Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Li Xiaofeng, 2020)

“How dare you want to live when your existence is pointless” a father admonishes his blameless son, deflecting his own willing complicity in the persistent decline of the modern China. Repeatedly abandoned and betrayed firstly by his society, then by his friend, and finally by his father, the hero of Li Xiaofeng’s moody neo-noir Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Fēngpínglàngjìng) first chooses self-exile only to eventually return and wonder if his crime has been forgotten allowing him to live again before discovering that nothing really changes, there is no escape from the whims of the rich and powerful in an increasingly feudal society. 

Quiet and studious, Song Hao (at 17: Zhou Zhengjie / at 32: Zhang Yu) first wakes up to life’s unfairness in 1992 when he’s called into school on a holiday by his headmaster who breaks the news that he’s losing his guaranteed university place supposedly because his grades are good enough to get there on his own and others need it more. “I like to prioritise the collective over the individual” he explains, reminding him that an extra person from the school going to a top uni can only be a good thing though it’s obviously a blow to Hao not to mention his ambitious father Jianfei (Wang Yanhui) who immediately rings up to complain and discovers that the place is going not to a needy student but Hao’s best friend Li Tang (Lee Hong-chi), son of the local mayor. Angry and confused, father and son set off on circular journeys to confront their respective counterparts, but there’s a storm raging and Hao accidentally wanders into the wrong house after noticing the door flapping in the wind. After walking past a baby sleeping upstairs he runs into an old man who mistakes him for someone else and soon lashes out, shoving fruit into his mouth and trying to suffocate him at which point Hao picks up a knife and stabs his attacker in the belly. Taking flight in terror Hao believes he has just killed a man and orphaned a little girl, never knowing that his father arrived a few minutes later and finished the old man off to stop him talking or that Li Tang was watching the whole thing from a window in the opposite building. 

Returning 15 years later for his mother’s funeral, it’s Li Tang who is most pleased to see Hao when he runs into him by chance at the ruins of the scene of his crime now a future development site for the young real estate tycoon, that is if the now young woman (Den Enxi) the orphaned baby has become whom Hao had been following out of guilt-ridden curiosity would agree to vacate her family property. While Hao has been languishing as a lonely construction worker, Tang has prospered off the back of the 90s economic boom largely thanks to an entrenched network of local corruption that runs from his father the mayor through Hao’s father Jianfei who was handed a fat promotion presumably to placate him over the uni places scandal. Tang has, in a sense, stolen his future leaving him quite literally displaced wandering in the ruined landscape of a haunted past while his father, he discovers, had divorced his mother and remarried in order to have another son. “Your upbringing was a failure” he cooly explains, he needed another male heir to salvage the family reputation and restore his name. Jianfei has, however, done pretty well out of the arrangement now a wealthy man with a separate apartment Hao is not welcome to visit but planning to send his wife and child abroad and retire to Australia. 

Intending to leave as soon as possible, Hao nevertheless starts to wonder if it hasn’t blown over and he might in a sense be allowed to seek happiness, bamboozled into a romance with an old school friend (Song Jia) apparently carrying a torch for him all this time. The past, however, will not let him go. The corruption runs deeper than he even suspected as does Li Tang’s insecure greed and duplicity, attempting to force friendship through blackmail. An embodiment of post-70s fuerdai Li Tang is an amoral capitalist willing to do anything it takes in pursuit of wealth, but at heart a coward ashamed that he owes everything to his father’s machinations and perhaps projecting all of his resentment onto his old friend Hao whose future he so casually stole.   

Yet the message seems clear, men like Hao will always be at the mercy of men like Tang. Perhaps this is the bargain his father has made, but it’s one that Hao can no longer tolerate once Tang forces him to destroy the roots of his redemption. The only sane response to the madness of the modern China, he seems to say, is to go mad in one way or another. Even so, this being a Mainland movie, the nihilistic fatalism of the inevitable conclusion is somewhat undermined by the brief coda in which a policeman reassures a young woman that the crime has been investigated and the wrongdoers punished while the now familiar title card explains to us who went to prison and for how long for their many and various moral transgressions. Hao’s existence is rendered “pointless” because he is unable to live by the rules of a corrupt society, yet his self-destructive act of rebellion does perhaps bring about change if only in the names involved. Beautifully shot with brief flashes of expressionism amid the rain drenched streets of a decaying city to the melancholy strains of a noirish jazz score, Li’s fatalistic takedown of the inequalities of the post-90s society is an exercise in style but one which lets few off the hook as its nihilistic conclusion stabs right at the heart of patriarchal corruption. 


Back to the Wharf streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Last Letter (你好,之华, Shunji Iwai, 2018)

“Anything we need to change?” asks a young woman looking for feedback on a speech, “Nothing. It’s fine” her mentor replies in an exchange which takes on a peculiar poignancy, hinting at a gentle accommodation with the ordinary tragedies of life which is perhaps itself the hallmark of director Shunji Iwai’s career. Adapting his own novel and calling back to his 1995 masterpiece Love Letter, Iwai makes his first foray into Sinophone cinema with the Peter Chan-produced Last Letter (你好,之华, Nǐhǎo Zhīhuā) taking his key concerns with him as a collection of lovelorn souls ponder the what ifs of romantic misconnections and the “limitless possibilities” of youth. 

In the present day, the now middle-aged Zhihua (Zhou Xun) attends the funeral of her elder sister, mother of two Zhinan, who sadly took her own life though the family have been telling people she died of an illness which is in a sense not exactly untrue. Zhinan left behind her only two things, a letter to her children daughter Mumu (Deng Enxi) and son Chen Chen (Hu Changling), and an invitation to the 30-year reunion for her middle school class. Attending the reunion with the intention of letting everyone know that her sister has passed away, Zhihua is mistaken for Zhinan and ends up going along with it, even reconnecting with a teenage crush, Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) now an unsuccessful novelist, for whom she became an unfaithful go-between charged with delivering his love letters to the sister she feared was always prettier and cleverer than she was. After her husband, Zhou (Du Jiang), destroys her phone in a jealous rage, Zhihua finds herself ironically mirroring her teenage years in continuing a one-sided correspondence with her first love in the guise of her sister.  

As in Love Letter the older protagonists find themselves trapped in a nostalgic past, Yin Chuan complaining that he’s stuck with memories of Zhinan, the subject of his first novel, leaving him with perpetual writer’s block. Like misdirected letters the past is filled with missed opportunities and painful misunderstandings, but then again there are no guarantees that it would have been different if only the message had made it home. Little Zhihua (Zhang Zifeng in a double role), chastened to have been discovered frustrating Yin Chuan’s teenage attempts at romancing her sister (doubled by Deng Enxi) by not delivering the letters, plucks up the courage to write one of her own but finds it rejected while as her adult self is perhaps engaging in a little self delusion little realising that Yin Chuan may have already seen through her ruse but is as intent on attempting to communicate with the past in the form of her departed sister as she is. 

Perhaps slightly unfulfilled if not exactly unhappy (husband’s unexpected act of violence aside), Zhihua ponders lost love while attempting to come to terms with her sister’s death, denied an explanation for her apparently abrupt decision to run off with a rough man with no family who turned out to be a violent drunk exorcising his class resentment by beating up an educated, middle-class woman. Mumu, meanwhile, afraid to read her mother’s last letter, engages in a little epistolatory deception of her own, accidentally causing confusion in also replying to Yin Chuan’s letters posing as her mother when he tries writing to her old address with fond memories of their youth. “Life is not something you can write on a whim” he’s reminded, and it’s true enough that, as echoed in the poignant graduation speech, some will achieve their dreams and others won’t. Those limitless possibilities of youth don’t last forever, life doesn’t obey the rules of narrative destiny and you don’t always get a happy ending or in fact an ending at all. 

Yet unlike Love Letter, the man and the letter eventually arrive at the correct destination if much later than intended. The message reaches those it is intended to and a kind of closure comes with it. Mirroring her teenage self, Zhihua finds herself a go-between once again, passing letters between her lonely mother-in-law and her former professor whom she’s been secretly meeting in a local park, while reflecting on her own role as perpetual bystander not quite destined for the position of protagonist. As she had her daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) struggles with a nascent crush preferring to stay with grandma and keen to avoid going back to school in order not to have to face him, while Mumu attempts to deal both with the loss of her mother and with her legacy as a figure of romantic tragedy. Little Chen Chen is sadly forgotten, putting a brave face on grief and largely left to get on with it on his own until forced to face his sense of rootlessness as an orphaned child wondering if the world still has a place for him to call home. Shot with Iwai’s customarily lush, wandering camera filled with a sense of painful melancholy, the lasting message is nevertheless one of accommodation with life’s disappointments that even in moments of despair and hopelessness lack of resolution can also spark possibility and the memory of those “wonderful choices” of youth need not foreground their absence so much as sustain.


Last Letter streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Rao Xiaozhi, 2018)

A Cool Fish posterThe genial loser is fast becoming a staple of contemporary Chinese cinema. Rao Xiaozhi’s second feature A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Wúmíng zhī Bèi) is the latest in a long line of comedies to make the “diaosi” world its home as a collection of disappointed and increasingly desperate failures become embroiled in a complex web of cosmological coincidence. China’s famously draconian censorship regulations ensure that the ending of this caper will be bittersweet at best, but even so a brief brush with violent crime does at least allow a bouncing back if only through hitting rock bottom and emerging with greater clarity.

Small town hicks “Bra” (Zhang Yu), short for “Cobra”, and Big Head (Pan Binlong) have talked themselves into a gangland future, planning a big city heist after getting their hands on a stolen gun and motorbike. Unfortunately, not everything goes to plan and they end up robbing a mobile phone shop next door to the bank rather than the bank itself because the security guard was too intimidating. Not only that, they manage to send their getaway bike into a tree while trying to escape by muddling the clutch with the accelerator meaning they have to escape on foot. Crawling in through an open window, they find themselves in the home of the spiky Jiaqi (Ren Suxi) who is paralysed from the neck down and completely unafraid to make use of her one remaining weapon – an extremely loud and imperious voice. Jiaqi is also the sister of widowed security guard Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) who was once an auxiliary police officer and harbours a desire to get back on the force which he feels he could fulfil through investigating the robbery and retrieving the gun on his own initiative. Meanwhile, Xianyong’s boss, financially troubled property developer with a complicated family set up Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), is on the run from gangsters to whom he has massive debts.

Like the cool fish of the title, Bra and Big Head are young men with impossible futures who find themselves cast out from mainstream society with no real way back in. No education, no connections, no job prospects or family – their futures look bleak. Bra sees himself as a gang boss in waiting even if Big Head is his only henchman, but the guys are no master criminals and despite their claims of working their way up in the crime world it’s clear they aren’t cut out for such cutthroat antics. Xianyong, by contrast, had opportunities but squandered them and then lost everything in a tragic turn of events for which he must bear some of the responsibility. Despised by his teenage daughter, humiliated by the gangsters chasing Gao Ming, and burdened by the guilt of having caused the accident that ruined his sister’s life, all Xianyong wants is to hit back and prove himself a someone, which means he’s coming for another pair of losers not so different from himself.

Rao Xiaozhi rolls the familial in with the political through rooting all of Xianyong’s various problems in his very male failures as a compromised father figure. Having lost his wife in a tragedy of his own making, Xianyong is resented by his daughter who has reverted to her mother’s maiden name out of shame while he engages in underhanded scams to bolster his fragile sense of self worth. Meanwhile, all Big Head dreams of is a small house in his hometown and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Xia (Ma Yinyin), who has come to the city in search of money. Big Head thinks she doesn’t want to marry him because he isn’t rich, but Xia’s reluctance turns out to be misplaced shame in having engaged in sex work and no longer seeing herself as good enough for the small town wholesomeness of a man like Big Head, never guessing he might go to such extreme lengths just to prove himself worthy of her.

Trapped by the crushing impossibility of life in a rapidly developing, relentlessly unfair, patriarchal, and conservative society each of our heroes takes desperate measures to enact their escape but quickly discovers that escape is a spiritual more than material matter and cannot be bought through transgression. This being China, crime cannot pay and so our guys cannot hope to emerge heroically from their less than heroic foray into gun toting criminality but even so you’d have to admit that their futures are brighter for having hit rock bottom and woken up with a better sense of self and a degree of forward motion. Rao’s ramshackle world of lovelorn little guys daring to dream of a (modestly) brighter future perfectly captures the bleak romanticism of the “diaosi” phenomenon and proves strangely difficult to resist save for its crushingly “necessary” finale.


Currently on limited release in UK Cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

International trailer (English subtitles)