Summer Palace (颐和园, Lou Ye, 2006)

Summer palace posterThe personal is political for Lou Ye. Much as he had in Purple Butterfly, Lou paints love as a spiritual impossibility crushed under the weight of political oppression, though this time he leaves his protagonists breathing but wounded. Summer Palace (颐和园, Yíhé Yuán) is a member of a not exactly exclusive club of films deemed too controversial for the Chinese censors’ board. In truth, there are a number of reasons Lou’s wilfully provocative film might have upset the government, but chief among them is that he breaks a contemporary cinematic taboo in setting the Tiananmen Square massacre as the political singularity which causes the implosion of our protagonists’ youth, rendering them stunned, arrested, and empty. Personal and national revolutions fail, leaving nothing in their wake other than existential ennui and an inability to reconcile oneself to life’s disappointments.

In the late ‘80s, Yu Hong (Hao Lei) gets a scholarship to study in Beijing and prepares to leave her home in a small rural town near the North Korean border for the promise of big city life. Yu Hong craves sensation, she wants to live life intensely and the inability to connect on a true, existential level leaves her feeling progressively empty and confused. A chance meeting with another girl in her dorm, Li Ti (Hu Lingling), brings her into contact with Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) – a brooding intellectual and latterly the love of Yu Hong’s life, though one she becomes too afraid to embrace.

Yu Hong’s personal revolution, her quest for spiritual fulfilment largely through physical contact, occurs in tune with the chaos of her times. This is Beijing in 1988. The air is tense, anxious, as if hurtling towards an unavoidable climax. Yu Hong is not particularly political. She sees the protests, perhaps she agrees with them, but when she boards a pick up truck full of students waving banners and singing songs she does so more out of excitement and curiosity than she does out of commitment to political reform. Her tempestuous love affair with Zhou Wei mirrors the course of her city’s descent into chaos. Everything goes wrong, her heart is broken, something has been damaged beyond repair. Tiananmen Square, referenced only obliquely, serves as the event which traps an entire generation shell shocked by the brutal obliteration of their youthful hopes for a better world, leaving them imprisoned in a kind of limbo which prevents the natural progression from the innocence of youth to seasoned adulthood. They want the world to be better than it is but had the belief that it ever could be so brutally ripped away from them, that they are left with nothing more than a barren existence in which they cannot bear to touch the things they desire because they cannot believe in anything other than their own suffering.

Yu Hong’s early college days, marked as they are by rising anxiety, are also jubilant and filled with possibility. She dances innocently, nervously in a disco with Zhou Wei while a cheerfully wholesome piece of ‘50s American pop plays in the background – it’s this image Lou returns to at the end of the film. Something beautiful and innocent has been destroyed by an act of political violence, ruining the hearts of two soulmates who are now forever divided and bound by this one destructive incident. Yu Hong drops out of university and goes back to the country, bouncing around small town China occasionally thinking of Zhou Wei as an idealised figure of the love she has sacrificed, while Zhou Wei goes to Berlin and occasionally thinks about Yu Hong and missed opportunities. When they meet again years later it’s not an act of fate, or faith, or love but a prosaic interaction that leaves them both wondering “what now?”. There’s no answer for them, the future after all no longer exists.

As in Purple Butterfly, Lou makes history the enemy of love. Yu Hong didn’t ask for Tiananmen Square, she wasn’t even one of its major participants simply a mildly interested bystander, but she paid for it all the same in the way that history just happens to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The youthful impulsivity, the naivety and craving for new sensations and expressions of personal freedom are eventually crushed by an authoritarian state, frightened by the pure hearted desire of the young to take an active role in the direction of their destinies. The quest for love and freedom has produced only loss and listlessness as a cowed generation lives on in wilful emptiness, their only rebellion a rejection of life.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 10th September 2018.

Short scene from the film featuring “Don’t Break My Heart” by Heibao (Black Panther) which is also referenced in the poster’s tagline.

Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Raman Hui, 2015)

Monster Hunt posterA runaway box office hit and veritable pop culture phenomenon, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Zhuō Yāo Jì) is nothing more than a slice of family friendly entertainment in the vein of a dozen other live-action/animation hybrid fantasy films. The monsters are cute, yes, and there is enough darkness here to rival Lord of the Rings, but there’s a little more going on under the surface of this otherwise heartwarming tale of a persecuted minority and its hidden princeling. A family drama of epic proportions, Monster Hunt speaks directly to China’s left behind children and to those who, perhaps, were worried their destiny had always been misplaced.

Set sometime in the distant fantasy past, Monster Hunt takes place in a universe in which men and Monsters co-exist but, owing to their defeat in a war, the Monsters have been forced back into the forests and mountains away from humankind many of whom no longer even believe they exist. However, there is fresh strife among the Monsters forcing a pregnant Queen to flee along with her retainers, straying into the human world in hope of saving her baby. Luckily she finds herself in a small village presided over by a kindly mayor with a limp, Tianyin (Jing Boran), who is also the son of a long missing Monster Hunter but much prefers domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing to hunting Monsters. The Queen manages to “transfer” her baby to Tianyin just before she dies, leaving him quite literally holding the baby assisted only by cynical bounty hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe).

Inspired by ancient folklore, Monster Hunt plays the chosen one trope to the max as Tianyin wrestles with his destiny while the baby, a true king displaced from his throne, awaits in ignorance. Like many contemporary fantasy tales, Monster Hunt also revels in subverting genre norms with its noticeably feminised hero. Tianyin is the son of a great warrior, but it’s his grandmother who practices kung fu and goes out looking for her long lost son, while Tianyin professes his love of domesticity, staying home cooking and sewing. His simplicity and softness is contrasted with the more masculine figure of the cynical Monster Hunter Xiaolan who becomes Tianyin’s casual love interest and the putative “father” in the loose family unit they form with the tiny baby radish-like figure they eventually christen Wuba.

The formation of a family unit in itself proves a problematic development for both Tianyin and Xiaolan who have both been abandoned by their own families and left to fend for themselves (with almost opposite results). Resentful at having been cast out by his apparently “heroic” father, Tianyin has definite views about the nature of fatherhood and the mistakes he does not wish to repeat with his own children while Xiaolan has grown wary of forming attachments altogether and strives to remind herself that she is only looking after Wuba until he’s big enough to sell on the Monster Hunter black market. Nevertheless, the pair cannot help becoming “accidental” parents even if they must first make a mistake they later need to rectify in trying to abandon their charge for financial gain. Tianyin “repeats” the “mistake” of his own father but finally comes to understand it for what it was – a father’s sacrifice of his paternal love to keep his child safe. Something that will certainly ring true for children who may be living apart from their own parents for reasons they don’t quite understand.

Yet a fairytale darkness is never far away as Tianyin and Xiaolan consider selling off little Wuba to a dodgy mahjong obsessed Monster fence (Tang Wei) who apparently knows how valuable he is but is planning to sell him to a local restaurant anyway. Despite the fact that everyone has forgotten Monsters exist, Monster meat is a delicacy reserved for the super rich (a subtle dig at China’s eat anything that can’t run faster than you philosophy ushered in by the sight of caged monkeys at the roadside) and little Wuba does look quite like a tasty daikon radish.

Cute monsters getting chopped up and eaten may be a horror too far for sensitive young children (if it weren’t for the fact the Monsters are all inspired by veggies Monster Hunt might be the greatest proselytising mechanism for vegetarianism the world has ever seen) but rest assured, little Wuba is quite the resourceful little tyke and he does after all have a grand destiny awaiting him. A tribute to unlikely heroes, gentle men, feisty women, and atypical families, Monster Hunt is an oddly subversive family friendly adventure and one which has clearly hit its mark in capturing the hearts of a whole generation who will doubtless be excited for the further adventures of Wuba as he moves closer towards his own Messianic destiny.


International trailer (English captions)

The Vanished Murderer (消失的凶手, Law Chi-leung, 2015)

vanished-murderWhen The Bullet Vanishes was first released back in 2012, the film received unfair criticism in some quarters due to its enormous debt to Guy Richie’s then popular Sherlock Holmes. Derivative or not, The Bullet Vanishes remains an innovative and intricately plotted cerebral thriller, primed to launch the return of its central detective, former prison warden, Inspector Song (Sean Lau). Only slightly late, Song is finally back to address another series of baffling deaths and conspiracies in 1930s China only this time he’s landed in a pulpy LA noir rather than the cowboy-tinged action of the previous film.

The Murderer Vanishes (消失的凶手, Xiāoshī de Xiōngshōu) revolves around Song’s Irene Adler figure, Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan), whom we saw Song making frequent prison visits to in The Bullet Vanishes. Song is called to the prison because Fu Yuan has mysteriously disappeared from her cell leaving only a Shawshank Redemption inspired red herring behind her. The strange bond between Song and Fu Yuan in which they chastely dance around each other in the ultimate long distance romance, dictates that Fu Yuan send him a letter to tell him exactly where she is so he can come and arrest her all over again.

After a hot date at the cemetery, Fu Yuan takes Song to a philosophy lecture in which the speaker, Professor Hua (Gordon Lam), muses on a thought experiment in which he discusses the ethical problem of making an active choice to sacrifice one life in order to save multiple lives and whether making such a choice is any different from committing a murder – i.e. pushing another person in front of a moving train to stop it hitting a crowd further up the track. The experiment is eerily echoed when a body falls out of the sky just as Song is about to re-arrest Fu Yuan, allowing her to once again slip away.

Song investigates and is arrested only to be recruited to solve the mystery of why so many of the workers at evil corporate boss Gao Minxiong’s (Guo Xiaodong) string of factories are suddenly leaping to their deaths whilst wearing shirts bearing slogans which decry him as a slave driver.  Song is assisted by the girl he jilted at the alter eight years ago with whom he was improbably reunited on the train, Chang Sheng (Li Xiaolu), and a local policeman, Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan), as well as the philosophy professor but somehow this must all be linked to Fu Yuan’s mysteriously timed prison escape.

The biggest departure The Vanished Murderer has to deal with is the absence of co-star Nicholas Tse. Rather than give Song a new partner or attempt to ditch the buddy format altogether, Tse’s role has been awkwardly split into four with Song surrounded by his cohorts of varying stripes but never achieving the same kind of bond that made The Bullet Vanishes so satisfying. Many of the first film’s plot elements are also ported over wholesale, rehashing the same political subplots and betrayals but without the subtlety.

One again we have an exploited work force of factory workers suffering at the hands of a heartless capitalistic sociopath. Gao Minxiong is seen early on collaborating with a British businessman who warns him about the effects of the depression only for Gao to explain the “measures” he’s taken which include burning harvests to increase demand and therefore drive prices up, as well as closing factories to increase competition for jobs and therefore drive wages down. Gao also has a private militia he uses for strike breaking and indiscriminate massacre. The people suffer while the elites prosper, it’s an old story.

The Bullet Vanishes may have had one foot in the Old West, but The Vanished Murderer has stayed in the same geographical area whilst jumping fifty years into the future in terms of tone. Gone are the lawless, dingy back alleys and saloons – The Murderer Vanishes takes place under bright sunlight, in an airy city surrounded by green country estates. Song has even switched up his zany bowler hat from the first film for a wide brimmed fedora and the musical score also pulls in some Spanish guitar to ram home that West coast style. This is a land of flappers and jazz babies, filled with art deco elegance and international flair.

For all that it’s a pulp world too and as such exempts itself from the need to make any kind of real sense. The central mystery is nowhere near as compelling as that of The Bullet Vanishes and resolves in a less than satisfactory manner. In the great pulp tradition action set pieces become increasingly ridiculous until the point Song and Fu Yuan attempt to escape by riding a horse through a building. The film’s finale takes place entirely on a train and does at least make good use of its CGI budget even if it’s a disappointingly simple way to conclude.

A slight misstep after the well plotted charm of The Bullet Vanishes, The Vanished Murderer can’t live up to the promise of the first film. The relationship between Song and Fu Yuan ought to take centre stage but the pair spend too much time apart to make it work and the film kills off a promising ongoing plot strand for the sake of cheap melodrama in the closing moments. Still, The Vanished Murderer provides enough thrills of its own even if lighter in tone and with a weaker central mystery to make the continuing adventures of Inspector Song worth investigating.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)