping to get into Cambridge University, she decides to re-enter the world of work but soon discovers that those she once helped in their careers are not necessarily keen to repay the favour. An old associate more or less laughs her out of the room suggesting she’s simply too old for the music business and recommends she join another old friend at his music company which turns out to be a school for small children. She takes the job anyway and quickly bonds with the two younger employees who introduce her to Fang Ching (Keung To of boyband Mirror), a young man with a prodigious talent for song and dance that has Mei-fung thinking of getting back into the management game.  

Though Jonathan had mostly reacted with indifference to his mother’s decision to return to work, claiming that he’d long wanted more independence anyway, he can’t seem to let go of a sense of resentment towards Ching which is compounded by his confusion surrounding the status of his parents’ marriage which it seems had long gone cold. His father Yan has moved out and though Jonathan doesn’t know it is having a baby with an old friend of his mother’s all of which informs his feelings of displacement as if he’s been pushed out of the family circle fearing that Mei-fung has gone out and got herself a new son who admittedly seems to appreciate her more. Displaced from his own family by tragic circumstances, Ching does indeed value the small things Jonathan has begin to resent in teenage angst yet is also unexpectedly sensitive and mindful of the ways in which his relationship with Mei-fung and presence in the household may be affecting Jonathan who is still struggling to come to terms with his parents’ decision to end their marriage without even really telling him. 

In an another ironic note it’s Mei-fung’s maternity which is positioned as her key strength as a manager, quietly lending support and encouragement that allows Ching to reach his full potential. On Ching’s arrival to the studio a mother had come in to the school with her young son who was bawling his eyes out because he wanted to join a dance class but the mother wouldn’t let him because she said he was too fat and would only embarrass himself only to be proved wrong when Ching invites him to try out on the dance floor demonstrating both the damage that can be done by a judgmental parent and the positive influence of an actively supportive environment. While Mei-fung keeps telling Jonathan he needs to learn to look after himself, she patiently nurtures Ching and eventually encourages to him sort out his complicated feelings towards his family while helping him achieve his dreams as an artist. 

In some ways, Mei-fung never really transcends the role of mother or escapes the tendency to define her role in relation to the two boys while somewhat resentful of all she was forced to give up because of the patriarchal, authoritarian mindset of the husband who later left her for a younger woman. Jonathan and Ching eventually sort things out through a good old fashioned fist fight generating a kind of brotherhood that leaves each of them equally displaced but also finding firmer footing more secure in their roles and relationships. “No one can handle everything alone” Ching wisely advises, as each of the trio develops a kind of independence founded on mutual solidarity, Mei-fung reclaiming her right to an individual life while giving each of the boys the courage to go off and pursue their destinies through the superpower of maternal love. 


Mama’s Affair is in UK cinemas from 19th August courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Chilli Laugh Story (闔家辣, Coba Cheng, 2022)

Family gatherings can sometimes be a little spicy, but channeling some of that passion into a family business eventually becomes too hot to handle for the ambitious hero of Coba Cheng’s New Year comedy Chilli Laugh Story (闔家辣). Set during the pandemic, the film finds its young hero embracing his lifelong dream of becoming an entrepreneur while giving his parents something to do so they won’t be bothering him but eventually discovering that the business world can be cruel and it’s family who will be there for you in the end if it all goes wrong.

At 24, Coba (Edan Lui) lives with his parents in a rented flat and has a job as a concert promoter which is obviously suffering under the ever changing COVID-19 regulations. Though as a child he’d hated his mother’s hot sauce, he soon realises he’s on to an ideal business opportunity seeing as restaurants are closed and more people are eating at home without easy access to fiery condiments. With his mum Rita (Gigi Leung Wing-Kei) chopping chillies and garlic and his dad Alan (Ronald Cheng Chung-Kei) trying not to get in the way, Coba concentrates on the branding and creates an online sensation with their “Chiu Chiu Chiu” chilli sauce inspired by a local recipe from Rita’s hometown. But while the business begins to take off relationships between the family members suffer under the strain of their differing goals and aspirations. 

Coba’s big thing has been that he doesn’t see the point in owning property and is content with renting, whereas all his mother ever talks about is buying their own place. What she sees as security and freedom, Coba sees as a burden he doesn’t want to be saddled with tied down by a 30-year mortgage. Her plan is to get a loan in Coba’s name to take advantage of a preferential rate for first time buyers, the parents having previously owned a flat they were forced to sell, even if that means applying for one without actually telling him. They are all keeping secrets from each other, Coba choosing not to disclose that he lost his concert gig and is concentrating on the business, while eccentric auntie Wendy (Sandra Ng Kwun-Yu) suffers something similar when her son, who rarely has time to talk, abruptly tells her he’s moving abroad and may not return. Meanwhile, Rita had been using her sister’s restaurant kitchen as a cover to get around licensing regulations but their success puts them at odds with their siblings who resent not being included in the business or its profits. 

Part of Coba’s desire for success to is assert his independence, yet he learns a cruel lesson after being offered an opportunity to collaborate with a weird corporate Guru who speaks only in English and offers pithy maxims while completing a giant all-white jigsaw puzzle in his minimalist all white room. His best friends from school are rich kids who ended up accidental CEOs in the family business, and he desperately wants that kind of approval talking big about being able to buy a flat for his mum with cash to avoid being saddled with the mortgage while hustling in the local food scene trying to talk an old man running a hotdog cafe into collaborating on a chilli dog to expand the brand only for the old man to tell him he’s too old to be jumping on the next new trend. 

Annoyed with his parents for cost cutting behind his back and making his decisions for him by applying for loans in his name, what Coba comes to realise is that having no plan isn’t always a bad thing because it means there are plenty of opportunities while the family strengthen their bonds after a little mutual honesty respecting each other’s wishes and responsibilities in acknowledging they didn’t need to monetise their connection to make it meaningful. Family is after all what New Year comedy is all about. Peppered with references to the pandemic, Cheng’s familial dramedy is full of the anarchic humour the New Year movie is known for from random gags to crazy puns and even throws in a couple of unexpected cameos from major stars in its closing sequences but clearly has its heart in the right place as the family learns to find the sweetness in the spice and Cobo new directions for his future.


Chilli Laugh Story opens in UK cinemas on 15th July courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown 3 (唐人街探案3, Chen Sicheng, 2021)

Cerebral sleuth Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) and his larger than life uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) are back on the case in the third instalment in the Detective Chinatown franchise (唐人街探案3, Tángrénjiē tàn àn 3) picking up as promised in Tokyo as the duo take on another locked room mystery on the invitation of dandyish local investigator Hiroshi Noda (Satoshi Tsumabuki). This time around, the mystery is only tangentially connected to a Chinatown though the solution in itself does indeed lead back towards the Mainland and the complicated relations between China and Japan, while Qin in particular finds himself confronting the idea that oligarchy is in fact the “perfect crime”. 

Hired by a yakuza boss, Watanabe (Tomokazu Miura), accused of offing a Thai rival, Su Chaiwit, following a dispute over development rights in the local Chinatown, Qin and Tang Ren quickly find themselves hamstrung by their own discovery of evidence which further implicates their client and brings them to the attention of top cop Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano) who wastes no time telling them to mind their own business. Meanwhile they are also being pursued by muscly Thai detective Jaa (Tony Jaa) working for the other side. In a new high tech motif, the guys are each handed a simultaneous translation earbud which allows the Japanese and Chinese guys to converse with each other in their own languages though Hiroshi often chooses to speak directly in Mandarin instead while the Thai contingent exclusively use English. Unlike previous instalments the duo do not venture into the local Chinese community and Chinatown itself is merely territory contested by Japanese yakuza and South East Asian gangsters. 

Even so Qin and Tang Ren find themselves at a nexus of cross-cultural conflict caught between the cops, yakuza, and Thai gangsters each looking not so much for the truth but some kind of advantage for their side all of which culminates in a hilarious series of mixups at a morgue. Once again, Tang Ren falls in love with a local woman, in this case Su Chaiwit’s secretary Anna Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa) who is certain Watanabe is guilty and later apparently kidnapped by a crazed serial killer (Shota Sometani) just by coincidence. Of course, all this cycles back towards the franchise’s growing mythology, Qin pursued and manipulated by the mysterious entity known only as “Q” which, as we learn, is as obsessed with the idea of the perfect crime as Qin largely in that they think they’ve perfected it in the stranglehold placed over civilisation by a shady elite. 

In this, the film may be taking aim at hidden oligarchy and the immorality of growing social inequality, but in its Japanese setting Chen is also freer to take potshots at contemporary Chinese society such as in Tang Ren’s confusion that they can’t simply bribe the police to get Qin out of jail when he is wrongfully arrested. “Justice and equality require sacrifices” Qin explains after solving a grim riddle only to be asked some difficult questions about the nature of justice and his own role within it by a manipulative villain, but in a classically censor-friendly move ends the movie with a brief monologue declaring that “justice always prevails and light overcomes darkness”, he and his team recommitting themselves to fighting “vices”, and presumably the shady elitism fostered by Q, wherever they arise. 

Like Detective Chinatown 2’s New York setting, the vision of Japan on display is deliberately stereotypical from an Akihabara cosplay carnival to tasks involving masked kendo fighters and a sumo wrestler, not to mention bumbling comedy yakuza forever threatening to cut off their fingers, the Shibuya Scramble set piece, or a playful homage to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Meanwhile, Chen continues his taste for huge ensemble action such as the complex slapstick routine that opens the film and now traditional end credits sequence featuring the cast dancing to theme tune “Welcome to Tokyo” dressed in the classic green detective mac worn by Qin. Truth be told, the solution to the central mystery is heavily signposted and slightly unsatisfying though Chen’s visualisations of Qin’s deductions are expertly rendered even as the hero’s growing confidence as a crimefighter unbalances his relationship with the increasingly silly if goodhearted Tang Ren. Boasting a host of A-list Japanese acting talent, the film also makes space for an unexpected cameo from one of the most recognisable faces in Sinophone cinema before teasing a further instalment to take place in London, home to the greatest consulting detective of them all. 


Detective Chinatown 3 is available to stream in the UK via iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Sky, and Virgin Media courtesy of Cine Asia.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Love You Forever (我在时间尽头等你, Yoyo Yao Tingting, 2020)

“Don’t overthink it. It’s fiction” the hero of Yoyo Yao Tingting’s tearjerking romance Love You Forever (我在时间尽头等你, Wǒ Zài Shíjiān Jìntóu Děng Nǐ) advises the heroine, attempting to keep his secret right until the very end. Inspired by Zheng Zhi’s novel, the original Chinese title translates to the more poetic “I’ll wait for you at the end of time”, hinting at the central, sci-fi-inflected romantic tragedy in which the hero finds himself selflessly sacrificing his years on Earth to fulfil the dreams of the woman he loves. 

Describing himself as a man who does not exist because there are no memories of him in this world, Lin Ge (Lee Hong-chi) is writing a memoir as a way of recapturing the past. He tells us of his lifelong love for Qiu Qian (Li Yitong), a woman he first met when they were both children in the summer of 1991 shortly after his mother had passed away from illness. Lin Ge describes her dancing like sunshine piercing through the thick clouds, a force which has illuminated his life. Trying to retrieve her lost marble from a pond, he discovers a mysterious clock which inspires their childish games all through that golden summer, yet at summer’s end they are cruelly separated when Qiu Qian moves away. At 17 he meets her again and she playfully pretends not to remember him, later embarking on a tentative teenage romance only for Qiu Qian to be hit by a car and killed on her way home from a birthday date. Activated by his tears, the mysterious clock sends Lin Ge back in time, or more accurately into a parallel universe where he is able to prevent the accident and save her life but only at the cost of his existence. This time Qiu Qian really doesn’t remember him because he never existed. Not even his father (Fan Wei) knows him, and he seems to have aged a good decade which in itself presents a barrier to possible romance. 

There’s something of a poignant metaphor in Lin Ge’s intense desire to crawl back inside his memories by writing them down, neatly laying out the various timelines of his life which he has willingly sacrificed to save Qiu Qian resigned to the fact that, in the final version, she will never know him. Later, she asks him how he knows the woman in his novel would be happy with the future he has engineered for her in which he is a deliberate absence but Lin Ge has no answer for her. The Qiu Qian that we see has achieved her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina with the Shanghai ballet, but she is perhaps unfulfilled aware there’s something missing in her life. About to leave the stage, she’s engaged to an old school friend, Huang (Chao Zhang), who is distant and controlling, actively discouraging Qiu Qian from continuing to dance after they marry and emigrate to America reminding her that she’ll have “more important things to think about” once she’s his wife. Lin Ge, meanwhile, now appearing as a man around 60, has taken a job as a caretaker at the theatre where he watches over Qiu Qian from the wings only for her to discover his memoir and become intrigued by its similarities to her own life. 

“The fate is destined, you will use up your time” an Eastern European fortune teller cautions Lin Ge after realising there’s something not quite right with Qiu Qian’s lifelines, “Don’t change the fate again, otherwise everything will become tragic”. Conflicted in her dance career, Qiu Qian reflects that had she known how it would turn out she’s not sure if she would have pursed her dreams, but Lin Ge, perhaps talking more for himself, affirms that of course she would. Even knowing how it would end, he’d do it all again for the brief moments of happiness he spent with Qiu Qian, “it only counts when we’re by each other’s side” as it says in the diary. Fate, however, keeps conspiring against him even as Qiu Qian undergoes her own parallel quest to solve the mystery of their love story in reverse. A poetic meditation on the lover’s exile, selflessness, the power of memory, and the indelible connection of a fated love, Love You Forever is genuinely romantic in all senses of the word even in its inescapable melancholy for those who pledge to love until the end of time.


Love You Forever is currently on release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Sam Quah Boon Lip, 2019)

“Sheep are happy as long as they have grass to graze, they don’t care if you shear their wool” according to a vox popped farmer in the ironically titled Sheep Without a Shepherd (误杀, Wùshā). Inspired by the Indian film Drishyam, the Mandarin title of Malaysian director Sam Quah’s Chinese remake is simply “manslaughter”, but as the English title perhaps implies if ironically Quah circumvents the censors to issue an oblique broadside to oppressive authoritarianism largely by setting the film in Thailand. 

As the film opens, affable Chinese-Thai IT and internet business owner Weijie (Xiao Yang) is chatting about his favourite thing, movies, with the regulars at his usual haunt, a restaurant run by Uncle Song. Meanwhile, Song tells him about the latest local gossip, the murder of a man who’d recently won the lottery, which is why corrupt cop Sangkun (Shih Ming-Shuai) has been hanging around but not actually doing much investigating. It’s rumoured that hotshot female police chief Laoorn (Joan Chen), who has a fearsome reputation for being able to solve any case, is going to take over. She eventually does just that, fabricating evidence to push the suspect into confessing. Her tactics may be underhanded and unethical, but at the end of the day, as she points out, it doesn’t really matter. She wasn’t framing anyone and isn’t intending to submit the evidence in court, she correctly solved the crime and exerted psychological pressure to trick the suspect into thinking she had something she didn’t so he’d know the game was up. 

“As long as you are not scared, they can’t do anything” Weijie tells his daughter, reminding her that fear is the only leverage of those like Laoorn when they have no real evidence. Unfortunately for him, he’s become involved with the disappearance of Laoorn’s odious son Suchat (Bian Tian Yang) who, we discover, drugged and raped Weijie’s teenage daughter Pingping (Audrey Hui) during an excursion for bright high schoolers, going so far as to film the whole thing in order to blackmail her into providing further sexual favours. Pingping had been keen to go on the trip, somewhat snobbishly looking down on her lower-class family and seeing it as a networking opportunity to make elite friends. She is perhaps the film uncomfortably implies being punished for her unfilial elitism, but eventually finds the courage to tell her mother Ayu (Tan Zhuo) what happened. Ayu accompanies her to the rendezvous with Suchat and confronts him but he is unrepentant, reminding them that his mother is the police chief and his father a politician so he can do as he pleases before trying to force himself on Ayu at which point Pingping hits him with a hoe and knocks him out. Believing that he’s dead, Ayu buries the body with a recently interred family friend and waits for her husband to come home from a business trip repairing the internet in a hotel the next town over. He eventually returns early, worried that he couldn’t get though on the phone because youngest daughter Anan (Zhang Xiran) had left the receiver off the hook. 

A decent and kind man, well liked by everyone, all Weijie wants is to protect his family. What’s done is done, all he can do is try to mitigate it by utilising all his movie knowledge to change the narrative so that they are merely implicated in the crime rather than active suspects. In this, the mini-feud with useless cop Sangkun actually works in his favour. An earlier episode had him offer some advice gleaned from movies to an old man whose grandson had been assaulted by Suchat. Sangkun was in the process of pressuring him to accept a payoff to drop the charges (most of which he’d have pocked for himself). Another business owner privy to the incident apparently reported him anonymously and was attacked in the street only for Weijie to come to his rescue and be accused of assaulting a police officer. It’s very easy for him to claim that Sangkun is trying to frame him out of pettiness, and very easy for people to believe him because that’s exactly something Sangkun would do. 

Sangkun is the embodiment of casual abuse of power. He doesn’t care about serving the people or protecting the vulnerable, he is only interested in validating himself through authority. Laoorn is not quite the same, but she too is an aspect of the all-powerful state as she marshals all her resources against Weijie, an ordinary husband and father, against whom she has no hard evidence only her much vaunted intuition. She will stop at nothing to find out what’s happened to her son, while Weijie is determined to do everything in his power to protect his family. Laoorn underestimates him, as Pingping had, because he is a poor orphan with no education, only later realising that he is clever and resourceful even if he’s pinched his defence strategy from a lifetime of watching crime movies. The pair are engaged in a perfectly matched battled of wits, but only one of them has the power of the state behind her and a gradual erosion of civil rights to allow her to wield it against a personal enemy. 

Filming in Thailand, Quah has a much freer hand to broach the subject of official corruption even if it’s quite obvious that he’s making a point about the overreach of the Chinese state rather than that of Thailand. Weijie’s plight eventually sparks a large scale riot that spreads throughout the country as the populace declares itself thoroughly fed up with the Sangkuns of the world, not to mention the Laoorns or her mayoral candidate husband Dutpon (Philip Keung Ho-Man) who is almost entirely absent from the crisis because all he cares about is the election even if it’s a minor inconvenience not to have his family on show at hustings. Dutpon’s disinterested authoritarian parenting coupled with Laoorn’s indulgence and willingness to enable her son’s crimes through covering them up is perhaps blamed for the “monstrous” young man Suchat was becoming, himself standing in for a generation of wealthy, pampered sons of elites raised with improper boundaries who think they can do as they please because they are somehow above the normal morality. “Good parents” Weijie and Ayu meanwhile find themselves at the mercy of a corrupt faux-aristocracy, abused by Suchat and then rendered powerless in the face of an authoritarian regime. 

Weijie, however, rejects his powerlessness in an attempt to think himself out of the cage in which he finds himself imprisoned. A perfectly plotted psychological thriller, Sheep Without a Shepherd ironically satirises the much cited claim of authoritarians that humanity flounders without a leader as the populace begins to fight back against its toxic relationship with those in power. Nevertheless, its admittedly compassionate and humanitarian conclusion cannot help but feel like an overt concession to the Mainland censors’ requirement that crime can never pay and all transgressions must be owned (even if not directly by those who are literally guilty). Ultimately, however, Weijie redeems himself in the eyes of his daughter, and in doing so subtly reinforces the anti-authoritarian message in instructing Pingping never to be afraid of anything again, freeing her from the oppressive leverage of fear which itself constitutes authoritarianism.


Sheep Without a Shepherd opens in UK cinemas on 21st August courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

The Whistleblower (吹哨人, Xue Xiaolu, 2019)

Whistleblower poster 2One of the many ironies of an intensely authoritarian system which prizes the self-criticism as a means of enforcing discipline is that whistleblowing, as opposed to “informing” on individuals, is not only frowned upon but actively dangerous. It is, after all, suggesting the Party may have made errors in judgement which have gone on to become systemic. It’s not surprising that the Party would not like to have them pointed out. Nevertheless, in these new times in which anti-corruption has become a minor buzzword, whistleblowing has been re-designated as a public service, though perhaps in not so much different a way as “informing” was in the old days and probably it very much depends on who and what one wishes to blow the whistle.

This the earnest hero of Xue Xiaolu’s The Whistleblower (吹哨人, Chuīshàorén) finds out to his cost when he is unwittingly alerted to a possible conspiracy and entrenched corruption among his co-workers. Mainland-born Mark (Lei Jiayin) works for a top Australian energy company keen to do business with China, though as they keep reminding him he is one of only two Chinese members of personnel, the other being the mysterious Peter (Wang Ce) whose unexpected absence is the reason Mark has been sent on a swanky but possibly illegal jolly to a resort to charm a delegation from a Chinese coal company. Two things immediately go wrong for him – the wife of the company’s (absent) CEO turns out to be his long lost first love Siliang (Tang Wei) who broke up with him because she wanted someone richer, and Peter turns up to the party in a dishevelled state to shout at him about something that happened in uni, which later turns out to be a coded clue to “check the gate”.

Needless to say, Siliang who seems to be in the middle of trying to break up with her husband, and Mark, who is married with a young son, “reconnect” before she dutifully runs off to a catch a plane which later crashes killing everyone on board. Peter is then found dead of an apparent insulin overdose, but even if he’s suspicious Mark doesn’t think much of it until he realises Siliang is still alive and on the run from her corrupt CEO husband who is apparently trying to have her killed because she knows too much about his dodgy dealings.

The Whistleblower tries to have it both ways in insisting that Siliang is simultaneously a greedy, ruthless, criminal mastermind, and such useless lady of the manor sort that she doesn’t know you can’t put metal in the microwave and is a terrible getaway driver because she’s always had chauffeurs. We’re told that she broke up with Mark because of his lack of materialism, marrying a top CEO for wealth and status and helping him conduct bad faith business by managing his bribes, but may now be conflicted – not only because her husband is trying to kill her, but because she’s realised her mistake and is attracted to Mark’s untarnished innocence. Her taste for corruption was, however, a moralistic one in that she would apparently never have condoned bribery if she knew that the technology really was unsafe and posed a threat to ordinary Chinese people.

It might be telling in one sense that this battle is being fought in Africa meaning that whatever problems there are with this innovative pipeline system are uncomfortably being worked out among less powerful people far away from either the Australian energy giant or the complicit Chinese coal company looking for new paths forward. The central implication, however, is that this kind of corruption is an element of Western imperialism rather than homegrown. The villains are the bigwigs at the Australian conglomerate, one of whom speaks fluent Mandarin but is apparently not much of a friend of China. Mark tries to expose them, turning against a company which is always keen to remind him that he is a foreigner (Australian PR pending), only to find himself at the centre of a smear campaign which seems like it would play much better on the Mainland, chased by thugs, and targeted for elimination.

The message that Mark gets, looking on with hope at a bright red sign reading “rebuild your life”, is come home – don’t do business with corrupt foreigners, help make China great again. A series of textual explanations appended to the film’s conclusion attempt to explain the word “whistleblower” to an audience that might not be familiar with it, pointing out that most developed nations have instituted legislation to protect those who attempt to expose illicit business practices but that China is lagging a little behind though it too apparently introduced legal protections in 2016 as part of its intensive drive to reduce corruption among petty officials. Mark has done the “right” thing, and he’s paid a price for it, but, the film says, his is the example to be followed in standing up to oppressive global corporate corruption which will eventually imperil the ordinary men and women of China if consumerist zeal wins out over national integrity.


The Whistleblower opens in selected UK cinemas on 6th December courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

The Captain (中国机长, Andrew Lau, 2019)

The Captain poster 2Chinese cinema loves the miraculous, but it loves stories of ordinary heroism even more. Inspired by real events which occurred on 14th May 2018, not quite 18 months before the film’s release, The Captain (中国机长, Zhōngguó Jīzhǎng), is a classic story of everything going right after everything goes wrong. Implicitly praising the efficacy of a system which values military precision over individualistic handwringing, Lau’s dramatisation reserves its admiration for those who keep their cool and follow the rules in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.

Beginning in true disaster movie fashion, Lau opens with a brief yet humanising sequence which sees the otherwise austere pilot Captain Liu (Zhang Hanyu) say goodbye to his little girl, promising he’ll be back in time for her birthday party that very evening. Thereafter, everything is super normal. The pilots and cabin crew arrive at the airport, get to know each other if they haven’t flown together before, and run through their drills. The cabin crew laugh through the “we’re professionally trained and are confident we can ensure your safety” mantra rehearsed in case of emergency hoping they’ll never actually have to say it, but disaster strikes a little way into the flight when the windscreen cracks, eventually shattering and sucking rookie co-pilot Liang Peng (Oho Ou) halfway out.

Of course, the story is already very well known so we can be sure that the plane will land safely with no one (seriously) hurt, but it’s still an incredibly tense time for all. As Liu explains to Liang Peng, everything in the cockpit must be done with the upmost precision. It’s when you get complacent that things will start to go wrong. A former air force pilot, Liu is not the most personable of captains with his permanently furrowed brow and serious demeanour, but he’s exactly the sort of person you need in a crisis, calmly and coolly making rational decisions under intense pressure. While he’s doing his best at the controls, the entirety of the Chinese air aviation authorities are springing into action to try and ensure the plane’s safe landing – airspace is cleared, the military monitor the situation, and the fire and ambulance services are already on standby in the hope that Liu can safely land at Chengdu airport.

Keeping the tension high, Lau resists the temptation to sink into melodrama, more or less abandoning a hinted at subplot about stoical cabin supervisor Nan’s (Quan Yuan) possibly unhappy home life while introducing a fairly random diversion in a group of aircraft enthusiasts furiously tracking the plane’s trajectory online and then heading out to the airport in the hope of witnessing a miracle. Before the potential catastrophe takes hold, the crew have to deal with unpleasant passengers intent on throwing their weight around, nervous flyers, and people travelling with small children, but do their best to provide service with a smile even in the most trying of circumstances. They are frightened too, but have to muster all of their professionalism in order to be strong for the passengers, keeping them calm and preventing them from creating additional problems while the guys in the cockpit try to find a solution that keeps everyone safe.

Released for National Day, The Captain’s brand of propagandistic patriotism is of the more subtle kind, only really rearing its head during the final moments during which awkward captain Liu suddenly starts singing a folksong in praise of the motherland while celebrating their lucky escape on its one year anniversary in the time honoured fashion of a group hot pot. Nevertheless, the point it’s making is in the virtues that Liu states after landing, valuing life and duty. Liu landed the plane because he followed procedure perfectly, kept his head, and made well-informed decisions. A master of understatement, his speech on landing is simply an apology to his passengers that he wasn’t able to take them safely to Lhasa. After waiting for the investigators, he thinks the passengers are hanging round outside the plane because they’re angry and want an explanation, little realising they are just overjoyed to be alive and wish to thank him for saving all their lives. A tense tale of selfless heroism aided by good training and immense professionalism, The Captain is a subtle endorsement of an authoritarian system but also of the importance of keeping cool in a crisis as the best weapon against catastrophe.


The Captain is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Climbers (攀登者, Daniel Lee, 2019)

The Climbers poster 1“Because it’s there” George Mallory famously said when questioned why exactly he wanted to climb Mount Everest. The hero of Daniel Lee’s The Climbers (攀登者, Pāndēngzhĕ) who regards Mallory as his idol has a slightly more reasoned response when similarly questioned by a student, pausing before explaining that humans are always eager to climb towards the future. That will prove to be a rather ironic statement in that Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) is a man in many ways trapped by past injustice, unable to move on from simultaneously achieving his dream and being denied its glory.

Narrated by meteorologist and Wuzhou’s innocent love interest Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), the action begins in 1960 when the Chinese National Mountaineering Team makes an attempt to conquer Everest from the North Face in response to a territorial challenge from the other side. During the ascent, the team’s captain is killed leaving the three remaining members to press on to the summit alone. Having conquered the mountain, they are unable to record their achievement because they lost the camera during an avalanche and so their success goes unrecognised by the international community. This is particularly bad news for Wuzhou whose intensely romantic attempt to woo shy meteorology student Xu Ying is interrupted at the critical moment by the news they’ve been denied and all their dreams are dashed. Wuzhou becomes sullen and withdrawn, resentful at being thought a fraud. The failure costs him the courage he had mustered to pursue his romantic destiny, allowing Xu Ying to leave for many years of research in the Soviet Union without telling her how he really feels.

Xu Ying’s commentary opts for understatement when it briefly remarks that the nation entered a period of “darkness” following the “failure” of the Everest attempt after which the Chinese National Mountaineering Team was disbanded. Wuzhou is relegated to the boiler room in a factory while his surviving friends, Jiebu (Lawang Lop) and Songlin (Zhang Yi), pursue their separate destinies, Jiebu returning to his sheep farm and Songlin, whose foot was ruined by frostbite, joining a sports training facility. By 1975, times have changed and the powers that be see fit to mount another attempt on Everest in order to measure it “properly” and restore China’s international mountain climbing reputation.

For all that The Climbers is a propaganda epic filled with calls to “show the world what Chinese men can do”, it has its share of flawed heroes failing to measure up to a vision of themselves as fearless champions of their nation. Wuzhou is understandably an embittered man obsessed with the rejection of his first summit, but he’s also an emotional coward who ties the need to have his success validated with the right to speak his heart to the improbably patient Xu Ying who apparently continues holding a torch for him throughout her long years in Russia, only implying she can’t wait for him any longer by putting their relationship on a professional footing when she arrives to lead the meteorological department on the 1975 summit attempt. Nevertheless, the pair share an array of meaningful looks filled with poignant longing while Xu Ying laments the presence of the mountain which stands between them before seemingly deciding to sacrifice herself for Wuzhou’s dream in the forlorn hope of finally conquering it.

Songlin, meanwhile, is resentful not so much towards the mountain or the fact that he will never be able to climb it again but towards Wuzhou who saved his life and let the camera fall, thereby bringing shame on the Chinese nation. Later, a brave young man opts to sacrifice his life to ensure the camera’s survival, and as Songlin later comes to understand the climb is a heavy responsibility which puts young lives at risk for a fairly meaningless prize which may not bring the glory to their nation that the young men and women trying to reach the summit might expect. Nevertheless, they plough on regardless. 1960 leads to 1975, and then to 2019 in which intrepid Chinese climbers once again attempt to conquer Everest in the company of a (in some ways not terribly) surprising star cameo in order to reemphasise the nation’s manly prowess and overwhelming desire to protect what it sees as its territory. Lee makes the most of the snowy vistas for a series of death defying stunts as the team (repeatedly) encounter avalanches, rock falls, and dangerous storms, risking all to bring glory to China but remaining resolute in their determination to make it all the way to the top.


The Climbers is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)