Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Wei Shujun, 2020)

“You’ll have a fabulous life too” dejected student Kun is advised, if only he’ll buy a secondhand ’97 Jeep Cherokee sitting forlornly on the lot of an irritated car salesman. If it’s so great why has no one else bought it, he not unfairly asks only for the salesman to reply that it’s because they’re morons who don’t know a good deal when they see one. The directorial debut from Wei Shujun whose graduation short On the Border won the Special Jury Distinction award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Yěmǎ Fēn Zōng) is in many ways a tale of millennial malaise as the post-90s generation contemplate the relative elusiveness of the Chinese Dream in a society which seems to them much more authoritarian and restrictive than many would imagine.  

A 20-something film student, Kun (Zhou You) is not so much rebellious as founding his resistance in slacker passivity yet it’s his failure either to fully reject the rules of his society or accept his complicity that prevents him moving forward. As the film opens we watch him go rogue during a driving test, literally veering off course in his quest for independence as symbolised in his repeated failure to acquire a licence. So little does he care for the rules of his society that he goes looking for a car anyway, prepared to settle for the cheapest available which is what leads him to the Jeep Cherokee, wilfully mis-sold a vision of the Mongolian Dream by the overconfident salesman. Showing him videos of the wide open grasslands re-invisioned as a new frontier complete with wild horses running free over the horizon, the salesman of course neglects to mention that a vehicle of this age is not going to be particularly reliable, nor cheap to maintain especially if you can’t manage your own mechanics, and will soon be rendered unroadworthy under new emissions guidelines. Kun is being sold a pup. His quest for independence is primed to stall on the highway. It literally cannot take him where he wants to go. 

Meanwhile, he finds himself struggling under the weight of a young man’s ego squeezed on both sides by those who feel he’s not working hard enough at his studies and those who feel his quest to become an indie filmmaker is frivolous and irresponsible. Kun and his friend Tong (Tong Lin Kai) when they go to class at all more or less ignore their professor, at one point firing back at him that he teaches because he cannot do having never actually worked on professional film set. Kun’s attitude is to an extent vindicated in that he does actually seem to have more experience and be ahead of the man who is supposed to be teaching him, but on the other hand if he’d only bit his tongue and played by the rules he’d simply have passed the class and graduated rather than getting himself an instant fail for non-attendance with a side of pissing off the professor. Tong is mystified that, in essence, they’ve paid a lot of money and wasted four years to learn how to press a couple of buttons, but they’re also reminded by the not so subtle father of Kun’s girlfriend Zhi that these days you’re nothing without a PhD. Nervous and chastened, Kun lies that he might become a teacher like his mother as his parents intended, only for Zhi’s father to railroad him into applying for a steady civil service job right there and then, filling the form himself on his own laptop leaving Kun feeling even more emasculated at the hands of the older generation. 

For her part, Zhi is already getting bored with Kun’s irresponsibility. Forced to degrade herself with a part-time job as eye candy at various corporate events, she’s seemingly ready to head into a respectable middle class life while Kun is still dreaming of the grasslands and overly attached to his uncool car. She complains that he’s always saying he’s going somewhere but never actually goes, irritated when he rejects her offer to take him somewhere on her dime. Eventually she advises him to scrap the Jeep, a confrontation that threatens their relationship but Kun is still too attached to an illusionary dream of freedom to consider it. When he eventually gets to Inner Mongolia while working on a friend’s film shoot, he discovers that the “spirit of the grasslands” is largely absent. The banquet they’re invited to an awkward spectacle for tourists, the local culture repurposed and repackaged as a vision of an exoticised otherness that is the flip side of Kun’s equally inauthentic desire for a Chinese wild west. The grasslands appeal because their vast emptiness expresses infinite freedom, but paradoxically precisely because there is nothing there. 

Constantly frustrated by male authority figures from his father who is literally a cop to his resentful professor, quietly sneering girlfriend’s father, and the entire police force, not to mention his unseen mother apparently a well known professor synonymous with educational success, Kun finds himself constrained, longing to run free like the wild horses of the Mongolian plains but unable to shake off the yoke of social responsibility. Forced to give up the Jeep because of his own foolishness in misguidedly trying to evade authority, he becomes a passenger listening to the radio as a man he thought ridiculous and deluded is accorded unexpected success. Kun’s filmmaker friends emulate Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Hong Sang-soo, looking beyond the Mainland for a sense of artistic cool but equally seeming to have few truly “independent” ideas of their own. The Chinese indie scene, Wei seems to say, flounders like Kun trapped by his own sense of inertia unable to free himself from an oppressive society, striding into the wind but ill-equipped to counter its resistance. 


Striding into the Wind streams in the UK 16th October, available to start between 6.30 – 7pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

Vortex (铤而走险, Jacky Gan Jianyu, 2019)

“Only with money are you treated like a person” according to cynical gangster Xia Tao, another embattled soul turning to the dark side to try and survive after multiple betrayals in a cruel and unforgiving society. Anchored by a standout performance from comedian Da Peng in a rare dramatic role, Vortex (铤而走险, Tǐng’érzǒuxiǎn) sees one feckless young man falling into a web of criminality after succumbing to the temptation of an easy fix to all his problems. As he and others will discover, however, actions have consequences and there are no victimless crimes. 

Liu Xiaojun (Da Peng) is an embittered young(ish) man left orphaned and resentful after his policeman father died on the job. Nominally a mechanic with his own repair shop he also has a self-destructive gambling problem that’s left him deep in debt to local mobsters. He tries to hit up an old friend, Brother Wan (Cao Bingkun), recently released from prison, but he offers him a job rather than money, explaining that it’s only crime adjacent not actually illegal. All he has to do is drive unregistered cars back to the depot where Wan can resell them, and he’ll get 10,000 a pop. Xiaojun isn’t really into crime so he’s reluctant to take Wan up on his offer, trying his policeman uncle (Cao Weiyu) for yet another loan instead, but when he blows that too in reckless gambling he realises he has no other choice. The plan goes badly wrong, however, when the car Xiaojun is supposed to pick up turns out to be occupied and he finds himself in a fight with the Xia brothers. He manages to get it back to the depot but there’s another problem. The car was carrying cargo, a little girl, Qiqi (Audrey Duo / Doo Ulantoya), hidden in the boot apparently at the centre of a kidnapping plot. 

Xiaojun wants to call the police, but Wan is against it. He urges him to dump Qiqi somewhere and hope the authorities find and return her to her parents, but Xiaojun finds himself keeping the little girl. When Qiqi’s frantic mother calls the cellphone that was left in the car he realises she’s worth around two million and it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. After all, it’s a win/win. Xiaojun isn’t going to hurt Qiqi like the kidnappers might so he’s keeping her safe and he gets to pocket the money in return. 

So begins his series of moral justifications for the vortex of crime that began with his decision to drive the car for Wan which was itself caused by his gambling problem and addiction to quick fix solutions. Later, we can see that his self-destructive streak is a kind of despair, an act of self-harm taken in revenge against the unfairness of losing his father who apparently did everything right but paid a heavy price in attempting to serve justice. Xiaojun unfairly blames his uncle for failing to save his dad in choosing to do his job as a policeman and fiercely resists his well-meaning, paternal attempts to save him from his life of crime adjacent activity, but later perhaps comes to understand after unwisely becoming involved in the kidnapping plot, bonding with the innocent Qiqi, and then bitterly regretting his foolishness in placing her in danger to chase the money. 

Yet money, as Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) says, is only thing that counts and you’re nothing without it. Xia Tao too turned to crime following parental betrayal, no longer seeing the point in playing by the rules if all it gets you is a lifetime of righteous suffering. Wan’s bar hostess friend, Zhao Qian (Li Meng), seems to be mixed up in the plot too though as her role becomes clear we realise that she has also succumbed to a quick fix solution out of desperation, trying to save a man she loves but later describes as “only a friend” by resorting to desperate measures to ensure he gets a life saving operation. Even little Qiqi seems to feel betrayed by mum and dad, answering Xiaojun’s question about who she thinks loves her more with a sad “neither”, while asking not to be returned to her mother because she’s been stopping her seeing her father and she misses him.  

As we later find out, there might be quite a good reason for that which Qiqi is too young to understand, but still she wants to try and find him and seems cheerful enough with Xiaojun while he says he’ll help her. Until then, Xiaojun becomes an awkward paternal presence, touched by Qiqi’s earnestness and lost in a moral quagmire trying to work out where the best place to send her might be while still hoping to get his hands on the cash. Redeeming himself by, in a sense, paying the ransom by deciding to prioritise saving Qiqi from the Xia brothers, Xiaojun begins to extricate himself from the vortex of crime, rediscovering a more positive paternal presence of his own in forgiving uncle Wang and his own father in coming to an understanding of their choices through being forced to make his own. A minor condemnation of the modern China’s wealth obsession and growing social inequality, Vortex finds its villains less villainous than one might expect, succumbing to the slippery slope of criminality in desperation and a sense of abandonment in a society which seems content to leave them behind.


Vortex is represented by Fortissimo Films.

International Trailer (English subtitles)

Dead Pigs (海上浮城, Cathy Yan, 2018)

Dead Pigs posterPigs – they have the best life, according to pig farmer Old Wang (Yang Haoyu). All they do is sleep and eat while hard working folks like him go out of their way to keep them comfortable. To Old Wang, it doesn’t seem fair but, ironically enough, he seems to have forgotten the heavy price a prize pig pays for its short life of “luxury”. Nevertheless, all his hard work is about to go down the drain in the debut film from Cathy Yan, Dead Pigs (海上浮城, Hǎi Chàng Fú Chéng). Loosely inspired by the infamous Huangpu River incident, Dead Pigs is a decidedly cheerful satire of modern China’s capitalist revolution and the many changes, good and bad, it has wrought.

When all the pigs in China suddenly start dropping dead, it presents a series of problems for your average pig farmer like Old Wang. With everyone on high alert and no clear indication of what is causing the strange phenomenon, no one is buying pork and getting rid of the carcasses in the “official” way is costly, bothersome, and will alert the attention of the authorities. Therefore, pretty much everyone starts tipping their dead pigs in the river which, besides being unsightly, is also a significant risk to public health.

Old Wang, however, has other problems. When we first meet him, he’s become obsessed with the cutting edge art of VR technology because it feels just like the real thing, delighting in pretending to go swimming when he could actually just go swimming outside if only he hadn’t been polluting the river with pig carcasses. Not content with virtual delusions, he’s also got himself into debt by “investing” in a scheme which turned out to be a scam and lost him all his savings. In debt to loan sharks, Old Wang decides to ask his sister, Candy (Vivian Wu) – a beautician with an upbeat, inspirational marketing campaign, for help. Candy, however, is in the middle of a nasty dispute with a local property developer which has bought up all the other properties in the area to build a brand new housing complex bizarrely inspired by classic Spanish cathedral Sagrada Família and designed by American architect Sean (David Rysdahl) who has ended up in China in flight from failure at home. Old Wang considers asking his son, Zhen (Mason Lee), whom he thinks has a good job in the city, for the money to pay the gangsters, but Zhen is just a waiter (in an upscale bar/restaurant specialising in pork) and is too ashamed to tell his dad he can’t help. Meanwhile, Zhen has also fallen for disillusioned rich girl Xia Xia (Li Meng) who is currently rethinking her elitist lifestyle.

Snapping at the property developers, Candy laments that it’s all “money, money, money” and resents that they can’t see the various practical and sentimental reasons she might not want to move, assuming she’s just an old battle-axe out for more money. In the world of rich kids like Xia Xia, money is indeed all that matters – having the flashiest outfits, jewellery, cars and accessories while being seen at the trendiest bars and restaurants on the arm of the handsomest companions the elite has to offer. No one seems to care very much about how they treat others because every offence can be paid for. Xia Xia, though she perhaps suspected it before, learns the hard way when she winds up in hospital and none of her many “friends” bother to visit her, preferring to send expensive gifts instead.

Meanwhile, Wang Zhen and his dad are two guys left behind by rapid modernisation. Too ashamed to tell his father he couldn’t cut it in the city, Zhen eventually takes to deliberately crashing into oncoming vehicles with his bicycle in the hope of extracting compensation – willingly submitting himself to a system in which money has become a license to do wrong for those who can afford it. American architect Sean feels much the same as he makes plain in an impassioned speech to Old Wang in which he insists that no one has the right to call him stupid or to make out he isn’t good enough for the brave new world they are making. Sean, having ended up in China in an attempt to escape these same feelings of inadequacy and failure in his home country, finds a new niche for himself, uncomfortable as it is, as a professional Westerner for hire in series of bizarre publicity stunts managed by a talent agency specialising in such rarefied fare. 

Yet more than the greed, selfishness, and inhumanity the cruelty of capitalism has engendered, it’s the loss of community that seems to really sting. Candy wants to hold on to her childhood home as a physical expression of a long lost neighbourhood and now absent family. Tellingly, the song she’s always singing, which is later reprised as a community wide karaoke number, is a classic track by Teresa Teng known as “I Only Care About You” in its Mandarin version but originally released in Japanese as “Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase” which literally means “surrender yourself to the flow of time”. You can’t stop progress – perhaps it’s a mistake to cling on to the tangible in a world constantly in flux when what really matters has always been close at hand. The message seems to be, salvage what you can but get out of the way of the bulldozer before it buries you too. Sparkling with whimsy and filled with impromptu song and dance, Dead Pigs is a delightfully surreal examination of a changing nation in which goodness and empathy eventually win out (to a point at least) against the overwhelming forces of rampant capitalist expansion.


Screened at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s I Only Care About You

Original Japanese version (Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase)

A Better Tomorrow 2018 (英雄本色2018, Ding Sheng, 2018)

better tomorrow 2018 posterIn the history of Hong Kong cinema, there are few films which could realistically claim the same worldwide influence as John Woo’s 1986 landmark A Better Tomorrow. Commissioned by Tsui Hark, the then jobbing director Woo was tasked with creating a vehicle for a veteran Shaw Brothers star. Casting Cantopop idol Leslie Cheung and TV sensation Chow Yun-fat, Woo mixed traditional melodrama with hyper masculine emotionality to give birth to what would become the “heroic bloodshed” genre which was to dominate the island’s cinematic output well into the ‘90s. A Better Tomorrow, as its title implies, is the perfect evocation of its era and among the first to express an oncoming anxiety for Hong Kong’s “return” to China then only a decade away. Slick and oozing with ‘80s, macho cool, Woo’s film captured the imaginations of young men everywhere who suddenly took to wearing sunglasses and trench coats while chewing on match sticks, dreaming dreams of heroism in a sometimes gloomy world.

Which is all to say, attempting to “remake” Woo’s masterpiece may well be a fool’s errand. It is however one which has been frequently attempted, not least by Wong Jing in 1994 and Song Hae-sung in Korea in 2010. Korean cinema has perhaps become the heir of heroic bloodshed with its inherent love of melodrama which often finds its way into the nation’s bloody gangster epics whose generally high level of homosocial bonding is perfectly primed for male honour drama. Ding Sheng, apparently a huge fan of the original Hong Kong hit, brings the tale north to the Mainland, relocating to Qingdao which serves as a trading post for the drug running route from Japan.

As in the original we have two biological brothers – Kai (Wang Kai), a “sailor” who has fallen into smuggling to support his family who are unaware of his criminal occupation, and Chao (Ma Tianyu) – a rookie policeman. Meanwhile, Kai also has a criminal “brother” in his younger partner Mark (Wang Talu), an orphaned hothead from Taiwan. Kai is a “noble” smuggler who refuses to traffic drugs but a Hong Kong triad boss is hellbent on fishing out his Japanese contacts and after a job goes wrong, Kai ends up getting shot and arrested by his own brother who is heartbroken to discover the truth. Spending three years in prison during which time Kai’s father is killed in a raid on their home by gangsters looking for info on the Japanese, Kai tries to go straight but finds himself pulled back into the underworld after coming into conflict with villainous gangster Cang (Yu Ailei) who has taken over the Japan route (and forced Kai’s old girlfriend into prostitution after getting her hooked on drugs).

Ding’s film, while replicating the plot of Woo’s original, attempts to bring it into the “modern” era in which the stylised, manly melodrama of the ‘80s action movie has long since been replaced by a finer desire for “uncool” realism. Ding does not seem to be making a particular point about modern China, other than in persistent economic inequality which has forced an “honest” man like Kai into a life of crime for the otherwise honourable reason of taking care of his family. Though this itself maybe a subtle reference to the post-90s world, the major anxiety seems to be more with cross cultural interactions and possible pollution of “good” Chinese men like Kai who have been led astray by the false promises of, for example, gangsters from Hong Kong, and the old enemies in Japan. Interestingly enough, the relationships themselves are formalised and superficial. In Japan Kai and Mark are entertained in a “super Japanese” bar of the kind which only tourists frequent, decked to the ceilings with cherry blossoms and staffed with “geisha” girls, while in China they take their guests to a bar which has Peking Opera going on in the background as entertainment.

Kai is fond of telling his sworn brother that everything in the world may change, but brotherhood remains the same. This turns turn out to be an ironic comment in that his natural brother, Chao, disowns him in shame and loathing after his release from prison. Nevertheless, Kai never gives up striving for Chao’s approval even whilst reuniting with Mark who has been crippled and reduced to cleaning boats at the harbour after trying to exact revenge for Kai’s betrayal. The trio’s manly honour code is thrown into stark relief by the amoral Cang who, claiming that “the world has changed” and loyalty no longer means anything, thinks nothing of shooting anyone and everyone who stands between himself and financial gain. If Ding has a comment to make, it’s that the traditional ideas of brotherhood, loyalty, justice and goodness are being eroded by the lure of foreign gold promised by corruption, exploitation, and an absence of morality.

Ding isn’t trying to match Woo’s grand sweep of tragic inevitability so much as aiming for straightforward crime drama but his occasional concessions to melodrama never quite gel with his otherwise gritty approach, nor do his unsubtle his homages to the original film which find Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme song becoming a frequent musical motif as well as prominently featuring at an ultra cool hipster bar located in a disused boat which plays his record on a turntable with a large picture of a grinning Chow Yun-fat behind it. A Better Tomorrow 2018 succeeds as a passible action drama, but one without the heart and soul that made Woo’s original so special. 


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)