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)

Youth (芳华, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

youth posterOn the surface of things, one might be forgiven for thinking that Feng Xiaogang, “China’s Spielberg” – the director of such fluffy hits as If You Are the One and the prestige picture The Banquet, might not be the one to look to for nuanced takes on the state of his nation but, as he proved with the irony filled I am Not Madame Bovary, there has always been a persistent resistance in his superficially crowd-pleasing filmography. The exact nature and extent of that resistance is however harder to assess. Youth (芳华, Fāng huá), Feng’s latest historically probing epic, made headlines when its mainland release was blocked at short notice immediately before its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and in some respects it’s easy to see why it may have raised an eyebrow or two at the censor’s board. A literal story of “youth” and the various ways that the concept becomes romanticised even when one’s own coming of age took place in otherwise difficult times, Feng’s film is also the story of modern China, baptised in the fire of the Cultural Revolution only to finally succumb to the consumerist one 15 years later.

Narrated by bystander Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), later a successful author apparently looking back on her own “youth” with a writerly eye, the tale begins in the early 1970s with two pillars of the arts division of the People’s Liberation Army. Suizi informs us the the protagonists of this story are Lui Feng (Huang Xuan) – a model soldier, and Xiaoping (Miao Miao) – a poor girl mercilessly tormented by everyone throughout her entire life. Xiaoping’s birth father has long been languishing in a re-education camp but as she’s taken her step-father’s name, Liu Feng assures her that he’s kept her bad class background off her record and will make sure no one else knows about it.

Performing propaganda ballets, the arts division is at its zenith at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The troop as a whole enjoys extreme privilege – they are well fed and cared for, evade the dangerous front line work many other members of the armed forces are subject to, and receive the respect due to them as the embodiment of a revolutionary ideal. They are, however, still guilty of the various hypocrisies coded into the system. Though many of the dancers have family members with “bad class backgrounds”, undergoing re-education or otherwise better not mentioned, the top guys and girls are the ones with parents high up in the party who use their untouchable status to paper over cracks in their own development with inherited superiority.

Lui Feng is perhaps an aberration. Nicknamed “Lei Feng” – a mythical figure created for propaganda purposes to embody the “ideal” revolutionary soldier in his selfless dedication to his comrades and communist virtues, Lui Feng is indeed a model party member whose goodness and kindness know no bounds. Unlike Lei Feng, however, he is a real man of flesh and blood not some far off and untouchable god. Having sanctified him in this way, the collective has effectively raised Lui Feng up to an unfair and unattainable ideal and is then “betrayed” on realising that Lui Feng is a man with a man’s hopes and desires. Lui Feng’s transgression is inappropriate to be sure but also somehow innocent in its naivety and his counter betrayal by the system to which he has dedicated his life all the more difficult to bear because of the unfair deification his better qualities have earned him.

Xiaoping meanwhile, who expected only betrayal, betrays the system through passive resistance in resentment of the way it has treated her friend. “Abandoned” by the collective which is the arts troop, Xiaoping exiles herself from a society she thinks has little need of her yet she then continues to serve it fully as a frontline nurse. The “youthful” idealism of Lui Feng and Xiaoping is tested as they find themselves caught up in a far off war while their former comrades dance around with wooden swords on a painted stage. Wounded in body and mind, the pair continue onwards even as their nation conspires to leave them behind.

Shifting into the ‘90s and then the 21st century, Feng’s messages become muddier and harder to grasp. In one sense what is celebrated is “youth” itself which, in this case, happened to take place against the backdrop of terrible events (albeit it ones from which many of the protagonists save Lui Feng and Xiaoping were largely shielded) enabling the growth of a generational family destroyed by a change in the political wind. It is however hard not to infer that everything was better during the turbulent ‘70s in which the delusion of innocence, if not its actual existence, was easier to bear than the soulless march into the future of Coca-Cola signs, Transformers toys and fathers who never come home because they’re too busy making money. Feng’s heroes are the ones who exiled themselves from the reality of China as a modern economic superpower, holding fast to their innate senses of honour and justice, yet in this Feng does to them exactly what he criticises his society for doing – he makes them martyrs, mythologises them as embodiments of revolutionary ideals, a pair of real life Lei Fengs all over again. In telling a story of how the revolution betrays and is betrayed, Feng makes the heroes emerge damaged but unbroken, chaste children trapped by the “innocence” of the pre-capitalist age, but whether their survival is victory or defeat remains unclear. 


Youth is currently screening at selected cinemas across the UK courtesy of CineAsia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

The Good News or the Bad News? Stoker, the Grandmasters and Show Box Media

I’m an efficient sort of person generally (not that you could tell from this blog), so I like to start with good news – after all good news doesn’t usually require any further action than being pleased, does it?

With that in mind, it seems there’s a new UK specific poster for Park Chan-wook’s upcoming English language movie Stoker

Stoker UK poster

 

We’ve still got the pencil work from the earlier poster, which I loved, plus a strangely creepy headshot of Wasikowka. What is that reflected in her eyes? someone standing in front of window/doorway/unexplained bright lights? I’m really looking forward to seeing this film – I’d be looking forward to the new Park Chan-wook anyway but this seems very promising to me especially as it’s inspired by one of my favourite Hitchcock movies – Shadow of a Doubt.

If you’ve never seen Shadow of a Doubt I’d really recommend you check it out; it seems to fall into the lesser known Hitchcocks for some reason – well the middle group, it’s much better known than something like MR& Mrs Smith but it’s not quite up there with Vertigo and Psycho when people think of his films. Joseph Cotten is really fantastic in it and it’s kind of an early look and the evils lurking in suburbia. Here’s a trailer for those still unconvinced

 

Now, I warned you, there are some clouds on the horizon. I leave the bad news until last so that I can figure out what to do about it right away but all I can do now is feel sad, it’s a zero sum game this time round. As I speculated here Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmasters is indeed delayed once more and will now move its opening date to 8th January from 18th December. Oh well, it wouldn’t be a Wong Kar-wai movie without several thousand delays – we all just have to prove how worthy we are by being willing to wait, yes?

and your final bit of bad news? It appears Showbox media, who own CineAsia – primary distributor for Asian action cinema in the UK, have gone into administration. The warning signs were there, they seemed to have stopped communicating and updating their websites and had yet to announce any future release plans for the next few months/next year; they’d also apparently dispensed with Bey Logan whose commentaries on CineAsia’s releases had been a big selling point for UK fans. This has happened before and a solution was found, so maybe it’s not quite over yet but it certainly doesn’t look good. From the above report it seems their strategy of throwing everything they had at the supermarket buyers, licensing films which were likely to appeal to that market at those prices, was not as sustainable as some people had believed. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite CineAsia releases – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Whatever happens let’s just hope films such as this can still find their way over to the UK market!