City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Da Peng, 2017)

201708162324218235They built this city on rock and roll! Right in the middle of Ji’An, there’s a giant statue of an electric guitar with a plaque underneath it reading “The Heart of Rock” that was erected in memory of a legendary concert given by a super famous band, Broken Guitar, who happen to hail from the region. This being a particularly musical town, Broken Guitar continues to inspire young and old alike to pursue their musical dreams, but there is trouble on the horizon. Shady mobbed up developers want to tear down the Great Guitar and put flats there instead, which is not very rock and roll when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, shady musical agent Chen Gong (Da Peng), who was actually the agent for Broken Guitar at the time they broke up, is working on his latest venture – trying to turn three middle-aged, pudgy rockers into a Chinese K-pop act. Needless to say it’s not going well and Gong is perpetually cash strapped. When he receives an unsolicited call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a Ji’An resident who wants him to help promote a local concert as a kind of benefit to help save the Great Guitar, Gong isn’t interested and quotes him a ridiculous sum of money only to see it instantly pop-up in his account. Jumping straight on a train, Gong is met at the station by a rapturous welcome parade which includes a marching band and kids throwing garlands but quickly figures out that Hu Liang is every bit as much of a schemer as he is. Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band and needs Gong to help him find one.

Once again, the conflict is between cynicism and artistic integrity as a group of misfits comes together to help stop a monument to true rock being torn down by soulless suits. Gong, as we later find out, had musical dreams himself but, after having gone against his father’s wishes to pursue a musical career, was forced out of the conservatoire after an accident robbed him of the feeling in two of his fingers and he became too depressed to sing. Having lost his faith in music, Gong has sold out and become a cynical money man, cutting deals anywhere and everywhere he can. Rather than work on the “unique” sound of the guys he was mentoring, he’s obsessed with the idea of sending them to Korea to get plastic surgery, and turning them into some kind of K-pop inspired Chinese song and dance group.

Hu Liang, meanwhile, is just as much of a con man but his heart is in a better place. Only two people show up for his auditions to join the band – jaded alcoholic with a broken leg, Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), and a drummer from Taiwan who calls himself “Explosive” (Li Hongqi) and sits with his back to the audience. The other bandmates include a former member of Broken Guitar now a gynaecologist (Han Tongsheng) whose daughter has forbidden him from playing rock and roll, and a little girl (Qu Junxi) who’s a whizz on the keyboards despite the disapproval of her Taekwondo loving mother who thinks things like music are a frivolous waste of time. Together they face various obstacles in their quest to save the great guitar and the spirit of rock and roll itself but finally discover that the true spirit of rock lies in getting the band back together for one last hurrah and channeling all into music.

Gong, tempted by the shady developer, is reminded that money can save lives but dreams cannot. Faced with a dilemma, Gong falls back into cynicism and rejects the new sense of fun and togetherness he’d found as a peripheral member of the band. Yet reuniting with his hopeless wannabes and easing back into his soulless Beijing life, he begins to realise what he’s been missing and rediscovers the the true nature of rock and roll which isn’t trapped inside a giant concrete guitar but inside the hearts of musicians who need their instruments to help bring it out. Dreams, it seems, save lives after all. An often hilarious, sometimes silly comedy, City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Féngrènjī Yduìis as full of heart as it encourages its protagonists to be, arguing for the importance of the right to express oneself in a society which often actively suppresses it.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

I am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

I-Am-Not-Madame-Bovary-posterFeng Xiaogang, often likened to the “Chinese Spielberg”, has spent much of his career creating giant box office hits and crowd pleasing pop culture phenomenons from World Without Thieves to Cell Phone and You Are the One. Looking at his later career which includes such “patriotic” fare as Aftershock, Assembly, and Back to 1942 it would be easy to think that he’s in the pocket of the censors board. Nevertheless, there’s a thin strain of resistance ever-present in his work which is fully brought out in the biting satire, I am not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián).

Truth be told, the adopted Western title is mostly unhelpful as the film’s heroine, Liu Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), is no romantic girl chasing a lovelorn dream to escape from the stultifying boredom of provincial bourgeois society, but a wronged peasant woman intent on reclaiming her dignity from a world expressly set up to keep people like her in their place. Feng begins the movie with a brief narrative voice over to set the scene in which he shows us a traditional Chinese painting depicting the famous “Pan Jinlian” whose name has become synonymous with romantic betrayal. More Thérèse Raquin than Madame Bovary, Pan Jinlian conspired with her lover to kill her husband rather than becoming consumed by an eternal stream of romantic betrayals.

Xuelian has, however, been betrayed. She and her husband faked a divorce so that he could get a fancy apartment the government gives to separated people where they could live together after remarrying sometime later. Only, Xuelian’s husband tricked her – the divorce was real and he married someone else instead. Not only that, he’s publicly damaged her reputation by branding her a “Pan Jinlian” and suggesting she’s a fallen woman who was not a virgin when they married. Understandably upset, Xuelian wants the law to answer for her by cancelling her husband’s duplicitous divorce and clearing her name of any wrongdoing.

Xuelian’s case is thrown out of the local courts, but she doesn’t stop there, she musters all of her resources and takes her complaint all the way to Beijing. Rightfully angry, her rage carries her far beyond the realms a peasant woman of limited education would expect to roam always in search of someone who will listen to her grievances. When no one will, Xuelian resorts to extreme yet peaceful measures, making a spectacle of herself by holding up large signs and stopping petty officials in their fancy government cars. Eventually Liu Xuelian becomes an embarrassment to her governmental protectors, a symbol of wrongs they have no time to right. These men in suits aren’t interested in her suffering, but she makes them look bad and puts a stain on their impressive political careers. Thus they need to solve the Liu Xuelian problem one way or another – something which involves more personal manipulation than well-meaning compromise.

Bureaucratic corruption is an ongoing theme in Chinese cinema, albeit a subtle one when the censors get their way, but the ongoing frustration of needing, on the one hand, to work within a system which actively embraces its corruption, and on the other that of necessarily being seen to disapprove of it can prove a challenging task. Xuelian’s struggles may lean towards pettiness and her original attempt to subvert the law for personal gain is never something which thought worthy of remark, but her personal outrage at being treated so unfairly and then so easily ignored is likely to strike a chord with many finding themselves in a similar situation with local institutions who consistently place their own gain above their duty to protect the good men and women of China.

A low-key feminist tale, Xuelian’s quest also highlights the plight of the lone woman in Chinese society. Tricked by unscrupulous men, she’s left to fend for herself with the full expectation that she will fail and be forced to throw herself on male mercy. Xuelian does not fail. What she wants is recognition of her right to a dignified life. The purpose of getting her divorce cancelled is not getting her husband back but for the right to divorce him properly and refute his allegations of adultery once and for all. Xuelian wants her good name back, and then she wants to make a life for herself freed from all of this finagling. She’s done the unthinkable – a petty peasant woman has rattled Beijing and threatened the state entire. Making oneself ridiculous has become a powerful political weapon. All of this self-assertion and refusal to backdown with one’s tail between one’s legs might just be catching.

Adding to his slightly absurdist air, Feng frames the tale through the old-fashioned device of an iris. Intended to recall the traditional scroll paintings which opened the film, the iris also implies a kind of stagnation in Xuelian’s surroundings. Her movements are impeded, her world is small, and she’s always caught within a literal circle of gossip and awkward, embarrassing scenes. Moving into the city, Feng switches to a square instead – this world is ordered and straightened but it’s still one of enforced rigidity, offering more physical movement but demanding adherence to its strict political rules. Only approaching the end does something more like widescreen with its expansive vistas appear, suggesting either that a degree of freedom has been found or the need to comply with the forces at be rejected but Xuelian’s “satisfaction” or lack of it is perhaps not worth the ten years of strife spent as a petty thorn in the government’s side. Perhaps this is Feng’s most subversive piece of advice, that true freedom is found only in refusing to play their game. They can call you Pan Jinlian all they please, but you don’t need to answer them.


I am not Madame Bovary was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Someone to Talk to (一句頂一萬句, Liu Yulin, 2016)

someone to talk to illustrated posterYouth looks ahead to age with eyes full of hope and expectation, but age looks back with pity and disappointment. Adapting her father’s novel, Liu Yulin joins the recent movement of disillusionment epics coming out of China with Someone to Talk to (一句頂一萬句, Yī Jù Dǐng Yīwàn Jù). Arriving at the same time as another adaptation of a Liu Zhenyun novel, I am Not Madame Bovary, Someone to Talk to takes a less comical look at the modern Chinese marriage with all of its attendant sorrows and ironies, a necessity and yet the force which both defines and ruins lives. Communism believes love is a bourgeois distraction and the enemy of the common good (it may have a point), but each of these lonely souls craves romantic fulfilment, a soulmate with whom they might not need to talk. The desire for someone they can connect with an elemental level becomes the one thing they cannot live without.

In the prologue, Aiguo (Mao Hai) is a young and dashing military officer about to marry the glowing Lina (Li Qian). The pair are blissfully happy and just so in love it might not be bearable. They can tell each other everything and they talk for hours. About to hand over their application to register a marriage, shaking with excitement, the new couple are interrupted by two extremely unhappy people there for the opposite reason – divorce. They’re in the wrong place, but someone asks them why they want to separate only for the woman to tersely reply that they don’t talk anymore. Aiguo and Lina look at them askance, they can’t envisage anything like that ever happening to them.

Flash forward a few years and Aiguo has left the military (along with its fancy uniform) far behind him to become a lowly cobbler in a rundown village. The marriage has obviously gone cold. Aiguo and Lina have a little daughter, Baihui (Li Nuonuo), but barely exchange a few words with each other and the ones there are are usually hot and angry. It seems to be an open secret in the village but eventually someone tips Aiguo off that Lina is spending too much time with a handsome local wedding planner, Jiang (Yu Entai). Not wanting to believe it, Aiguo brushes the rumour aside but then again it makes sense. Forcibly exposing his wife and her lover, Aiguo delivers an ultimatum but fails to repair the broken connection. When Lina leaves, he vows revenge, threatening to kill one or both of the illicit lovers but, unable to find her, is forced to address his ambivalent emotions in a more contemplative way.

Despite all of the hopes and expectations of Aiguo and Lina’s early romance, their life together has run its course, frustrated by a series of issues no one wants to talk about. No longer in the military, Aiguo’s economic status is low and unlikely to improve. Lina, perhaps, wants more than Aiguo can give her and the atmosphere in the house is tense and cold. Their daughter, Baihui, wants the latest toy car that her wealthier friends have but Aiguo, even if he could perhaps find the money, does not want to buy it for her, offering the excuse that it will distract her from her studies.

Told from Aiguo’s point of view the film is less kind to Lina who has found herself trapped in a marriage to a man she no longer loves. Her choice is not one of economic escape, though her equally married lover is clearly wealthier and better educated than Aiguo, but motivated by the simple desire to find “someone to talk to”. Jiang is married to a local baker whom Aiguo eventually tries to recruit into his revenge plot, cruelly ruining her happiness in enlightening her to the truth. In a much worse position than Aiguo, Xinting (Qi Xi) considers suicide not only out of the humiliation of being a betrayed spouse (turning violence on herself where Aiguo plans to turn it on others) but of the knowledge of the position that an abandoned wife finds herself in. Aiguo’s 39 year old unmarried sister Aixiang (Liu Bei) knows this pain well enough and has experienced a life of suffering and loneliness after herself attempting suicide following an unhappy love affair. Once married or not, prospects for women past the common age of marriage are not good and whatever anyone might have said about women holding up half the sky, it almost impossible to survive alone.

Everyone tells Aiguo to let Lina go but he stubbornly holds on to his anger and the pain of betrayal. After a while he decides to just forget about it but custom dictates he take some kind of revenge hence he plans to take a kind of vacation pretending to look for her. On his travels he finds more misery and heartbreak by re-encountering an old school friend whose marriage has also collapsed but she has learned to be much more stoical about it than Aiguo and gives him some valuable advice. Yes, everyone should talk more – especially about the things which are hard to discuss within the context of a marriage but equally the fact that Aiguo and Lina no longer talked was merely the manifestation of the unbridgeable gulf that had developed between them. There are no happy marriages in Someone to Talk to, perhaps love really is an unhelpful bourgeois distraction, but Aiguo at least still seems to believe in its potency even if it has betrayed him, finally realising he ought to be thinking about the future rather than living in the past. Perhaps no one is able to escape this particular kind of culturally enforced loneliness, but no one will ever find out by continuing to suffer needlessly trapped inside their own delusions.


Someone to Talk to was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

Happy Times (幸福时光, Zhang Yimou, 2000)

Happy TimesPossibly the most successful of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou is not particularly known for his sense of humour though Happy Times (幸福时光, Xìngfú Shíguāng) is nothing is not drenched in irony. Less directly aimed at social criticism, Happy Times takes a sideswipe at modern culture with its increasing consumerism, lack of empathy, and relentless progress yet it also finds good hearted people coming together to help each other through even if they do it in slightly less than ideal ways.

An older man in his 50s, Zhao is a bachelor afraid that life has already passed him by. Desperate to get married for reasons of companionship, he’s settled on the idea of finding himself a larger lady who, he assumes, will be filled with warmth (both literally and figuratively), have a lovely flat he can move into and will also be able to delight him with delicious food. Not much to ask for really, is it? Unfortunately, he ends up with a woman nicknamed “Chunky Mama” who is pretty much devoid of all of these qualities beyond the physical. She has an overweight son whom she spoils ridiculously and a blind stepdaughter she treats with cruelty and disdain.

Zhao is eager to please his new lady love and has told her a mini fib about being a hotel manager. He and his friend Li had been planning to open a “love hut” in an abandoned trailer in the forest but this plan doesn’t quite work out so when Chunky Mama asks him to give the blind girl, Little Wu, a job in the hotel Zhao is in a fix. Together with some of his friends, he hatches a plan to create a fake massage room in an abandoned warehouse where they can take turns getting massages from the girl in the hope that she really believes she’s working and making money for herself. However, though Little Wu comes to truly love her mini band of would be saviours she also has a yearning to find her long absent father who has promised to get her treatment to restore her sight, as well as a growing sense of guilt as she feels she’s becoming a burden to them.

Zhao decided to name his “love hut” the Happy Times Hotel – to him there’s really no difference between a “hut” and a “hotel”. In some ways he’s quite correct but the expectation differential isn’t something that would really occur to him, straightforward fantasist as he is. In fact, Zhao is a master of the half-truth, constantly in a state of mild self delusion and self directed PR spin as he tries to win himself the brand new life he dreams of through sheer power of imagination. His friends seem to know this about him and find it quite an amusing, endearing quality rather than a serious personality flaw.

Unfortunately this same directness sometimes prevents him from noticing he’s also being played in return. The ghastly stepmother Chunky Mama is in many ways a clear symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern society – brash, forceful, and materially obsessed. For unclear reasons, she’s hung on to Little Wu after the breakdown of the marriage to her father but keeps her in a backroom and forces her do chores while her own son lounges about playing video games and eating ice-cream. Ice-cream itself becomes a symbol of the simple luxuries that are out of reach for people like Little Wu and Zhao but quickly gulped down by Chunky Mama’s son with an unpleasant degree of thoughtless entitlement. The son is a complete incarnation of the Little Emperor syndrome that has accompanied the One Child Policy as his mother indulges his every whim, teaching him to be just as selfish and materially obsessed as she is.

For much of its running time, Happy Times is a fairly typical low comedy with a slightly surreal set up filled with simple but good natured people rallying round to try and help each other through a series of awkward situations but begins to change tone markedly when reaching its final stretch. Zhao and Little Wu begin to develop a paternal relationship particularly as it becomes clear that the father she longs for has abandoned her and will probably never return but circumstances move them away from a happy ending and into an uncertain future. The film ends on a bittersweet note that is both melancholy but also uplifting as both characters send undeliverable messages to each other which are intended to spur them on with hope for the future. “Happy Times Hotel” then takes on its most ironic meaning as happiness becomes a temporary destination proceeded by a long and arduous journey which must then be abandoned as the traveller returns to the road.


Retitled “Happy Times Hotel” for the UK home video release.

US release trailer (complete with dreadful voice over and comic sans):