The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead (江湖無難事, Kao Pin-chuan, 2019)

You remember that film back in the ‘80s where those guys go to their boss’ house for a party only he’s dead but they want to have a good time without being murder suspects so they pretend that he’s alive, only it turns out he was going to have them killed because they found out about his massive fraud and embezzlement? The Gangs, The Oscars, and The Walking Dead (江湖無難事, Jiānghú Wú Nán Shì) is kind of like that, if lacking the mild critique of rampant consumerism. 

Our heroes are BS (Roy Chiu), a film producer, and his director/childhood best friend Wenxi (Huang Di-yang). Wenxi is a lifelong film buff who decided he had to grow up and make a zombie movie after falling in love with hopping vampires from Hong Kong. BS has been trying to make his friend’s dream come true, but the production gets derailed when the lead actor is engulfed by a sex scandal and the guys end up taking on odd jobs to make ends meet one of which involves filming the funeral of a recently deceased mob boss who later joined the boy scouts to give back to the community. The job goes just about as wrong as it’s possible to go seeing as they manage to set fire to the corpse, but somehow they manage to impress Boss Long (Lung Shao-hua) who agrees to fund their movie on the condition that part of it is shot in Japan, and his girlfriend Shanny (Yao Yi-ti) gets to play the lead. 

The second part is more of a deal breaker than the first because Wenxi’s long gestating zombie script revolves around a pure and innocent high school girl who quickly gets zombiefied during the initial outbreak but somehow retains her humanity while a heroic PE teacher/gangster falls in love with her as they fail to survive the apocalypse. Shanny is many things, but passing for a high schooler will be a stretch and in Wenxi’s eyes at least she is neither beautiful nor “pure”. To be fair, Shanny does look as if she may have suffered a lot in her life, but Wenxi’s peculiar obsession is with a mole on her face which he seems to find unsightly. In any case, it’s not a problem for very long because Shanny ends up dying during a freak accident at the launch party leaving the guys with several problems of a different order. Afraid of Boss Long, they decide to hire a top SFX artist and manipulate Shanny’s body as if she were a puppet so no one knows she’s dead. 

Sadly the film has little sympathy for Shanny who is treated more or less as a human plot device, a ridiculous figure of fun who seems to have sealed her own fate by being an “immoral” woman involved with a man like Boss Long who is, we find out, using her in more ways than one as are his not so loyal henchmen. Latent misogyny later gives over to mild homophobia as the boys figure out that Shanny got her unusual looks after getting plastic surgery to look like her favourite drag queen, so they decide to try asking him to help out, playing into an extended joke about Boss Long being fooled into canoodling with a man.

The theme, however, is brotherhood and loyalty not only between BS and Wenxi, but also Boss Long, Shanny/drag queen Hsiao Ching, and the gang. You have to die to figure out who your real brothers are, according to Boss Long, and it’s a lesson which gets put to pretty good use by just about everyone. At the end of Wenxi’s screenplay, everyone is supposed to become a zombie – the ultimate end of the world pay off for anxiety suffers, at least you won’t have to worry about getting zombified anymore, but is intended to render everyone “equal” so the world is “fair”. There is something quite ironic therefore in their unwitting zombification of Shanny, exploiting her body even after death while playing at being tough guy gangsters so they can make a film with zombies in it they are certain will win an Oscar. Aside from all that, however, the Wenxi gets his “happy” ending which eventually honours Shanny’s memory while cementing a feeling of brotherhood and acceptance placing Hsiao Ching firmly at the boss’ side as they look forward to a bright new movie making future founded on the ashes of the violent past.


The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Spring Tide (春潮, Yang Lina, 2019)

Toxic motherhood takes on strangely subversive, allegorical tones in Spring Tide (春潮, Chūn Cháo), Yang Lina’s painful examination of the relationships between three generations of Chinese women, each in different ways victims of the times in which they live. It’s true enough that the folk tunes sung so happily are often odes to the “motherland” which betray none of the eeriness of their propagandistic intentions in their full hearted endorsement of nation as family, but the darkness is inescapable as we see their metaphors made flesh in a woman destroyed by her sense of disappointment in life and in turn destroying her daughters literal and metaphorical in a pathological attempt to give her life meaning. 

30-something Jianbo (Han Lei) is a socially conscious investigative journalist whose refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is a constant thorn in the side of her more conservative editor. At home, meanwhile, she’s mother to nine-year-old Wanting (Qu Junxi), who, we later realise is being raised by Jianbo’s feisty mother, Minglan (Elaine Jin Yan-ling), while she splits her time between the family’s backroom and a bed in a student dorm with occasional nights spent with an intense yet silent musician. 

Aside from the obvious emotional disconnection, the fracture lines between mother and daughter are also ideological. Jianbo is a post-80s generation woman, she wants to hold mother China to account because she wants her society to be better than it is. She unroots scandal and corruption and brings them to light through the power of the press, trying to create real social change through shaming the populace into better patterns of behaviour. But her mother Minglan lived through the Cultural Revolution, because of all she’s suffered she thinks that things are fine the way they are and criticising the beneficent state is like scolding the person that raised you. Caught in the middle, Minglan’s fiancé Zhou (Li Wenbo) espouses contradictory views, at once proud to have Jianbo as a daughter because “journalists are the conscience of a country”, but also grateful for the iron rice bowl system that gave him a steady job, not to mention a pension and the old person’s flat that’s allowed him to meet Minglan. 

Minglan’s life has indeed been full of suffering, though it is perhaps surprising how casually she and her friends remark on the terror they experienced during their youth while continuing to sing the old patriotic songs. “My motherland and I can’t be apart for a moment”, according to patriotic hit My People, My Country (我和我的祖国), but its tones suddenly seem sinister in their breeziness as we’re forced to consider the icy Minglan as a stand-in for China as a toxic mother, insisting that she must be respected and that her children must repay their debts to her, no matter how abusive she has been and may continue to be. To her friends in the retirement community, Minglan is a warm and caring woman, running the choir and organising local events, but she’s also blindsided by the suicide of a friend who took her own life because of an entirely different kind of filial disappointment coupled with existential loneliness. Minglan can’t understand why she did it, but in characteristic fashion largely makes it all about herself in lashing out at Jianbo when she points out that Mrs Wang was not as happy about their (read: Minglan’s) potential retirement plan as Minglan had believed her to be. 

“When were you going to realise this was a family and not a battlefield?” Jianbo asks her mother knowing that she can make no further reply. The tug of love over motherhood of Wanting is, in many ways, a tussle over the future of China. Minglan digs her nails in, telling Wanting a few hurtful truths about her mother while insisting that you really can’t trust anyone anymore but that’s OK because grandma loves you, while Jianbo remains powerless to reassume her maternity knowing that her only weapon is to avoid unduly antagonising her mother in the hope that she won’t end up alienating Wanting in the same way Minglan alienated her. All that exists between them now is a torrent of resentment, Minglan seeing her daughter only as the symbol of all her frustrated desires, and Jianbo knowing she’s become a sad and lonely woman solely because her mother refused to love her in the way she wanted to be loved. Jianbo is determined that she won’t let Minglan’s “vanity and hypocrisy” corrupt her pretty, sensitive daughter, pushing her towards an “ignoble and ridiculous life”. She wants Wanting to be free of this chain of abuse and all its authoritarian gaslighting, but has no mechanism to free her other than distance. 

Wanting, by contrast, is cheerful and kind. She has absolutely no filter and is entirely unafraid of asking difficult questions, but is also brave and strong, willing to stand up for others. A little girl in her class who happens to be from the Korean minority is criticised for her “poor” Mandarin and ordered to switch seats but her new buddy refuses to sit with her because he claims not to be able to understand what she’s saying. Wanting immediately pipes up that she understands perfectly, instantly becoming the girl’s best friend and visiting her home which appears to be one of immense harmony and happiness where her dad whirls her round while proudly singing Arirang, standing in stark contrast to Minglan’s joyous yet somehow self-involved recitals. China as an authoritarian mother may be losing its grip on power, while Jianbo’s generation struggles to free itself from the trauma of toxic parenting, but there is perhaps hope for Wanting as she and her friend decide to leave the patriotism showcase to follow the spring tide right out into a wide river of joy and freedom.


Spring Tide was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)