The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Diao Yinan, 2019)

wild goose lake poster 1Chaos and desperation are about as far as it’s possible to get from the image of the modern China the nation’s cinema has been keen to project, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves in the murky world of The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Nánfāng Czhàn de Jùhuì). Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice followup finds the director in much the same territory only this time embracing the absurdity of existential flight as his twin heroes seek impossible escape in the garish neon of a provincial underworld.

Diao opens on the rain-drenched streets as sullen gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waits impatiently for a rendezvous with his estranged wife Shujun (Wan Qian), only to be met by a stranger – “bathing beauty” Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), who explains she won’t be coming. A lengthy flashback reveals that Zenong is currently on the run after getting embroiled in a dispute over turf assignments at some kind of gangster briefing session during in which one of his guys shot one of the Cat brothers’ men in the leg. To settle the matter, the boss proposes a good old-fashioned competition to see who can nick the most bikes in one night with the winner getting the prime spot, but Zenong doesn’t know he’s been set up and mistakenly kills a policeman after being attacked by Cat Eyes. Realising there’s no longer any way out for him, Zenong’s last hope is to keep the police at bay long enough to get back in touch with his wife and convince her to turn him in to the police so that she can claim the reward money.

Like many men of his generation, Zenong couldn’t find the kind of honest work that would allow him to provide for his family and so he left home. Too ashamed to own his no-good gangster ways, he stayed away for five years but all that’s on his mind is family and this is the only chance that he will ever have to provide for them. Shujun isn’t even really sure she wants anything to do with her absentee husband, but is dragged back into his orbit once again harassed by the police every step of the way.

In striking contrast to most Chinese crime dramas, these police are far from a force for order. Describing Wild Goose Lake as a lawless land, they have their very own briefing to formulate a plan to catch Zenong but aren’t averse to underhanded tactics like threatening Shujun and trying to undermine her attachment to her husband through a fabricated story about a pregnant girlfriend. The line between cop and thug isn’t so thick as you’d think it would be, and you can’t trust the police any more than brotherhood or honour amongst thieves.

Devoid of morality, Wild Goose Lake is indeed a chaotic place defined by shifting loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Fights break out without warning, plans change, and there are no safe spaces. Bumbling as they are, the police are everywhere watching everything and trying to blend in. Anyone might be a cop, or secretly working against you. Zenong is on the classic wrong man path, except that he’s the right man and he knows it. He might not have pulled the trigger if he knew it was a policeman he was firing at, but pull the trigger he did and now he’ll have to make peace with it. Trying to outrun the law only so long as to subvert it, he finds himself slipping past checkpoints distracted by pointless officiousness and consistently evading the net.

When Shujun is unable to make it to the rendezvous, Aiai offers to take her place by turning Zenong in and claiming the reward money to pass it on to Zenong’s wife (minus a small fee), meaning they will need to trust each other until the mission is completed. Aiai, a dejected young woman supplementing her income with casual sex work as one of the “bathing beauties” found at the lake, longs to escape her dead end existence, eventually telling the policeman she’d use the reward money to open a small store back in her hometown. Like Shujun, she lives in a fiercely patriarchal, unforgiving society  from which there is little sign of escape or independence. Yet, as afraid of everything Zenong represents as she eventually becomes, Aiai remains steadfast and true, keeping her promise and paving the way towards a brighter future for Shujun and her son away from the haphazard chaos of Wild Goose Lake. An absurdist fable drenched in neon, Diao’s conception of life on the margins of provincial China is as bleak as they come but eventually finds space for positivity on returning to a world more ordinary in which two women walk away from the traumatic past arm in arm and the law has to be content to let them go.


The Wild Goose Lake was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English captions)

Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jia Zhangke, 2018)

Ash is purest white poster 1Jia Zhangke returns to the world of crime for a slice of jianghu blues in his latest chronicle of modern China through the eyes of its ordinary, downtrodden citizens. Self referential in the extreme, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jiānghú Érnǚ) is a sad story of conflicting values and missed connection as a lovelorn woman proves herself too good, too pure, and ultimately too strong for the weak willed man she can neither love nor abandon. Times change and feelings change with them. To survive is not enough but integrity comes at a heavy price in a land where everything is for sale.

Echoing the time jumping narrative of Mountains May Depart, Jia opens in 4:3 and in 2001 as Qiao (Zhao Tao), sporting a black Cleopatra-esque haircut (the same as that worn by the identically named heroine of Jia’s own Unknown Pleasures from 2002) takes the bus into town. The first lady of the local “jianghu” underworld, Qiao is the devoted righthand woman of petty gang boss Bin (Liao Fan), enjoying the loyalty, honour, and respect of all in the slightly depressing environs of a small corner of dusty Datong. Bin is a walking monument to the idea of “jianghu” as mediated through Hong Kong action movies, swaggering around with a gun in his belt to prove that he’s the top dog in this tiny town. To live by jianghu is know that someone is always coming and when another prominent gangster is offed by young thugs, it’s not long before they come knocking on Bin’s door. Humiliatingly thrashed in the main square, Bin is only saved by a heroic intervention from Qiao who takes up his gun and fires into the air, a look of imperious authority on her face even as her eyes flicker with fear and excitement.

Qiao didn’t shoot anyone, but as the gun was illegal and she brought its presence to the notice of the police she gets into trouble anyway. A fierce devotee of the jianghu way, she refuses to give up Bin and insists the gun is hers and always has been. The gun was not hers in a real sense, and though she intends to lie in order to protect the man she loves from her mistake in firing it, spiritually speaking she and the gun are one. Having admired Bin’s skilful defusing of a petty gangster dispute without needing to use it, Qiao picks up the pistol and turns it over in her hands. The irony is, Qiao doesn’t need the gun but it completes her all the same, or at least completes the image she has of herself as an action movie heroine. Bin, however, has the gun because he doesn’t believe in himself in the same way Qiao does. He knows he’s weak and that his time is limited.

When Qiao is sent to prison for five years, she fully expects to find Bin waiting for her on the other side when she gets out. In the meantime Bin has proved true to form – he’s found himself another powerful woman to hide behind, though this time he’s chosen (or, in reality, is chosen by) one with good connections rather than fighting spirit. Bin has left the world of jianghu behind to try and make it in the rapidly developing capitalist economy, but as Qiao tells him when they finally reunite she had to live as a jianghu just to find him. Alone and friendless, betrayed by her love and disrespected by her new environment, Qiao turns to a cheeky strain of petty crime to get by – taking social revenge by attempting to blackmail random men over secret affairs, gatecrashing wedding parties for food, living by her wits on the streets and, if she’s honest, enjoying it.

Qiao is, in a sense, living in an imagined past. The frequent strains of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s seminal noir-tinged hitman drama The Killer underscore the yearning for an era of heroic bloodshed, brotherhood, and honour which never really existed outside of the movies. While Qiao grips her gun and fires in the air, Bin lights a melancholy cigarette watching Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, grumpily passive as always. Qiao saves Bin, more than once, but he can’t forgive her for it or reconcile himself to his own lack of resolve.

The film’s Chinese title, loosely translated as “the sons and daughters of jianghu” hints at the power of this double edged inheritance in which the archaic social codes of brotherly honour and loyalty are both barrier and bridge in an increasingly amoral society. Jia shows us a world of mine closures and forced migration, revisits the Three Gorges damn in which the past is sunk to pave way for the future, and introduces us to a modern day prospector with a big idea about UFOs. Bin, weak and opportunistic, doesn’t have the ability to ride the waves of China’s changing tides, but Qiao doesn’t have the will. Burned right through to her jianghu core, she sticks steadfastly to her code as she retreats to her spiritual home but owns her place within it even as the modern world rises up all around her. Qiao’s independence is both victory and defeat, an echo of the failed ideologies of a nation drunk on capitalism in which newfound freedom confuses and corrupts in equal measure. Nevertheless, there is something tragically romantic in Qiao’s lovelorn longing for a more passionate era in which the bonds between people still counted for something even if their demands were not always fair.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Full version of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s 1989 existential hitman noir The Killer