Forever Young (栀子花开, He Jiong, 2015)

“As long as you don’t give up, it’s never too late to follow your dream” according to a sympathetic teacher perhaps incongruously advising a conflicted student who might in one sense be facing an ending but also has his whole life in front of him. Apparently inspired by a song from 2004, Gardenia in Blossom, Forever Young (栀子花开, Zhīzihuā Kāi) ironically concerns itself with the lives of a collection of youngsters facing their first roadblock as they approach the end of university while their dreams seem further away than ever. 

Popular girl Yanxi (Zhang Huiwen) has her heart set on joining the Paris Opera Ballet along with her three roommates with whom she dances the Dance of the Four Swans. Yanxi’s boyfriend Xunuo (Li Yifeng), meanwhile, dreams of making it as a rockstar with his three bandmates. The combined group of friends, cheerful and excited about celebrating Yanxi’s upcoming 21st birthday, are upbeat about the future and looking forward to their graduation concert “Dream Night” at which they hope to catch the eye of influential people. When tragedy strikes however and it seems the girls will not be able to perform, Xunuo makes a surprising decision, roping his bandmates in to take their place and dance the Dance of the Four Swans in their stead. 

Mirrors of each other, Yanxi and Xunuo can each be blinkered and self-centred. Yanxi takes it for granted that the group all want the same thing and are determined to go to Paris with her but apparently hasn’t noticed that her friends have their own problems and at least one may not be able to afford to go abroad because she’s already subsidising her brother’s education. Stubborn and unsympathetic, Yanxi later comes to regret having been so unforgiving as she faces the prospect of continuing alone only to encounter yet another setback. Xunuo meanwhile does something similar in convincing his bandmates to join him in the Four Swans project at the expense of their own dream in taking time away from their band practice while forcing them to don tutus and possibly make fools of themselves in front of all their friends. 

Asked why she chose ballet, Yanxi replies that standing on tiptoes allowed her to see further, but now she worries she’s been suffering with a particular kind of myopia in having seen nothing at all while still clinging on to a vain hope for her Paris dream. The idealised relationship between the pair is marred only by Xunuo’s petulant decision not to get on the bus with everyone else after their night out when Yanxi reminded him she was bound overseas, and her later despondency as they’re temporarily forced apart by Xunuo’s secret plan even while his strange rivalry with a former friend with whom he wrote a plaintive love song takes on an overtly homoerotic quality.  

Nevertheless, there’s something of an incongruity in such young people being constantly reminded that as long as you don’t give up there’s always time to achieve your dreams though it’s true enough that they’re each at a crisis point, about to lose the student safety net and faced with the choice of whether to keep trying to make it or go for the “safe” option of heading into the workforce. Xunuo declares that he just wants “all the sadness and troubles to go away”, only for his teacher to point out that if you’ve nothing to overcome then you’ll never grow. The presence of tragedy never seems to touch them as deeply as one would think, though at least through Xunuo’s vicarious dancing dream the guys are able to renew their friendships, acknowledging their own strengths and weaknesses as they work together in memory of absent friends and perhaps their own fading youth. 

A strangely cheerful campus drama despite its darkness and the foreboding of the title, Forever Young allows its heroes to be just that as they promise themselves that as long as they refuse to give up it’s never too late for their dreams to come true while also subtly hinting at a new ideal of masculinity in the infinitely sensitive Xunuo who is selfless and kind and just wants everyone to be happy. An overly idealised conclusion perhaps as the youngsters bid goodbye to their adolescent lives for the stormy seas of adulthood, but also a reassuring one as they emerge from their respective traumas and hardships with renewed hope for the future.


Forever Young streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Better Days (少年的你, Derek Tsang, 2019)

Better Days poster high resWith the Chinese censors board seemingly on high alert, the news that yet another highly anticipated film from an internationally acclaimed director has been pulled from its prime festival slot for “technical reasons” comes as no surprise. Derek Tsang’s Better Days (少年的你, Shàonián de Nǐ) proved an early Berlin casualty, missing out on the festival season in its entirety while gaining approval for a regular release in June only to be abruptly pulled three days before the film was set to open nationwide. Finally making its way into multiplexes all over the world (largely thanks to its boyband star), it’s clear that concessions have been made but it’s not difficult to see why the censors might have been nervous given that Tsang, while perhaps coy, is not afraid to paint his two tragic protagonists as bullied by their society, victims of a series of concentric social ills which define the modern China.

Opening with a brief, melancholy framing sequence featuring the older Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) teaching English in a small provincial classroom, Tsang flashes back to 2011 when she was a mousey student studying at a top cram school while preparing for China’s gruelling two-day Gaokao university entrance exams. Nian shuts out the rest of the world and buries herself in books, but is jolted out of her trance-like dedication when a classmate, Hu Xiaodie (Zhang Yifan), jumps from the school roof into the courtyard below. Wanting to remain distant yet somehow moved, she attracts the wrong kind of attention with a gesture of kindness, placing her school jacket over Xiaodie’s ruined face to protect her from the cruel gaze of the smartphone cameras trained on her contorted body with a strange kind of hungry triumph.

Questioned by the police, Nian denies that she and Xiaodie were friends, refusing to disclose any information which might explain what led her to take her own life. Nian, however, is perfectly aware of what made her do it, because she too is one of a small group of students terrorised by a trio of rich kids led by the sociopathic Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). Now that Xiaodie is out of the picture, Nian is first in the firing line. Along with a male student apparently also among the bullied, Nian had believed that the bullying was just something she’d have to endure until she’s done with Gaokao and graduates into adulthood, but with the violence and cruelty escalating she decides to try getting help from the authorities.

The authorities, however, are largely absent. Despite concrete evidence that Wei Lai and her friends hounded Xiaodie to her death, the girls are merely given a slap on the wrist, suspended from school still but allowed to take the Gaokao with no further action taken because, after all, they’re still young and have their whole lives ahead of them. The irony is that the tannoys at this expensive cram school blast out the message that life isn’t fair but the Gaokao is, as if it were some great leveller giving equal opportunity to all rather than advantaging those who have the most money to throw at. Wei Lai is a young woman from a wealthy family who feels herself entitled to success and resentful of those who might eclipse her through talent alone while deeply believing that her money gives her the right to do whatever she pleases. She makes Nian’s life a misery in order to assert a power she does not really have, bullied herself at home by a father apparently dissatisfied with her lack of academic results.

Parents, like teachers and policemen, are generally distant figures of authority, bullying their kids into academic success through a combination of shaming and violence. Nian is singled out for bullying partly for being from the “wrong” socioeconomic background, the child of a single mother currently on the run from debt collectors and selling potentially harmful black-market cosmetics to get by. Unlike some of the other parents, Nian’s largely absent mother encourages rather than disciplines her but is too far away to offer much in the way of support or protection and quite clearly views her daughter’s academic success as her own salvation. Nian cannot ask her mother for help, nor can she turn to the school who have already made it clear they’ll bend over backwards to back the rich kids, or to the police who profess they can’t do anything because they always end up looking for someone in loco parentis and finding no one there.

That is perhaps why Nian ends up turning to the unconventional source of protection, bad boy Bei (Jackson Yee). Himself a victim of bullying in being abused and then abandoned by his parents, Bei, a noble street punk, though rough and unpredictable swears to protect her with his fists, willing to take a beating to do it (and eventually far more) if necessary. Bonding in their shared sadness, Bei realises that Nian has one shot but she could still get out and escape the misery of poverty whereas there is no way out for him.   

Nian tells the policemen investigating Xiaodie’s death that there is no room for friendship among those single-mindedly studying for the Gaokao, but slowly opens up to Bei while beginning to address her deep seated feelings of guilt and resentment in her complicity with social oppression. Grateful that it wasn’t her, she let Xiaodie suffer. Meanwhile, another student knowing herself to be a potential victim wilfully joins in with the bullies in the hope they’ll leave her alone only to find herself next in the firing line while Nian is protected by the shadow of Bei. Awakening to her social responsibility now that she is no longer alone, Nian resolves to try and help the other girl by bringing her into her circle of protection but finds herself betrayed by the girl’s failure to overcome her fear in order to reject her complicity.

Nian is repeatedly told that Gaokao is the doorway to adulthood, that all she has to do is endure until it’s over and she’s “free”. Sympathetic police detectives lament that empathy is something you learn only when grownup while simultaneously convinced that only those as young and naive as Nian and Bei would willingly sacrifice themselves for one another. Tsang begins in the realms of moody, achingly cool nihilistic youth drama in which there can be no way out for our doomed lovers, but soon segues into something more palatable to the censors in once again victim blaming the teens, suggesting that their problems are partly of their own making in their resistance to benevolent authority, refusing to trust an earnest, emotionally astute police detective intent on saving them from themselves.

Rather than accept that the tyranny of the Gaokao, increasing social inequality, entrenched authoritarianism, a shame culture, and an epidemic of absentee parenting in the midst of China’s go for broke economic development, are creating a pressure cooker society in which cruelty and violence are the only inevitability, the film ends on an incongruously rosy note which emphasises our collective responsibility to combat bullying (aided by the state whose efforts to tackle it are detailed in an awkward propagandist coda) while uncomfortably implying that it too is something that ends in childhood. Nian resolves to protect the world, as if she could solve all of society’s ills through solidarity alone, but emerges with little more than world weary resignation to its refusal to protect her. Still, in a world of unreliable authority figures and hopeless futures, solidarity’s better than nothing and as likely as anything else to lead to Better Days ahead.


Currently on limited release in UK, Australian, and New Zealand cinemas courtesy of Magnum Films, and in the US from Well Go.

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)

Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Chen Sicheng, 2018)

Detective Chinatown 2 posterBox office smash Detective Chinatown successfully pulled off the difficult feat of merging amusing buddy cop comedy with a holiday setting and intriguing cerebral mystery. Given the success of the first film it’s no surprise that the boys are back in town, or, as teased in the finale, in New York where another strange crime awaits their particular talents. Firmly a Chinese production taking place in an American city (though one using American crews), Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Tángrénj Tàn Àn 2) tries its best to maintain its unique character while shifting into American crime thriller territory, even if hampered by a stereotypical view of its target culture and some decidedly ropey English language dialogue.

Qin (Liu Haoran), now apparently a student at the police academy, has been tricked into coming to New York for Uncle Tang Ren’s (Wang Baoqiang) wedding to his love interest from the first film, Ah Xiang (Tong Liya). When he arrives, however, Qin quickly figures out that he’s in a room with some of the world’s best detectives – Ah Xiang left Tang Ren for someone with more money and so Tang Ren wants Qin to help him solve a mysterious New York murder for the reward promised by one of the victims’ grandfathers, a Chinatown gangster named Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang). Qin likes a good mystery so sticks around though the situation becomes decidedly more complicated after he finds and discounts the main suspect, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), leaving the trio on the run from the authorities, other detectives vying for the reward, and Uncle Seven’s guys some of whom have their own ulterior motives.

The most satisfying element of Detective Chinatown lay in the genuinely intricate nature of its locked room mystery and elegance of its resolution. Detective Chinatown 2 shifts away from the classical style of a European drawing room mystery for something altogether flashier and more American in keeping with its setting. It is, however, guilty of more than the faults of its genre in heavily signposting its solution from the midway point leaving any serious thriller fan twiddling their thumbs waiting for the penny to drop with ace detective Qin. Though a secondary twist offered after the killer has been unmasked helps to undercut the disappointment of such an anticlimax, it is not quite enough to compensate for the crushing obviousness of the central mystery.

Likewise, where Detective Chinatown existed firmly within a small Chinese enclave of Bangkok where everyone knew everyone, the move into the metropolis of Manhattan robs the film of its small-town charm. Despite the “Chinatown” tag, Chinatown itself is not a big player and as both of our guys are now full outsiders in another culture, we’re treated to a much less nuanced take on local stereotypes with several running gags likely to raise audience hackles with their tone-deaf approach to visualising the multicultural city. All of that aside, shooting in Central Manhattan with American crews also means much less creative freedom leaving the set pieces perhaps less impressive in terms of scale and ingenuity while the cinematography occasionally feels much more like standard American television than a big budget Chinese comedy.

Nevertheless the odd pairing of loudmouth Tang Ren and the comparatively subdued Qin, whose powers find even more impressive means of visualisation as he literally lifts buildings off a map and moves them round, remains the key selling point even though each half of the pair is also subjected to a bizarre round of sexual harassment from a biker boss with a tiny Chinaman fetish to a kung fu master with possible Alzheimer’s respectively. Though Chen generally relies on slapstick, the gags have a decidedly topical flavour – a police chief with terrible hair who makes off colour jokes and wants to build a wall to keep out all the annoying Chinese guys he can’t be bothered to deal with, for example, or the repeated references to immigration and the various dangers faced by those who’ve come from somewhere else and are trying to make a life for themselves. Yet the guys also keep running into people who unexpectedly speak Mandarin – perhaps a sign of the equally unexpected elevated status of Chinese visitors and their all important economic power. Detective Chinatown 2 is a mild disappointment after the duo’s impressive debut, but nevertheless does enough to spark interest in the teased Tokyo-set third instalment.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Screening details for UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand available via official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Chen Sicheng, 2015)

detective chinatown posterCrime exists everywhere, but so do detectives. When one young man fails his police exams because of an unfortunate impediment, he seeks refuge abroad only to find himself on a busman’s holiday when the relative he’s been sent to stay with turns out to be not quite so much of a big shot as he claimed and then gets himself named prime suspect in a murder. Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Tángrénj Tàn Àn) is one among many diaspora movies which find themselves shifting between a Chinese community existing to one side of mainland culture, and a mainland mentality. This time the setting is Bangkok but second time director Chen Sicheng is careful not to surrender to stereotype whilst also taking a subtle dig at men like uncle Tang Ren who can unironically refer to Thailand as a paradise while indulging in many of the aspects which might leave other residents with much more ambivalent emotions.

Qin (Liu Haoran), a young man with a fierce love of detective fiction, has his dreams shattered when his interview to get into the police academy is derailed by his stammer and an unwise tendency towards reckless honesty. His doting grandma who raised him suggests Qin take a holiday to take his mind off things by going to stay with his uncle who is, apparently, a hot shot detective in Bangkok – Qin might even get some valuable experience whilst thinking about a plan B. Sadly, uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) has been sending big fish stories back home for years and though he claims to be the best PI in Chinatown, he’s really a petty marketplace fixer with a bad mahjong habit and a side hustle in “finding” lost dogs. When Tang Ren accepts an errand to transport a statue from a workshop, he accidentally finds himself the prime suspect in the murder of the sculptor who is himself the prime suspect in a heist of some now very missing gold. Qin, tainted by association, vows to use his awesome detective skills to find the real killer (and the gold) to clear his uncle’s name whilst generally serving justice and protecting the innocent.

Despite the fact his secret is clearly about to be exposed, Tang Ran greets his long lost relative with immense enthusiasm (which is, as it turns out, how he does everything). Wang Baoqiang commits absolutely to Tang Ren’s cynical good humour attacking his larger than life personality with gusto though one has to wonder why Qin’s poor unsuspecting grandma thought Tang Ren would be a good guardian for her teenage grandson, especially as his first act is to take him to a strip club and spike what might actually be the first real drink of his life. Qin, quiet (that stammer) and introspective, is not a good fit for the loud and brassy world of insincerity his uncle inhabits, but forced into some very challenging situations, the two men eventually manage to combine their respective strengths into a (hilariously) efficient crime fighting team.

Meanwhile, Qin and Tang Ren are also contending with some serious political shenanigans in the local police department. Two Chinese cops are currently vying for a promotion and the job has been promised to whichever of them manages to identify the murderer and locate the missing gold. Luckily or unluckily, cop 1 – Kuntai (Xiao Yang), is a good friend of Tang Ren’s and doesn’t want to believe he is secretly some kind of criminal genius (but could well believe he killed a guy by mistake). Cop 2 (Chen He) is a hard-nosed (!) type who, for some reason, dresses like a cowboy and has a crush on Tang Ren’s landlady (Tong Liya) with whom Tang Ren is also in love. What this all amounts to is that everyone is stuck running circles around each other, trapped inside the wheel of farce, while the gold and the killer remain ever elusive.

Qin, finally beginning to overcome his stammer, puts some of his hard won detective nouse to the test and eventually figures out what’s going on but, by that point, he’s also warmed to his uncle enough to let him do the big drawing room speech. Filled with slapstick and absurd humour as it is, Detective Chinatown is also a finely constructed mystery with an internally consistent solution that offers both poignancy and a degree of unexpected darkness when the final revelations roll around. It is, however, the odd couple partnership between the sullen Qin (secretly embittered) and larger than life Tang Ren (secretly melancholy) that gives the film its winning charm, ensuring there will surely be more overseas adventures for these Chinatown detectives in years in to come…


Currently available to stream in the UK & US via Amazon Prime Video.

Original trailer (English subtitles)