Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Zhang Yang, 2019)

Having turned his attention to Dali in China’s Yunnan province, Zhang Yang’s third in a series of documentaries exploring the area Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Māo Māo Guǒ Kǎoshì Jì) takes a micro view of the modern society through the trials and tribulations of one little boy, Qu Hongrui, as he tries to pass the eccentric “exam” to graduate from Mao Mao primary school which takes the form of a daylong scavenger hunt leading to an overnight camp at a picturesque river. Perhaps a look at changing educational methods in a system which is often criticised for an over reliance on rote learning and test scores, Zhang’s documentary is also a gentle exploration of the art of growing up as Hongrui finds himself at loss for a way forward when he discovers that he cannot simply insist on having his own way. 

When we first meet Hongrui, he’s on the first of his tasks which involves a trip to the local market where he is charged with shopping for the various vegetables on his list to be used later in the day. Though he is accompanied by an “observer” to make sure he’s never in any immediate danger or causing trouble to others, the purpose of the test is to force Hongrui to act independently, teaching him how to interact with shopkeepers, manage his money, and shop for himself. When he’s got everything on his list, he’s supposed to go to the next checkpoint and have his “passport” stamped so he can proceed to the next stage. 

That’s when his problems begin. The next stage is a rock climbing challenge in which the children are supposed to venture up a climbing wall and retrieve a flag with the letter they’ve been assigned. Hongrui, however, seems to be more afraid than most of the other kids and finds the wall a confusing challenge despite frequent instructions and words of support from below. Eventually he bursts into tears and begins screaming to be let down but eventually composes himself enough to be able to complete the task successfully. That’s something of a pattern which will be repeated. It seems that Hongrui isn’t very popular with his peers and is regarded as a crybaby, one girl eventually asking him “why do you like to cry so much?” after getting fed up with one of his angry episodes. 

The same thing happens again during the next challenge when he’s placed in a group with four girls and asked to blend the juices of the vegetables he collected to create new colours and make a group painting. Some of the kids want to make a blue colour and the others pink. After a quick look around the room shows them most of the other groups have gone with blue the girls lean towards pink, which upsets Hongrui to the extent that he runs back out to the examiner complaining “We’ve got a massive schism over colours”. Every time Hongrui encounters a problem, he tries to run to the grownups to sort it out, but the examiners like the observers aren’t permitted to get involved. These exercises are about socialisation and harmonious living. They’re supposed to teach the kids how to compromise and work out their differences peacefully so they can work as a team, but Hongrui still has fairly underdeveloped interpersonal skills and makes frequent mistakes when it comes to negotiating with his teammates. When he comes back from speaking with the examiner, the girls have already found a solution on their own, making a pretty purple colour that suits everyone equally. 

Hongrui’s rage and frustration lead him to make unwise decisions, telling the teacher he wants to leave the group because the girls wouldn’t listen to him even if it means he won’t get a badge for this task, only relenting when the examiner explains the entire group will fail if he leaves so his friends won’t get their lunch either. He runs into a similar problem when he’s supposed to put a puzzle together as a clue to the next checkpoint but discovers that he’s lost a piece and concludes that another girl who has far more pieces than she needs must have picked it up. The girl insists the piece was in her pack to begin with and is therefore “hers” so she won’t help him, which proves very challenging to Hongrui who feels he’s been unfairly treated. He tries to appeal to the examiners again but they aren’t allowed to help, his observer explaining that he needs to learn to negotiate with others on his own. Sadly, though it appears not to benefit her in any way to hold on the puzzle piece, the girl continues to refuse to surrender it, perhaps irritated by Hongrui’s “accusation” that she took it from him, and eventually leaves him stranded, unable to move on the next task. 

This however a primary school exam so happily Hongrui is able to continue on his journey though it might be debatable how much he’s actually learnt. Crying hot, rage-fuelled tears in the car apparently unashamed to be so emotional in front of another girl in the same position who is increasingly exasperated by his “childishness”, Hongrui is reminded that he needs to learn to control his emotions as he grows up, but does at least seem to calm down enough to cheerfully make his way towards the finish line. The kids are, by and large, alright as they learn how to live in the world and with each other, overcoming their problems together and having fun along the way.


Mao Mao Cool is represented by Fortissimo Films.

The Sound of Dali (大理的声音, Zhang Yang, 2019)

Following his portrait of an artist Up the Mountain, Zhang Yang returns to Dali for the second in a trilogy of films celebrating this small area provincial China which has become known for its beautifully preserved traditional buildings and picturesque views. As such, it has already become a draw for tourists, but Zhang’s documentaries aim to explore the area from a more local perspective. The Sound of Dali (大理的声音, Dàlǐ de Shēngyīn), as the title suggests, captures the unique soundscape of the small city through four seasons as man and nature create their own symphonies. 

With more a straightforwardly observational approach than either of the other documentaries in the series, Zhang resists narrative but shows us scenes of Dali from unexpected angles beginning with the beauty of stormy skies filled with the perhaps ominous sound of rushing wind which soon gives way to snow. Ducks flap and fly, crash landing on water, while chickens strut and bees hum. Sheep and cows graze in the fields while oxen pull carts for the farmers labouring on the land. Women plant rice and later harvest it, shaking the sheaves to release the grain and making a music all of their own. 

Zhang cuts the sound of industry into an accidental symphony as a blacksmith bends and hammers metal, builders hammer wood, and engineers pummel the ground. Old women play their looms like lyres, and master carvers scrape wood into intricate designs with tiny, expert motions. 

Meanwhile, there is music of the more obvious kind in the singing of hymns in a Christian church, worship at a mosque, and rituals conducted by the farmers to ensure a good harvest. Others attend the local temple to make Buddhist offerings for perhaps much the same reason. Traditional opera takes place in the streets while buskers too add to the joyful sound of man-made music.

Zhang is keen to show us the sound of human industry in concert rather than conflict with nature. The seasons change, the skies darken, and sometimes the sound is frightening rather than harmonious, but there is life here at a nexus of the traditional and the modern. Colourful festivals fill the streets with processions of the old gods, farming is done the traditional way, and perhaps at times the sound of human voices drowns out the birds and rustle of the trees but does not destroy them. Meanwhile, a young man sets up a stand selling artisanal coffee and people dance and sing at the local markets enjoying family life as children play happily both amid the greenery and in the pleasant city streets. The young go to discos, and couples have their wedding photos taken against the backdrop of the beautiful local scenery. 

Perhaps cheating a little, Zhang cuts from an eagle soaring majestically above the landscape to drone footage giving us a birds’ eye view as we, for a moment, become “nature” too, observing the tremendous beauty of the land in all of its luscious greenery as the waterfalls tumble almost silently below. The Sound of Dali is one of harmony and happiness as human voices and the natural world blend as one in a great symphony of life in all its glorious cacophony.


The Sound of Dali is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Vortex (铤而走险, Jacky Gan Jianyu, 2019)

“Only with money are you treated like a person” according to cynical gangster Xia Tao, another embattled soul turning to the dark side to try and survive after multiple betrayals in a cruel and unforgiving society. Anchored by a standout performance from comedian Da Peng in a rare dramatic role, Vortex (铤而走险, Tǐng’érzǒuxiǎn) sees one feckless young man falling into a web of criminality after succumbing to the temptation of an easy fix to all his problems. As he and others will discover, however, actions have consequences and there are no victimless crimes. 

Liu Xiaojun (Da Peng) is an embittered young(ish) man left orphaned and resentful after his policeman father died on the job. Nominally a mechanic with his own repair shop he also has a self-destructive gambling problem that’s left him deep in debt to local mobsters. He tries to hit up an old friend, Brother Wan (Cao Bingkun), recently released from prison, but he offers him a job rather than money, explaining that it’s only crime adjacent not actually illegal. All he has to do is drive unregistered cars back to the depot where Wan can resell them, and he’ll get 10,000 a pop. Xiaojun isn’t really into crime so he’s reluctant to take Wan up on his offer, trying his policeman uncle (Cao Weiyu) for yet another loan instead, but when he blows that too in reckless gambling he realises he has no other choice. The plan goes badly wrong, however, when the car Xiaojun is supposed to pick up turns out to be occupied and he finds himself in a fight with the Xia brothers. He manages to get it back to the depot but there’s another problem. The car was carrying cargo, a little girl, Qiqi (Audrey Duo / Doo Ulantoya), hidden in the boot apparently at the centre of a kidnapping plot. 

Xiaojun wants to call the police, but Wan is against it. He urges him to dump Qiqi somewhere and hope the authorities find and return her to her parents, but Xiaojun finds himself keeping the little girl. When Qiqi’s frantic mother calls the cellphone that was left in the car he realises she’s worth around two million and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. After all, it’s a win/win. Xiaojun isn’t going to hurt Qiqi like the kidnappers might so he’s keeping her safe and he gets to pocket the money in return. 

So begins his series of moral justifications for the vortex of crime that began with his decision to drive the car for Wan which was itself caused by his gambling problem and addiction to quick fix solutions. Later, we can see that his self-destructive streak is a kind of despair, an act of self-harm taken in revenge against the unfairness of losing his father who apparently did everything right but paid a heavy price in attempting to serve justice. Xiaojun unfairly blames his uncle for failing to save his dad in choosing to do his job as a policeman and fiercely resists his well-meaning, paternal attempts to save him from his life of crime adjacent activity, but later perhaps comes to understand after unwisely becoming involved in the kidnapping plot, bonding with the innocent Qiqi, and then bitterly regretting his foolishness in placing her in danger to chase the money. 

Yet money, as Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) says, is only thing that counts and you’re nothing without it. Xia Tao too turned to crime following parental betrayal, no longer seeing the point in playing by the rules if all it gets you is a lifetime of righteous suffering. Wan’s bar hostess friend, Zhao Qian (Li Meng), seems to be mixed up in the plot too though as her role becomes clear we realise that she has also succumbed to a quick fix solution out of desperation, trying to save a man she loves but later describes as “only a friend” by resorting to desperate measures to ensure he gets a life saving operation. Even little Qiqi seems to feel betrayed by mum and dad, answering Xiaojun’s question about who she thinks loves her more with a sad “neither”, while asking not to be returned to her mother because she’s been stopping her seeing her father and she misses him.  

As we later find out, there might be quite a good reason for that which Qiqi is too young to understand, but still she wants to try and find him and seems cheerful enough with Xiaojun while he says he’ll help her. Until then, Xiaojun becomes an awkward paternal presence, touched by Qiqi’s earnestness and lost in a moral quagmire trying to work out where the best place to send her might be while still hoping to get his hands on the cash. Redeeming himself by, in a sense, paying the ransom by deciding to prioritise saving Qiqi from the Xia brothers, Xiaojun begins to extricate himself from the vortex of crime, rediscovering a more positive paternal presence of his own in forgiving uncle Wang and his own father in coming to an understanding of their choices through being forced to make his own. A minor condemnation of the modern China’s wealth obsession and growing social inequality, Vortex finds its villains less villainous than one might expect, succumbing to the slippery slope of criminality in desperation and a sense of abandonment in a society which seems content to leave them behind.


Vortex is represented by Fortissimo Films.

International Trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Fourth Wall (第四面墙, Zhang Chong & Zhang Bo, 2019)

Have you ever imagined what your life might be like if something had gone another way? Most of us like to think of how our lives might have been better if only we’d acted differently, but what if our idealised reality turns out to be even worse? That’s partly how it is for the hero(es) of Zhang Chong and Zhang Bo’s The Fourth Wall (第四面墙, Dì Sìmiàn Qiáng) as they find themselves confounded by the intrusion of an alternate reality but ultimately forced to face the traumatic past in order to pierce a mental rather than metaphorical fourth wall and access a “truer” reality. 

In the first “reality”, Liu Lu (played by the actress of the same name) is an isolated 30-something working on a rural dear farm in a mountain village. Her crisis moment comes when she realises one of the deer has escaped, she assumes through a small hole in the fencing which she later covers over with branches in case any of the others get the same idea. Lu tells her boss about the missing dear, but despite the fact he’s never lost one before in his long decades as a deer farmer, he tells her not to worry about it, even giving her a New Year bonus and telling her to have some fun over the holiday. Lu, however, ignores his advice and prepares to spend the evening alone with dumplings and the Spring Gala, but is interrupted by Ma Hai (Wang Ziyi), a childhood friend, who pushes his way into her home and refuses to leave. We get the impression that Hai is a persistent, perhaps unwanted suitor, but as he leaves irritated that his attentions have been rebuffed he stops to tell Lu that he has “a goddamn weird disease”. 

Taking pity on him, she invites Hai back inside where he explains that something strange has been growing in his brain, not a tumour more like memories of different life. Images of another self have started to creep into his consciousness, and in this other reality there is also a Lu who works at a supermarket in the city where she dresses in elegant saris and dances enticingly to sell a mysterious vision of the “exotic East” while handing out pamphlets on behalf of a travel agency. This Hai is apparently a darker figure, reaching the end his road long before the promised Madagascan paradise of Lu’s sales patter. We learn that he’s apparently on the run from something connected to the teenage incident which binds the pair together and has left the first reality’s Lu with a prominent scar on her face. The other Lu meanwhile had some success making her acting dreams come true, but later married and had a child only to divorce and be left with nothing much of anything. She is just as sad and defeated as the Lu with the scar, only in a slightly different way. 

“The fourth wall”, as we’re used to hearing it, refers to the invisible barrier between the show and the spectator, but it’s also even in that sense a two-way mirror between conflicting realities. We tell ourselves that the world on the other side of the fourth wall isn’t real, though the reverse might as well be true. We resent the fourth wall being broken because these streams aren’t supposed to cross, we aren’t supposed to be here and they aren’t supposed to see us even as we see them. What Lu has created in her mind is another kind of fourth wall comprised of wilful delusion, conjuring up alternate realities for herself revolving around a moment of trauma in her youth which binds her to Hai whose consciousness is also fractured by the same event. 

Hai, like the fugitive deer, is a memory that Lu has been trying to keep on one side of a wall but has apparently escaped as realities bleed uncomfortably one into the other. The other Hai and Lu sit on a literal theatre stage, also the site of Lu’s last stage performance in a play called “The Fourth Wall”, and debate themselves towards one kind of endgame while the first Hai and Lu desperately investigate and try to save themselves by interrupting their darker shadows. What Lu is being asked to do is end the suspension of her disbelief and acclimatise herself to a new “reality” shorn of her protective delusions. The first Hai berated her for holing herself up in the mountains when life is about “expectation and improvement”, “concentration and contentment”, but what she’s been doing is perhaps more like cocooning in creating a safe space in her mind which has now been punctured like that mysterious hole in the fence. To move forward, she will have to shatter an interior “fourth wall” to push into a more complete “reality” and towards a promised paradise, though who can really say if one “reality” is really more “real” than another.  


The Fourth Wall is represented by Fortissimo Films.