Spring Tide (春潮, Yang Lina, 2019)

Toxic motherhood takes on strangely subversive, allegorical tones in Spring Tide (春潮, Chūn Cháo), Yang Lina’s painful examination of the relationships between three generations of Chinese women, each in different ways victims of the times in which they live. It’s true enough that the folk tunes sung so happily are often odes to the “motherland” which betray none of the eeriness of their propagandistic intentions in their full hearted endorsement of nation as family, but the darkness is inescapable as we see their metaphors made flesh in a woman destroyed by her sense of disappointment in life and in turn destroying her daughters literal and metaphorical in a pathological attempt to give her life meaning. 

30-something Jianbo (Han Lei) is a socially conscious investigative journalist whose refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is a constant thorn in the side of her more conservative editor. At home, meanwhile, she’s mother to nine-year-old Wanting (Qu Junxi), who, we later realise is being raised by Jianbo’s feisty mother, Minglan (Elaine Jin Yan-ling), while she splits her time between the family’s backroom and a bed in a student dorm with occasional nights spent with an intense yet silent musician. 

Aside from the obvious emotional disconnection, the fracture lines between mother and daughter are also ideological. Jianbo is a post-80s generation woman, she wants to hold mother China to account because she wants her society to be better than it is. She unroots scandal and corruption and brings them to light through the power of the press, trying to create real social change through shaming the populace into better patterns of behaviour. But her mother Minglan lived through the Cultural Revolution, because of all she’s suffered she thinks that things are fine the way they are and criticising the beneficent state is like scolding the person that raised you. Caught in the middle, Minglan’s fiancé Zhou (Li Wenbo) espouses contradictory views, at once proud to have Jianbo as a daughter because “journalists are the conscience of a country”, but also grateful for the iron rice bowl system that gave him a steady job, not to mention a pension and the old person’s flat that’s allowed him to meet Minglan. 

Minglan’s life has indeed been full of suffering, though it is perhaps surprising how casually she and her friends remark on the terror they experienced during their youth while continuing to sing the old patriotic songs. “My motherland and I can’t be apart for a moment”, according to patriotic hit My People, My Country (我和我的祖国), but its tones suddenly seem sinister in their breeziness as we’re forced to consider the icy Minglan as a stand-in for China as a toxic mother, insisting that she must be respected and that her children must repay their debts to her, no matter how abusive she has been and may continue to be. To her friends in the retirement community, Minglan is a warm and caring woman, running the choir and organising local events, but she’s also blindsided by the suicide of a friend who took her own life because of an entirely different kind of filial disappointment coupled with existential loneliness. Minglan can’t understand why she did it, but in characteristic fashion largely makes it all about herself in lashing out at Jianbo when she points out that Mrs Wang was not as happy about their (read: Minglan’s) potential retirement plan as Minglan had believed her to be. 

“When were you going to realise this was a family and not a battlefield?” Jianbo asks her mother knowing that she can make no further reply. The tug of love over motherhood of Wanting is, in many ways, a tussle over the future of China. Minglan digs her nails in, telling Wanting a few hurtful truths about her mother while insisting that you really can’t trust anyone anymore but that’s OK because grandma loves you, while Jianbo remains powerless to reassume her maternity knowing that her only weapon is to avoid unduly antagonising her mother in the hope that she won’t end up alienating Wanting in the same way Minglan alienated her. All that exists between them now is a torrent of resentment, Minglan seeing her daughter only as the symbol of all her frustrated desires, and Jianbo knowing she’s become a sad and lonely woman solely because her mother refused to love her in the way she wanted to be loved. Jianbo is determined that she won’t let Minglan’s “vanity and hypocrisy” corrupt her pretty, sensitive daughter, pushing her towards an “ignoble and ridiculous life”. She wants Wanting to be free of this chain of abuse and all its authoritarian gaslighting, but has no mechanism to free her other than distance. 

Wanting, by contrast, is cheerful and kind. She has absolutely no filter and is entirely unafraid of asking difficult questions, but is also brave and strong, willing to stand up for others. A little girl in her class who happens to be from the Korean minority is criticised for her “poor” Mandarin and ordered to switch seats but her new buddy refuses to sit with her because he claims not to be able to understand what she’s saying. Wanting immediately pipes up that she understands perfectly, instantly becoming the girl’s best friend and visiting her home which appears to be one of immense harmony and happiness where her dad whirls her round while proudly singing Arirang, standing in stark contrast to Minglan’s joyous yet somehow self-involved recitals. China as an authoritarian mother may be losing its grip on power, while Jianbo’s generation struggles to free itself from the trauma of toxic parenting, but there is perhaps hope for Wanting as she and her friend decide to leave the patriotism showcase to follow the spring tide right out into a wide river of joy and freedom.


Spring Tide was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Women (女人心, Stanley Kwan, 1985)

Women posterThings are changing in ‘80s Hong Kong, but when it comes right down to it are there really any more choices than there were in the past? Stanley Kwan would become known for his fiercely female led filmmaking and his debut, Women (女人心), is indeed a statement of intent if heeling close to the Shaw Brothers house style and possessed of a particularly mid-80s kind of cynicism. Marriage falls under the spotlight but for all of its minor oppressions and petty aggravations the net seems almost impossible to escape.

Kwan opens with a strangely cheerful family scene which quickly turns sour as housewife Bao-er (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) is excluded by her husband, Derek (Chow Yun-Fat), and son, Dang-dang (Leung Hoi-Leung), who close the bathroom door on her before declaring a pissing contest. Irked, Bao-er finds herself mildly enraged by the sight of her husband’s undies and decides to take this opportunity to tell him she wants a divorce. She’s found out all about Derek’s fancy woman Sha-niu (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and has had enough. Decamping to her mother’s with Dang-dang in tow, Bao-er finds herself the latest member of her friends’ “forever happy single women’s club” but remains conflicted when it comes to considering the further direction of her life.

The “forever happy single women’s club” is itself somewhat confused in its outlook in that most of Bao-er’s friends are not really intending to remain single forever but are hoping to find a new partner, if perhaps also enjoying playing the field while they look. None of them are really very happy with the status quo and the various get-togethers at which they enjoy lavish buffets and copious amounts of alcohol are mostly filled with bawdy discussions about men and sex, much to the consternation of the rather uptight Bao-er. 

In fact, Bao-er’s “refinement” seems to be one of the chief issues in her marriage which is perhaps why Derek has found himself intwined with a clingy free spirit who quickly moves into the family home and does her best to stake a claim on little Dang-dang but is unwilling to keep house with the consequence that the apartment is quickly overrun with old newspapers and empty food cartons – a sight which fair breaks Bao-er’s heart when she’s forced to visit only to be presented with some of Sha-niu’s patented “spicy soup”. During a candid conversation with her mother, Bao-er reveals that throughout her married life she’d gone to great lengths to preserve her feminine mystique only for Derek to take off with a woman prepared to let it all hang out. Her mother, broadly supportive of her choices, advises her to think carefully about her future. If the marriage was unhappy then it’s best to call it quits, but if Sha-niu is just a passing fad then perhaps she’s one worth putting up with in the absence of other options.

Bao-er’s mother seems to think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to a healthy marriage, but as a “modern” woman, Bao-er expected more. Even so, despite not requesting alimony (she only wants money to cover Dang-dang’s expensive private school fees), we don’t see Bao-er looking for work though it’s also clear she isn’t looking to remarry in the immediate future. Like many of her friends, Bao-er seems to have her doubts about living as an “independent” woman and continues to be irritated by Derek’s relationship with Sha-niu even while attempting to firmly close the door on her marriage.

The end of the relationship does however give her an opportunity to consider what it is that she wants, even if middle-class conservatism ultimately wins out. This is particularly true of an unexpected attraction to a lesbian friend which she chooses not to pursue seemingly because of the social taboo. Despite being fully out and accepted by the group, Terry (Cheung Yin-Gwan) is also pitied by some of the other members who believe she is locked out of the conventional family life most of them are looking for because she is looking for a woman and not a man. Even if it’s true that Bao-er can only really be fully herself with her female friends, she and the others still hanker after male companionship and do not feel complete without it.   

The major theme which emerges is that marriage and family are essential, if imperfect, and must be maintained even if perhaps superficially as the closing text which conveniently condones Derek’s poor behaviour while allowing Bao-er her “revenge” implies. A slightly cynical point, to be sure but undercut by Kwan’s sense of empathetic irony which asks what other real choices Bao-er has while refusing to condemn her for the ones she eventually makes. Socially conservative as it may be, the fact remains that possibilities are bleak for women of a certain age in ‘80s Hong Kong which remains a playground for men like Derek while women like Bao-er and her friends are left with only complicit means of personal rebellion.


Women screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival on 5th May at King’s College London where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Prince Charming (青蛙王子, Wong Jing, 1984)

Prince charming 84 poster“This isn’t a film from the 1930s!” a confused sidekick exclaims part way through Wong Jing’s zany ‘80s comedy Prince Charming (青蛙王子). He’s right, it isn’t, but it might as well be for all the farcical goings on in Wong’s hugely populist, unabashedly zeitgeisty romp through a rapidly modernising society. Starring popstar Kenny Bee, Prince Charming also marks the feature film debut of the later legendary Maggie Cheung who would find herself making a fair few disposable comedies in the early part of her career. All the Wong trademarks are very much in evidence from the sometimes crude humour to the random narrative developments and deliberate theatricality but it has its charms, even if perhaps despite itself.

Signalling the “aspirational” atmosphere right away, Wong opens in “Hawaii” with Kenny Bee performing one of the many musical numbers which will be heard throughout the film (which is also a kind of idol movie as well as a populist Shaw Brothers Comedy). Chen Li Pen (Kenny Bee) is the son of an oil magnate and hotel chain manager but unlike his father, is a sensitive, nerdy young man who gets the hiccups around attractive women and has never had any luck with the opposite sex. Nevertheless, his mother wants to set him up with an arranged marriage – something which he vehemently opposes but understands will become harder for him fend off if he can’t find himself a love match in good time. Enter his old friend Lolanto (Nat Chan Pak-Cheung) who is a self-styled ladies man if a bit “common”. Lolanto has come to Hawaii on holiday and to hang out with Li Pen, but like any young guy he also wants to meet some girls.

The guys end up in a kind of sparring match with the two ladies staying in an adjacent room at the hotel, May (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and Kitty, (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) following a series of misunderstandings. When the girls drug them and then somehow leave them on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the boys are humiliated but don’t have too long to nurse their wounds because Li Pen’s dad sends them back to Hong Kong to investigate suspected embezzlement at head office. As luck would have it, both May and Kitty work for Li Pen’s family firm (which was perhaps why they were staying in the hotel). Another misunderstanding sees May assume Li Pen is a former triad looking for a new start, so she “bribes” the hiring department to get him a job as a chauffeur, while Lolanto ends up in the boss’ office posing as Li Pen. Hilarity ensues.

Aiming a squarely for the populist, Wong’s defiantly aspirational vision revolves around the fabulously wealthy and internationalised Li Pen who went to college in the US and lives most of his life in Hawaii, perhaps not quite understanding Hong Kong in the same way Lolanto does, both because of his outsider status and because of the freedom his wealth gives him. When the two swap roles they each get a kind of education, but their real quest (while halfheartedly investigating the embezzlement scandal) is winning over Kitty and May who think they’re dating a CEO and a chauffeur respectively. Despite their irritation when they realise their mistake, both May and Kitty perhaps come to realise that the deception is a part of what eventually drew them to the guys and they’re a better match than they might otherwise have imagined.

Meanwhile, Wong finally remembers the embezzlement plot and introduces a third woman, Puipui (Rosamund Kwan Chi-Lam), who is secretly a plant set up to seduce the pure hearted Li Pen and marry him because this will in some way prevent the embezzlement scam from coming to light. Puipui’s scheme eventually kicks off the ridiculous finale in which the gang find themselves chased by goons and having to play pool for their lives with hostages hooked up to electric chairs which will be triggered when a certain number of points are scored. Wong adds a host of cutesy touches from cartoon hearts around our lovelorn heroes and adorable doodles popping up as on screen graphics while Kenny Bee and Cherie Chung also get a completely bizarre musical number at the midway point where they pretend to be happy frogs marooned on a private lily pad. It doesn’t make any sense, but it really doesn’t matter. Completely throw away, but strangely fun.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and perhaps other territories)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)