Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Li Xiaofeng, 2020)

“How dare you want to live when your existence is pointless” a father admonishes his blameless son, deflecting his own willing complicity in the persistent decline of the modern China. Repeatedly abandoned and betrayed firstly by his society, then by his friend, and finally by his father, the hero of Li Xiaofeng’s moody neo-noir Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Fēngpínglàngjìng) first chooses self-exile only to eventually return and wonder if his crime has been forgotten allowing him to live again before discovering that nothing really changes, there is no escape from the whims of the rich and powerful in an increasingly feudal society. 

Quiet and studious, Song Hao (at 17: Zhou Zhengjie / at 32: Zhang Yu) first wakes up to life’s unfairness in 1992 when he’s called into school on a holiday by his headmaster who breaks the news that he’s losing his guaranteed university place supposedly because his grades are good enough to get there on his own and others need it more. “I like to prioritise the collective over the individual” he explains, reminding him that an extra person from the school going to a top uni can only be a good thing though it’s obviously a blow to Hao not to mention his ambitious father Jianfei (Wang Yanhui) who immediately rings up to complain and discovers that the place is going not to a needy student but Hao’s best friend Li Tang (Lee Hong-chi), son of the local mayor. Angry and confused, father and son set off on circular journeys to confront their respective counterparts, but there’s a storm raging and Hao accidentally wanders into the wrong house after noticing the door flapping in the wind. After walking past a baby sleeping upstairs he runs into an old man who mistakes him for someone else and soon lashes out, shoving fruit into his mouth and trying to suffocate him at which point Hao picks up a knife and stabs his attacker in the belly. Taking flight in terror Hao believes he has just killed a man and orphaned a little girl, never knowing that his father arrived a few minutes later and finished the old man off to stop him talking or that Li Tang was watching the whole thing from a window in the opposite building. 

Returning 15 years later for his mother’s funeral, it’s Li Tang who is most pleased to see Hao when he runs into him by chance at the ruins of the scene of his crime now a future development site for the young real estate tycoon, that is if the now young woman (Den Enxi) the orphaned baby has become whom Hao had been following out of guilt-ridden curiosity would agree to vacate her family property. While Hao has been languishing as a lonely construction worker, Tang has prospered off the back of the 90s economic boom largely thanks to an entrenched network of local corruption that runs from his father the mayor through Hao’s father Jianfei who was handed a fat promotion presumably to placate him over the uni places scandal. Tang has, in a sense, stolen his future leaving him quite literally displaced wandering in the ruined landscape of a haunted past while his father, he discovers, had divorced his mother and remarried in order to have another son. “Your upbringing was a failure” he cooly explains, he needed another male heir to salvage the family reputation and restore his name. Jianfei has, however, done pretty well out of the arrangement now a wealthy man with a separate apartment Hao is not welcome to visit but planning to send his wife and child abroad and retire to Australia. 

Intending to leave as soon as possible, Hao nevertheless starts to wonder if it hasn’t blown over and he might in a sense be allowed to seek happiness, bamboozled into a romance with an old school friend (Song Jia) apparently carrying a torch for him all this time. The past, however, will not let him go. The corruption runs deeper than he even suspected as does Li Tang’s insecure greed and duplicity, attempting to force friendship through blackmail. An embodiment of post-70s fuerdai Li Tang is an amoral capitalist willing to do anything it takes in pursuit of wealth, but at heart a coward ashamed that he owes everything to his father’s machinations and perhaps projecting all of his resentment onto his old friend Hao whose future he so casually stole.   

Yet the message seems clear, men like Hao will always be at the mercy of men like Tang. Perhaps this is the bargain his father has made, but it’s one that Hao can no longer tolerate once Tang forces him to destroy the roots of his redemption. The only sane response to the madness of the modern China, he seems to say, is to go mad in one way or another. Even so, this being a Mainland movie, the nihilistic fatalism of the inevitable conclusion is somewhat undermined by the brief coda in which a policeman reassures a young woman that the crime has been investigated and the wrongdoers punished while the now familiar title card explains to us who went to prison and for how long for their many and various moral transgressions. Hao’s existence is rendered “pointless” because he is unable to live by the rules of a corrupt society, yet his self-destructive act of rebellion does perhaps bring about change if only in the names involved. Beautifully shot with brief flashes of expressionism amid the rain drenched streets of a decaying city to the melancholy strains of a noirish jazz score, Li’s fatalistic takedown of the inequalities of the post-90s society is an exercise in style but one which lets few off the hook as its nihilistic conclusion stabs right at the heart of patriarchal corruption. 


Back to the Wharf streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Love You Forever (我在时间尽头等你, Yoyo Yao Tingting, 2020)

“Don’t overthink it. It’s fiction” the hero of Yoyo Yao Tingting’s tearjerking romance Love You Forever (我在时间尽头等你, Wǒ Zài Shíjiān Jìntóu Děng Nǐ) advises the heroine, attempting to keep his secret right until the very end. Inspired by Zheng Zhi’s novel, the original Chinese title translates to the more poetic “I’ll wait for you at the end of time”, hinting at the central, sci-fi-inflected romantic tragedy in which the hero finds himself selflessly sacrificing his years on Earth to fulfil the dreams of the woman he loves. 

Describing himself as a man who does not exist because there are no memories of him in this world, Lin Ge (Lee Hong-chi) is writing a memoir as a way of recapturing the past. He tells us of his lifelong love for Qiu Qian (Li Yitong), a woman he first met when they were both children in the summer of 1991 shortly after his mother had passed away from illness. Lin Ge describes her dancing like sunshine piercing through the thick clouds, a force which has illuminated his life. Trying to retrieve her lost marble from a pond, he discovers a mysterious clock which inspires their childish games all through that golden summer, yet at summer’s end they are cruelly separated when Qiu Qian moves away. At 17 he meets her again and she playfully pretends not to remember him, later embarking on a tentative teenage romance only for Qiu Qian to be hit by a car and killed on her way home from a birthday date. Activated by his tears, the mysterious clock sends Lin Ge back in time, or more accurately into a parallel universe where he is able to prevent the accident and save her life but only at the cost of his existence. This time Qiu Qian really doesn’t remember him because he never existed. Not even his father (Fan Wei) knows him, and he seems to have aged a good decade which in itself presents a barrier to possible romance. 

There’s something of a poignant metaphor in Lin Ge’s intense desire to crawl back inside his memories by writing them down, neatly laying out the various timelines of his life which he has willingly sacrificed to save Qiu Qian resigned to the fact that, in the final version, she will never know him. Later, she asks him how he knows the woman in his novel would be happy with the future he has engineered for her in which he is a deliberate absence but Lin Ge has no answer for her. The Qiu Qian that we see has achieved her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina with the Shanghai ballet, but she is perhaps unfulfilled aware there’s something missing in her life. About to leave the stage, she’s engaged to an old school friend, Huang (Chao Zhang), who is distant and controlling, actively discouraging Qiu Qian from continuing to dance after they marry and emigrate to America reminding her that she’ll have “more important things to think about” once she’s his wife. Lin Ge, meanwhile, now appearing as a man around 60, has taken a job as a caretaker at the theatre where he watches over Qiu Qian from the wings only for her to discover his memoir and become intrigued by its similarities to her own life. 

“The fate is destined, you will use up your time” an Eastern European fortune teller cautions Lin Ge after realising there’s something not quite right with Qiu Qian’s lifelines, “Don’t change the fate again, otherwise everything will become tragic”. Conflicted in her dance career, Qiu Qian reflects that had she known how it would turn out she’s not sure if she would have pursed her dreams, but Lin Ge, perhaps talking more for himself, affirms that of course she would. Even knowing how it would end, he’d do it all again for the brief moments of happiness he spent with Qiu Qian, “it only counts when we’re by each other’s side” as it says in the diary. Fate, however, keeps conspiring against him even as Qiu Qian undergoes her own parallel quest to solve the mystery of their love story in reverse. A poetic meditation on the lover’s exile, selflessness, the power of memory, and the indelible connection of a fated love, Love You Forever is genuinely romantic in all senses of the word even in its inescapable melancholy for those who pledge to love until the end of time.


Love You Forever is currently on release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release 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

Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Bi Gan, 2018)

Long Day's Journey into Night poster“It’s living in the past that’s scary” an old friend advises the hero of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Dìqiú Zhòu de Yèwǎn). He knows she’s right, but like the best film noir heroes, the past is the place he can’t bear to visit or to leave. Stealing a title from a Eugene O’Neill play about a dysfunctional family individually lost in the fog of self-delusion and unable to escape the legacies of past trauma, Long Day’s Journey into Night is the story of a man looking for lost love but finding it only within the confines of his own memory, transient yet also eternal.

Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili on the death of his father. As becomes apparent, there is nothing much of interest for him in a home he has avoided for years though an unexpected inheritance – a stopped clock his father could not stop looking at in the days before his death, yields unexpected treasure in the form of a black and white photograph of a young woman whose face has been burned out by a cigarette. Meanwhile, Luo walks us back through his own sad life story beginning at the turn of the Millennium when a recent divorce led to him letting down a friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi) – a roguish gambler, who was later murdered by gangster Zuo (Chen Yongzhong). Chasing the man who killed his friend, Luo tracks down his lover who bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the photograph. She tells him her name is “Wan Qiwen” (Tang Wei), and fascination soon turns into romance. As Luo has already hinted to us, Qiwen is the woman who defines his dreams – another of the disappeared, a ghost of memory which won’t let him rest.

Like the hero of Kaili Blues, Luo spends the rest of the picture looking for the missing – the mother who abandoned him in childhood, the man who killed Wildcat, and of course Qiwen. A haunted man, Luo chases ghosts and spectres of memory, attempting to repair his damaged world but perhaps half hoping not to find what it is he’s looking for and risk losing the beauty of its absence. Qiwen spins him a tale a worthy of any film noir femme fatale – of a jealous boyfriend and an impossible future. We can only be together if we live in the stars, she tells him, contributing to a noirish sense of futility which seals Luo inside a looping bubble of perpetual heartbreak and unresolvable longing.

For Luo all women and none are Qiwen whose emerald clad image echoes in every female face he sees. Memories of Qiwen and of his mother mingle uncomfortably, overlap and become one as he looks for explanations behind his twin abandonments and the heavy wound he carries in his heart. In his opening voice over, Luo tells us that dreams rise up within him and he rises with them as if his body were made of hydrogen, but that his memories are made of stone – heavy, immutable, and impossible to escape. Yet the dreamland is precious to him, because it’s the only place he can see Qiwen and where she is all he sees. Luo’s answers, if they come at all come only in dreams where the jumbled elements of his ongoing investigation reorder themselves, come together, and present a new truth holding its own transitory revelations.

In a dream Luo meets another woman who looks just like Qiwen only this time called Kaizhen with whom he trades eternity for transience and to whom he eventually gifts both. Luo’s wandering dream takes place on the winter solstice – literally the longest night on Earth, but is still too short. Drenched in perpetual rainfall, this Kaili is a lonely place of darkness and neon – a perfect encapsulation of Luo’s interior world, shaped by film noir and tragic romance which nevertheless gives way to a 3D dreamscape free of the selective editing which makes memory an unreliable narrator. Luo says that the difference between film and memory is that films are all false while memory holds both truth and lies, but in dreams dualities coalesce and absolutes disappear in a union of truth and fiction, transience and eternity. Bi Gan builds on the aching poetry of Kaili Blues for beautifully composed exploration of memory and desire mediated through frozen time and a single endless night.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (no subtitles)

Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Han Jie, 2017)

Namiya posterKeigo Higashino is almost certainly best known for his crime novels and in particular his most famous detective, Galileo, whose exploits have spawned a successful TV drama series and a fair few cinematic adaptations including the international bestseller, The Devotion of Suspect X. One might expect a writer of mystery novels to be a fierce rationalist, but Higashino occasionally dabbles in the fantastic – The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is more or less a nostalgia fest praising the pre-bubble Japan, implying that the modern world is colder and less kind than the aspiring society of 1979. Adapted for the Chinese market by Han Jie, Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Jiě Yōu Zá Huò Diàn) retains the corner shop where time stands still but locates it in 1993, which is not so much a significant date save being 25 years in the past.

On New Year’s Eve 2017, three teens break into a woman’s home with the idea of causing some damage, but the event goes south when she comes home early and one of the three decides to tie her up and steal a bunch of her stuff. Having gone further than they meant to, the trio wind up in an unfamiliar part of town when the car they’ve stolen runs out of petrol. An improbably quaint, apparently disused corner shop attracts their attention but when they break in to shelter for the night they discover that this is no ordinary store. A ghostly miasma gradually creeps its way in and the three youngsters find themselves answering a collection of letters meant for the store’s owner written in 1993 but only dropping through the letter box now. They funny thing is, they get almost immediate replies.

As one of the teens points out, they weren’t even born in 1993 – this store might as well be from 1793 as far as they’re concerned. Though it drips with nostalgia for a simpler time, Namiya treads (understandably) more carefully in painting early ‘90s Beijing and its rural backwater setting, strenuously avoiding any mention of politics and characterising China’s economic development as an entirely good thing despite the troubles the three teens at the centre have been subject to throughout their apparently difficult lives.

The letter writers have various problems but each in someway relates to being a little lost, a little bit confused about how to move forward in life. A frustrated musician (Lee Hong-chi) whose career is not taking off wants to know whether he should give up and come home, a little boy has a bad relationship with his go-getter parents who have lost all their money and got into trouble with loan sharks, and a melancholy bar hostess (Hao Lei) wants to know if she should become the mistress of a gangster who promises to set her up in a shop that would get her out of her dead end life and still enable her to support her family. The kids are not really qualified to offer any kind of real life advice, with sensitive Xiaobo (Karry Wang) and plucky Tong Tong (Dilraba Dilmurat) reacting in broadly sympathetic terms while the sullen Jie takes a hardline moralist stance in which he just wants to write angry letters to everyone telling them they’re doing everything wrong.

Jie has his own reasons for being so angry, especially as one of the letters touches a nerve in his own personal history but his ambivalence was at one point shared by Papa Namiya (Jackie Chan) himself after he feared his treasured advice might have ended up having a negative effect on people’s lives. Papa Namiya tells the troubled little boy to stick with his parents no matter what because family is the most important thing in a person’s life which might be true much of the time, but not when the parents actively endanger their child. What he finally reassures himself with is that his advice was largely meaningless because most people have already made up their minds what they’re going to do, they just want someone to help them feel like they’re doing the right thing. In fact, no one really follows Papa Namiya’s advice anyway, but the kids are able to make a concrete change when they reveal the economic realities of modern China to a young hopeful who then uses the knowledge to build an international business empire (but makes sure to pay it forward whilst paying tribute to their roots by committing to sponsor an orphanage in need of renovation/expansion).

The slightly awkward message Namiya leaves behind is that dreams come true when people work hard to achieve them but that the young are also free to forge their own destinies, that the world is, for them, infinite and filled with boundless possibility. Optimistic and inspiring as it is, it isn’t terribly realistic and does rather imply that those who haven’t made it are either lazy or dishonest as echoed in the mildly moralistic tone taken with the bar hostess’ dilemma or the odiousness of the corrupt businessman and his failure to protect his family from his own mistakes. Moral judgements and naivety aside, Namiya is an otherwise heartwarming, deliberately uncynical New Year tale which does its best to engender hope for the future in an otherwise cold and unforgiving month.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)