Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Liu Jiangjiang, 2022)

An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are. 

At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point. 

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl. 

These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself. 

Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.


Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)

The Reunions (吉祥如意, Da Peng, 2020)

Comedian, actor, and general multi-hyphenate Da Peng (AKA Dong Chengpeng) scored box office hits with his first two features, superhero parody Jian Bing Man and musical dramedy City of Rock, but The Reunions (吉祥如意, Jíxiáng Rúyì), a reworking an earlier short, marks a definite shift in his personal style if not exactly devoid of laughs or warmth. Partly a muted personal meditation on the price of success and the compromises of the modern China, Da Peng’s Spring Festival movie in contrast to the sentimental norm finds a family on the brink of disintegration but discovers within that a sense of sad resignation rather than failure or disappointment. 

Comprising of Da Peng’s earlier short given the English title of “A Reunion”, the first 40 minutes or so act as a kind of verbatim docudrama starring a professional actress, Liu Lu, as Da Peng’s cousin Lili (who later features in the part two “A Final Reunion” making of redux) alongside members of his family including his mother and father playing themselves. Da Peng had apparently intended to film a kind of personal history/tribute to his grandmother exploring the various ways she lived her day to day life preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations, but during his stay which was his first in many years his grandmother sadly passed away. During the making of sequence, he begins to wonder if his visit home to make the movie may have caused his grandmother’s health to decline or if he was simply unaware that she had already become ill because he failed in his duty as a grandson staying away so long. 

As he puts it, in the city he is a different person with a different life largely forgetting about his family back in rural China. The main crisis of the New Year period is not however his grandmother’s death but the pending decision of what to do with uncle Ji Xiang who suffered brain damage after an illness a few decades previously and is unable to take care of himself. Filial wisdom says the burden falls on Lili, but she too lives in the city and has her own life with a small child to take care of meaning that it would be difficult for her to take her father home to live with her, not to mention the potential difficulties of uprooting him from everything he’s known. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lili and her father had long been estranged as her mother divorced him after the illness and moved to the city when Lili was a teenager. During the making of sequence, the actress playing Lili asks for clarification in her motivation stating that the one thing she doesn’t understand is why she hasn’t visited her family in over 10 years, but the only answer she receives is an awkward silence. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of the grandmother relations between the siblings begin to fray as old conflicts bubble to the surface, Da Peng’s uncle and aunt complaining that they cared for Ji Xiang and his mother all this time on their own and would appreciate some help but fail to see how any of the secondary suggestions of the other siblings pitching in as grandma had wished are realistic. Others insist that prior to his illness Ji Xiang was the most filial of the siblings, frequently helping out his brothers and sisters with jobs at the oil field where he worked and generally making sure to take care of everyone only to be semi-abandoned by them now he is no longer to look after himself. The presumably engineered argument from the movie later spirals out of control, the actress playing Lili pleading with the siblings to stop, while her real life counterpart looks on impassively from behind the camera, the fate of Ji Xiang still seemingly undecided. 

Yet quizzed by a fan at a Q&A after the screening of A Reunion, Da Peng doesn’t have an answer for why he decided to make the film, any messages he might have hoped to convey beyond a sense of loss and regret lost amid his desire to capture a moment of family life, his mother appearing on camera in a brief interview sequence avowing that she believes that with grandma gone this will probably be the last New Year, the siblings no longer having a common reason to come together. Someone even mentions that the family is only here this time because of Da Peng’s film, calling into question the ethical dimensions of his decision to put his relatives on camera. He closes on a poignant note with some home video from New Year 2008, presumably the last time he was home, featuring his grandmother and Uncle Ji Xiang in happier times harking back to an essential sense of loss in the all the missed opportunities of absent years now that there will be no more next times or home to go back to. 


The Reunions is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Super Me (超级的我, Zhang Chong, 2019)

Can you dream yourself into a better reality, or should you concentrate on being your best self in this one? That’s a dilemma that the hero of Zhang Chong’s Super Me (超级的我, Chāojí de Wǒ) barely has time to think about as he battles despair-fuelled hopelessness and possibly unrequited love for the beautiful woman who runs his local cafe. If only I were rich, he might well think, but though poverty is undoubtedly a factor in his malaise it’s his sense of inferiority which has him beaten down and all the money in the world won’t change that. 

We first meet Sang Yu (Darren Wang Talu) on a subway train where he recites a mantra to himself about how he’s “not an ordinary man”, he has the ability to work under pressure, and though his parents died and he has no friends those are merely tests from God which he has overcome. He is “brilliant and talented, diligent and motivated”, he expects success will soon arrive only he hasn’t slept a wink in the last six months because of the constant night terrors which plague him such as the one we’re about to witness. Sang Yu is asleep, and a nightmare is stalking him. 

Killed by having his head plunged through the train’s floor, Sang Yu wakes up and we realise his waking life is also quite depressing. A 20-something screenwriter, he’s behind on his rent and in debt to his friend/agent while unable to work because of his insomnia. Wandering around in a daze after being evicted from his apartment and getting his laptop stolen, he writes a note to his friend telling him he’ll have to pay him back in the next life and prepares to jump off the roof opposite the cafe where his true love, Hua (Song Jia), works, only to be saved by the intervention of the jian bing seller (Chin Shih-chieh) from down below who advises him to try waking up from his dreams before he gets killed by reminding himself that he is dreaming. Sang Yu takes him at his word and manages to emerge from the dreamworld unscathed clutching the weapon that once belonged to his attacker. After selling the antique sword to weapons brokers, he realises he’s sitting on a cash cow, routinely looting the dreamworld of many of its treasures and quickly harnessing its power to become a wealthy and successful man. All of which gives him the courage to finally approach Hua, wielding his newfound economic power to invest in the apparently failing cafe. 

A modern day take on Jack and the Beanstalk, Super Me finds its nice guy hero corrupted by his wealth, abandoning his artistic dreams and becoming a debauched playboy living in a five star hotel even if he continues to pine for Hua while his friend, Sangge (Cao Bingkun), reverts to being something like a minion riding on his coattails to enjoy the life of the rich and famous without really having to do anything. The irony is that the money and the fancy clothes give Sang Yu the confidence to talk to Hua, but those aren’t things she particularly cares about and may in a sense actually turn her off. Enjoying romantic evening walks, she guesses he’s a screenwriter from his veiled hints about robbing the dreamworld and is interested more in his artistic self than the wealthy man of mystery, all of which gives Sang Yu the inspiration to finish that screenplay which of course becomes a hit beyond his wildest dreams. 

After a while, Sang Yu starts to suspect there must be a cost involved in all this good fortune, realising that he’s traded some of his life away in return for riches and will perhaps never be free of his nightmares. Yet, as a cruel gangster tells him, everyone’s wealth comes at the sacrifice of life, echoing his earlier thoughts that those who are successful are either those who’ve chosen to sacrifice things that others won’t or are unscrupulous thieves and exploiters. “A person who betrays himself can never control his own destiny”, according to the gangster. Asleep or awake, Sang Yu realises he’s battling himself, that there are no quick fixes, and illusionary success is as hollow and as fleeting as the dreamworld from which he has perhaps failed to learn the appropriate lessons. As the old man told him, perhaps what he needs is to wake up, not only to life’s possibilities but to his own. Echoing his earlier The Fourth Wall, Zhang allows Sang Yu to walk through a door into a “better” reality which is perhaps the one he inhabited before but was too intimidated to actually live in. He hasn’t definitively beaten his demons, but perhaps subdued them while his new life seems determined to reward him for his choice in unexpected ways. Nevertheless, can you trust this reality more than any other? There may be no way to know, but you’ll have to learn to trust it all the same. 


Super Me is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Fourth Wall (第四面墙, Zhang Chong & Zhang Bo, 2019)

Have you ever imagined what your life might be like if something had gone another way? Most of us like to think of how our lives might have been better if only we’d acted differently, but what if our idealised reality turns out to be even worse? That’s partly how it is for the hero(es) of Zhang Chong and Zhang Bo’s The Fourth Wall (第四面墙, Dì Sìmiàn Qiáng) as they find themselves confounded by the intrusion of an alternate reality but ultimately forced to face the traumatic past in order to pierce a mental rather than metaphorical fourth wall and access a “truer” reality. 

In the first “reality”, Liu Lu (played by the actress of the same name) is an isolated 30-something working on a rural dear farm in a mountain village. Her crisis moment comes when she realises one of the deer has escaped, she assumes through a small hole in the fencing which she later covers over with branches in case any of the others get the same idea. Lu tells her boss about the missing dear, but despite the fact he’s never lost one before in his long decades as a deer farmer, he tells her not to worry about it, even giving her a New Year bonus and telling her to have some fun over the holiday. Lu, however, ignores his advice and prepares to spend the evening alone with dumplings and the Spring Gala, but is interrupted by Ma Hai (Wang Ziyi), a childhood friend, who pushes his way into her home and refuses to leave. We get the impression that Hai is a persistent, perhaps unwanted suitor, but as he leaves irritated that his attentions have been rebuffed he stops to tell Lu that he has “a goddamn weird disease”. 

Taking pity on him, she invites Hai back inside where he explains that something strange has been growing in his brain, not a tumour more like memories of different life. Images of another self have started to creep into his consciousness, and in this other reality there is also a Lu who works at a supermarket in the city where she dresses in elegant saris and dances enticingly to sell a mysterious vision of the “exotic East” while handing out pamphlets on behalf of a travel agency. This Hai is apparently a darker figure, reaching the end his road long before the promised Madagascan paradise of Lu’s sales patter. We learn that he’s apparently on the run from something connected to the teenage incident which binds the pair together and has left the first reality’s Lu with a prominent scar on her face. The other Lu meanwhile had some success making her acting dreams come true, but later married and had a child only to divorce and be left with nothing much of anything. She is just as sad and defeated as the Lu with the scar, only in a slightly different way. 

“The fourth wall”, as we’re used to hearing it, refers to the invisible barrier between the show and the spectator, but it’s also even in that sense a two-way mirror between conflicting realities. We tell ourselves that the world on the other side of the fourth wall isn’t real, though the reverse might as well be true. We resent the fourth wall being broken because these streams aren’t supposed to cross, we aren’t supposed to be here and they aren’t supposed to see us even as we see them. What Lu has created in her mind is another kind of fourth wall comprised of wilful delusion, conjuring up alternate realities for herself revolving around a moment of trauma in her youth which binds her to Hai whose consciousness is also fractured by the same event. 

Hai, like the fugitive deer, is a memory that Lu has been trying to keep on one side of a wall but has apparently escaped as realities bleed uncomfortably one into the other. The other Hai and Lu sit on a literal theatre stage, also the site of Lu’s last stage performance in a play called “The Fourth Wall”, and debate themselves towards one kind of endgame while the first Hai and Lu desperately investigate and try to save themselves by interrupting their darker shadows. What Lu is being asked to do is end the suspension of her disbelief and acclimatise herself to a new “reality” shorn of her protective delusions. The first Hai berated her for holing herself up in the mountains when life is about “expectation and improvement”, “concentration and contentment”, but what she’s been doing is perhaps more like cocooning in creating a safe space in her mind which has now been punctured like that mysterious hole in the fence. To move forward, she will have to shatter an interior “fourth wall” to push into a more complete “reality” and towards a promised paradise, though who can really say if one “reality” is really more “real” than another.  


The Fourth Wall is represented by Fortissimo Films.