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)

Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Bao Bei’er, 2018)

Fat Buddies posterChinese cinema hasn’t exactly had the best record when it comes to dealing with atypical heroes, but then no cinema really has. Gazing at the poster for Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Pàngzi Xíngdòng Duì) – the debut directorial feature from actor Bao Beier who also stars, one can’t help but assume the next two hours will be one long joke at the protagonists’ expense, but to its credit Fat Buddies is not (entirely) the film it seems to be and, ironically enough, there is more going on beneath the surface than an excuse to have at a “permissible” target.

The hero, played by Bao Beier himself, is a very rotund security guard currently working in a hospital in Tokyo for reasons which will (mostly) be explained later. Though Hao is a cheerful and friendly man with a strong sense of justice, he is ostracised by the (strangely large number of) other guards and has no real friends save his extraordinarily beautiful Japanese wife. Hao’s life changes forever one day when another large Chinese man calling himself “J” arrives at the hospital and causes a ruckus by trying to escape without paying. J convinces Hao that he is an international super spy on a top secret mission and that he needs Hao’s help to get out of the hospital so he can save the world. Believing he is finally being given the chance to become the agent of justice he’s always dreamed of being, Hao is only too eager to oblige.

Strangely enough, the entire film takes place in Tokyo even though the heroes and antagonists are all Chinese. Even so, it never resorts to the comedic caricatures common in recent mainland cinema when depicting the Japanese with even the police characterised as dedicated and efficient if sometimes a little overzealous and misguided, though one does wonder if the setting was chosen solely for the sumo associations of the grand finale. There is however a degree of bite in Hao’s view of himself as a non-Japanese person living in Japan who is married to a Japanese citizen and speaks the language fluently but still remains an outsider both because of his unusual appearance and because of his nationality (with a mild implication from some that perhaps the two things are not entirely unrelated). In an early set piece, Hao and J find themselves trying to infiltrate an upscale party where they have unwittingly stolen the clothes of a pair of famous dancers and eventually end up improvising a strange routine to a bawdy song which is all about being a “foreigner” in Japan who “doesn’t understand Japanese but loves Sora Aoi” and then continues in a similarly lowbrow vein with a mix of Mandarin, international English, and intentionally broken Japanese.

Rather than a two hour fat joke – though there are a fair few of those in a recurrent motif of J getting stuck in things Pooh-style and losing his trousers in the process, the the major message is that the pair are fine as they are and apart from the aforementioned problem, their size is not a barrier to being able to do anything they want including taking on international spy missions. Despite his happy marriage, Hao still suffers from loneliness and low self-esteem due to a lifetime of being looked down and on belittled, unable to make friends because of prevalent social stigma towards those on the heavier side. The solution, however, is not a makeover or a crash diet but a gradual process towards Hao regaining his sense of self worth and realising he has plenty to offer the world despite what anyone else might say. Similarly J, who experienced rapid weight gain after a life threatening injury and also suffers from narcolepsy, proves that he is still able to do his job even if he benefits from having a partner around when he randomly falls asleep at inopportune moments.

Fat Buddies isn’t claiming to be high art and there is certainly enough of the low humour the title implies to keep those enticed by the poster happy enough, but there is also genuine heart in its odd couple buddy comedy as the two similarly under-appreciated big guys bond in their shared desire to reclaim their sense of dignity and refuse to be shamed or belittled just because of their size (even if they are otherwise quite bumbling and inefficient in their mission). Strangely uplifting, Fat Buddies is an extremely silly comedy starring two men in fat suits repeatedly bumping into things but like its heroes refuses to be bound by stereotypical conventions and manages to make heartwarming drama out of its admittedly ridiculous premise. 


Fat Buddies is currently on limited release in UK Cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Liquidator (心理罪:城市之光, Xu Jizhou, 2017)

The Liquidator posterGiven a strangely ‘80s nonsensical two word title, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator (心理罪:城市之光, Xīnlǐ Zuì: Chéngshì Zhī Guāng) is a retro throwback to the lurid macho pulp which has largely faded from the crime procedural since its ‘90s heyday. Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film follows last year’s Guilty of Mind as the second in the Fang Mu series only this time the eccentric profiler is played by marquee star Deng Chao rather than Guilty Mind’s Li Yifeng or Chen Ruo Xuan who starred in the Fang Mu TV drama, Evil Minds. A pulpy battle of wits between a crazed vigilante and a world weary cop, The Liquidator is already treading on some overly familiar territory but its main target is the rule of law apparently under threat of mob justice now that China too has entered the social media age.

Fang Mu (Deng Chao) is no longer a police officer after becoming the prime suspect in the disappearance of a man who escaped justice through judicial corruption, but he’s pulled back into the law enforcement fold when young policewoman Mi Nan (Cecilia Liu) is dispatched to get his profiling opinion on a difficult murder case. Calling himself “The Light of the City”, a vigilante killer is already amassing a collection of dedicated online followers thanks to his choice of targets which, to put it bluntly, are not law breakers just terrible people that most would like to get revenge on for one reason or another.

Originally reluctant, Fang Mu is soon hooked on the case only to realise that the crime scenes are being created entirely for his benefit – the killer is attempting to pull him into a battle of wits and taking innocent lives to do it. As it transpires the killer’s name, Light of the City, is inspired by something Fang Mu said in his graduation speech to the effect that the police are the light that shines in the darkness. The killer thinks the law doesn’t go far enough – his targets are bullying teachers, impious sons, and greedy lawyers, the immoral rather than the criminal. He exposes their transgressions online and then allows “netizens” to have their say. Netizens, as they have often been in the “real” world, are not a particularly understanding bunch and are firmly behind the “entertainment” the killer is providing, even down to the decision to live stream a murder.

Fang Mu’s defining trait is his liminal status as a law enforcement officer often pulled towards the dark side – hence why many of his colleagues think it’s perfectly possible that he’s guilty of the crime that got him kicked off the force. The vigilante’s “plan” is to pull him over the line by forcing Fang Mu to execute The City of Light and thereby become the thing he most fears. The Liquidator posits that a robust judicial system free from interference from both government and people is a prerequisite of a well functioning society and the police must be the shining beacons of these laws – if not even law enforcement obeys the law, then all is lost.

What transpires is a battle of minds between the brainy Fang Mu and the psychotic killer, but it’s also a battle for the soul of “society” which ought to place compassion and rationality over the sensationalism of trial by media and arbitrary mob justice. The killer works out his frustrations by proxy through attacking those who committed the same “crimes” which have led to their feelings of frustration and humiliation – chief among them being Fang Mu who has, apparently, offended solely in his continued excellence, but the killer’s personal vengeance is harsh and unforgiving, handing down a death sentence simply for unpleasant or anti-social behaviour.

Beginning in a promising vein, Xu nevertheless introduces his dedicated female cop only to sideline her in favour of Fang Mu before turning her into a mild love interest, potential victim, and sometime comic relief. Filled with macho histrionics (including, at one point, a gun fired in the air followed by a manly wail of grief), The Liquidator is an old fashioned action drama filtered through pulp noir and ‘90s horror with its grimy walls and dingy basements, but it straddles a fine line between ridiculous slasher serial killer thriller and serious cerebral procedural, landing somewhere around heroic bloodshed without the bromance. Ridiculous and melodramatic, Xu’s debut feature boasts excellent production design and innovative photography, but its slick aesthetic cannot overcome the more outlandish elements of the otherwise generic script.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)