Adoring (宠爱, Larry Yang, 2019)

Adoring poster 1Pets can often be a point of contention in your average romance. As often as they bring people together, they can also drive them apart which is perhaps why the tug of war over an unexpectedly orphaned dog has become such a trope in bitter divorce narratives. Cheerful New Year movie Adoring (宠爱, chǒngài), however, is 100% pet positive, showing us that shared love for an adorable little critter only brings people closer even if it takes a little while to get there.

Each of our animal loving heroes is connected through a network of friendship or simply by using the same, very cheerful, vet’s. Teenager Nan (Zhang Zifeng) uses her pet golden retriever Zha as an aid while looking after her best friend, Leyun (Leo Wu Lei), who has recently lost his sight through illness. Illustrator An Ying (Kan Qingzi) has a crush on a handsome reporter who lives in her building but is both extremely shy and incredibly germaphobic which poses a small problem for her when he suggests co-parenting a little kitten they rescue from under a car. An Ying’s boss Zhao Le (William Chan Wai-ting) has just married beautiful air hostess Fang Xin (Zhong Chuxi), but her beloved dog Seven is both extremely jealous and aggressively territorial making the start of their married life somewhat stressful. Fang Xin’s friend Fay (Yang Zishan) has been dating smartly turned out fund manager Li Xiang (Wallace Chung Hon-leung), but is concerned that they always meet in hotels. Fearing he has another woman at home, she barges into his swanky townhouse but is surprised to discover that his big secret is a pampered pretty pink pig called Bell that occupies his basement in the height of luxury. Meanwhile, divorced dad Gao Ming (Yu Hewei) has become overly attached to the family cat and fears his daughter Mengmeng (Li Landi) will take it back to the US with her, and rookie delivery driver Ah De (Guo Qilin) bonds with a stray dog who helps him navigate a complex housing estate.

Much as everyone loves their pets, the animals are in some way also conduits for love between people. Leyun has been struggling to accept the loss of his sight and the feeling that the world he’s always known is slipping away from him, which is why he takes it so badly hearing that Nan’s parents are thinking of moving to be closer to her new high school. Nan wants to help him, and chooses to do so by training Zha to be a guide dog, but Leyun only sees the ways in which his friend is trying to fob him off with a dog rather than embrace the warmth that was meant by her gesture. Likewise, Gao Ming, has become so attached to the cat, Hulu, because he sees it as the last remnant of his family, his wife having left him and taken their teenage daughter to the US. Mengmeng Skypes him to talk to the cat, and he worries about losing touch with her if she no longer needs to, but misses the fact that perhaps she merely lets him use the cat as an excuse because she knows he’s an awkward man who doesn’t know how to talk to her. Zhan Le, meanwhile, is understandably irritated by Seven’s jealously, but does his best to make friends with him because he loves his wife and she loves her dog. An Ying too begins to become less afraid of human contact thanks to unexpectedly bonding with the kitten, allowing her to grow closer to her crush.

Bell, however, continues to be a problem for Fay who can’t get her head around why her handsome, stylish boyfriend keeps a “dirty” farmyard animal in the basement, let alone why he lavishes so much luxury on her. Jealous of the pig, she misses all the ways that Bell is actually rooting her human’s love story and just trying to make friends with her while protecting the household like any good pet should, leading her to make a potentially disastrous decision only to realise her mistake just in the nick of time. Darkness also invades the tale of delivery driver Ah De who finds out his new friend is under threat from vicious gangs who apparently round up stray dogs and sell them to restaurants (!). Somewhat uncomfortably, the “gangsters” following Ah De have Korean names, but ultimately turn out to be the good guys and part of the rescue team when all the pet lovers come together to save the independent pup and convince him that it’s OK to love again. As Ah De said, people think they take care of their pets, but sometimes it’s them taking care of you.


Currently on limited release in UK/US/Canadian/Australian/New Zealand cinemas courtesy of CMC Pictures.

International 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)

Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wen Muye, 2018)

dying to survive poster 1Big box office Chinese comedy continues to run rings round the censors in Wen Muye’s Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wǒ Bú Shì Yào Shén). Not only does the film display on screen protest movements and tacitly imply that sometimes it’s OK to break the law when you think the law is wrong, but it also dares to criticise the state both for its slowness to introduce socialised healthcare provisions and for its failure to moderate increasing wealth inequality in the rapidly expanding modern economy.

In Shanghai in 2003, our hero Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) is the proprietor of a shop selling “Indian God Oil”. A divorced father, he is involved in a volatile custody dispute with his ex-wife who has remarried and wants to take their son abroad. Meanwhile, he’s behind on his rent and the god oil business is not exactly booming. That is, until he receives an unusual business proposition. Lv (Wang Chuanjun), a young man suffering from chronic myelogenous leukemia, asks him to begin importing a knock off Indian cancer drug which is a clone copy of the big brand variety at a fraction of the cost. The Indian drug is banned in China, but, Lv argues, not because it’s unsafe – only because Big Pharma is determined to protect its profits at the cost of people’s lives. Yong is not convinced. He knows there are heavy penalties for trafficking “fake” medications, but he needs money for his father’s medical care and to fight for custody of his son and so he decides to give it a go, if for mercenary rather than humanitarian reasons.

Yong’s transformation from schlubby snake oil peddler to (medical) drug dealer extraordinaire is a swift one and perhaps a satirical example of amoral capitalistic excess in his series of moral justifications which allow him to think he’s better than Big Pharma because the price he’s charging is lower even while knowing there are many people who still can’t afford it. Nevertheless, he quickly discovers he has competition. The even more dubious Professor Zhang (Wang Yanhui) claims to have a wonder drug that does the same thing, only it’s really paracetamol cut with flour. Zhang’s duplicity annoys Yong, not just from a competitive angle, but from a humanitarian one as he finds himself sympathising with the poor men and women who are unable to afford the extortionate fees imposed by the mainstream drug companies.

Afraid of the consequences, Yong gives up the drug trade and goes legit, becoming a successful textile merchant rich beyond his wildest dreams. Conveniently, it’s at this point his humanitarianism begins to reawaken as he’s brought back into contact with a sickly Lv who tells him that the smuggling ring has since dissolved. Zhang, irritated by Yong’s moralising, tells him that no real good will come of the “fake” drug trade because the “disease of poverty” can never be cured. Zhang does indeed have a point. These people are dying because they’re poor and have been deemed expendable. Yong’s change of heart may be all for the good, but it’s also fuelled largely by the fact he can now afford not to care very much about money which means he is free to care about other people’s welfare.

Then again, the police chief remonstrates with a conflicted underling that the law trumps sympathy. By this point, they have realised that the drug smuggling ring is close to a public service and people will die if they arrest the ringleaders, but their hands are also tied by the need to preserve order through enforcing the law. The law, however, is also corrupt as we see by the direct presence of Big Pharma sitting right in the incident room and asking the police to act on its behalf. Big Pharma would argue that it invested heavily in the research which led to the medical breakthrough and is entitled to reclaim its costs while those selling knockoffs are nothing more than pirates guilty of intellectual property theft, but the police has a duty to protect its people and a significant conflict when the “victim” is wilfully misusing its economic and political power to coerce it to do their dirty work.

This being a Mainland film, crime cannot pay but Yong manages to emerge from his straitened circumstances in heroic style as he stands both remorseful for having broken the law and angry that he even had to. A series of closing intertitles is quick to remind us that following the real life events which inspired Dying to Survive, the Chinese state began to reconsider its health polices, relaxed the law on “fake” drug trafficking, and took measures to make care more affordable to all. A subversive treat, Dying to Survive is the rare Chinese film which seems to suggest that civil disobedience is an effective weapon against an unfair society, making a hero of its lawbreaking humanitarian as he, ironically, learns to put the collective interest before the individual.


Dying to Survive was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)