Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម, Kavich Neang, 2019)

LastNightISawYouSmiling“We’re used to seeing a house for its roof, windows, and walls. But in the end, as we move out of here, it breaks my heart.” Words ironically offered by a sculptor, one who might above all have learned to fall in love with the shape of things, as he prepares to leave a place in which he has made his life. Filmmaker Kavich Neang grew up in the iconic “White Building” of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Built in 1963, the building was a bold statement from a new nation as it threw off the colonial yoke to claim a new identity, literally extending the territory as it situated itself on reclaimed land – a well appointed complex of bright white stone amid the serenity of spacious parkland.

Intended to house those of moderate income, the White Building first fell into disrepair during the brutalising reign of the Khmer Rouge whose evacuation of the city left it empty for four years. In 1979 after the regime fell, the people began to return and the building once again became a beacon of culture in a modernising city, a vertical village home to artists and civil servants. Progress, however, began to work it against it, and by the time it was condemned in 2015 the building was regarded by many as a slum associated with drugs, crime, and sex work. Nevertheless, it was still home to 493 families, Neang’s among them, many of whom had lived there since the ‘80s and vividly recall the last time they were told they would need to vacate.

The anxieties are, of course, different, but they are there all the same. No one is marching them out by gunpoint, and they have a choice in where they go (in theory, at least), but the truth remains that people are being forced out of their homes against their will. While it is true that the building may have become unsafe and has been deemed unsalvageable despite attempts to preserve its architectural history, many worry that the promised compensation will never arrive or that, for those who lived in the smaller flats, they have been priced out of the modern Phnom Penh and will not be able to find equivalent accommodation using only the money they have been offered but have not yet received. This turns out to be more or less the case with many of the elderly residents returning to live with extended family, in some cases leaving the city entirely, while others retreat to the suburban margins. 

In this sense, Neang documents his neighbours and family “burying” the building as they slowly dismantle the history of their lives within it. At an early meeting with officials, some are keen to confirm that they will be allowed to take doors and windows with them, and so we gradually see doorframes pulled away from walls and fretwork removed from the outside to be incongruously pulled back in. Yet others struggle to bundle their personal belongings, unsure of where they’re going or what they will need in the knowledge they will never, can never return because this place will eventually cease to exist.

Indeed, taking its name from a nostalgic pop song, Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម) is a funeral elegy for the spirit of a place now departing. Neang opens with a silent corridor and then fills it with life – children playing, women singing, doors open in neighbourly communion. He ends in the same place as the building breathes its last, either liberated or devoured, transitioning to bright white light as if its soul really had departed to a better place. Retro pop songs fill the air singing of lost love, not only of its immediate pain but of the incurable longing of unfulfilled desire for a world that no longer exists and lives only in the halls of memory. You can never go home again, because “home” is a moment, a feeling which is always passing and forever elusive. People give a place soul, only to for that connection to be painfully severed when they must inevitably leave it leaving a piece of themselves behind. The White Building is gone, the community scattered, but the ghost of it lives on, invisible yet ever present.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in partnership with Day For Night who will be distributing the film in the UK.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhao Liang, 2001)

Paper Airplanes posterCritiquing the modern China has become a persistent theme in contemporary Chinese cinema, but questions were being asked even in the immediate aftermath of the reformist period of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Zhao Liang’s Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhǐ Fēi) is on the one hand a sort of celebration of the new freedoms, but it’s also fuelled by the sense of confused hopelessness which engulfed many of those who came of age post-Tiananmen and could no longer rely on the iron rice bowl of the communist era while new opportunities largely failed to appear.

Zhao embeds himself deeply within a group of friends and relatives living a fairly bohemian existence on the fringes of the Beijing music scene. The film opens with a young man, Wang Yinong, cleaning a syringe with water while a young woman chats on the phone. Yinong has agreed to wait in for a friend, but then suggests going out to escort the woman home, as if he doesn’t quite want her to be there when the friend arrives. Shortly after, a young man in a leather jacket, Zhang Wei, turns up apparently having procured a small amount of drugs. Yinong asks him when he’s going to “kick” (the habit), to which he replies “in a few days” prompting an exasperated sigh from the woman next to him who exclaims that’s what everyone always says.

The rest of the film pivots around the various friends and their complicated relationships with drugs and the law. They get caught, often as part of complex entrapment schemes operated by the police, and are either fined and released or sent for rehabilitation which in the worst case scenario involves being sent to a reeducation labour camp. Only one of the group, Fang Lei, manages to evade the law but is himself later arrested and subsequently determines to kick the habit for good.

Fang Lei, sorting through a collection of pirated cassette tapes he sells on the streets in an attempt to earn a living (or at least money for drugs), puts it best when he says that by the time you realise that drugs are no good it’s already too late because you no longer need anything else. His sympathetic father sitting off to the side directly engages Zhao in one of the film’s few direct to camera moments when he pauses to remark that people need to see the stories of men like his son who have been left behind by their society, floundering around unable to find jobs with no one looking out for them.

Fang Lei does eventually manage to kick the habit, partly because he feels guilty for worrying his parents with his precarious lifestyle and partly, he admits, because this time he really wanted to. After getting off the drugs himself, he wants to help others do the same but knows all too well that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Another young woman, Liang Yang, attempts suicide by overdose after suspecting her boyfriend, a punk musician and fellow drug user, of cheating. She knows the drugs are bad for her and make her even more unhappy than she might be without them, but somehow she can’t seem to make the choice to live a different life and always finds herself returning to heroin. Unable to find a sense of positivity or an independent reason for living, she continues to seek escape from an unfulfilling existence in brief moments of drug-fuelled relief.

She too has a supportive mother trying to push her towards a more positive path, but the contrast here is starker. Liang Yang’s mother lives a humble existence little minding that she eats her dinner off a tiny tray on the floor of her kitchen and has learned to be happy with what she has. She doesn’t quite understand why her daughter can’t do the same. Fang Lei and Liang Yang’s boyfriend try to help her, even threatening to report her to the police so that she’ll have to go into rehab, but eventually have to concede defeat by giving her the money to buy methadone but leaving the choice of what to do with it up to her.

The “paper airplane” of the title is neatly explained by Yinong who, having been absent for much of the film, makes a surprise reappearance at its conclusion in a much reduced state. From a hospital bed he tells Zhao that he should call his film paper airplane because they’re bits of folded paper which sometimes fly very high but only for an instant before falling to the ground, paying a high price just for the chance to soar. Zhao had begun his film with a sense of youthful rebellion as these nihilistic youngsters forged a community of the dispossessed kicking back against an oppressive society, but he ends on a note of despair and futility which paints them as in some way trapped by the false promise of the modern China which denies them both freedom and a future. In an attempt to escape the crushing sense of impossibility and confusing lack of forward direction, they found fulfilment only in the “intense relaxation” of drug-induced highs but all too soon find themselves back on the ground again in the exact same place as they started with nothing much to show for their experiences other than regret and anxiety.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in conjunction with Chinese Visual Festival.

Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zhao Liang, 2007)

Crime and Punishment posterThe life of a small-town policeman is an often thankless one. When they’re not dealing with petty neighbourhood disputes, people who are essentially just lonely, and acts of elaborate busywork, there’s not much else to do but wear the uniform with pride. Unfortunately, the uniform can eventually consume the person inside it, turning them into fastidious prigs obsessed with the letter of the law. Locating itself in a small town near the North Korean border, Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zuì ) paints an ambivalent portrait of local law enforcement, in this case operated by the Military Police who are themselves perhaps victims of the austerity of the system.

Zhao opens with a lengthy sequence of the soldier policemen meticulously folding their bedsheets into perfect squares, neatly symbolising their insistence on precision and discipline. Far from neat, however, their interactions with the locals are often messy and confused. Called out by a man with obvious mental health issues who wanted to report a murder but is discovered to have mistaken a bedsheet for a body, the pair of policemen are initially sympathetic if confused but become increasingly frustrated by his inability to acknowledge his mistake. Accusing him of drinking, they later threaten his elderly mother with wasting police time, suggesting that this sort of thing has happened before but refusing to believe that perhaps the man needs more help than they can give him, and that shouting at him to stop drinking is unlikely to have much effect.

Helping is not something they particularly see as their duty. They are, after all, here to be the face of authority, enforcing the law and keeping the locals in line. Thus they largely spend their time engaged in acts of extreme pettiness such as their dogged pursuit of an elderly man who can’t produce his permit for collecting junk. Old Wang gives them the runaround, claiming that the permits are all in order but at home, just trying to get them to give him his donkey cart so he can get back to business but the jobsworth on the desk isn’t having it. He won’t let the donkey go ’til they sort this out. No permits, no donkey. It’s then that Wang makes a strategic mistake in calling home. The jobsworth lends him a phone but on speaker, leading to a comical interlude of Wang’s presumably very young grandson screaming into the receiver before his son comes on and, not knowing he’s audible to all, says some very unkind things about policemen which don’t go down well with the guys in charge. Things aren’t looking great for Wang’s donkey, especially as his permits appear to have expired some years previously (which he blames on the permit office not sending the new documents), but by this stage all the jobsworth wants is an apology from Wang’s son for the stain on his honour as a policeman. Eventually he gets bored and lets Wang go with a warning, only for Wang to go around the corner with his donkey and immediately start collecting junk again.

This Kafka-esque futility is further rammed home when we see the police paste up a wanted sign for a suspected murderer. They set up a roadblock and earnestly question the passing cars only for one elderly gentleman to insist he doesn’t have time for this nonsense and speed off leaving the police dumbfounded and repeating his plate numbers with the intention of tracking him down later. As part of the sweep they discover a far more banal crime – three men with a pickup truck full of lumber they “found” supposedly abandoned and were hoping to sell to some guy named Wang in order to get a few extra pennies for the New Year. Eventually confessing, the ring leader is frogmarched home, allowed to remove his cuffs so as not to unduly alarm his family members, and forced to track through the mountains showing them the corpses of these illegally dismembered trees. The policemen with him are suddenly sympathetic, sorry for his obvious poverty and grateful for his co-operation (he even asks them to stay for lunch and apologises for making them tired with all this walking), offering to have a word with the chief to see if they can’t get the fine reduced. Of course, maybe that’s got something to do with his wife’s anger on noticing her husband’s swollen face and dejected expression. Her complaints about police brutality unsettle the officers so much that they overcompensate by giving the guys a token fine and letting them go home right away with all the lumber that they stole so that the families won’t kick up a fuss about the violence.

Despite the squeamishness, violence is a key tool of the military police who aren’t afraid of expressing their authority physically even knowing Zhao’s camera is capturing their every move. An old man is brought in on suspicion of stealing a mobile phone. So obsessed are they with shouting him into a confession, that it takes them a while to realise he is deaf and has a speech impediment which is why he is unable to answer their questions, but it doesn’t stop them whipping him with a belt to make him try. Eventually they have to let him go too because they don’t have an interpreter on hand and are unable to interview him or collect any evidence.

Life as a military policeman appears to be defined by tedium dressed up as correctness and punctuated by brief moments of brutality born of a desperate need to mask their sense of insignificance. They are victims of the system too. One young man who had invested everything in the dream of getting into the military academy laments that his life would be so easy if he had money for bribes and connections to hook him up, but he doesn’t so now he’s getting demobbed from the army against his will with no other choice than to go back home and live pretty much like the denizens of this tiny impoverished town where pensioners illegally hunt scrap and dejected dads steal trees to buy New Year gifts for their kids. One of the soldiers even complains that he’s losing his hair because of the stress and physical demands of the job, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an outlet for his frustrations other than taking pleasure in priggishness. A subtle and subversive condemnation of the violence embedded in the orchestration of the state, Crime and Punishment dares to suggest that its heroic policemen are little more than bumbling, self-important fools unable to think much beyond dogma, exerting authority through thuggery. Yet it is also reserves a degree of sympathy for them too, corrupt and cruel as they are, they are also products of the system that will eventually consume them.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival.

A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Atsushi Kasezawa, 2019)

bokushi_B5_01“It is very difficult to say what is right and what is not right” a conflicted pastor laments, reflecting on perceived past failings and the sad death of a man who eventually took his own life despite the best efforts of all to help him find a way to go on living. Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Bokushi to Inochi no Gake) follows a small-town pastor who is on constant call near a series of rocky cliffs which attract both cheerful tourists and those looking for a way out of life’s suffering.

Pastor Yoichi Fujiyabu works with a local suicide prevention charity to try and rescue vulnerable people who might be thinking of taking their own lives. So common is suicide at the clifftop, that the society has erected a sign urging those in distress to reconsider with a number they can call for help. Of course, sometimes other people call too which seems to be the case with the first incident we see in which Fujiyabu spends two hours patiently trying to coax a middle-aged woman away from the cliff edge, eventually taking her back to the rectory and offering her a place to stay.

Suicide prevention does not just end at the clifftop. Fujiyabu also runs a rehabilitation centre which, as his wife later suggests, becomes a kind of “home” for those who feel they no longer have anywhere else to go. Though there may not be any one reason someone decides they have no option other than to end their life, it remains true that many of the people Fujiyabu saves have either lost or become estranged from their families and feel themselves to be alone in the world. The Fujiyabus aim to provide them with the safety net of a place they know they can always return to so that they can begin to rebuild their lives and ultimately return to mainstream society.

Then again, as Mrs. Fujiyabu also points out, they are not “suicide experts” or trained psychologists, just compassionate people trying to do their best to help those in need. Thus they are quite honest about the fact that their work is often emotionally difficult or frustrating, and that though they do their best to love and support everyone there will inevitably be people in life that you cannot like or get along with. Nevertheless, they do what they can with what they know in the hope that the people in their care will eventually be able to leave and become independent. To help in practical as well as emotional ways, they also run a small not for profit bento shop where they employ some of the people Fujiyabu has saved from the cliffs. Working brings many benefits aside from the ability to earn a wage, giving the rescued men and women a new sense of being useful while allowing them to learn new skills surrounded by people in a similar situation so they can perhaps begin to feel less lonely and alone.

It’s just that sense of existential loneliness that Mori, a young man to whom Kasezawa devotes special attention, is seeking to escape. Though he was surrounded by people and in regular contact with his family, Mori always felt at a painful distance from those around him – something which seems to have decreased thanks to the communal lifestyle of the rehabilitation station. When he tries to move on, however, he quickly encounters the same old difficulties as he feels himself disliked by his colleagues, unable to fit in to the point that his therapist eventually advises him to quit for the sake of his mental health. Meanwhile, Fujiyabu, to whom he returns, gently tries to explain to him that he’s living well beyond his means – something that he seems to understand on one level but is entirely unable to rectify.

Fujiyabu, well-meaning as he is, quickly becomes irritated by Mori’s inability, or he wonders lack of will, to change. This is perhaps a little unfair in that he fails to consider the various ways that Mori maybe be unable to conform to the standards he expects for a grown man in his society, thereby failing to find effective methods to help him with the areas of life he seems to have the most trouble with – appropriate social interactions, and executive functioning. Being berated for being selfish and irresponsible when he simply does not understand only adds to his sense of despair and conviction that he is unwanted by the world around him. Though many of the people arriving at the church have more obvious motives to end their lives – debt problems, marital breakdown, career ruin etc, there are also those like Mori who struggle to find acceptance in a fiercely conformist society which perhaps hasn’t yet woken up to the needs of those who “cannot read the air”.

As Fujiyabu says it’s difficult to know what to do for the best. That first lady we saw him save eventually decided to leave the centre and Fujiyabu, after all, has no real right to stop her only to make sure she knows what’s she’s doing. He has to wonder if suicide is a valid choice for those whose suffering is incurable and if, after all, it’s all a part of God’s plan. Nevertheless, he resolves to carry on doing what he can to help those in pain find the will to live again. Director Atsushi Kasezawa approaches the most sensitive of subjects with a compassionate, yet unflinching eye, hinting at the entrenched social problems which cause mass despair as well as the toll taken on those who are determined to help.


A Step Forward was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Naoko Nobutomo, 2018)

I go gaga posterWith the population ageing at unprecedented levels, Japanese society is facing a series of interconnected social issues as it contemplates the best way of caring for large numbers of elderly people often living away from family members who, in the past, might have been expected to bear responsibility. What sometimes gets forgotten, however, is the human dimension as older people go on living their everyday lives sometimes surrounded by family and sometimes not. Veteran TV director Naoko Nobutomo’s first feature I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Bokemasukara, Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) follows her ageing parents from her own perspective as their daughter as they continue supporting each other into old age.

Nobutomo begins her story on New Year’s Day 2014 as she begins to notice a change in her sprightly, independent mother Fumiko and decides to take her to a doctor where they discover she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Over the next three years, Fumiko’s condition intensifies while her husband of 60 years, Yoshinori, does his best to care for her though he himself is already over 90.

Flashing back to home video taken in earlier years, Nobutomo recalls her difficulty dealing with breast cancer at 45 throughout which her mother had been there to look after her. Having looked after her family for all of her life, there is an especial irony that now it’s Fumiko who needs looking after and it is perhaps these small moments of change that force her to acknowledge a gradual decline in her living standards even if she cannot clearly process them. Though Yoshinori bravely starts taking more domestic responsibility at 95, losing the ability to cook for herself is an obvious blow to Fumiko who nevertheless determines to keep her kitchen spotlessly clean.

Luckily, Fumiko and Yoshinori have a generous health insurance policy which entitles them to assistance in the home though that is something they obviously feel ambivalent about accessing. Fumiko, in particular, remains confused about the presence and role of their new helper, believing she is something to do with the insurance company, and is a little resentful of her offer to help with physically difficult housework such as cleaning the bath and emptying the washing machine. Likewise, she is originally reluctant to attend the daycare centre but noticeably perks up after being given a valuable opportunity to socialise rather than staying home all day with relatively little stimulation.

Seeing that her parents are struggling to manage on their own, Nobutomo wonders if she should give up her job in Tokyo and come home to Kure to look after them but is assured by her father that they’d prefer her to go on living her own life. Yoshinori, born in 1920, wanted to study literature at university but the war got in the way. Perhaps for this reason, he was determined that his daughter follow her dreams and is profoundly happy that she’s been able to make a career doing something she loves in the big city. Fumiko too, marrying at the comparatively late age of 30, had been a career woman, graduating from a woman’s school and working as an accountant before her marriage. A notably progressive pair, perhaps usually for the times in which they lived, they were content to let their daughter live the life she wanted to live and never placed any particular pressure on her to conform by getting married and having children.

Married for over 60 years, Fumiko and Yoshinori are determined to go on living independently and managing on their own as best they can. Fumiko, however, has brief painful moments of anxiety in which she is acutely aware of her declining condition and implications for her future. Some days she refuses to get out of bed, either resigned to the fact that “life isn’t always happy”, or lamenting that her life “miserable”. Neither of them want to be a “burden”, but find it increasingly difficult to continue managing on their own as much as they prefer to be as independent as possible. Nevertheless, they go on supporting each other much as they always have living together in hope and happiness while Nobutomo watches warmly from the sidelines supporting them in the same way they supported her, gently and with compassionate understanding.


I Go Gaga, My Dear was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In Character (入戏, Dong Xueying, 2018)

In Character posterThere has of late been an unfortunate trend of historical revisionism in recent Chinese cinema which has sought to look back at the Cultural Revolution with a kind of fond remembrance for a more “innocent” time. Mostly coming from directors in their 50s and 60s who were themselves young during the last years of Maoism, films such as Feng Xiaogang’s Youth have attempted to draw a sharp contrast with the collectivist past and consumerist present as if to lament the passing of a kinder era, but have also largely located themselves within the cosseted group of youngsters working for the regime and therefore shielded from the intense cruelty of the age.

Songs of the Youth 1969, the debut (and to this date only) narrative feature film from director Ye Jing, is much the same in this regard in that it deliberately recreates his own longed for adolescence as young man fighting, he thought at the time, for a better China. Lamenting that the young people of today have no idealism, he describes the Cultural Revolution as a “rock ‘n’ roll movement” in which intellectual youth chased love and freedom through venerating Mao. Looking at footage of himself on screen, he urges the youngsters not to pity the kids in the square even though they were being “brainwashed” but to admire them because they were fighting passionately for something they believed in.

Dong Xueying, the director of In Character (入戏, Rù), came on board with the intention of exploring the living conditions of Chinese actors but quickly found herself sucked into an alternate reality in documenting the behind the scenes production of Songs of the Youth 1969 as Ye sends his cadre of youngsters off to an abandoned munitions factory in Sichuan for “the Cultural Revolution Experience”. During this time, they must prepare by living under contemporary conditions – wearing Red Army uniforms, surrendering their phones and other modern communication devices, and learning the various revolutionary songs which operated as a key part of the movement.

Although the young men and women are merely actors born long after the Cultural Revolution had ended, the “experience” quickly turns into a kind of social experiment along the lines of Stanford Prison as the intense mob mentality of the era begins to take hold. An early visit from Ye finds them furiously role playing, greeting him as if they were ghosts of his past waiting more than 40 years for his return. Playfully singing bawdy and suggestive songs, they embrace the sense of fun loving youth the director seems to be looking for but a fatal mistake by one young actor abruptly turns the tables, recalling the fear and danger that many must surely have felt in an era of intense suspicion puritanical scrutiny.

Many had openly laughed during rehearsals as they spouted the outdated Maoist quotations and learned the choreography for revolutionary ballet, but the fervour eventually takes hold and it’s not long before they begin turning on each other. First it’s a minor complaint blown out of all proportion about inattention and fiddling with fingernails instead of concentrating on collective concerns, and then an outright attack on one of their number who has made an obvious if understandable mistake – he asked for a few days off on hearing a relative was dangerously ill, and not only that, he misspelled Chairman Mao’s name in his apology letter. Jiang Siyuan’s request seriously upset Ye who is now convinced that the modern youth is selfish and irresponsible and that the youngsters still haven’t absorbed the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Upset that Jiang may have ruined all their hard work, the actors subject him to a Struggle Session in which he must self criticise while they each berate him for damaging the integrity of their common project.

Ironically enough, the “film” has taken the place of the revolutionary ideal, while Ye has become a kind of Mao figure as a faraway authority whom they must worship and placate to make their dream come true. Despite their modern upbringings, the actors quickly succumb to the worst tendencies of the age as they consent to oppress each other, going along with the austerity of the ideology which instructs them to rid themselves of their “selfish” instincts in order to serve the collective while simultaneously emphasising their individual will to ensure their place in the film which necessarily means that Jiang must surrender his human feeling and accept he may never see his grandfather again.

Ye promises them the time of their lives in an experience he hopes will be life changing in the same way, presumably, he feels his own youthful brush with the revolution to have been, but their memories of the munitions factory are likely to be less positive as they ruminate on the immediacy with which they were able to betray each other in service of an empty ideal. Dong’s camera captures not only the misguided romanticisation of the Cultural Revolution by those like Ye disillusioned with the path of modern China, but its frightening legacy in the ease with which such inhumanity takes hold.


In Character was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Zhou Mingying, 2018)

Land of Peach Blossoms posterIn Tao Yuanming’s 5th century fable, The Land of Peach Blossoms (世外桃源, Shìwàitáoyuán) is a mythical utopia where people live in peace and harmony knowing nothing of the outside world. Zhang Derong, the founder of the Feast of Flowers restaurant, saw himself as creating something similar – a place beyond the outside world founded on collectivist principles where they make healthy people healthier through “emotional catering”. If it were not immediately obvious, the founder of Feast of Flowers is not entirely on the level but has promised great things to the young men who work in his restaurant and look up to him as if he were some kind of more ethical, caring Jack Ma.

His most devoted pupil, Tang Guangbin used to work in a nuclear power plant and had a sea view from his company dorm but he likes it here better because he feels “free” in his heart and soul. Like Guangbin, Zeng Qi also feels that as long as they follow The President’s teachings they will make the Feast of Flowers bloom all around the world spreading health and happiness as they go. The Feast of Flowers is indeed a cheerful place filled with dancing and a faux ancient fantasy Chinese village atmosphere. There is also, however, a dark side which will become apparent to the young hopefuls the longer they stay in the garden.

The truth becomes apparent first to the practically minded Wang Peiyuan who turned down more lucrative jobs to work at the Feast of Flowers because he bought into Zhang’s ambitious business plan and assumed there would be more opportunities down the line. Not only is his pay cheque lower than promised because of all the “training” he has to pay for, but it’s so far below market rate that he’s worrying about paying his mortgage and being able to feed his wife and child. Meanwhile, Zhang waxes lyrical about work ethics and insists that “training” his workforce until 5am and then starting again at 8 is all part of his grand plan to turn them into top entrepreneurs.

Guangbin excuses himself to a friend on the phone in case he sounds as if he’s been “brainwashed” as he fiercely sells Zhang’s philosophy as not only a way to become rich and successful but to make the world a better, more caring place – the kind of place he perhaps assumes China was before the ‘80s reforms which opened it up to Capitalism. Of course, Guangbin is too young to remember what it was like back in the ‘70s, but hears people tell him about solidarity and job security and he’s understandably envious. He’s made a big investment in Feast of Flowers and so it takes a long time before he’s prepared to accept that he is being exploited by an unscrupulous charlatan. Once he and some of the other guys figure out there won’t be any expansion of Feast of Flowers, prime jobs, or bonuses, they want to quit but they can’t because they’re in hock for all this “training” and will lose their unpaid salary because, ironically, they don’t have effective work place protections. 

Zhang runs the place as if it were a work cadre and himself the Chairman. He commands absolute loyalty and requires employees to self criticise, running regular hunts to find the most “self centred” of the workers with many keen to jump at the bait and even to accuse others on cue. Those who disagree and want to leave are dismissed as having “too many personal thoughts and opinions” when they should be concentrating on understanding The President’s philosophy. Guangbin once felt free inside the Feast of Flowers, but later came to feel that outside was “a world of freedom” and inside “a prison full of darkness” from which there is “no escape”.

As if to ram his point home, Zhang makes the workers listen to Red Detachment of Women and has a bizarre obsession with “retaking” the Diaoyu Islands (also known Senkaku islands) from the Japanese, even staging a surreal play in which the Feast of Flowers soldiers personally defeat the Japanese army and capture Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe while Moon Over Ruined Castle plays mournfully in the background. Disillusioned by modern China’s lurch towards soulless consumerism and yearning for a simpler time in which people supported each other in common endeavour (but secretly still wanting to get ahead), the youngsters at Feast of Flowers bought into Zhang’s duplicitous nonsense and allowed themselves to be brainwashed into serving his ideals rather than their own. The parallels are obvious, but Guangbin may sadly be right in believing that there is no escape from the soul crushing exploitation of the modern economy which promises so much and yet delivers so little.


The Land of Peach Blossoms screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College London on 5th May, 7.15pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)