Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jia Zhangke, 2018)

Ash is purest white poster 1Jia Zhangke returns to the world of crime for a slice of jianghu blues in his latest chronicle of modern China through the eyes of its ordinary, downtrodden citizens. Self referential in the extreme, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jiānghú Érnǚ) is a sad story of conflicting values and missed connection as a lovelorn woman proves herself too good, too pure, and ultimately too strong for the weak willed man she can neither love nor abandon. Times change and feelings change with them. To survive is not enough but integrity comes at a heavy price in a land where everything is for sale.

Echoing the time jumping narrative of Mountains May Depart, Jia opens in 4:3 and in 2001 as Qiao (Zhao Tao), sporting a black Cleopatra-esque haircut (the same as that worn by the identically named heroine of Jia’s own Unknown Pleasures from 2002) takes the bus into town. The first lady of the local “jianghu” underworld, Qiao is the devoted righthand woman of petty gang boss Bin (Liao Fan), enjoying the loyalty, honour, and respect of all in the slightly depressing environs of a small corner of dusty Datong. Bin is a walking monument to the idea of “jianghu” as mediated through Hong Kong action movies, swaggering around with a gun in his belt to prove that he’s the top dog in this tiny town. To live by jianghu is know that someone is always coming and when another prominent gangster is offed by young thugs, it’s not long before they come knocking on Bin’s door. Humiliatingly thrashed in the main square, Bin is only saved by a heroic intervention from Qiao who takes up his gun and fires into the air, a look of imperious authority on her face even as her eyes flicker with fear and excitement.

Qiao didn’t shoot anyone, but as the gun was illegal and she brought its presence to the notice of the police she gets into trouble anyway. A fierce devotee of the jianghu way, she refuses to give up Bin and insists the gun is hers and always has been. The gun was not hers in a real sense, and though she intends to lie in order to protect the man she loves from her mistake in firing it, spiritually speaking she and the gun are one. Having admired Bin’s skilful defusing of a petty gangster dispute without needing to use it, Qiao picks up the pistol and turns it over in her hands. The irony is, Qiao doesn’t need the gun but it completes her all the same, or at least completes the image she has of herself as an action movie heroine. Bin, however, has the gun because he doesn’t believe in himself in the same way Qiao does. He knows he’s weak and that his time is limited.

When Qiao is sent to prison for five years, she fully expects to find Bin waiting for her on the other side when she gets out. In the meantime Bin has proved true to form – he’s found himself another powerful woman to hide behind, though this time he’s chosen (or, in reality, is chosen by) one with good connections rather than fighting spirit. Bin has left the world of jianghu behind to try and make it in the rapidly developing capitalist economy, but as Qiao tells him when they finally reunite she had to live as a jianghu just to find him. Alone and friendless, betrayed by her love and disrespected by her new environment, Qiao turns to a cheeky strain of petty crime to get by – taking social revenge by attempting to blackmail random men over secret affairs, gatecrashing wedding parties for food, living by her wits on the streets and, if she’s honest, enjoying it.

Qiao is, in a sense, living in an imagined past. The frequent strains of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s seminal noir-tinged hitman drama The Killer underscore the yearning for an era of heroic bloodshed, brotherhood, and honour which never really existed outside of the movies. While Qiao grips her gun and fires in the air, Bin lights a melancholy cigarette watching Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, grumpily passive as always. Qiao saves Bin, more than once, but he can’t forgive her for it or reconcile himself to his own lack of resolve.

The film’s Chinese title, loosely translated as “the sons and daughters of jianghu” hints at the power of this double edged inheritance in which the archaic social codes of brotherly honour and loyalty are both barrier and bridge in an increasingly amoral society. Jia shows us a world of mine closures and forced migration, revisits the Three Gorges damn in which the past is sunk to pave way for the future, and introduces us to a modern day prospector with a big idea about UFOs. Bin, weak and opportunistic, doesn’t have the ability to ride the waves of China’s changing tides, but Qiao doesn’t have the will. Burned right through to her jianghu core, she sticks steadfastly to her code as she retreats to her spiritual home but owns her place within it even as the modern world rises up all around her. Qiao’s independence is both victory and defeat, an echo of the failed ideologies of a nation drunk on capitalism in which newfound freedom confuses and corrupts in equal measure. Nevertheless, there is something tragically romantic in Qiao’s lovelorn longing for a more passionate era in which the bonds between people still counted for something even if their demands were not always fair.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Full version of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s 1989 existential hitman noir The Killer

Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Kevin Ko, 2018)

Dude's Manual posterPersonas – university can be all about figuring them out but more often than not the key comes from an unexpected direction. An unexpected direction is where Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Tdān Gào) eventually takes us after kicking off with a scary crime thriller opening in which our hero gets himself temporally mixed up with a serial killer investigation only to earn himself the embarrassing nickname “Air Pump” when his “victim” is revealed to be a blow up doll. An unlikely meet cute brings him into the orbit of the most popular girl at school and subsequently into her plan to win back her reputation after getting it tarnished with his naffness at the expense of another shy and lonely student, but then again, isn’t everyone going to get what they wanted? Perhaps yes, perhaps, no.

He Xiaoyang (Dong Zijian) is in the last year of uni and is still single, never having had a girlfriend. An embarrassing incident with a blowup doll has earned him the nickname “Air Pump” around campus, while his roommates – “sexpert” Boshi (Yuan Fufu), and rich kid Ren Yi (Jin Jin), are doing a little better when it comes to the ladies, but neither of them is much help to the nerdy Xiaoyang whose main passion is the homemade flying machine he’s crafting in preparation for a competition. At an exclusive party Ren Yi gets the boys into, Xiaoyang’s life takes a dramatic shift when popular pretty girl Guan Xin (Elaine Zhong) throws up on his T-shirt and then becomes trapped with him in a bathroom from which they fail to escape before a budding paparazzo snaps them together in a compromising position. Guan Xin, mortified that anyone might think she hooked up with “Air Pump”, hatches a plan to get Xiaoyang a “real” girlfriend to clear her name and retrieve her top girl status.

As rom-com plots go it’s a fairly old fashioned one. Guan Xin decides to set Xiaoyang up with a shy concert pianist, Li Shushu (Jessie Li), who hardly ever comes to parties because of her intense social anxiety. She is therefore, Guan Xin rationalises, perhaps grateful for the interest and Guan Xin is really “helping” two people by manipulating them both into a possible relationship which might just have legs. Of course, while she’s doing that she and Xiaoyang can’t help but grow closer even if Guan Xin can’t quite bring herself to admit it.

The spanner in the works is that Xiaoyang, despite himself, is a pretty nice guy. He plays along with Guan Xin’s scheme but quickly goes off book, demonstrating genuine understanding and connection with the shy Shushu as he gently helps to bring her out of her shell. He is, however, also falling for Guan Xin but doubting that she will ever set aside her haughty attitude and accept her growing feelings for him.

The central irony is that Guan Xin can’t see all the ways in which she and Xiaoyang have already progressed through the standard rom-com gateways to love. Meanwhile, Xiaoyang’s friends are also enjoying a lesson in romance with both of their respective girlfriends as sex obsessed Boshi has to learn to be less superficial, and Ren Yi that money really doesn’t buy everything. It is hard to get past the unethical using of poor Shushu who becomes a sacrificial pawn in Guan Xin’s grand plan, but then again perhaps she learns a thing or two herself even if it’s just how to subvert someone else’s nefarious plan in order to engineer a happier out come for all.

Ko has a few laughs at the expense of the young men and women of modern China. Lives lived online have contributed to an already shame hungry culture and given birth to a fair few unscrupulous paparazzo gossip hounds who might be better sticking their cameras in more useful places, while also reinforcing traditional ideas about social hierarchy. Guan Xin, in many ways taking on the masculine Svengali role as she “fixes” the feminised ugly duckling of Xiaoyang, has some pretty cynical ideas about modern dating – using jealously as a weapon, trying to turn the “nice” Xiaoyang into a hot bad boy player that all the women will go crazy for, but then her plans do seem to work and Xiaoyang sees himself rising through the loser ranks to become an eligible campus catch. Like all good rom-coms, however, he doesn’t let himself be changed on the inside so much as rediscover what it is that makes him him, flying off into the sky on the wings of a romantic dream crafted with his own hands.


Dude’s Manual screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival on 14th July at 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Han Jie, 2017)

Namiya posterKeigo Higashino is almost certainly best known for his crime novels and in particular his most famous detective, Galileo, whose exploits have spawned a successful TV drama series and a fair few cinematic adaptations including the international bestseller, The Devotion of Suspect X. One might expect a writer of mystery novels to be a fierce rationalist, but Higashino occasionally dabbles in the fantastic – The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is more or less a nostalgia fest praising the pre-bubble Japan, implying that the modern world is colder and less kind than the aspiring society of 1979. Adapted for the Chinese market by Han Jie, Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Jiě Yōu Zá Huò Diàn) retains the corner shop where time stands still but locates it in 1993, which is not so much a significant date save being 25 years in the past.

On New Year’s Eve 2017, three teens break into a woman’s home with the idea of causing some damage, but the event goes south when she comes home early and one of the three decides to tie her up and steal a bunch of her stuff. Having gone further than they meant to, the trio wind up in an unfamiliar part of town when the car they’ve stolen runs out of petrol. An improbably quaint, apparently disused corner shop attracts their attention but when they break in to shelter for the night they discover that this is no ordinary store. A ghostly miasma gradually creeps its way in and the three youngsters find themselves answering a collection of letters meant for the store’s owner written in 1993 but only dropping through the letter box now. They funny thing is, they get almost immediate replies.

As one of the teens points out, they weren’t even born in 1993 – this store might as well be from 1793 as far as they’re concerned. Though it drips with nostalgia for a simpler time, Namiya treads (understandably) more carefully in painting early ‘90s Beijing and its rural backwater setting, strenuously avoiding any mention of politics and characterising China’s economic development as an entirely good thing despite the troubles the three teens at the centre have been subject to throughout their apparently difficult lives.

The letter writers have various problems but each in someway relates to being a little lost, a little bit confused about how to move forward in life. A frustrated musician (Lee Hong-chi) whose career is not taking off wants to know whether he should give up and come home, a little boy has a bad relationship with his go-getter parents who have lost all their money and got into trouble with loan sharks, and a melancholy bar hostess (Hao Lei) wants to know if she should become the mistress of a gangster who promises to set her up in a shop that would get her out of her dead end life and still enable her to support her family. The kids are not really qualified to offer any kind of real life advice, with sensitive Xiaobo (Karry Wang) and plucky Tong Tong (Dilraba Dilmurat) reacting in broadly sympathetic terms while the sullen Jie takes a hardline moralist stance in which he just wants to write angry letters to everyone telling them they’re doing everything wrong.

Jie has his own reasons for being so angry, especially as one of the letters touches a nerve in his own personal history but his ambivalence was at one point shared by Papa Namiya (Jackie Chan) himself after he feared his treasured advice might have ended up having a negative effect on people’s lives. Papa Namiya tells the troubled little boy to stick with his parents no matter what because family is the most important thing in a person’s life which might be true much of the time, but not when the parents actively endanger their child. What he finally reassures himself with is that his advice was largely meaningless because most people have already made up their minds what they’re going to do, they just want someone to help them feel like they’re doing the right thing. In fact, no one really follows Papa Namiya’s advice anyway, but the kids are able to make a concrete change when they reveal the economic realities of modern China to a young hopeful who then uses the knowledge to build an international business empire (but makes sure to pay it forward whilst paying tribute to their roots by committing to sponsor an orphanage in need of renovation/expansion).

The slightly awkward message Namiya leaves behind is that dreams come true when people work hard to achieve them but that the young are also free to forge their own destinies, that the world is, for them, infinite and filled with boundless possibility. Optimistic and inspiring as it is, it isn’t terribly realistic and does rather imply that those who haven’t made it are either lazy or dishonest as echoed in the mildly moralistic tone taken with the bar hostess’ dilemma or the odiousness of the corrupt businessman and his failure to protect his family from his own mistakes. Moral judgements and naivety aside, Namiya is an otherwise heartwarming, deliberately uncynical New Year tale which does its best to engender hope for the future in an otherwise cold and unforgiving month.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

De Lan (德蘭, Liu Jie, 2015)

Set in 1984 in a rural Chinese backwater, De Lan (德蘭) is named not for its central character, but for his first love – a mountain woman far from home in search of a missing relative. Tasked with following De Lan (De Ji), Wang (Dong Zijian) finds himself entering a strange new world which he is incapable of fully understanding, not least because he doesn’t speak the language. A wordless love story between the tragic De Lan and the adolescent Wang is destined to end unhappily, but will affect both of them in quite profound ways.

Wang’s father has been missing for three months, and what’s worse is that around 2000 yuan went missing with him. Mr. Wang had been the loans officer for the local party office in this dreary mountain town and now the best idea anyone has come up with is for Wang to take over the position and pay back the missing money with deductions from his wages (this should take around ten years). Hardly fair, but what can you do? Wang’s first assignment is to take an audit of a mountain town where the residents have a lot of outstanding payments. Seeing as they’re heading to the same place, Wang is to accompany a mountain woman, De Lan, who had been travelling around local towns looking for a missing person but has now run out of money and must go home alone.

Wang is told to trust De Lan when it comes to the terrain, but that he should keep control of the food supplies in case she tries to run off. All things considered, the people at the foot of the mountains, aren’t very well disposed to those at the top. Wang is young and unused to walking such long distances, frustrating De Lan with his inability to keep up and frequent needs to rest. Nevertheless a kind of mutual affection seems to build up between them but largely goes unspoken and unacknowledged. Finding himself installed in De Lan’s home, Wang begins to feel very awkward indeed, unable to work out the strange family dynamic between the gruff man with the lame leg, ancient blind old woman, and the feisty De Lan.

Wang has, after all, been sent to the town to collect on loans – an entirely pointless enterprise as no one here has any money. Wang’s father was a much loved presence, mostly because he always came with cash and never pressed them on repayments. His son, with a father’s debt around his neck, is not quite so nonchalant. Calling a village meeting with no notice, Wang makes it clear he won’t be following his father’s lax approach and will not be issuing any new loans, rather he will be calling in the old ones. This does not make him popular in the village.

Eventually he changes his mind and decides to flash some cash but his worst assumptions are confirmed when the villagers, far from using the money they claimed to so desperately need to survive to invest in their businesses, club together to buy all the booze in the surrounding area and have a giant party. Originally put out by their trickery and De Lan’s ongoing unavailability, Wang suddenly finds himself trying some of their liquor and joining in with a dance around the fire. Perhaps learning to adjust to the Earthy, less ordered way of life, Wang has embraced the new found freedom of the place, but he will also discover that it only runs so deep.

De Lan’s life has undoubtedly been a difficult one which she faces with stoic resignation. Shared between two men and longing only for a child, De Lan has very little say in anything that happens to her yet she was able to set off all alone to look for her missing person. During the trip, De Lan is dismayed when a teenage boy in a home they spend a night in makes a vulgar comment about her body, leading her to try to leave as soon as possible only for Wang to pledge his protection. De Lan is aware of the dangers of the road, as well as the constraints placed on her life, whereas as Wang is still naive enough to think his physical strength and government position would be enough to keep De Lan any safer than she would be alone.

As Wang’s feelings for De Lan grow he fantasises about saving her from this strange, cold household though he barely stops to ask himself if saving is really what she wants. Unable to speak the local dialect, Wang necessarily needs to rely on look and gesture which is largely how he and De Lan have come to communicate – a pure kind of dialogue without need of words. Wang’s love for De Lan is destined to cost him dearly both in financial and emotional terms. A beautifully sad tale of frustrated first love set against the picturesque Chinese countryside and inside it’s much less pretty political system, De Lan is the story of one man’s transition from adolescence to manhood through heartbreak, filled with quiet, yet intense, emotion.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)