Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, Derek Kwok, 2021)

Two very different men square off in the race to find a precious Buddha head and reclaim their family honour in an old-fashioned tomb raiding mystery from Derek Kwok, Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, gǔdǒng jú zhōngjú). The key to the future seems to lie in the past as the heroes approach from opposing sides, one keen to expose a truth and the other seemingly to conceal it but both otherwise unable to escape a problematic family history and be rehabilitated as a member of one of the top five antiquing families in the China of 1992. 

Now a middle-aged drunkard, down on his luck Xu Yuan (Lei Jiayin) lays the blame for his present circumstances solely with his immediate forbears. A member of the Plum Blossom Five, five families who are the ultimate authorities on the authenticity of historical artefacts, Xu Yuan’s grandfather was executed as a traitor during the war for having gifted a precious Buddha head to the Japanese. In a fairly traumatic childhood, Yuan was abandoned by his his dad whom he believes to have been too badly damaged by seeing his grandfather die to be any sort of father while somehow even kids his own age called him scum in the streets because of the shame his grandfather’s transgression had placed on the family. Now running an electronics store which is in its way the opposite of antiques, Yuan has a fairly cynical view of the artefacts trade but is dragged back into it when the granddaughter of the Japanese soldier who received the Buddha head (Lili Matsumoto) insists on returning it to a direct descendent of the Xu family. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the issue isn’t really with the Japanese but the current status of the Buddha head which, after a duel of detection with well dressed rival Yao Buran (Li Xian) who is also trying to redeem his family honour, Yuan quickly realises is a fake suggesting his grandfather wasn’t really a traitor after all while giving rise to the question of what actually happened to the “real” one. When it comes to the antiques trade, perhaps there’s a question mark over the degree to which “authenticity”, whatever that might mean, really matters and if all the Plum Blossom Five are really doing is attempting to assert their authority over an unruly market as the accusation that one head of family in particular has long been knowingly authenticating fakes when it suits them to do so bears out. In something of a plot hole, Yuan is revealed to be an antiques expert despite having been abandoned by his father at a young age but his ability is for some problematic even if admired by his main rival in its ability to expose the hidden truth or as the film later puts it the real within the fake. 

In any case, it’s true enough that the battles of the past are still being fought by the grandchildren of those who started what they couldn’t finish. Yuan is joined in his quest by the feisty granddaughter of another Plum Blossom family (Xin Zhilei) who is also battling her grandfather’s sexism in his refusal to trust her with anything important in the antiques trade. She and Yuan end up squaring off against Yao who is largely playing his own game as they embark on a good old-fashioned treasure hunt in which they solve a series of puzzles set down by Yuan’s father to lead them towards the truth.

Discovering another father figure along the way, Yuan learns to accept his complicated legacy while redeeming his family honour and along with it his self worth in outsmarting just about everyone else to solve the final mystery. There is something refreshingly innocent in these well constructed, defiantly analogue puzzles which rely on cultural knowledge and mental acumen along with a spirit of curiosity, while there’s also a fair amount of running away from bad guys and escaping from collapsing tombs filled with artefacts that might in a sense be cursed even if not quite literally. There are definitely a lot of schemes in antiques, something of which Yuan himself takes full advantage, but they’re also in their own way pieces of a puzzle in which the fakes are less red herrings than gentle pointers towards other truths some of them buried under layers of subterfuge and obfuscation only to be dragged into the light by those with dangerously curious minds.


Schemes in Antiques streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Whistleblower (吹哨人, Xue Xiaolu, 2019)

Whistleblower poster 2One of the many ironies of an intensely authoritarian system which prizes the self-criticism as a means of enforcing discipline is that whistleblowing, as opposed to “informing” on individuals, is not only frowned upon but actively dangerous. It is, after all, suggesting the Party may have made errors in judgement which have gone on to become systemic. It’s not surprising that the Party would not like to have them pointed out. Nevertheless, in these new times in which anti-corruption has become a minor buzzword, whistleblowing has been re-designated as a public service, though perhaps in not so much different a way as “informing” was in the old days and probably it very much depends on who and what one wishes to blow the whistle.

This the earnest hero of Xue Xiaolu’s The Whistleblower (吹哨人, Chuīshàorén) finds out to his cost when he is unwittingly alerted to a possible conspiracy and entrenched corruption among his co-workers. Mainland-born Mark (Lei Jiayin) works for a top Australian energy company keen to do business with China, though as they keep reminding him he is one of only two Chinese members of personnel, the other being the mysterious Peter (Wang Ce) whose unexpected absence is the reason Mark has been sent on a swanky but possibly illegal jolly to a resort to charm a delegation from a Chinese coal company. Two things immediately go wrong for him – the wife of the company’s (absent) CEO turns out to be his long lost first love Siliang (Tang Wei) who broke up with him because she wanted someone richer, and Peter turns up to the party in a dishevelled state to shout at him about something that happened in uni, which later turns out to be a coded clue to “check the gate”.

Needless to say, Siliang who seems to be in the middle of trying to break up with her husband, and Mark, who is married with a young son, “reconnect” before she dutifully runs off to a catch a plane which later crashes killing everyone on board. Peter is then found dead of an apparent insulin overdose, but even if he’s suspicious Mark doesn’t think much of it until he realises Siliang is still alive and on the run from her corrupt CEO husband who is apparently trying to have her killed because she knows too much about his dodgy dealings.

The Whistleblower tries to have it both ways in insisting that Siliang is simultaneously a greedy, ruthless, criminal mastermind, and such useless lady of the manor sort that she doesn’t know you can’t put metal in the microwave and is a terrible getaway driver because she’s always had chauffeurs. We’re told that she broke up with Mark because of his lack of materialism, marrying a top CEO for wealth and status and helping him conduct bad faith business by managing his bribes, but may now be conflicted – not only because her husband is trying to kill her, but because she’s realised her mistake and is attracted to Mark’s untarnished innocence. Her taste for corruption was, however, a moralistic one in that she would apparently never have condoned bribery if she knew that the technology really was unsafe and posed a threat to ordinary Chinese people.

It might be telling in one sense that this battle is being fought in Africa meaning that whatever problems there are with this innovative pipeline system are uncomfortably being worked out among less powerful people far away from either the Australian energy giant or the complicit Chinese coal company looking for new paths forward. The central implication, however, is that this kind of corruption is an element of Western imperialism rather than homegrown. The villains are the bigwigs at the Australian conglomerate, one of whom speaks fluent Mandarin but is apparently not much of a friend of China. Mark tries to expose them, turning against a company which is always keen to remind him that he is a foreigner (Australian PR pending), only to find himself at the centre of a smear campaign which seems like it would play much better on the Mainland, chased by thugs, and targeted for elimination.

The message that Mark gets, looking on with hope at a bright red sign reading “rebuild your life”, is come home – don’t do business with corrupt foreigners, help make China great again. A series of textual explanations appended to the film’s conclusion attempt to explain the word “whistleblower” to an audience that might not be familiar with it, pointing out that most developed nations have instituted legislation to protect those who attempt to expose illicit business practices but that China is lagging a little behind though it too apparently introduced legal protections in 2016 as part of its intensive drive to reduce corruption among petty officials. Mark has done the “right” thing, and he’s paid a price for it, but, the film says, his is the example to be followed in standing up to oppressive global corporate corruption which will eventually imperil the ordinary men and women of China if consumerist zeal wins out over national integrity.


The Whistleblower opens in selected UK cinemas on 6th December courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

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)