City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Da Peng, 2017)

201708162324218235They built this city on rock and roll! Right in the middle of Ji’An, there’s a giant statue of an electric guitar with a plaque underneath it reading “The Heart of Rock” that was erected in memory of a legendary concert given by a super famous band, Broken Guitar, who happen to hail from the region. This being a particularly musical town, Broken Guitar continues to inspire young and old alike to pursue their musical dreams, but there is trouble on the horizon. Shady mobbed up developers want to tear down the Great Guitar and put flats there instead, which is not very rock and roll when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, shady musical agent Chen Gong (Da Peng), who was actually the agent for Broken Guitar at the time they broke up, is working on his latest venture – trying to turn three middle-aged, pudgy rockers into a Chinese K-pop act. Needless to say it’s not going well and Gong is perpetually cash strapped. When he receives an unsolicited call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a Ji’An resident who wants him to help promote a local concert as a kind of benefit to help save the Great Guitar, Gong isn’t interested and quotes him a ridiculous sum of money only to see it instantly pop-up in his account. Jumping straight on a train, Gong is met at the station by a rapturous welcome parade which includes a marching band and kids throwing garlands but quickly figures out that Hu Liang is every bit as much of a schemer as he is. Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band and needs Gong to help him find one.

Once again, the conflict is between cynicism and artistic integrity as a group of misfits comes together to help stop a monument to true rock being torn down by soulless suits. Gong, as we later find out, had musical dreams himself but, after having gone against his father’s wishes to pursue a musical career, was forced out of the conservatoire after an accident robbed him of the feeling in two of his fingers and he became too depressed to sing. Having lost his faith in music, Gong has sold out and become a cynical money man, cutting deals anywhere and everywhere he can. Rather than work on the “unique” sound of the guys he was mentoring, he’s obsessed with the idea of sending them to Korea to get plastic surgery, and turning them into some kind of K-pop inspired Chinese song and dance group.

Hu Liang, meanwhile, is just as much of a con man but his heart is in a better place. Only two people show up for his auditions to join the band – jaded alcoholic with a broken leg, Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), and a drummer from Taiwan who calls himself “Explosive” (Li Hongqi) and sits with his back to the audience. The other bandmates include a former member of Broken Guitar now a gynaecologist (Han Tongsheng) whose daughter has forbidden him from playing rock and roll, and a little girl (Qu Junxi) who’s a whizz on the keyboards despite the disapproval of her Taekwondo loving mother who thinks things like music are a frivolous waste of time. Together they face various obstacles in their quest to save the great guitar and the spirit of rock and roll itself but finally discover that the true spirit of rock lies in getting the band back together for one last hurrah and channeling all into music.

Gong, tempted by the shady developer, is reminded that money can save lives but dreams cannot. Faced with a dilemma, Gong falls back into cynicism and rejects the new sense of fun and togetherness he’d found as a peripheral member of the band. Yet reuniting with his hopeless wannabes and easing back into his soulless Beijing life, he begins to realise what he’s been missing and rediscovers the the true nature of rock and roll which isn’t trapped inside a giant concrete guitar but inside the hearts of musicians who need their instruments to help bring it out. Dreams, it seems, save lives after all. An often hilarious, sometimes silly comedy, City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Féngrènjī Yduìis as full of heart as it encourages its protagonists to be, arguing for the importance of the right to express oneself in a society which often actively suppresses it.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Raman Hui, 2018)

Monster Hunt Poster 2Despite numerous production difficulties, Monster Hunt went on to become a bona fide box office smash and international pop culture phenomenon on its release in 2015. Children and adults alike fell in love with the adorable little radish monster Wuba who, in grand fairytale tradition, is the secret heir to all of Monsterdom and the subject of a prophecy which posits him as the long awaited unifying force set to restore equality between humans and their Monster brethren. By the time this sequel, Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Zhuō Yāo Jì 2), rolls around, things are looking up for Wuba seeing as no one’s actively trying to eat him, but like so many kids in modern China he misses his human mum and dad who made a difficult decision at the end of the last film that Wuba should live with Monsters in Monsterland because it just wasn’t safe for him in the human realm.

Consequently Wuba has been living happily in the forest where the Monsters have made a little village for themselves. The Monster village is a place of laughter and song where everyone is welcome and they dance cheerfully all night long. That is, until evil monsters turn up looking for Wuba again, destroying the village and leaving him on the run all alone back in the human world. Meanwhile, Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) are on a quest to look for Tianyin’s long lost dad – a famous monster hunter who left Tianyin behind as a child to keep him safe, just like Tianyin had to leave Wuba. Nevertheless, though Tianyin and Xiaolan have developed a sparky domesticity, they’re both unwilling to admit how much they miss little Wuba and wish they could go get him back from Monsterland even if they know he’s probably safer hidden away from those who might want to do him harm. While looking for Tianyu and Xiaolan, Wuba gets himself semi-adopted by a very odd couple of chancers in the form of shady gambler Tu (Tony Leung) and his monster partner Ben-Ben.

Once again the theme is family. Monster Hunt spoke, perhaps, to all those separated families in modern China or more particularly to the children in revealing that parents sometimes have to make difficult choices and end up living apart from their kids so that they can give them a better life. Monster Hunt 2 accepts the premise but then provides an emotional correction in making plain the pain Tianyu and Xiaolan feel on being separated (perhaps forever) from Wuba, until they eventually settle on tracking him down and facing whatever dangers come their way together. They come to this realisation after saving a mother and son who’ve been (unfairly) arrested by the Monster Hunt Bureau and witnessing their happiness just in being together despite the sticky situation they may be in.

Meanwhile Wuba, sad and alone, is happy to have found himself a surrogate family in the form of kindly Ben-Ben and the spiky Tu – a virtual mirror of Tianyu and Xiaolan when they first met. As in the first film, Tu originally takes Wuba in because he wants to sell him to Madame Zhu (Li Yuchun) – a woman he has cheated in both love and money, whose patience apparently knows no end. This brief episode of Wuba and his two new uncles is a subversive one in terms of mainstream Chinese cinema, and unlike the early union of Tianyu and Xiaolan there is little comedy in the easy coupledom of Ben-Ben and Tu who become two men raising a child together in relative happiness. This is perhaps the reason for the strange coda in which Tu and Ben-Ben have a brief chat about girls, relegating Tu’s earlier awkward admission of affection one more of brotherhood than love and affirming their total heterosexuality (both the female love interests are also from the same species, just to make things crystal clear).

Yet the message is strong – families want to stay together, parents want to be with their kids and kids want to be with their parents so maybe the world should just let them, even if those families aren’t quite like everyone else’s. With much better production values than the first film and a much more consistent tone, Monster Hunt 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor though it treads more or less the same ground and is content to meander between several set pieces with more than a few seemingly extraneous sequences of Tu getting up to mischief or Xiaolan using her feminine wiles on a nerdy inventor (though these at least add to the more complex arc of the feminised Tianyu and masculine Xiaolan each moving towards a gender neutral centre). Monster Hunt 2 maybe more of the same and little more than the next instalment in a series, but nevertheless its winning charm and gentle warmth are enough to ensure there will still be devotees of Wuba ready to reserve their seats for the inevitable part three.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas. Screening locations for the UK, Ireland, US and Canada available via the official website.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

I-Am-Not-Madame-Bovary-posterFeng Xiaogang, often likened to the “Chinese Spielberg”, has spent much of his career creating giant box office hits and crowd pleasing pop culture phenomenons from World Without Thieves to Cell Phone and You Are the One. Looking at his later career which includes such “patriotic” fare as Aftershock, Assembly, and Back to 1942 it would be easy to think that he’s in the pocket of the censors board. Nevertheless, there’s a thin strain of resistance ever-present in his work which is fully brought out in the biting satire, I am not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián).

Truth be told, the adopted Western title is mostly unhelpful as the film’s heroine, Liu Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), is no romantic girl chasing a lovelorn dream to escape from the stultifying boredom of provincial bourgeois society, but a wronged peasant woman intent on reclaiming her dignity from a world expressly set up to keep people like her in their place. Feng begins the movie with a brief narrative voice over to set the scene in which he shows us a traditional Chinese painting depicting the famous “Pan Jinlian” whose name has become synonymous with romantic betrayal. More Thérèse Raquin than Madame Bovary, Pan Jinlian conspired with her lover to kill her husband rather than becoming consumed by an eternal stream of romantic betrayals.

Xuelian has, however, been betrayed. She and her husband faked a divorce so that he could get a fancy apartment the government gives to separated people where they could live together after remarrying sometime later. Only, Xuelian’s husband tricked her – the divorce was real and he married someone else instead. Not only that, he’s publicly damaged her reputation by branding her a “Pan Jinlian” and suggesting she’s a fallen woman who was not a virgin when they married. Understandably upset, Xuelian wants the law to answer for her by cancelling her husband’s duplicitous divorce and clearing her name of any wrongdoing.

Xuelian’s case is thrown out of the local courts, but she doesn’t stop there, she musters all of her resources and takes her complaint all the way to Beijing. Rightfully angry, her rage carries her far beyond the realms a peasant woman of limited education would expect to roam always in search of someone who will listen to her grievances. When no one will, Xuelian resorts to extreme yet peaceful measures, making a spectacle of herself by holding up large signs and stopping petty officials in their fancy government cars. Eventually Liu Xuelian becomes an embarrassment to her governmental protectors, a symbol of wrongs they have no time to right. These men in suits aren’t interested in her suffering, but she makes them look bad and puts a stain on their impressive political careers. Thus they need to solve the Liu Xuelian problem one way or another – something which involves more personal manipulation than well-meaning compromise.

Bureaucratic corruption is an ongoing theme in Chinese cinema, albeit a subtle one when the censors get their way, but the ongoing frustration of needing, on the one hand, to work within a system which actively embraces its corruption, and on the other that of necessarily being seen to disapprove of it can prove a challenging task. Xuelian’s struggles may lean towards pettiness and her original attempt to subvert the law for personal gain is never something which thought worthy of remark, but her personal outrage at being treated so unfairly and then so easily ignored is likely to strike a chord with many finding themselves in a similar situation with local institutions who consistently place their own gain above their duty to protect the good men and women of China.

A low-key feminist tale, Xuelian’s quest also highlights the plight of the lone woman in Chinese society. Tricked by unscrupulous men, she’s left to fend for herself with the full expectation that she will fail and be forced to throw herself on male mercy. Xuelian does not fail. What she wants is recognition of her right to a dignified life. The purpose of getting her divorce cancelled is not getting her husband back but for the right to divorce him properly and refute his allegations of adultery once and for all. Xuelian wants her good name back, and then she wants to make a life for herself freed from all of this finagling. She’s done the unthinkable – a petty peasant woman has rattled Beijing and threatened the state entire. Making oneself ridiculous has become a powerful political weapon. All of this self-assertion and refusal to backdown with one’s tail between one’s legs might just be catching.

Adding to his slightly absurdist air, Feng frames the tale through the old-fashioned device of an iris. Intended to recall the traditional scroll paintings which opened the film, the iris also implies a kind of stagnation in Xuelian’s surroundings. Her movements are impeded, her world is small, and she’s always caught within a literal circle of gossip and awkward, embarrassing scenes. Moving into the city, Feng switches to a square instead – this world is ordered and straightened but it’s still one of enforced rigidity, offering more physical movement but demanding adherence to its strict political rules. Only approaching the end does something more like widescreen with its expansive vistas appear, suggesting either that a degree of freedom has been found or the need to comply with the forces at be rejected but Xuelian’s “satisfaction” or lack of it is perhaps not worth the ten years of strife spent as a petty thorn in the government’s side. Perhaps this is Feng’s most subversive piece of advice, that true freedom is found only in refusing to play their game. They can call you Pan Jinlian all they please, but you don’t need to answer them.


I am not Madame Bovary was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)