G Affairs (G殺, Lee Cheuk-pan, 2018)

G Affairs poster 1“Many think Hong Kong is getting better, but I can tell you for sure Hong Kong is getting worse” says the dejected hero of Lee Cheuk-pan’s striking debut, G Affairs (G殺). Reminiscent of Fruit Chan’s landmark chronicle of handover malaise Made in Hong, G Affairs finds itself in a city once again in crisis where the young struggle to see a future, abandoned or misused by the older generation who think only of themselves in an increasingly nihilistic world of violence and transaction.

Lee opens with an arresting scene shot in 4:3 in which a teenage boy practices his cello while a scantily clad woman opens the door only to be dragged back to the couch by a burly policeman who proceeds to have his way with her until a severed head suddenly bounces in through the French doors. The story of how the head came to land there brings together a disparate collection of people from all walks of life – teenage cello player Tai (Lam Sen), his classmate Yuting (Hanna Chan), her autistic friend Don (Kyle Li), her corrupt cop dad “Master Lung” (Chapman To Man-chak), former sex worker stepmother Mei (Huang Lu), and high school teacher Markus (Alan Luk Chun-kwong) with whom Yuting has been experimenting with oral sex.

Today’s lesson is brought to us by the letter G – chosen by Don as his favourite letter in the Western alphabet connected as it is to many of his beloved computer words, but reminiscent to Yuting of a human skull with its jaw hanging open. Above it all, Yuting resents her fellow students at the elite high school, especially the immature boys who nickname her “G” behind her back for a number of reasons ranging from an unflattering comparison to a busty classmate and the fact that her stepmother was a sex worker the slang word for which sounds like G in Chinese. Tai, meanwhile, is not well liked either and also considers himself superior to his surroundings, proclaiming that only losers need friends and frequently dobbing in his classmates for their bullying behaviour. Don, a few years older, is associated with another G word – “gay” which people seem to assume him to be for unclear reasons, and is an outcast because of his autism.

The three seem to be more or less abandoned by their parents. Tai lives alone, a melancholy musician who believes that “things of value cannot be found in the world” only in music, literature and art, while his parents have long since departed in search of riches. “A family that’s never home is not a family” he explains to mainlander Mei who hoped to find a new life for herself in Hong Kong but even with her present “family” feels even more alone than she ever had before. Her stepdaughter Yuting intensely resents her, regarding her father’s affair with Mei as the primary cause of her mother’s gastric cancer and subsequent death. Yuting also resents her father, ashamed of his embarrassing gangster antics and tendency to spout high minded quotes to mask his essential superficiality. Neglecting his daughter, Lung positions himself as a kind of father figure to Don to whose parents own an internet cafe which facilitates some of Lung’s dirty work.

Dirty work is something of a Lung speciality but as Tai says, he’s not even that bad a man merely someone trying to make a fast buck in the burgeoning Hong Kong underworld. Calling himself “Master Lung”, he thinks of himself as maintaining his own kind of order – “one country, two systems” as Yuting later ironically describes her complicated home life, but may actually be on the “better” side of law enforcement as we witness the legitimate police waterboard a terrified Don who is largely unable to answer their questions in the way they insist on asking them, and physically abuse a guilty Markus while threatening to expose his illicit relationship with Yuting and, it turns out, her stepmother Mei. Another middle-aged hypocrite, Markus confesses only to introducing Mei and her sex worker sister to his church group in the belief that they “deserved salvation”.

That may not be a view commonly held by most as Mei finds out during an impassioned conversation with Yuting’s headmistress who berates her for her “shameless” past. Speaking as a mainlander, a trafficked woman, and a sex worker, Mei hits back by asking what right Hong Kong people have to look down on her and why it is her background in sex work is so problematic that everyone seems to be telling her it would be inappropriate for her to be a mother which is only what she’s trying to be to Yuting despite her animosity. Lung might have married Mei, but he wastes no time denigrating other mainland women trafficked to the Hong Kong underworld and cooly brushes off complaints after shooting a man with the justification that no one cares about another dead mainlander. Mei does her best to be “happy”, but learning that her own mother has been executed by the Chinese state for opposing its oppression leaves her adrift, longing to go “home” but knowing there is no home to go to and no safe land even in Hong Kong.

Children are the adults of tomorrow, Yuting explains, but the adults of today have robbed them of any possible future. Lee’s depiction of contemporary Hong Kong is one of increasing chaos, a hopeless place that has lost its way. The older generation think only of money while the young want something more but struggle to find anything of meaning in the soulless modern world which seems to be imploding all around them. Strangely hopeful, yet infinitely nihilistic, Lee ends on the single word “Go” as his troubled protagonists find their own kind of peace in the abyss of the modern city.


G Affairs was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Summer of Changsha (六欲天, Zu Feng, 2019)

Summer of Changsha poster 1Escaping from the traumatic past is fast becoming a favourite theme of Chinese cinema, but Summer of Changsha (Liù Yù Tiān) swerves away from the neon-lit, rain-drenched streets of your average melancholy police procedural for the fetid air of sun-baked provincial China where death haunts the shadows. Each dealing (or failing to deal) with guilt and responsibility, a depressed detective and seemingly emotionless doctor bond through a shared sense of impossibility only to discover that there may be a way out after all only not of the kind they might have assumed.

Detective Bin (Zu Feng) has already handed in his resignation but has no real plans for his post-police life. Consumed by powerlessness and regret over failing to prevent the death by suicide of his girlfriend who had been living with longterm depression, he cannot seem to find a place for himself back in the world. When a severed arm is fished up from a local lake, he gets a new sense of purpose and eventually connects the lonely limb to a missing persons ad found after trawling the internet which mentions a prominent scar on the right hand.

The ad was placed by a doctor, Li Xue (Huang Lu), who emotionlessly confirms to Bin and his earthier partner Lei (Chen Minghao) that she believes the hand to be her brother’s, shocking them by correctly guessing where they might have found it. Xue tells them that her brother Yi appeared to her in a dream and showed her where the rest of his body parts are – something later confirmed to be true when the three drive out to a remote spot and dig up a suitcase buried under a tree.

Strangely, Bin takes the “dream” theory at face value with only Lei seemingly unconvinced. He never quite entertains the obvious conclusion that Xue knows where the body parts are because she put them there, even after discovering that the pair were seen to be arguing recently and that their relationship became strained after a tragic accident during which Xue’s daughter, who was suffering with a heart condition, sadly passed away.

What draws Bin to Xue is a shared sadness, a deepening gulf of introspection which, ironically, convinces them they exist outside of regular society and should not permit themselves genuine human connections. Xue’s animosity towards her brother, it seems, was less because of what happened to her daughter than because of his conversion to Buddhism which had, she felt, allowed him to move on and start to forget about their past. By contrast, Xue condemns herself to a life of suffering as atonement, wilfully carrying on an affair with a married surgeon (Tian Yu) she doesn’t seem to like very much solely because his research area was closely connected to her daughter’s condition and if she’d lived he might have saved her. Bin, meanwhile, criticises his partner Lei for trying to ghost a girlfriend, cute as a button Ting Ting (Zhang Qianru), because he thought she was annoying, but finds himself doing the same thing after he sleeps with her when she approaches him for comfort only for her to become emotionally attached.

Ting Ting wants to help him overcome his emotional pain, but Bin isn’t sure he can. Like Xue, his grief and guilt have made him selfish and self-involved. Reconnecting with his late girlfriend’s family, he has the urge to make some kind of confession in order to ease his burden only for her sister (Liu Tianchi) to rightly round him for the cruelty of what he’s about to do. She was just starting to move on with her life, and now Bin’s sudden chattiness seems primed to stir everything up again. His desire to ease his conscience is entirely for his own benefit whatever he might say about wanting the family to know the truth. Each conflicted by their awkward connection, neither Xue or Bin can see a way out of their suffering because they don’t believe they deserve one.

To stave off the inevitable, they continue investigating the mysteries behind Yi’s death but the answers they find turn out to be depressingly banal. While a mysterious collective of Buddhists release fish back into the rivers (perhaps not as responsible as it first sounds), the pair remain similarly trapped in a solipsistic world of suffering little realising the consequences of their (in)actions on those around them. Yet solving the case in its entirety does at least offer the opportunity of new beginnings, however far they choose to take them. A detached exploration of the entrenched effects of trauma, guilt, and regret, Summer of Changsha is not quite the film it first appears to be but an icy journey from the cold heat of summer into the unexpected warmth of winter snow as its dejected leads learn to look for new directions towards a less uncomfortable future.


Summer of Changsha was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Ho Wi Ding, 2018)

Cities of last things poster 1A sense of finality defines the appropriately titled Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Xìngfú Chéngshì), even as it works itself backwards from the darkness towards the light. Still more ironic, the Chinese title hints at “Happiness City” (neatly subverting Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness”) but that, it seems, is somewhere its hero has never quite felt himself to be. Embittered by a series of abandonments, betrayals, and impossibilities, he grows resentful of the brave new world in which old age has marooned him. 

Ho opens with a bouncy, retro track advising that one should never be too generous with love only for a body to suddenly rain down from above. As we later discover, the body belongs to 60-something former policeman Dong-ling (Jack Kao) who has grown disillusioned with his futuristic, digital world, stubbornly smoking cigarettes and growing old gracefully while surrounded by vapers and ads for rejuvenating drugs. For reasons we don’t yet understand, he ventures into the red light district to buy a gun, punches his wife’s dance partner, and visits a hard-nosed sex worker who reminds him of a woman he loved and lost thirty years previously.

Love, guns, death and revenge become persistent themes for the older Dong-ling whose only bright spot seems to be a grownup daughter preparing to move abroad with her foreign boyfriend. Thirty years previously Dong-ling (Lee Hong-chi) too dreamed of running overseas. Consumed with rage on discovering his wife’s infidelity, he imagines himself killing her, her lover, and himself but settles only for a petty revenge against a colleague which exposes the entrenched police corruption he had refused to participate in, alienating his fellow officers. Bonding with a French kleptomaniac (Louise Grinberg) on the run from some kind of unresolved conflict with her father, he sees a way out only to have the door cruelly closed on him just as it was so many years before when he was just a teenager picked up for trying to steal a scooter.

In true film noir style, all women are perhaps one woman. Abruptly shifting tone in venturing into the recent past, we are introduced to Big Sister Wang (Ding Ning) – an embittered, disappointed femme fatale running out of road, hemmed in by the choices she has already made. She may already know there’s no way out for her, little needing the policeman’s warning that after her arrest everyone in gangland will assume she talked when they let her go, but she refuses to give in, repeatedly insisting on cigarettes and asserting her dominance while the unsympathetic policemen get on with their grim business.

Cornered, Ara, the shoplifting free spirit, decides to interrogate her interrogator, calling back to the later version of herself in asking why it is that prostitution is illegal. The policeman has no answer for her, save that he does not make the rules only follow them. Dong-ling too wanted to be a force of order, perhaps taking Big Sister Wang’s impassioned pleas to be a good person and not end up like her a little too much to heart. He follows the rules too closely for the comfort of his colleagues but finds himself dangerously exposed by an inability to regulate his feelings, a victim of toxic masculinity humiliated by his wife’s betrayal but unable to stand up to the corrupt superior who so casually closes down the only escape route he has been able to find.

The older Dong-ling is horrified by his daughter’s revelation that she lasered away a birthmark. How else can you recognise someone you lost long ago in the great wide world other than by a mark placed on them when they were born? His daughter rolls her eyes and reminds him that these days everyone is chipped, but there may be something in his rationale that everyone is marked at birth. Dong-ling is surrounded by handcuffs, self-driving vehicles, and locked doors. His fate is sealed, as we know, because we saw him fall, yet like Big Sister Wang he fought back only his resistance was violent and vengeful, abhorrent in its enraged pettiness. His is a tale of fatalistic resentment and of an existence consumed by a sense of hopeless abandonment, coloured only by a longing for lost love. Ho’s decision to end the film with its happiest moment, bright sunshine in place of rain soaked night, is ironic in the extreme but returns us to the grim serenity of the opening as the cheerful retro strains re-echo and Dong-ling catapults himself into a life of misery in the cities of last things where all hope is futile and all love loss. 


Screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival, Cities of Last Things is also available to stream online via Netflix.

TIFF trailer (English subtitles)

Liu Wen-cheng – Don’t Be Too Generous About Love

Blind Massage (推拿, Lou Ye, 2014)

Blind Massafe poster 1Lou Ye, defiantly controversial, has made those who cannot, for one reason or another, embrace their own desires the centre of his cinema. Seeking connection, his protagonists reel desperately from one traumatic event to the next but resist full commitment, no longer able to believe in the truth of their feelings in a society which has so often betrayed them. Blind Massage (推拿, T), a radical departure from the provocative politicisation that has hitherto marked his cinema, takes this one step further in setting itself inside what it sees as an entirely isolationist world – that of the blind who occupy a particular liminal space within modern Chinese society.

Lou begins with a voiceover and fractured vision of our most prominent protagonist, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), as he emerges from a childhood accident which killed his mother and cost him his sight. Though he is assured that his condition is only temporary and his eyes will eventually be healed, Xiao Ma later attempts suicide when he comes to understand that his doctors have been deceiving him and his sight will never return. Surviving, he learns to accept his blindness and attends a special school for those with disabilities where he learns to read braille and is trained as a masseuse – a traditional occupation for the blind in Chinese society. Once qualified he gets a job at the Sha Zongqi Massage Center which is staffed exclusively by those with visual impairments who live together on site and exist as a small and exclusive community.

The trouble begins when the two partners, Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and Zhong Zongqi (Wang Zhihua), invite an old colleague, Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), to join them. Wang brings with him his fiancée, Xiao Kong (Zhang Lei), with whom the young Xiao Ma eventually develops a fascination. Meanwhile, Fuming has also developed a fascination for another newcomer, Du Hong (Mei Ting), who, he has been told, is very “beautiful”. Du Hong, in turn, is attracted to the morose figure of Xiao Ma but perhaps understands that for one reason or another he is unable to “see” her (which might be one of the reasons she continues to pine for him).

As in his previous films, Lou centres himself in a question of haptic connection. The residents of the clinic feel themselves cut off from what they see as “mainstream society” which they believe belongs exclusively to the sighted. Mainstream society, unadaptable and perhaps unwelcoming, has seen fit to exile them to the extent that they are unable to survive outside of the specific career track it has laid down for them and without the support of their own community. Yet their occupation also depends on deep sensory perception on a level deemed inaccessible to the fully sighted and the ability to “see” the things which can’t be “seen”.

Fuming, outgoing and sociable, looks for outlets outside of his own community but is criticised by those within who worry that he is in someway attempting to deny his blindness by adhering to the conceptual world of the sighted which he is otherwise unable to comprehend on a sensory level. His “love” for Du Hong is rooted in ideas of “conventional” beauty which is, in fact, more an expression of his vanity as he longs to possess the “best” girl as Du Hong points out when she reminds him that he has no idea whether she is “beautiful” or not or even what visual “beauty” might be, and that in becoming obsessed with these incomprehensible ideas he has in fact missed all of the things which might be “beautiful” about her on another level than the visual.

Meanwhile, another resident at the clinic has become worried about Xiao Ma’s fixation on Kong and decided the best way to sort him out is to take him to a brothel (ironically, also a kind of “massage parlour”). Though originally reluctant Xiao Ma begins to develop a relationship with sex worker Mann (Huang Lu) which is forged through touch but occurs on a deeper level. A fight with one of Mann’s other clients has the ironic effect of restoring some of his vision, leaving him stumbling and confused but also excited and drunk on a kind of sensory euphoria as he tries to reconcile his differing kinds of perception to make his way home. Yet by this point in his life Xiao Ma’s entire identity and existence revolves around being a blind person – he cannot tell anyone at the clinic that his vision has begun to return for fear of losing his place in their community as well as his ability to support himself.

Eventually the community of the clinic becomes scattered as its residents begin to reassert themselves as individuals re-entering “mainstream society”. Casting visually impaired actors alongside familiar faces, Lou treats his subject with the utmost respect and demonstrates that many of the problems faced by those at the clinic are exactly the same as those faced by the protagonists of his previous films while also reflecting the various ways that society remains intolerant to those who have differing needs. Asking quite profound questions about the nature of “beauty” and “connection” when images have been absented from the frame Lou attempts to “visualise” what it might feel like to “see” without “seeing” in an exploration of defiant hidden realities which often go wilfully unseen in our own blinkered perceptions.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Suburban Birds (郊区的鸟, Qiu Sheng, 2018)

Suburban Birds poster 1Everything is collapsing in the strangely entropic world of Qiu Sheng’s Suburban Birds (郊区的鸟, Jiāo de Niǎo). Time and memory conspire to confuse and confound as man-made structures devour the natural pleasures of human existence, stepping in time with China’s rapid urban development in a hasty march towards a fractured future. Our hero dreams of finding rare avian life, but remains shackled to the earth as an agent of both destruction and creation – literally “engineering” the future while attempting to repair the mistakes of the past.

Xiahao (Mason Lee) is currently working for a government-backed team of surveyors trying to solve a massive subsidence problem which has rendered a brand new estate unfit for habitation. The subsidence problem, besides being dangerous and apparently unpredictable, is also expensive – the city is footing the bill for putting an entire neighbourhood up in a hotel while essential works on a new subway line needed to serve it are also on hold. The engineers are doing their best, but they seem ill equipped to investigate and feel both under resourced and under appreciated. The youngest member of the team, Ant (Deng Jing), is even thinking of quitting because he gets all the rubbish jobs and his girlfriend thinks there’s no future in his career seeing as there’s relatively little scope for advancement save becoming the “boss” which doesn’t actually pay very much. In between drinking, arguing, and investigating, Xiahao strikes up a relationship with one of the evictees – the pretty hairdresser “Swallow” (Huang Lu), to whom he eventually offers to show the elusive birds.

Meanwhile, a second tale takes over when Xiahao investigates an abandoned school and discovers a diary written by another Xiahao (Gong Zihan) which details the various adventures of a group of adolescent friends. Whether in reality or just in the older Xiahao’s imagination, the kids from the book echo people in his adult life from the members of his engineering team to the two female evictees he encounters at the hotel. The younger Xiahao could perhaps even be an echo of the older one’s real or imagined childhood – the aesthetics are distinctly ‘90s but the adventures are infinitely timeless. Little Xiahao and his friends communicate in person and go outside to play, fully existing in tune with their surroundings and as much part of the natural world as the “suburban birds” looking for a perch in a land under permanent construction.

Yet modern China somehow works its way into their idyllic world. The kids play in the ruins of broken broken buildings, are literally injured by the ruptured landscape, and finally begin to disappear one by one. Eventually the streams cross – the young Xiahao and the other boys come across the older Xiahao and his team dreaming away under greying skies while their optical level looks silently on at nothing. The kids stick a piece of chewing gum on the lens – an act which is both intensely irritating for the slumbering adults and a literal proof of their material existence within the same plane if not definitively the same time.

Xiahao’s dreams, as he recounts them to his bored coworkers, revolve around a terrible gushing of water as a powerful drill inexplicably turns to liquid. The loudmouth party man tagging along to chivvy the crew towards a completion of the paperwork even in the absence of a safe and workable solution, has an appropriately bawdy theory but the dream itself is later echoed by the boys who find themselves charged with carrying a large butt of water through their school until its weight gets the better of them. Xiahao is convinced that leakage lies at the heart of the subsidence problem, that shoddy workmanship and bad weather have conspired to ruin the ambitions of human engineering. Public safety is not such a concern as faith in local government. Not only has an all encompassing hunger for progress robbed the land of its beauty but has begun to erode itself from the underneath leaving only a perilous fall to the chasms below.

Xiahao dreams of a more innocent time. His ringtone alarm features bird song which is either so real you can’t tell the difference, or the ironically named Swallow has never actually heard it before outside of the movies. He wants to find the elusive “suburban birds” but turns to the internet to do so, eventually wading back into into a dream in which children play freely among the greenery while singing semi-ominous communist songs about how the future belongs to the young. A riddle besets them all – what is both long and short, fast and slow, and whole yet may be divided into many parts? The answer seems to be time, or perhaps memory, hinting at the way past haunts the future as a squatting tenant of the present which can neither speak nor stay silent. Forgetting, like the water pouring in through the inexpertly poured concrete of a half constructed subway tunnel, erodes the foundations of conscious thought. You can’t build a future on emptiness, and if there’s nowhere for the birds to sit what sort of future is it anyway?


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Qiu Sheng from Locarno