An Inspector Calls (浮華宴, Raymond Wong & Herman Yau, 2015)

Inspector Calls poster 1J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls found itself out of favour until a phenomenally successful stage production brought it back into the national consciousness in the early ‘90s, but even if some decry its inherent melodrama as a relic of another era the play’s comments on the entrenched classism of British society sadly still ring true. An Inspector Calls is many things, but one thing it defiantly is not is funny – a series of concentric tales of betrayals and oppressions, Priestley’s drama lays bare the callousness with which the privileged bolster their position through the story of one faceless factory girl standing in for an entire social class whose lives are often at the mercy of those “above” them.

In adapting Priestley’s play as a Chinese New Year movie (a strange concept in itself), Herman Yau and Raymond Wong relocate to contemporary Hong Kong, re-conceiving it as a broad comedy of the kind one might expect for the festive period. The setup is however still the same. The Kau family will be receiving a visitation – this time from Inspector Karl (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who has some difficult news for each of them. Three hours previously, a young woman committed suicide in her apartment by drinking bleach, taking the child she was carrying with her. Inspector Karl views this as a double murder and, based on the diary they found at the crime scene, has brought the reckoning over to the Kaus’.

The Kaus, at the present time, are preparing an engagement party for daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) who will be marrying the handsome younger brother of a factory owner, Johnnie (Hans Zhang Han). What no one can know is that the family business is going under, the Kaus are broke, mum and dad don’t get on, and all of this finery is merely rented affectation. The only member of the family who still seems to have something like a social conscience – Tim (Gordon Lam Ka-tung), the 27-year-old younger son, is viewed by all as a feckless and naive hippy, hiding out in his childhood bedroom, still all fluffy cushions and toy soldiers.

As the Inspector explains, he holds Mr Kau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) responsible because the woman once worked in his factory and he fired her for participating in a strike for better pay and conditions. Sherry got her fired too when she worked in an upscale fashion store. Johnnie knew her during an unfortunate period as a bar hostess, and Tim as a masseuse. Mrs Kau (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan), who heads up a woman’s charity and publicly espouses tolerance while privately judgmental, once turned her down for familial support seeing as the father of her child was still living. She advises holding him to account and if he won’t pay, forcing his family to take responsibility on his behalf. The irony being that the father is likely her own son and that if this poor woman had rocked up at the Kaus’ with a sad story and an infant in her arms, she would have been met with nothing more than contempt save perhaps some hush money to send her on her way.

The Kaus are merely a series of examples of the various ways the wealthy mistreat the poor, wielding their sense of entitlement like a weapon. Yau and Wong adopt an oddly Brechtian approach in their expressionist production design with the faceless masses identified only through titles – the word “labour” on the workers’ caps, “manager” in the fashion store, “secretary” at the foundation. None of these people are really worthy of names because they will always be “less” while the Kaus are “more” in more ways than one. Actions, however, have consequences. The family console themselves that this is all far too coincidental, that they couldn’t all have known the “same” woman in different guises, but that in many ways is the point – she isn’t one woman but all women, used, abused, and discarded not only by heartless men but by jealous and judgemental members of her own sex too. Better than her than me, they might say, but that’s no way to run a healthy society as the sensitive, slightly damaged Tim seems to see.

Like the Birlings, the Kaus attempt to brush the Inspector’s warning off, thinking it’s all been some elaborate prank that can they laugh about and then forget, but there will be a reckoning even if they attempt to gloss over the various revelations regarding their moral failings. Wong and Yau’s vague gesturing towards the outlandish greed of the hypocritical super wealthy is undercut by the ridiculous New Year slapstick of it all despite the Metropolis-like production design and expressionist trappings, giving in to an excess of its own in an extremely unexpected musical cameo from a martial arts star and the decision to end on a social realist photo of an innocent, pigtailed proletarian woman dressed in red. Nevertheless, strange as it all is the bizarre adaptation of Priestley’s play has its own peculiar charm even if it’s outrageousness rather than moral outrage which takes centre stage.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Aberdeen (香港仔, Pang Ho-cheung, 2014)

Aberdeen posterFamilies, eh? Too much history, not enough past. In Aberdeen (香港仔), Pang Ho-cheung applies his cheeky magic to the family drama, taking a long hard look at an ordinary collection of “close” relatives each with individual secrets, lies, and hidden insecurities which could destroy the whole at any given second. Fishermen driven ashore by the tyranny of “progress”, these troubled souls will need to decide in which direction to swim – “home” towards sometimes uncertain comforts, or away towards who knows what.

Grandpa Dong (Ng Man-tat), a Taoist priest, lost grandma a long time ago and is now in a relationship with Ta (Carrie Ng), a night club hostess. Dong’s son Tao (Louis Koo Tin-lok), a celebrity motivational speaker, does not entirely approve, feeling that the slightly taboo nature of Ta’s profession tarnishes his own veneer of glamour and may eventually cause him a public image crisis. Meanwhile, Tao’s wife Ceci’s (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) showbiz career is floundering now that she’s no longer as young as she was and she finds herself slipping into the seedier aspects of the business as her manager encourages her to “entertain” wealthy men to secure roles while her friend keeps inviting her to paid “parties”. Dong’s daughter, Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung), is married to a doctor, Yau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai), who unbeknownst to her is involved (unlikely as it seems) in a passionate affair with his nurse (Dada Chan) which she seems to think is more serious than it is.

Dong laments that his family can’t seem to stand being in the same room for more than a few seconds before someone ruins the whole thing with a stupid argument which might be a fairly common phenomenon in many families, but he worries that it’s all down to the fact that his ancestors were fishermen and now they’re paying for the bad karma of having killed all those fish. In fact, bad karma was one of the reasons his dad got him apprenticed to a relative who trained him up to be a Taoist priest so he could atone for generations of sin but it seems like the well ran far too deep.

Each of our protagonists is individually insecure, lacking the confidence that their family members truly accept them. Tao, vain and deeply cynical, doubts his daughter Chloe (Lee Man-kwai), whom he insists on calling “Piggy”, is really his because he thinks she isn’t very pretty and doesn’t fit with his slick, celebrity image. Nevertheless, he does love her deeply and worries that she will suffer in the long term through her lack of looks though this too is partly a self-centred projection stemming from long buried guilt over having bullied another “plain” girl while they were at school. He is also blind to the effect his constant references to Chloe’s supposed plainness are having on his wife, Ceci, who is carrying the scars of longterm insecurity regarding her appearance on top of the difficulties she is facing in her career.

Wai-ching’s problems run a little deeper in that she is convinced her mother stopped loving her after a slightly embarrassing childhood incident. The past literally returns to haunt her in the form of some paper offerings she made to her mother’s spirit which have been mysteriously sent back “return to sender” by the Hong Kong Post Office. Wai-ching’s mental instability seems to be a worry to her husband, but not so much so that he can’t just forget about it when his nurse comes calling with one of her cute little notes announcing that she’s in the mood.

Dong and Yau are in similar positions, each identifying with the figure of a beached whale – all washed up with nowhere else to go. As Dong puts it, as soon as you’re beached a part of you at least has died. Each of the older men has to accept that a choice has already been made and the energy needed to change it is no longer available. Pang allows each of the family members to find some kind of individual resolution, the family seemingly repaired as they chow down on generic fast food without making too much of a fuss, but then their solutions to their issues are paper thin and perhaps the family itself is merely the ribbon that flimsily binds an imperfectly wrapped gift that everyone has to pretend to like to avoid creating a scene. Still, sometimes the wrapping is the best part and it doesn’t do to go peeking inside lest you get a disappointing surprise.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

A Better Tomorrow 2018 (英雄本色2018, Ding Sheng, 2018)

better tomorrow 2018 posterIn the history of Hong Kong cinema, there are few films which could realistically claim the same worldwide influence as John Woo’s 1986 landmark A Better Tomorrow. Commissioned by Tsui Hark, the then jobbing director Woo was tasked with creating a vehicle for a veteran Shaw Brothers star. Casting Cantopop idol Leslie Cheung and TV sensation Chow Yun-fat, Woo mixed traditional melodrama with hyper masculine emotionality to give birth to what would become the “heroic bloodshed” genre which was to dominate the island’s cinematic output well into the ‘90s. A Better Tomorrow, as its title implies, is the perfect evocation of its era and among the first to express an oncoming anxiety for Hong Kong’s “return” to China then only a decade away. Slick and oozing with ‘80s, macho cool, Woo’s film captured the imaginations of young men everywhere who suddenly took to wearing sunglasses and trench coats while chewing on match sticks, dreaming dreams of heroism in a sometimes gloomy world.

Which is all to say, attempting to “remake” Woo’s masterpiece may well be a fool’s errand. It is however one which has been frequently attempted, not least by Wong Jing in 1994 and Song Hae-sung in Korea in 2010. Korean cinema has perhaps become the heir of heroic bloodshed with its inherent love of melodrama which often finds its way into the nation’s bloody gangster epics whose generally high level of homosocial bonding is perfectly primed for male honour drama. Ding Sheng, apparently a huge fan of the original Hong Kong hit, brings the tale north to the Mainland, relocating to Qingdao which serves as a trading post for the drug running route from Japan.

As in the original we have two biological brothers – Kai (Wang Kai), a “sailor” who has fallen into smuggling to support his family who are unaware of his criminal occupation, and Chao (Ma Tianyu) – a rookie policeman. Meanwhile, Kai also has a criminal “brother” in his younger partner Mark (Wang Talu), an orphaned hothead from Taiwan. Kai is a “noble” smuggler who refuses to traffic drugs but a Hong Kong triad boss is hellbent on fishing out his Japanese contacts and after a job goes wrong, Kai ends up getting shot and arrested by his own brother who is heartbroken to discover the truth. Spending three years in prison during which time Kai’s father is killed in a raid on their home by gangsters looking for info on the Japanese, Kai tries to go straight but finds himself pulled back into the underworld after coming into conflict with villainous gangster Cang (Yu Ailei) who has taken over the Japan route (and forced Kai’s old girlfriend into prostitution after getting her hooked on drugs).

Ding’s film, while replicating the plot of Woo’s original, attempts to bring it into the “modern” era in which the stylised, manly melodrama of the ‘80s action movie has long since been replaced by a finer desire for “uncool” realism. Ding does not seem to be making a particular point about modern China, other than in persistent economic inequality which has forced an “honest” man like Kai into a life of crime for the otherwise honourable reason of taking care of his family. Though this itself maybe a subtle reference to the post-90s world, the major anxiety seems to be more with cross cultural interactions and possible pollution of “good” Chinese men like Kai who have been led astray by the false promises of, for example, gangsters from Hong Kong, and the old enemies in Japan. Interestingly enough, the relationships themselves are formalised and superficial. In Japan Kai and Mark are entertained in a “super Japanese” bar of the kind which only tourists frequent, decked to the ceilings with cherry blossoms and staffed with “geisha” girls, while in China they take their guests to a bar which has Peking Opera going on in the background as entertainment.

Kai is fond of telling his sworn brother that everything in the world may change, but brotherhood remains the same. This turns turn out to be an ironic comment in that his natural brother, Chao, disowns him in shame and loathing after his release from prison. Nevertheless, Kai never gives up striving for Chao’s approval even whilst reuniting with Mark who has been crippled and reduced to cleaning boats at the harbour after trying to exact revenge for Kai’s betrayal. The trio’s manly honour code is thrown into stark relief by the amoral Cang who, claiming that “the world has changed” and loyalty no longer means anything, thinks nothing of shooting anyone and everyone who stands between himself and financial gain. If Ding has a comment to make, it’s that the traditional ideas of brotherhood, loyalty, justice and goodness are being eroded by the lure of foreign gold promised by corruption, exploitation, and an absence of morality.

Ding isn’t trying to match Woo’s grand sweep of tragic inevitability so much as aiming for straightforward crime drama but his occasional concessions to melodrama never quite gel with his otherwise gritty approach, nor do his unsubtle his homages to the original film which find Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme song becoming a frequent musical motif as well as prominently featuring at an ultra cool hipster bar located in a disused boat which plays his record on a turntable with a large picture of a grinning Chow Yun-fat behind it. A Better Tomorrow 2018 succeeds as a passible action drama, but one without the heart and soul that made Woo’s original so special. 


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Raman Hui, 2018)

Monster Hunt Poster 2Despite numerous production difficulties, Monster Hunt went on to become a bona fide box office smash and international pop culture phenomenon on its release in 2015. Children and adults alike fell in love with the adorable little radish monster Wuba who, in grand fairytale tradition, is the secret heir to all of Monsterdom and the subject of a prophecy which posits him as the long awaited unifying force set to restore equality between humans and their Monster brethren. By the time this sequel, Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Zhuō Yāo Jì 2), rolls around, things are looking up for Wuba seeing as no one’s actively trying to eat him, but like so many kids in modern China he misses his human mum and dad who made a difficult decision at the end of the last film that Wuba should live with Monsters in Monsterland because it just wasn’t safe for him in the human realm.

Consequently Wuba has been living happily in the forest where the Monsters have made a little village for themselves. The Monster village is a place of laughter and song where everyone is welcome and they dance cheerfully all night long. That is, until evil monsters turn up looking for Wuba again, destroying the village and leaving him on the run all alone back in the human world. Meanwhile, Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) are on a quest to look for Tianyin’s long lost dad – a famous monster hunter who left Tianyin behind as a child to keep him safe, just like Tianyin had to leave Wuba. Nevertheless, though Tianyin and Xiaolan have developed a sparky domesticity, they’re both unwilling to admit how much they miss little Wuba and wish they could go get him back from Monsterland even if they know he’s probably safer hidden away from those who might want to do him harm. While looking for Tianyu and Xiaolan, Wuba gets himself semi-adopted by a very odd couple of chancers in the form of shady gambler Tu (Tony Leung) and his monster partner Ben-Ben.

Once again the theme is family. Monster Hunt spoke, perhaps, to all those separated families in modern China or more particularly to the children in revealing that parents sometimes have to make difficult choices and end up living apart from their kids so that they can give them a better life. Monster Hunt 2 accepts the premise but then provides an emotional correction in making plain the pain Tianyu and Xiaolan feel on being separated (perhaps forever) from Wuba, until they eventually settle on tracking him down and facing whatever dangers come their way together. They come to this realisation after saving a mother and son who’ve been (unfairly) arrested by the Monster Hunt Bureau and witnessing their happiness just in being together despite the sticky situation they may be in.

Meanwhile Wuba, sad and alone, is happy to have found himself a surrogate family in the form of kindly Ben-Ben and the spiky Tu – a virtual mirror of Tianyu and Xiaolan when they first met. As in the first film, Tu originally takes Wuba in because he wants to sell him to Madame Zhu (Li Yuchun) – a woman he has cheated in both love and money, whose patience apparently knows no end. This brief episode of Wuba and his two new uncles is a subversive one in terms of mainstream Chinese cinema, and unlike the early union of Tianyu and Xiaolan there is little comedy in the easy coupledom of Ben-Ben and Tu who become two men raising a child together in relative happiness. This is perhaps the reason for the strange coda in which Tu and Ben-Ben have a brief chat about girls, relegating Tu’s earlier awkward admission of affection one more of brotherhood than love and affirming their total heterosexuality (both the female love interests are also from the same species, just to make things crystal clear).

Yet the message is strong – families want to stay together, parents want to be with their kids and kids want to be with their parents so maybe the world should just let them, even if those families aren’t quite like everyone else’s. With much better production values than the first film and a much more consistent tone, Monster Hunt 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor though it treads more or less the same ground and is content to meander between several set pieces with more than a few seemingly extraneous sequences of Tu getting up to mischief or Xiaolan using her feminine wiles on a nerdy inventor (though these at least add to the more complex arc of the feminised Tianyu and masculine Xiaolan each moving towards a gender neutral centre). Monster Hunt 2 maybe more of the same and little more than the next instalment in a series, but nevertheless its winning charm and gentle warmth are enough to ensure there will still be devotees of Wuba ready to reserve their seats for the inevitable part three.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas. Screening locations for the UK, Ireland, US and Canada available via the official website.

International trailer (English 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)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

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)