Super Me (超级的我, Zhang Chong, 2019)

Can you dream yourself into a better reality, or should you concentrate on being your best self in this one? That’s a dilemma that the hero of Zhang Chong’s Super Me (超级的我, Chāojí de Wǒ) barely has time to think about as he battles despair-fuelled hopelessness and possibly unrequited love for the beautiful woman who runs his local cafe. If only I were rich, he might well think, but though poverty is undoubtedly a factor in his malaise it’s his sense of inferiority which has him beaten down and all the money in the world won’t change that. 

We first meet Sang Yu (Darren Wang Talu) on a subway train where he recites a mantra to himself about how he’s “not an ordinary man”, he has the ability to work under pressure, and though his parents died and he has no friends those are merely tests from God which he has overcome. He is “brilliant and talented, diligent and motivated”, he expects success will soon arrive only he hasn’t slept a wink in the last six months because of the constant night terrors which plague him such as the one we’re about to witness. Sang Yu is asleep, and a nightmare is stalking him. 

Killed by having his head plunged through the train’s floor, Sang Yu wakes up and we realise his waking life is also quite depressing. A 20-something screenwriter, he’s behind on his rent and in debt to his friend/agent while unable to work because of his insomnia. Wandering around in a daze after being evicted from his apartment and getting his laptop stolen, he writes a note to his friend telling him he’ll have to pay him back in the next life and prepares to jump off the roof opposite the cafe where his true love, Hua (Song Jia), works, only to be saved by the intervention of the jian bing seller (Chin Shih-chieh) from down below who advises him to try waking up from his dreams before he gets killed by reminding himself that he is dreaming. Sang Yu takes him at his word and manages to emerge from the dreamworld unscathed clutching the weapon that once belonged to his attacker. After selling the antique sword to weapons brokers, he realises he’s sitting on a cash cow, routinely looting the dreamworld of many of its treasures and quickly harnessing its power to become a wealthy and successful man. All of which gives him the courage to finally approach Hua, wielding his newfound economic power to invest in the apparently failing cafe. 

A modern day take on Jack and the Beanstalk, Super Me finds its nice guy hero corrupted by his wealth, abandoning his artistic dreams and becoming a debauched playboy living in a five star hotel even if he continues to pine for Hua while his friend, Sangge (Cao Bingkun), reverts to being something like a minion riding on his coattails to enjoy the life of the rich and famous without really having to do anything. The irony is that the money and the fancy clothes give Sang Yu the confidence to talk to Hua, but those aren’t things she particularly cares about and may in a sense actually turn her off. Enjoying romantic evening walks, she guesses he’s a screenwriter from his veiled hints about robbing the dreamworld and is interested more in his artistic self than the wealthy man of mystery, all of which gives Sang Yu the inspiration to finish that screenplay which of course becomes a hit beyond his wildest dreams. 

After a while, Sang Yu starts to suspect there must be a cost involved in all this good fortune, realising that he’s traded some of his life away in return for riches and will perhaps never be free of his nightmares. Yet, as a cruel gangster tells him, everyone’s wealth comes at the sacrifice of life, echoing his earlier thoughts that those who are successful are either those who’ve chosen to sacrifice things that others won’t or are unscrupulous thieves and exploiters. “A person who betrays himself can never control his own destiny”, according to the gangster. Asleep or awake, Sang Yu realises he’s battling himself, that there are no quick fixes, and illusionary success is as hollow and as fleeting as the dreamworld from which he has perhaps failed to learn the appropriate lessons. As the old man told him, perhaps what he needs is to wake up, not only to life’s possibilities but to his own. Echoing his earlier The Fourth Wall, Zhang allows Sang Yu to walk through a door into a “better” reality which is perhaps the one he inhabited before but was too intimidated to actually live in. He hasn’t definitively beaten his demons, but perhaps subdued them while his new life seems determined to reward him for his choice in unexpected ways. Nevertheless, can you trust this reality more than any other? There may be no way to know, but you’ll have to learn to trust it all the same. 


Super Me is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Raman Hui, 2015)

Monster Hunt posterA runaway box office hit and veritable pop culture phenomenon, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Zhuō Yāo Jì) is nothing more than a slice of family friendly entertainment in the vein of a dozen other live-action/animation hybrid fantasy films. The monsters are cute, yes, and there is enough darkness here to rival Lord of the Rings, but there’s a little more going on under the surface of this otherwise heartwarming tale of a persecuted minority and its hidden princeling. A family drama of epic proportions, Monster Hunt speaks directly to China’s left behind children and to those who, perhaps, were worried their destiny had always been misplaced.

Set sometime in the distant fantasy past, Monster Hunt takes place in a universe in which men and Monsters co-exist but, owing to their defeat in a war, the Monsters have been forced back into the forests and mountains away from humankind many of whom no longer even believe they exist. However, there is fresh strife among the Monsters forcing a pregnant Queen to flee along with her retainers, straying into the human world in hope of saving her baby. Luckily she finds herself in a small village presided over by a kindly mayor with a limp, Tianyin (Jing Boran), who is also the son of a long missing Monster Hunter but much prefers domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing to hunting Monsters. The Queen manages to “transfer” her baby to Tianyin just before she dies, leaving him quite literally holding the baby assisted only by cynical bounty hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe).

Inspired by ancient folklore, Monster Hunt plays the chosen one trope to the max as Tianyin wrestles with his destiny while the baby, a true king displaced from his throne, awaits in ignorance. Like many contemporary fantasy tales, Monster Hunt also revels in subverting genre norms with its noticeably feminised hero. Tianyin is the son of a great warrior, but it’s his grandmother who practices kung fu and goes out looking for her long lost son, while Tianyin professes his love of domesticity, staying home cooking and sewing. His simplicity and softness is contrasted with the more masculine figure of the cynical Monster Hunter Xiaolan who becomes Tianyin’s casual love interest and the putative “father” in the loose family unit they form with the tiny baby radish-like figure they eventually christen Wuba.

The formation of a family unit in itself proves a problematic development for both Tianyin and Xiaolan who have both been abandoned by their own families and left to fend for themselves (with almost opposite results). Resentful at having been cast out by his apparently “heroic” father, Tianyin has definite views about the nature of fatherhood and the mistakes he does not wish to repeat with his own children while Xiaolan has grown wary of forming attachments altogether and strives to remind herself that she is only looking after Wuba until he’s big enough to sell on the Monster Hunter black market. Nevertheless, the pair cannot help becoming “accidental” parents even if they must first make a mistake they later need to rectify in trying to abandon their charge for financial gain. Tianyin “repeats” the “mistake” of his own father but finally comes to understand it for what it was – a father’s sacrifice of his paternal love to keep his child safe. Something that will certainly ring true for children who may be living apart from their own parents for reasons they don’t quite understand.

Yet a fairytale darkness is never far away as Tianyin and Xiaolan consider selling off little Wuba to a dodgy mahjong obsessed Monster fence (Tang Wei) who apparently knows how valuable he is but is planning to sell him to a local restaurant anyway. Despite the fact that everyone has forgotten Monsters exist, Monster meat is a delicacy reserved for the super rich (a subtle dig at China’s eat anything that can’t run faster than you philosophy ushered in by the sight of caged monkeys at the roadside) and little Wuba does look quite like a tasty daikon radish.

Cute monsters getting chopped up and eaten may be a horror too far for sensitive young children (if it weren’t for the fact the Monsters are all inspired by veggies Monster Hunt might be the greatest proselytising mechanism for vegetarianism the world has ever seen) but rest assured, little Wuba is quite the resourceful little tyke and he does after all have a grand destiny awaiting him. A tribute to unlikely heroes, gentle men, feisty women, and atypical families, Monster Hunt is an oddly subversive family friendly adventure and one which has clearly hit its mark in capturing the hearts of a whole generation who will doubtless be excited for the further adventures of Wuba as he moves closer towards his own Messianic destiny.


International trailer (English captions)

Mad World (一念无名, Wong Chun, 2016)

Mad World_posterThroughout the aptly titled Mad World (一念無明), the central character frequently asks if he is really the one who is “abnormal” or if everyone else is merely operating under some misguided notion of “normality”, either deluding themselves that they meet it or actively masking the fact that they don’t. The first feature from Wong Chun, Mad World is not only the story of a man attempting to live with mental illness in a society which is unwilling to confront it, but also a discourse on the various ills of modern life from the ageing population and breakdown of the “traditional” family to the high pressure nature of “successful” living. Carefully nuanced yet pointed, Wong Chun’s vision is at once bleak and hopeful, finding victory in the courage to move on in self acceptance rather than in a less ambiguous discovery of a more positive future.

Tung (Shawn Yue) has spent the last year institutionalised after being arrested in connection with the death of his mother (Elaine Jin). The doctors and courts have both absolved him of any blame, but Tung has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is being released into the care of his estranged father, Wong (Eric Tsang), rather than simply released. When Wong picks Tung up at the hospital, the disconnect and anxiety between them is palpable, as is Wong’s embarrassment when he takes Tung back to the tiny room he inhabits in a low rent lodging house sharing a kitchen and a bathroom. Father and son will be sleeping on bunk beds with any idea of privacy or personal space firmly rejected.

Wong, a man in his 60s who’d all but abandoned his family for a career as a long-distance truck driver crossing the border into China, is ill-equipped to cope with caring for his son on several different levels. Perhaps a man of his times, he’s as ignorant and afraid of mental illness as anyone else, quickly getting fed up with Tung’s frequent crying fits and even stooping so low as to simply ask him why he can’t just be normal like everyone else. However, after getting more used to Tung’s new way of life, Wong does his best to get to grips with it, buying a number of books about depression and joining a support group for people who are caring for those with mental health needs.

Tung continues to struggle, finding it difficult to reintegrate into to society when society actively excludes those who don’t quite fit in. Attending a friend’s wedding shortly after having been discharged, Tung spots a few unpleasant social media posts referring to him under the nickname “Mr. Psychosis” while guests in the room mutter about the “nutjob” who must have just escaped the “loony bin”. Tung doesn’t do himself any favours when he grabs the mic and interrupts the groom’s speech to take the audience to task for their indifference, but the hostility he faces is entirely unwarranted. Later, experiencing another setback, Tung finds himself the subject of a viral video when he stops into a convenience store and guzzles Snickers bars in an attempt to improve his mood. It’s not long before someone has correctly identified him as the guy who was accused of killing his mother and put in a mental hospital, literally sending him right back to square one in terms of his recovery. To make matters worse, Tung can’t get any of his old contacts to look at his CV because they all have him branded as a dangerous madman and interviewing for new jobs never gets very far after they ask why there’s a one year gap in his employment history. 

Employment does seem to be a particular source of anxiety with frequent mentions of mass layoffs and even managerial suicides in the high pressure financial industries. Even before the events which led to his hospitalisation, Tung was undoubtedly under a lot of stress – planning a life with his fiancée, Jenny (Charmaine Fong), which adds the financial pressures of mortgages and saving to start a family. The sole carer for his elderly mother, Tung is also on the front line for her cruel, sometimes violent mood swings which, according to Wong, are a lifelong phenomenon rather than a symptom of the dementia she is also afflicted with. Tung lashes at out Jenny when she suggests putting his mother in a home where she can be better cared for, exhibiting a streak of unpredictable, frustrated violence of his own which also deeply worries him.

Tung may have inherited this impulsive volatility from his mother, in one sense or another, but his longstanding feelings of low self worth are as much to do with his parents’ seeming disregard for him as they are to do with anything else. His mother, unhappy in her marriage, blames her eldest son for trapping her in dead end existence while continuing to worship the younger one, Chun, who went to an Ivy League US university and has since left them all far behind. Constant, unfavourable comparisons to the golden boy only raise Tung’s levels of stress and resentment at being obliged to care for the woman who constantly rejects and belittles him after the “good” son and the “bad” husband both abandoned her. Wong “left” his wife because he couldn’t cope with her difficult personality and complicated emotional landscape, but now faces a similar dilemma with the son he had also left behind.

Hong Kong is, indeed, a maddening world as Tung and Wong find themselves crammed into a claustrophobic share house filled with similarly stressed and anxious people predisposed to see danger where there is none. Tung’s condition finds him semi-infantilised as the wiser than his years little boy from next-door becomes his only friend until his mother finds out about Tung’s condition and orders her son not to see him. Wong Chun’s central premise seems to be that the world will drive you crazy, but if there were more kindness and less hostility perhaps we could all stave off the madness for a little longer. Anchored by strong performances from Yue and Tsang, each playing somewhat against type, Mad World is a remarkably controlled debut feature which subtly underlines its core humanitarian message whilst taking care never to sugarcoat its less pleasant dimensions.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Port of Call (踏血尋梅, Philip Yung, 2015)

port of call posterBoy meets girl. Girl says she wants to die. Boy says OK. Philip Yung’s third feature, Port of Call (踏血尋梅), attempts to find out how such a thing could happen and does so by means of a state of the nation address. Shot by Christopher Doyle, Yung’s early 21st century Hong Kong is a place of broken dreams and empty promises in which past traumas become inescapable phantoms, hungry for blood and pain. More than the sum of its parts, Port of Call is a murder mystery and noirish crime thriller which rejects its procedural roots for a deeper investigation of how a young man and a young woman might have been brought to such a desperate and tragic end.

Eccentric detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) finds himself investigating the disappearance of a 16 year old prostitute believed murdered due to evidence of extensive bloodstains at the presumed scene of crime. The culprit soon turns himself in and confesses to both murder and dismemberment, avowing that he killed the girl because she asked him to. It seems like an open and shut case, at least to Chong’s superiors, but Chong cannot quite let it go. How could someone meet another person for the first time and take something as banal as “I wish I were dead” so literally as to decide to help them achieve their wish?

Chong, a divorced father to a young daughter, wants to know the why but what he discovers shakes his own already weary heart. The murdered girl, Jia-mei (Jessie Li), came to Hong Kong a little while after her mother (Elaine Jin) and sister, following the divorce of her parents. Her mother, a nightclub singer, has little money and is rarely present. Lonely, Jia-mei dreams only of becoming a model but this is a city which eats dreams and so she finds herself working admin jobs at a modelling studio as well as working at McDonalds in the hope of escaping her unsatisfying home environment. Eventually she is pulled into the world of escorts and compensated dating before winding up as a casual prostitute who forms an unwise romantic attachment to a client.

Neither Chong, Jia-mei, or the damaged killer Chi-sung (Michael Ning) is able to escape the weight of the pain and suffering they have seen or experienced. A long term employee of the Regional Crimes Bureau, Chong has seen the most gruesome, heinous, and incomprehensible crimes culminating in an unforgettable 1998 murder and kidnap case in which he discovered a small child tied up next to decomposing body covered in fattened maggots and swarming flies. Chong no longer sleeps because of the bloody nightmares which see him take the place of both victim and observer, laid low by an escaping Chi-sung whose crime is recreated in glorious technicolor.

Jia-mei’s world is bloodier still even at such a young age. A disturbing Facebook post recounts the loss of her virginity as a young teenager as a gory battlefield in which she and her boyfriend roll around in bloody sheets. Apparently not the only depressed young girl, Jia-mei’s classmate grabs her scissors and slashes her wrists all while Jia-mei does nothing. As she later tells an online friend, it’s sad when no one sees you. Separated from her home and father, Jia-mei’s model dreams are less a vacuous search for fame as they are a desperate attempt for connection. Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jia-mei’s world gradually shrinks away from her as the emptiness of her transactional relationships produces the opposite of what she wanted, eventually sending her straight into the arms of the equally lonely Chi-sung.

Chi-shung’s problems also stem back to childhood trauma and feelings of abandonment, but have taken on an additional layer of resentment following the failure of his first love affair. A melancholy, damaged man, Chi-sung almost sees his crime as a kind of salvation, rescuing Jia-mei from becoming what he hated and what she longed not to be. His icy practicality is chilling as he recounts how he dismembered and disposed of the body as if he were simply describing how to cook spaghetti but even as he seems to regard his crime as a kindness, there is something else lurking at the bottom of his coolness.

Yung’s Hong Kong is cold and unforgiving. The policeman, the victim, and the killer are all, in a sense, displaced – from their families, from the normal world, and from their homes. Jia-mei’s search for affection and an end to loneliness took her to the loneliest of places, while Chi-sung kills the things he loves to save them the pain of being alive, and Chong solves crimes but is powerless to stop them. Told in four acts and with a non-linear structure, Port of Call is a meandering voyage through life’s unpleasantness in which trauma stains, pain grows, and loneliness kills the spirit. Yung’s unflinching look at the dark underpinning of modern society is a sad and hopeless one yet there are brief flashes of hope, if only in stray cats finding unexpected safe harbours.   


Original trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

29+1 (Kearen Pang, 2016)

29+1 posterYou know what they call women over 25 in China? “Christmas cake” – no one wants you after the 25th, so you’re condemned to sit on the shelf for all eternity like a piece of overproduced seasonal confectionary (a silly analogy because Christmas cakes, at least English ones, may outlive us all). Christy Lam lives in Hong Kong, not mainland China, and so her worries are a little less intense but still the dreaded 30 is causing its own share of panic and confusion in her otherwise orderly, tightly controlled life. In 29+1 Kearen Pang adapts her own enormously successful 2005 stage play about the intertwined lives of two very different women who happen to share a birthday and are each approaching the end of their 20s in very different ways. By turns melancholy and hopeful, 29+1 finds both women at a natural crossroads but rather than casting them into a bottomless pit of despair, allows each of them to rediscover themselves through a kind of second adolescence in which they finally figure out what it is they want out of life.

Christy Lam’s (Chrissie Chau) morning routine is fairly well entrenched. The alarm clock ticks over from 6.29 to 6.30 and she rises, goes through her beauty regime, decides on an appropriate outfit for work, eats a low cal breakfast and then heads out. A month before her 30th birthday, Christy begins to feel restless but her life is good – she has a long-term boyfriend and she’s just received a promotion at work where she is both liked and respected for her talents. So why does she feel so…unsatisfied?

Like the grim harbinger of encroaching doom, the rot has already set in as symbolised by a leak in her apartment which has created a nasty stain on her pristine white walls and even spread to some of her precious handbags. Her landlord pledges to look at it, but unbeknownst to Christy his wife has sold the apartment she’s been renting and she’s being kicked out with no notice. The landlord suggests moving in with her boyfriend but this proves unattractive for several reasons and so Christy ends up house sitting for a friend of the landlord’s nephew who is spending a month in Paris giving Christy some breathing space to figure things out.

Offering frequent asides to the audience, Christy’s acerbic observations of modern life and the expectations placed on women are both familiar and extremely funny. Running through her daily routine with wry irony, it’s clear Christy resents having to jump through all these hoops but also accepts them as just a part of being 29 in 2005. Catching a bus the morning after finding the leak in her apartment, she finds a former professor, now an insurance salesman, sitting across the aisle. After somewhat tactlessly remarking that she looks “completely different” from her college self, the professor then goes on to ask all the impolite questions people ask 29-year-old women as regards her job and marital status before getting into pension plans and mortgages. His insurance pitch proves a hit, and every other youngish woman (and one man acting on behalf of a little sister) picks up one of his information packs too.

At work at least, Christy is faring a little better. Unexpectedly receiving a promotion from her infinitely likeable if hardline boss, Elaine (Elaine Jin), Christy feels conflicted. The job is everything she thought she wanted, but suddenly she feels out-of-place – disconnected from her former colleagues and only now picking up on the immense gulf between herself, preparing to enter middle age with strict diets and bundling up to fight the aggressive air conditioning, and the new recruits – cheerfully wolfing down cakes and sugary drinks, dressed only in their light summer dresses and gossiping or boasting about slacking off even to the boss’ face. Despite her success Elaine is an approachable and friendly woman, prepared to give some real advice to her young protégé to the end that there are choices involved in everything and sometimes it comes to the point you need to make them rather than let things drag on.

Choices are things Christy’s avoided making, despite approaching life with an intense need for control. Facing several crises at once from her father’s Alzheimer’s to a strained relationship with her boyfriend of ten years, Christy is forced into a position she might not have welcomed but grudgingly admits may actually have been for the best. The apartment she ends up living in temporarily belongs to a young woman named Wong Ting-lok (Joyce Cheng) and, in contrast to Christy’s former home, is filled with a quirky sense of personality from the large Eiffel Tower of Polaroids pinned to the wall to the Leslie Cheung VHS collection and large number of vinyl records all of which Christy is welcome to enjoy. It is, however, Tin-lok’s “autobiography” that comes to capture her attention.

Tin-lok is a woman defined by her love of life and innate talent for cheerfulness even in adversity. Unlike Christy, her life has been less marked by the conventionally “successful” as she’s held down the same casual job in a record store run by a former celebrity for the past ten years and has never had a proper boyfriend despite her close friendship with Hon-ming (Babyjohn Choi) – the nephew of Christy’s landlord. Sometimes her lack of progress gets her down which explains the diary and the Polaroids – she likes to record her “achievements” in a more concrete way, but Tin-lok is, broadly, at home with herself. A recent crisis striking just as Christy’s had, prompts her into action – doing the things she’d always wanted to do in the knowledge that every moment is precious and there is no time to waste.

Pang gradually shifts into a kind of magical realism as the lives of Christy and Tin-lok begin to merge with Christy experiencing the life of Tin-lok from a first person perspective. Both women re-live old memories, inserting their current selves into a long passed era and looking back at it both with wistful nostalgia and the immediacy of unforgotten feeling. Christy’s trusted taxi driver laments that young people don’t know how to fix things anymore, every time something breaks they throw it out and buy a new one. Christy is learning how to make repairs to fractured dreams but thanks to some help from the resilient warmth of Tin-lok, finally figures out that things fall into place when you let them and you don’t have to make all your decisions based on what others have already decided for you.


Original trailer (English subtitles)