Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Wang Ran, 2017)

Doesn’t everyone deserve their time to shine? For the students at the music conservatoire at the centre of Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ), a glittering future may be difficult to imagine. Another in the recent series of Chinese youth comedies, Wang Ran’s debut may clearly be inspired by Japanese anime, but adds a noticeably patriotic beat in making its heroes devotees of traditional music facing off against the “pretentious” threat of European classical. 

The academy is strictly divided along class lines with the snooty classical kids pretty much ruling the roost. When an actual fight breaks out between factions, the conservative headmaster sides with the classical club and erects a series of prison-style gates to confine the folkists to their own corridors while also banning them from staying too late or eating in their rooms. Airy fairy nerd Chen Jing (Xu Lu) hadn’t previously cared about the folk vs classical drama, but is pulled into it when she falls for handsome pianist Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). That’s why she naively volunteers to be a page turner for him at a big concert, not quite understanding she’s being made fun of. Determined to prove herself to him, she decides to form a traditional folk ensemble but finds it difficult to get recruits, ending up with a group of four otaku girls everyone else is scared of who only agree on the condition that she buys them all plastic model kits every week. 

A true underdog story, Our Shining Days makes heroes of its “losers” whose uncool tastes have seen them roundly rejected not only by their fellow students but also by their families. Chen Jing is a talented Yangqin player, but conflicted in her ambivalence towards traditional Chinese music. Internalising a sense of shame about her niche interest, she half convinces herself that she’s only learned yangqin because her parents made her and is not truly invested in the instrument, which is why she immediately assumes they’ll dissolve the band as soon as her mission of winning Wang’s heart is over. 

The otaku students, however, rediscover a love of the admittedly fantastical music, giving it a cool modern edge inspired by their love of anime and games. The otaku live in the “second dimension” and have already more or less othered themselves, but begin to actively enjoy being part of the band along with the communal pleasure of making music together. Meanwhile, the scruffy Chen Jing begins learning a little about life from the sacred otaku texts of her new friends, only to take their shojo manga-style advice a little too seriously in deciding to make a public confession to Wang which brutally backfires. Wang is planning to go abroad to study classical music, he’s not interested in lowly yangqin players. 

The class drama reaches a crescendo when the conservative headmaster announces that as of the following year the school will cease admitting students playing traditional instruments altogether. Spurred on by Chen Jing and the otaku girls, the oppressed folkists finally find the strength to resist, rising to prove there is a viable ensemble for folk instruments to counter the “sophisticated” classicists. The classicists adopt the motto “let my music be the soundtrack of war”,  but the folkists are all about team effort and peaceful co-existence. When the local inspector reminds the headmaster there is no conflict in music and expresses disapproval of the school’s prison-like environment, the folk ensemble, rather than trying to defeat the classicists, come up with a “better” solution in which they can work together so that folk music can still be heard as part of the big end of year concert. 

A cheerful coming of age tale which ends in the message that there’s a place for everyone and that those who are generous of spirit are the likeliest to prosper and be happy as they do, Our Shining Days also has its share of high school drama as the scruffy Chen Jing gradually progresses to towards a more mature elegance while her best friend Li (Peng Yuchang) gets the courage to confess his feelings in a much less ostentatious manner. Subtly patriotic in its suggestion that traditional folk music is “better” than the false sophistication of pretentious Western classical, the central messages are of love, acceptance, and authenticity, insisting there’s a place for everyone who comes with an equally egalitarian spirit. 


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix

Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to compete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents’ love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Vivian Qu, 2017)

©22 HOURS FILMS

angels wear whiteChinese cinema has been preoccupied with stories of unfairness and systematic corruption for quite some time but they’ve rarely been as difficult to process and horribly universal as Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Jiāniánhuá). A storm of conflicting social attitudes leaves young women open to the most terrible of manipulations while well placed men are infinitely protected by a system of deference and complicity. Women must be pure, angelic and draped in neutral white – a concept so deeply entrenched that it barely needs manipulating to be used as a tool of control.

Teenage runaway Mia (Wen Qi) is working illegally at a seaside hotel. Wandering the beach before work, she’s rudely shoved out of the way by two hyperactive little girls who want to take a selfie underneath a colossal statue of Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from the Seven Year Itch. Meanwhile, several sets of newlyweds are busy taking romantic photos in the picturesque though currently overcast coastal environment. Mia spots the girls again later when she is (illicitly) covering reception for a colleague and they’re brought in by a middle-aged man. Mia finds the man suspicious but seeing as he books two rooms lets it go. She pauses slightly when the still over excited girls order themselves a few beers, but delivers the drinks and leaves the girls to it. Remaining worried she keeps her eyes on the CCTV and eventually spots the man trying to enter the girls’ room but does nothing other than record it on her smartphone.

The two girls, Xiaowen (Zhou Meijou) and Xinxin (Jiang Xinyue), are so young they don’t even quite understand what’s happened to them except for a lingering feeling that they’ve been involved in something bad that will get them into trouble. Xiaowen, on the surface at least the more affected by the incident, has a difficult relationship with her parents which leaves her with no one to confide in and no one to defend her. Xinxin eventually tells her mother what happened and we realise the perpetrator is a police chief and the boss of Xinxin’s father who had made him a godparent as a way of currying favour at work leaving Xinxin’s mother to make the reasonable accusation that he has, in fact, sold his daughter to his boss for the prospect of career advancement. Where Xinxin’s mother is angry with her husband but apparently solicitous for her injured daughter, Xiaowen’s mother projects her own guilt for her neglectful parenting onto hers whom she slaps for apparently “slutty” behaviour, cutting her hair short like a boy’s and taking away her pretty dresses and makeup.

Sitting alone in the waiting room outside, Xinxin asks Xiaowen what a “hymen” is while her mother can be heard wailing loudly from inside the consultation room. The issue becomes less that a predatory man has caused irreparable harm to two innocent young girls, but that their honour has been destroyed along with prospects of future marriage now that they are no longer virgins. The problem is not that the girls are not believed or even that they are ignored. On the contrary, their story seems to be accepted to the point that it must be erased. The police chief himself remains unseen but his underling goes to great lengths to hush the case up, attempting to pay off Xinxin’s parents with the promise of healthy financial support on the condition that they drop the charges to avoid embarrassment to the chief but also, it is implied, to Xinxin who will avoid the social stigma of being the girl involved in the high profile rape case. Eventually reuniting with her father, Xiaowen finds a defender but even his outrage is not enough to see justice done as the full weight of a corrupt system comes together to crush his little girl for simply continuing to tell the truth.

It’s easy to ask why Mia did nothing to prevent such an obviously inappropriate situation but then again she is just a girl herself, not so much older than Xinxin and Xiaowen, and would not have been able to help beyond knocking the door to try and scare the man off. She should not have been manning reception in the first place, and is afraid of getting into trouble because she has no ID papers and is working illegally. Because of way the system works in China, Mia would need to go back to her home town get a genuine ID card which she seems reluctant to do leaving her open to multiple kinds of exploitation as she considers the best way to buy a fake one that will allow her to continue working in more legitimate businesses. Her life has been hard and she has come regard compassion as a weakness.

Mia also has to put up with the worrying advances from her friend and big sister figure Lily’s (Peng Jing) boyfriend, Jian (Wang Yuexin), who openly asks if she’s a virgin because he knows people who will pay good money for that kind of thing. Even Lily who seems more worldly wise is not immune to Jian’s heartlessness, later coming into work with rope burns on her wrists and dark glasses to hide a black eye. Before returning to her home village, Lily visits a clinic for painful surgery to reconstruct her hymen so that she can still get married in overly conservative China.

The statue of Marilyn Monroe seems incongruous enough but speaks to all of those same double standards which continue to disrupt the lives of these young women as she girlishly pushes down the skirt on her pure white dress, awkwardly posed on her matching bright white heels. Marilyn is sexualised innocence at its most uncomfortable. The only real defendant the girls have is a dogged lawyer who treats them with kindness, listening to their story with patience and respect in an attempt to uncover the real truth aside from what anyone may want to hear to think they are supposed to say.

Asked by an almost outsmarted policeman why she can’t find something more productive to do, the lawyer replies that there are simply “too many of these kinds of cases”. “Justice” remains a hollow ideal, an essentially fake construct designed to maintain the position of the powerful rather than protect the weak. Unrelentingly bleak but with the faintest glimmers of hope offered by Mia’s final decision, the female solidarity of the determined lawyer, and the newly rediscovered relationship of Xiaowen and her dad, Angels Wear White is a necessarily difficult and challenging piece but one which arrives at just the right time trailing a series of uncomfortable in its wake.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Clip (Mandarin with English subtitles)