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)

The Looming Storm (暴雪将至, Dong Yue, 2017)

The Looming Storm posterGreat changes were afoot in China in 1997. While the rest of the continent contended with the Asian Financial Crisis, China saw the death of reformer Deng Xiaoping who had begun the business of putting the nation’s economy on a modern footing – something which was still very much in progress under the then premier, Jiang Zemin. The old unprofitable factory cities and the work unit system were on their way out, but with little in the way to replace them save the hope for a new and glorious future. The hero of Dong Yue’s debut, The Looming Storm (暴雪将至, Bào Xuě Jiāngzhì) has an unhappy destiny in that his name uses characters which could be translated as “unnecessary remnant of a glorious nation”. He, like many of his generation, is one caught out by his country’s sudden shifts and finds himself living out a fantasy, chasing at shadows and eventually destroying himself in a misdirected attempt to attack a society which has all but forgotten him.

We begin at the end – in 2008, Yu Guowei (Duan Yihong) is released from prison as a parolee, awaiting the return of his ID card and along with it his official existence as a member of society. Flashing back to 1997, Guowei is the security officer at the local factory. Having proved himself efficient in catching petty criminals thieving from the communal resources, Guowei gets himself a “model worker” commendation and the nickname “Detective Yu”. Fancying himself as a top investigator and there being very little to do in this no horse town, Guowei is, in a sense, excited when another body of a young woman turns up near the factory closely matching the pattern of other recent murders and hinting at a serial killer. Seeing as the police are short staffed in any case, the local sheriff decides to humour Guowei by allowing him to go on trying to solve the case on his own.

Guowei investigates the crime with methods he’s learned from hardboiled movies – staking out the crime scene and asking awkward questions in an illicit local disco where, it is suggested, some of the victims may have been earning money through casual sex work. He becomes obsessed with shadowy figures, faces hidden by raincoats, who lurk on the periphery anonymous and almost unseen but yet unsettling. Guowei finds and chases his quarry, only to abandon a friend in need while the suspect gets away leaving Guowei with only his shoe as a possible clue.

During his model worker speech, Guowei somewhat milks the occasion but proudly states that he intends to live a “meaningful live”. Given the depressing drudgery of his existence it’s unclear how he intends to do that, but then his “investigation” becomes his great and glorious destiny – something which will bring both meaning and acclaim to his otherwise meaningless existence. Like many of his age, Guowei has learned to be proud of his contributions to society through his work but remains unaware that the security bureau is not well respected. Everyone knows Guowei is a pure hearted sort who cannot be corrupted and pretends to respect him for it, but in reality they find him priggish and ridiculous. Unbeknownst to him to there have been many more mysterious thefts he’s never discovered because the entire factory and even his own assistant are engaged in a complex system of bribery to cover them all up.

When the factory is unceremoniously shut down, all Guowei is left with is his need to find the killer. Striking up a relationship with a pretty sex worker, Yanzi (Jiang Yiyan), who dreams of opening her own hair salon in Hong Kong – another new horizon in 1997 though one she fears she may never see, Guowei perhaps has another shot at building a “meaningful life” but rejects it, suppressing his natural desires for his obsessive pursuit in deciding to use his new muse as bait. Time and again, Guowei backs away from the reality, unwittingly sacrifices friends and lovers in service to his self created narrative in which he is a hero seeking justice whose victory is all but assured. Having discovered the truth, Yanzi’s eyes are opened – she has woken up from the beautiful dream of a possible future while Guowei is still boyishly dreaming of becoming a hero in an unheroic world.

Dong paints the industrial factory town in tones of washed out browns and greys as the rain falls without end, muddying the streets and thickening the air. Having made a life changing transgression, Guowei is asked what the point in any of this really was and seemingly has no answer, his fantasy perhaps shattered by his single act of horrifying violence intended for the world in which he lived which had already robbed him of so much, but vented on a possibly innocent party all because of a personal conviction more akin to prejudice. A victim of changing times denied his future, the “meaningful life” that would allow him to greet the new century with head held high, Guowei creates a new narrative for himself in which he can be the hero but there is a storm always looming and Guowei has been swiping at ghosts flickering on the peripheries of his fracturing mind. Eventually Guowei too decides it’s time to leave this place only to find no way out from the blizzard conditions which continue frustrate the path towards his future.


The Looming Storm screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 plus Q&A with director Dong Yue on 9th July at 9.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King 3 (西遊記女兒國, Cheang Pou-soi, 2018)

the monkey king 3 posterSun Wu Kong and his band of merry scripture seekers will face many challenges on their journey to the West, but none so dangerous as the poison of love! Aaron Kwok reprises his role as the titular Monkey King in the third of the ongoing series directed by Cheang Pou-soi (here credited as Soi Cheang) but steps back a few paces into a supporting role while noble hearted monk Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) takes centre stage to face the multifaceted dilemma of love and personal fulfilment vs the fulfilment of his quest to better the lives of all mankind. An age old problem, but one you can’t truly address until you have stake in the game.

Xuanzang, now returned and dressed in white, has a romantic destiny – something which makes him a little nervous as he happily sails along a picturesque river in the company of companions Wujing (Him Law) and Zhubajie (Xiaoshenyang) while Wu Kong (Aaron Kwok) flies along behind, apparently having mislaid his trousers somewhere along the way. All of a sudden the atmosphere darkens as the gang sail into a “demonic” area where they are attacked by a giant, whale-like river god and subsequently thrown into another dimension thanks to an intervention from the Goddess of Mercy (now played by Liu Tao in place of the series’ previous cameo from Kelly Chen).

The guys have inadvertently landed themselves in Womanland which is 100% man free. In fact men are illegal and to be executed on sight which is a bit of a problem seeing as it’s also impossible to leave. Not so much of a problem, however, as the strange moment which occurred between Xuanzang and the Queen of Womanland (Zhao Liying) as their eyes met during a near fatal fall from a cliff edge. Following the childish exuberance of the first film and the morbidly gothic horror of the second, it’s love which now threatens to derail our heroes’ quest and with it the possibility of salvation for all mankind.

Womanland was founded by a woman scorned who turned her back on faithless men forevermore, instructing her followers that men are selfish and duplicitous, that they lie to win the hearts of women which they later break in forsaking them for the next conquest. The holy scriptures of Womanland warn of the “poison of love” which is (usually, they say) spread from man to woman and leads to nothing but inescapable suffering. Foreswearing all romance (apparently there is no concept of romantic love in the all woman kingdom save the rumour that there was once a young woman who fell in love with a river she was never able to see) turns out not to be the best solution to the problem as we discover that all the ruckus in the world above is in someway caused by these repressed or denied emotions as well as by a failure to accept that sometimes feelings must be sacrificed in favour of greater responsibilities.

Whereas the second film pitted Wu Kong and Xuanzang against each other as advocates of compassion and rationality, this time Xuanzang must face a monk’s dilemma alone in deciding whether the love of one woman is equal to that of the whole of mankind. His choice is a forgone conclusion but serves to remind the monk that denying one’s true feelings is not the same as facing them and wilfully isolating oneself from possible suffering is not the same as overcoming it. The residents of Womanland discover something similar in the parallel journey of their embittered first minister (Gigi Leung) whose own unfulfilled romantic desires have made her cruel and vindictive only to be presented with another choice and find herself denying love for duty once again.

Duty, however, turns out to be warmer than it sounds – in Womanland, maternal love trumps the romantic, undercutting the otherwise progressive atmosphere of a society of women doing fine on their own with a return to maternity as central virtue of womanhood. Love is the force which threatens to undo carefully won civility (a “bourgeois affectation” as the more dogmatic definition would have it), but desire repressed rivals love scorned as a force to burn the world. Xuanzang has a choice to make, but the choice itself is not so important as the conscious act of choosing. Aside from a bizarre subplot featuring male pregnancy and forced abortion, Monkey King 3 makes a largely successful shift away from gung-ho adventuring into poignant romantic melodrama. With the gang en route to Fire Mountain, where will their journey take them next?


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion Film.

International trailer (English subtitles)