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)

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王, Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

In the grandest tradition of Hong Kong “sequels”, Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王) has almost no connection to 2017’s Chasing the Dragon which starred Donnie Yen and Andy Lau as famed ‘70s gangster Crippled Ho and bent copper Lee Rock respectively. It is however part of a planned trilogy of films directed by Wong Jing and Jason Kwan “celebrating” legendary Hong Kong “heroes”. Abandoning the grand historical sweep of the first film, Wild Wild Bunch situates itself firmly in 1996 on the eve of the handover when, it claims, Hong Kong was close to a lawless state seeing as the colonial British authorities were already in retreat and therefore largely disinterested in governing. 

It’s this laxity, coupled with an age of excess, which has enabled the rise of real life kidnapping kingpin Cheung Tze-keung (Tony Leung Ka-fai) also known as Big Spender and here known as Logan Long. Logan makes his money by ransoming the richest figures not only in Hong Kong but the wealthier stretches of the Sinosphere and the Mainland cops are after him because they see him as an inconvenience from old Hong Kong they’d rather not inherit. Accordingly, they enlist veteran Hong Kong policemen, Inspector Li (Simon Yam Tat-wah) and bomb disposals expert He Sky (Louis Koo Tin-lok), to help them because they’ve heard that Logan is in need of a new explosives guy after the last one blew himself up. Sky is supposed to go deep undercover in Logan’s gang to save his next victim and take him down in the process. 

Though inspired by the real life legend, Sky’s infiltration is obviously fiction and in actuality Cheung Tze-keung was caught before his kidnapping of Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho, here Standford He (Michael Wong Man-tak), could take place though setting the tale in the former Portuguese colony famous for its casinos (illegal in Mainland China) adds another meta level of colonial critique in situating itself firmly in the world of wealthy elites corrupted by their fabulous wealth. Real life gangster Cheung was apparently a well-liked figure, branding himself as a loveable rogue and less altruistic Robin Hood who liked to spread his wealth around by giving out lavish gifts seemingly at random though also enjoying living the high life himself. Logan is much the same, holing up at his mansion safe house in the rolling hills with his criminal “family”, declaring himself a fair man. If you cross him he’ll be sure to investigate fully but if he finds you betrayed him his revenge will be merciless. He cares deeply about his guys but also, perhaps unwittingly, terrorises them to the extent that they all pretend to enjoy eating durian fruit to please him, while reacting to tragedy with old-fashioned gangster ethics in trading his own girlfriend and a significant amount of cash to a gang member whose pregnant wife ended up dead because of his cowardly brother Farrell (Sherman Ye Xiangming) who is frankly a walking liability. 

Sky too is a family man, constantly worrying about his elderly mother and giving instructions to Li as to how to look after her if anything goes wrong and he doesn’t make it back from Macau. Sky’s mum is also quite concerned that her son has never married, and there is something quite homely in the strangely deep friendship between Li and Sky which has its unavoidably homoerotic context in Li’s cheerfully intimate banter in which it often seems he’s about to kiss his brother-in-arms which might not go down so well with the Mainland censors board who are otherwise so obviously being courted with the heroic presentation of the PRC police force only too eager to clear up the mess the British left behind. 

Then again, Cheung Tze-keung’s case was notable in that is presented an early constitutional conflict to the One Country Two Systems principle seeing as he was a Hong Konger tried (and sentenced to death) on the Mainland for crimes committed outside its jurisdiction, something which had additional resonance in the climate of summer 2019 in which vast proportions of the city came out to protest the hated Extradition Bill. In any case, Wild Wild Bunch owes more to classic ‘90s Hollywood actioners than it perhaps does to local cinema with its frequent bomb disposal set pieces and final climactic car chase which nevertheless literally pushes Logan over the line and into the arms of the PRC, the flamboyant gangster taking a bow as he tears up his ill gotten gains with a rueful grin in acknowledging his loss to a superior power. 


US release trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

The Captain (中国机长, Andrew Lau, 2019)

The Captain poster 2Chinese cinema loves the miraculous, but it loves stories of ordinary heroism even more. Inspired by real events which occurred on 14th May 2018, not quite 18 months before the film’s release, The Captain (中国机长, Zhōngguó Jīzhǎng), is a classic story of everything going right after everything goes wrong. Implicitly praising the efficacy of a system which values military precision over individualistic handwringing, Lau’s dramatisation reserves its admiration for those who keep their cool and follow the rules in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.

Beginning in true disaster movie fashion, Lau opens with a brief yet humanising sequence which sees the otherwise austere pilot Captain Liu (Zhang Hanyu) say goodbye to his little girl, promising he’ll be back in time for her birthday party that very evening. Thereafter, everything is super normal. The pilots and cabin crew arrive at the airport, get to know each other if they haven’t flown together before, and run through their drills. The cabin crew laugh through the “we’re professionally trained and are confident we can ensure your safety” mantra rehearsed in case of emergency hoping they’ll never actually have to say it, but disaster strikes a little way into the flight when the windscreen cracks, eventually shattering and sucking rookie co-pilot Liang Peng (Oho Ou) halfway out.

Of course, the story is already very well known so we can be sure that the plane will land safely with no one (seriously) hurt, but it’s still an incredibly tense time for all. As Liu explains to Liang Peng, everything in the cockpit must be done with the upmost precision. It’s when you get complacent that things will start to go wrong. A former air force pilot, Liu is not the most personable of captains with his permanently furrowed brow and serious demeanour, but he’s exactly the sort of person you need in a crisis, calmly and coolly making rational decisions under intense pressure. While he’s doing his best at the controls, the entirety of the Chinese air aviation authorities are springing into action to try and ensure the plane’s safe landing – airspace is cleared, the military monitor the situation, and the fire and ambulance services are already on standby in the hope that Liu can safely land at Chengdu airport.

Keeping the tension high, Lau resists the temptation to sink into melodrama, more or less abandoning a hinted at subplot about stoical cabin supervisor Nan’s (Quan Yuan) possibly unhappy home life while introducing a fairly random diversion in a group of aircraft enthusiasts furiously tracking the plane’s trajectory online and then heading out to the airport in the hope of witnessing a miracle. Before the potential catastrophe takes hold, the crew have to deal with unpleasant passengers intent on throwing their weight around, nervous flyers, and people travelling with small children, but do their best to provide service with a smile even in the most trying of circumstances. They are frightened too, but have to muster all of their professionalism in order to be strong for the passengers, keeping them calm and preventing them from creating additional problems while the guys in the cockpit try to find a solution that keeps everyone safe.

Released for National Day, The Captain’s brand of propagandistic patriotism is of the more subtle kind, only really rearing its head during the final moments during which awkward captain Liu suddenly starts singing a folksong in praise of the motherland while celebrating their lucky escape on its one year anniversary in the time honoured fashion of a group hot pot. Nevertheless, the point it’s making is in the virtues that Liu states after landing, valuing life and duty. Liu landed the plane because he followed procedure perfectly, kept his head, and made well-informed decisions. A master of understatement, his speech on landing is simply an apology to his passengers that he wasn’t able to take them safely to Lhasa. After waiting for the investigators, he thinks the passengers are hanging round outside the plane because they’re angry and want an explanation, little realising they are just overjoyed to be alive and wish to thank him for saving all their lives. A tense tale of selfless heroism aided by good training and immense professionalism, The Captain is a subtle endorsement of an authoritarian system but also of the importance of keeping cool in a crisis as the best weapon against catastrophe.


The Captain is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Dante Lam, 2018)

Operation Red Sea posterDante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.

The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.

Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.

The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.

Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.

Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)