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)

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決, Herman Yau, 2019)

132134ti38vkkj3p299ni8The war on drugs comes to Hong Kong care of Herman Yau’s latest foray into heroic action, White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決). In the grand tradition of Hong Kong movies adding a random prefix to the title, Drug Lords is a “thematic” sequel to Benny Chan’s 2013 hit White Storm, which is to say that it shares nothing at all with Chan’s film save the narcotics theme and the participation of Louis Koo who returns in an entirely different role. What Yau adds to the drama is a possibly irresponsible meditation on vigilante justice and extrajudicial killing which, nevertheless, broadly comes down on the side of the law as its dualist heroes eventually destroy each other in a nihilistic quest for meaningless vengeance.

A brief prologue in 2004 sees depressed Triad Yu Shun-tin (Andy Lau) abandoned by his girlfriend who can no longer put up with his gangster lifestyle and inability to break with his domineering mob boss uncle. Meanwhile, across town, flamboyant foot-soldier Dizang (Louis Koo) scolds one of his guys for supposedly selling drugs in the club, only to be picked up by Shun-tin’s uncle Nam (Kent Cheng) and severely punished for getting involved with the trafficking of narcotics. Nam orders Shun-tin to cut off Dizang’s fingers as punishment, which he does despite Dizang’s reminder that they’ve been friends for over 20 years. Conflicted, Shun-tin makes amends by driving Dizang to the hospital with his fingers in a freezer bag, but by this point Dizang has had enough. To teach him a lesson, the Triads also tip the police off to raid the club, during which the wife of squad leader Lam (Michael Miu) is killed by a drug addled patron.

15 years later, Shun-tin has left the Triads and become a successful businessman married to a beautiful lawyer/financial consultant (Karena Lam) with whom he has started an anti-drugs charity, while Dizang has become Hong Kong’s no. 1 drug dealer, operating out of a slaughterhouse as a cover. The trouble occurs when Shun-tin learns that his former girlfriend was pregnant when she left him and that he has a 15-year-old son in the Philippines who has become addicted to drugs. Drugs have indeed ruined Shun-tin’s life, if indirectly. His grandfather was an opium addict, and his father died of a heroine overdose (which is why his Triad gang swore off the drugs trade). All of which means he has good reason for hating drug dealers like Dizang, but his sudden admiration for Duterte’s famously uncompromising stance on drugs is an extraordinarily irresponsible one, especially when it leads to him embarrassing the HK police force by offering a vast bounty to anyone who can kill Hong Kong’s top drug dealer – a deadly competition that, like extrajudicial killings, seems primed to put ordinary people in the firing line.

As Lam tells him, the situation is absurd. Shun-tin’s bounty means Lam will have to spend more time offering protection to suspected drug dealers than actively trying to catch them while it also leaves Shun-tin in an awkward position as a man inciting murder and attempting to bypass the rule of law through leveraging his wealth. Indeed, as a man from the slums who’s been able to escape his humble origins and criminal family to become an international billionaire philanthropist he shows remarkably little consideration for the situation on the ground or the role the kind of ultra-capitalism he now represents has on perpetuating crime and drug use, preferring to think it’s all as simple as murdering drug lords rather than needing to actively invest in a creating a more equal society.

Meanwhile, Dizang continues to lord it about all over town and Lam finds himself an ineffectual third party caught between summary justice meted out by a man who thinks his wealth places him above the law and a gangster on a self-destructive bid for vengeance against the Triads he feels betrayed him, including his old friend Shun-tin. Truth be told, the “friendship” between Dizang and Shun-tin never rings true enough to provoke the kind of pathos the violent payoff seems to be asking for while the film is at times worryingly uncritical of Shun-tin’s vendetta, suggesting that the police are ill-equipped to deal with the destructive effects of the drug trade. Nevertheless, even if it’s to placate the Mainland censors, Yau ends on a more positive message that reinforces the nihilistic, internecine nature of the conflict while hinting, somewhat tritely, at a better solution in the sunny grasslands of the child drug rehabilitation centre Shun-tin has founded in Manila. That aside, Drug Lords is never less than thrilling in its audacious action set pieces culminating in a jaw dropping car chase through a perfect replica of the Central MTR subway station.


The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia. It will also screen as the closing movie of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Tsui Hark, 2018)

Detective Dee four heavenlu kings posterMaybe we could use a Detective Dee or two in this bold new age of fake news and powerful ideologies. Tsui Hark at least finds another case for the famed Tang Dynasty detective though this time one which sees him at the centre of a conspiracy, a bug in the system which must be squashed in order to pave the way for someone else’s revolution. The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Rénjié zhī Sìtiānwáng) of the title (no, sadly Andy Lau has not returned with a few of his friends in tow) refers to the four Buddhist deities which ought to tip us off to the kind of story this is as personal desires, of one sort or another, threaten to destabilise a state.

At the end of the previous film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, Dee (Mark Chao) was “rewarded” with a place in the inspectorate and guardianship of the Dragon Taming Mace. However, scheming consort Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is not particularly happy about her husband’s grand gesture and still has her doubts about Dee. Claiming that she fears such a powerful weapon/symbol being in the hands of someone who may betray the crown, Wu instructs Dee’s Sworn Brother and head of the Justice department Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) to retrieve the Mace at any cost. Yuchi is reassured that Dee is not in danger and so agrees to work alongside Wu’s handpicked troop of “magical” crooks (who have actually been hired to take care of Dee to stop him messing up Wu’s grand plan). Needless to say all is not as it seems and Wu has fallen under the influence of nefarious forces who are merely using her lust for power as a convenient mechanism for facilitating their own agenda of revenge for a past era’s betrayal and oppression.

Dee’s methods are, more or less, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, granting him almost supernatural powers of foresight and observation though this time he is not occupied with one specific case so much as solving the mystery of the hidden insurrection within the Tang. The Mace may seem like a MacGuffin but its power is real and eventually holds the key to defeating the forces of chaos which threaten to bring down the state. Wu’s quartet of “Taoist” magical mercenaries are quickly exposed as expert wielders of tricks and trinkets rather than supernaturally charged avengers, but the state can’t help being captivated by the “magic” which finally puts paid to their ambition and is rocked by the power of the false images which continue to assault their senses.

Tellingly the big bad here is a foreign cult which makes extensive use of “hypnosis”, strange potions, and smokescreens in order to create the illusion of magic. Illusion, however, is as good as or perhaps better than the truth when it comes to political manipulation. The cult’s powers apparently aided the creation of the Tang state but once they were no longer needed, they found themselves cast out, tortured, and humiliated. Unsurprisingly they want their revenge and will settle for nothing less than the humiliating fall of the nation they helped to build.

Good old fashioned deduction and rationality are useless in the battle to free infected minds from the hypnotic power of fake news perfectly tailored to embrace one’s darker instincts. Wu, secretly or otherwise, lusts for power of her own and was easily manipulated by the promise of support in her campaign to seize the throne. Meanwhile, the leader of the Wind Warriors is infected with an intense desire for violence and killing to ease his deep seated rage over the misuse of his people. The answer is, of course, Buddhism. Life is too beautiful to be marred by hate while the act of forgiveness is the ultimate show of strength. Nevertheless, Tsui abandons Dee’s cool, analytical approach for a strangely spiritual final battle in which the fake news machines wielded by the Wind Warriors are pitted against the intense calm of a finely tuned mind (and the slightly moodier one of a giant white gorilla). Hell is full of suffering, Dee reminds the monk, enlightenment will have to wait. Perhaps “enlightenment” is merely another selfish desire won at the expense of blocking out the calls for help from those in need.

The Dragon Taming Mace is the ultimate symbol of justice, literally able to cut through the spell of illusion to expose the truth below. Wu had reason to fear it, even if she was not in the position to understand why. Dee is indeed a worthy guardian and unsullied soul, committed to the pursuit of compassionate justice wherever he goes even if he does so as a representative of the authority. Wu may have regained her senses, but that doesn’t mean she’s cured of the underlying causes of her possession as the large statue of Guan Yin which looks mysteriously like her seems to prove. Dee may have another mystery on his hands, but in any case his work is far from done in a land of intrigue and duplicity in which justice hangs by a slippery thread.


Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Find out where it’s playing near you via the official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Animal World (动物世界, Han Yan, 2018)

Animal World Poster 1Greed is good. So Michael Douglas once told us many years ago and if Animal World (动物世界, Dòngwù Shìjiè) is anything to go by, the Gordon Gekkos of the world have not changed their tune. Inspired by Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor, Han Yan’s anarchic gambling drama is the latest in a long line of films to ask serious questions about a perceived moral decline accompanying the rapid economic development of the Chinese state occurring largely during the lifetime of the pure hearted hero Zheng Kaisi (Li Yi Feng) who has been dealt a bum deal and is doing very little to resist it. Describing himself as “crazy” (not unfairly, as it turns out), Kaisi is perhaps the last good man but his resolve is severely tested when he finds himself trapped aboard the good ship Destiny and forced to bet his life on a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Kaisi was one of the smartest kids in town but his father’s early death when Kaisi was eight and his mother’s long term illness have left him all alone in the world. Defeated and without hope, Kaisi’s only job is playing a sad clown at a local arcade and, in a failing he continues to find humiliating, he has to rely on childhood friend and putative sweetheart Qin (Zhong Dongyu), who is also his mother’s nurse, for the money to pay the medical fees that keep his mum in an actual room and not out in the corridor with all the other paupers. Another childhood friend of Kaisi’s, Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), claims to be in a similarly sticky situation and offers Kaisi a sweet deal if only he’ll consent to mortgaging the family apartment. Reluctant but backed into a corner, Kaisi agrees only to realise that not for the first or last time Li Jun has thrown him under the bus and he’s now on the hock for all his friend’s debts which seem to belong to a shady underworld kingpin by the name of Anderson (Michael Douglas). Anderson offers him a way out – he can win it all back and more if he agrees to submit himself to a high stakes game of chance way out in international waters aboard a disused warship called “Destiny”.

Describing himself as “crazy”, Kaisi has a strange fascination with clowns which extends past his occupation and directly into his psyche. Imprinted with a violent kids’ cartoon in which a vigilante clown metes out justice with a smile during a traumatic childhood incident, Kaisi feels as if there is a clown trapped inside him which wants to come out at moments of intense emotionality. Floating away in flights of fancy, he reimagines his enemies as weird space creatures and sees himself cut them down with twin samurai swords in the cramped environment of an otherwise empty subway car. Reality and imagination become blurred as we watch Kaisi run through a scenario in his head only to cut back to the “real” world where he more often than not decides to let things go. Despite his internal crazy clown, Kaisi is a defeated and passive figure who has been drifting aimlessly without hope or purpose, too afraid even accept the affection of his childhood sweetheart Qin due to his internalised insecurity regarding his lack of financial stability.

Dealt a bum deal by life, Kaisi has been relegated to an oppressed underclass with little chance of escape. He is, however, honest and pure hearted unlike his dodgy real estate broker friend, Li Jun. “Destiny” becomes a microcosm for exploring the evils of capitalism as the players quickly realise that they are only involved in a sub game – while they risk their lives at the gaming tables, the fabulously wealthy are busy betting on them from behind two way mirrors. Shady impresario Anderson gives a rousing introduction to proceedings, but pointedly omits to add anything about cheating. Cheating is not just allowed, it is encouraged, to a point at least, and playing the angles strongly advised. Games of chance are never quite just that and Kaisi’s finely tuned mathematical brain finally gets an excuse to kick back into action after a long period of wilful indolence.

Repeatedly, Kaisi is told that “loyalty” means nothing in this “animal world” where the only thing that counts is “profit”. While he is good hearted and originally taken in by the schemes of others, he is not naive and is able to see the “animal world” for what it is even if he refuses to become a full part of it. Maintaining his faith in the power of friendship proves to be a mistake, but still Kaisi realises that he’d much rather be a “clown” ridiculed for his principles than a soulless mercenary who’d sell out a friend for money. His attitude perhaps stands in stark contrast to those around him who’ve each found themselves at the Destiny for different reasons, some more eager than others to give in to their desperation. A mild critique of the heartlessness of a fiercely competitive society and its inbuilt societal inequalities, Animal World is a beautifully designed, surreal and anarchic tribute to fighting the good fight even if everyone else thinks you’re a “crazy clown”.


Animal World is released in UK cinemas from 29th June courtesy of Cine Asia. Check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you including screenings across Europe and the rest of the world!

Original trailer (Mandarin, no subtitles)

A or B (幕后玩家, Ren Pengyuan, 2018)

A or B poster 2It’s difficult not to read every film that comes out of the Mainland as a comment on modern China but there does seem to be a persistent need to address the rapid changes engulfing the increasingly prosperous society through the medium of cinema. A or B (幕后玩家, Mùhòu Wánjiā) is the latest in a long line of thrillers to ask if the pursuit of economic success has resulted in the decline of traditional morality. Life is, according to a mysterious voice on the other end of a walkie talkie, a series of choices – A or B, you or me. When someone says they have no choice, what they usually mean is that they have chosen me over you and expect the decision to be understood because if the situation were reversed, you would have done the same.

Corrupt financial billionaire Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) has been content to justify himself with this excuse. Having ousted his predecessor through blackmail and manipulation, he rose to be the head of a vast corporate empire while Zeng (Simon Yam), his former boss, committed suicide, a ruined and humiliated figure reduced to abject despair by Zhong’s campaign of malicious finagling. Despite his vast wealth, Zhong’s appetite for success remains unsatisfied while his wife Simeng (Wang Likun), disgusted by his ongoing descent into avaricious amorality, threatens to leave rather than watch him destroy himself.

With a number of schemes in operation, Zhong returns home drunk one evening to find his wife gone, collapsing into a restless drunken stupor. When he wakes up he discovers that he is now trapped inside his mansion – the windows have been boarded up and all the doors locked. Finding a walkie talkie in a box, Zhong is messaged by a mysterious voice who tells him that every morning at 9.30 (just as the financial news begins) he will be given a binary choice. Zhong must choose A or B or his kidnapper will set both in motion.

A or B is a complex kidnap thriller, but it’s also the story of a marriage and a metaphor for the compromises of modernity. Zhong, once an ambitious youngster from a humble background, claims he set himself on the road to ruin in pursuit of a “good life” on behalf of his wife. His wife, however, has a wildly different view of a “good life” to that of her husband. Simeng sacrificed her journalistic ambitious of becoming a war photographer to shift into technology in order to better understand Zhong only to be forced to give that up too when her discoveries of his duplicities began to alarm her. What Simeng wanted was less the huge mansion and expensive jewellery than a stable life of ordinary comfort with a loving and attentive husband who strived to understand her in the way she tried to understand him – something Zhong has completely failed to realise in his male drive to get ahead. Simeng threatens to leave, not because Zhong’s increasing moral depravity has killed her love for him, but that through leaving (and taking a number of his shares with her) she may be able to wake him up and put a stop to his headlong descent into amoral criminality.

Zhong has indeed fallen quite far as his first few A or B choices make clear. It doesn’t take him long to decide to throw a lifelong friend under the bus rather than further damage his business enterprise, only latterly making a frantic appeal to his captor to find out what happened to him. Confronted by the very real and often tragic consequences of his “choices” Zhong is forced into a reconsideration of the last decade of his life. Rather than ruminate, his first instinct is for action and so he sets about trying to escape his makeshift cage little knowing that his captor may have factored his ingenuity in to their original plan. He cannot however escape his final responsibility for becoming the man he is and faces the ultimate binary choice – to continue as he is and slide further down the road to ruin, or turn himself in to the police admitting his wrongdoing and pledging to start again on a more comfortable moral footing.

The identity of the kidnapper and their motives may be fairly easy to guess, but director Ren Pengyuan keeps the tension high as Zhong – played by comedy star Xu Zheng flexing his dramatic muscles, battles himself while trying to bridge the gap between the man he’d like to be and the one he has become. Fiercely critical of the empty materialism that has begun to define modern success, A or B insists that there is a choice to be made when it comes to deciding what gets sacrificed in the quest for prosperity. Zhong at least seems to have rediscovered what is important, reaffirming his commitment to an honest, if simpler, life warmed by the humble pleasure of wanton soup delivered by loving hands.


A or B opens in selected UK cinemas on 4th May courtesy of Cine Asia – check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you.

Original trailer (English subtitles)