I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Zhang Yibai, 2016)

A collection of lovelorn souls meditate on love and loneliness in Zhang Yibai’s adaptation of a series of popular short stories by internet author Zhang Jiajia. Perhaps misleadingly titled, I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Cóng nǐ de Quánshìjiè Lùguò) is less tearjerking melodrama than humorous exploration of romantic disaffection in the modern society in which even love itself has perhaps become both duplicitous cliché and an unattainable dream. For smug DJ Chen Mo (Deng Chao), being in love means staying together forever, but for his co-host/longterm girlfriend Xiaorong (Du Juan) adolescent love has already run its course. Thoroughly fed up with his empty, somewhat cheesy words of advice to lovelorn callers, she abruptly breaks up with him live on air. 

Two years later Chen Mo hosts the show alone amid declining ratings, listeners now fed up with with his total capitulation to depressed cynicism and advertisers getting ready to pull the plug. Xiaorong has joined station management but seemingly has little desire to save the show, later entering into an unwise bet that should Mo be able to climb to the number one spot, she’ll marry him but if he fails he must parade through the town with a sign reading “I’m an idiot” which, as we later discover, is a callback to their uni days when they were young and in love. Mo laments that the only couple still together from way back when is his best friend Chubby (Yue Yunpeng), who currently lives with him, and the beautiful Yanzi (Liu Yan) whose heart he won being the only person willing to defend her when she was accused of thievery. Pure-hearted, Chubby does every job going, even allowing people to punch him for monetary compensation, so he can send the money to Yanzi who is currently abroad travelling the world. Mo seems fairly unconvinced by the arrangement, but also regards Chubby as his “anchor”, that as long as Chubby loves Yanzi, they are all still young and love is real.  

His other roommate, meanwhile, his cousin Shiba (Yang Yang) is being semi-stalked by the local police woman whose constant flirting he doesn’t seem to have picked up on. As we later discover, Officer Lychee (Bai Baihe) has also been disappointed in love, previously jilted at the altar by a foreign boyfriend who apparently did a disappearing act, but has apparently maintained her faith eventually entering to a wholesome relationship with the eccentric young man who spends all his time inventing new gadgets. Despite the evidence, however, Mo remains cynical and hung up on Xiaorong who seems to have defied the narrative destiny of their uni love story. Describing him as immature, she feels as if something changed with Mo during the radio show, that somewhere along the way he lost his sense of warmth. “It’s only when we are filled with love that our show passes on love. When we feel lonely we can’t warm anybody up” she tearfully explains taking over the broadcast, adding that Chen Mo might be the loneliest of all in his false bravado and prickly tendency to make off-colour jokes as a childish defence mechanism. 

Ironically, however, the ratings start to pick up thanks to mild-mannered intern Birdie’s (Zhang Tianai) unexpected outburst at a disgruntled caller who took Mo to task for his terrible, unsympathetic advice for his romantic problem. Silently in love with Chen Mo after his certain presence on the radio saved her from loneliness, Birdie does her best to “save” him, even later giving up her dream of romance to try and help him win back Xiaorong only for him to get the message too late, realising that Xiaorong has outgrown him and they’re on different paths while maybe what he needed was a spiky little bird to peck him out of his shell. 

Chen Mo called his show “Passing Through Your World” as if in acknowledgement that some people are supposed to brush past each other meeting only for a moment, but naively hoping to encounter someone that would make the world brighter just by being in it. Shooting with a whimsical arthouse lens, Zhang opens in a rainy Chongqing as if reflecting the loneliness and despair which plague each of his protagonists who each in one way or another find solace in the presence of Chen Mo through his radio show acting as a beacon for lonely souls everywhere, before ending in bright sunshine and golden fields leaving the neon-tinted city behind for a dream of a more innocent love. Nevertheless, not everyone gets their happy ending, and there’s something in the film’s most romantic gesture being the drawing of an umbrella on cutesy mural to help a lost little girl weather the storm. A breezy stroll through urban malaise and millennial love, I Belonged to You ultimately sheds its cynicism for a pure hearted faith in romantic destiny but does so with a healthy dose of maturity in acknowledging that the path of true love never did run smooth.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

An Inspector Calls (浮華宴, Raymond Wong & Herman Yau, 2015)

Inspector Calls poster 1J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls found itself out of favour until a phenomenally successful stage production brought it back into the national consciousness in the early ‘90s, but even if some decry its inherent melodrama as a relic of another era the play’s comments on the entrenched classism of British society sadly still ring true. An Inspector Calls is many things, but one thing it defiantly is not is funny – a series of concentric tales of betrayals and oppressions, Priestley’s drama lays bare the callousness with which the privileged bolster their position through the story of one faceless factory girl standing in for an entire social class whose lives are often at the mercy of those “above” them.

In adapting Priestley’s play as a Chinese New Year movie (a strange concept in itself), Herman Yau and Raymond Wong relocate to contemporary Hong Kong, re-conceiving it as a broad comedy of the kind one might expect for the festive period. The setup is however still the same. The Kau family will be receiving a visitation – this time from Inspector Karl (Louis Koo Tin-lok) who has some difficult news for each of them. Three hours previously, a young woman committed suicide in her apartment by drinking bleach, taking the child she was carrying with her. Inspector Karl views this as a double murder and, based on the diary they found at the crime scene, has brought the reckoning over to the Kaus’.

The Kaus, at the present time, are preparing an engagement party for daughter Sherry (Karena Ng) who will be marrying the handsome younger brother of a factory owner, Johnnie (Hans Zhang Han). What no one can know is that the family business is going under, the Kaus are broke, mum and dad don’t get on, and all of this finery is merely rented affectation. The only member of the family who still seems to have something like a social conscience – Tim (Gordon Lam Ka-tung), the 27-year-old younger son, is viewed by all as a feckless and naive hippy, hiding out in his childhood bedroom, still all fluffy cushions and toy soldiers.

As the Inspector explains, he holds Mr Kau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai) responsible because the woman once worked in his factory and he fired her for participating in a strike for better pay and conditions. Sherry got her fired too when she worked in an upscale fashion store. Johnnie knew her during an unfortunate period as a bar hostess, and Tim as a masseuse. Mrs Kau (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan), who heads up a woman’s charity and publicly espouses tolerance while privately judgmental, once turned her down for familial support seeing as the father of her child was still living. She advises holding him to account and if he won’t pay, forcing his family to take responsibility on his behalf. The irony being that the father is likely her own son and that if this poor woman had rocked up at the Kaus’ with a sad story and an infant in her arms, she would have been met with nothing more than contempt save perhaps some hush money to send her on her way.

The Kaus are merely a series of examples of the various ways the wealthy mistreat the poor, wielding their sense of entitlement like a weapon. Yau and Wong adopt an oddly Brechtian approach in their expressionist production design with the faceless masses identified only through titles – the word “labour” on the workers’ caps, “manager” in the fashion store, “secretary” at the foundation. None of these people are really worthy of names because they will always be “less” while the Kaus are “more” in more ways than one. Actions, however, have consequences. The family console themselves that this is all far too coincidental, that they couldn’t all have known the “same” woman in different guises, but that in many ways is the point – she isn’t one woman but all women, used, abused, and discarded not only by heartless men but by jealous and judgemental members of her own sex too. Better than her than me, they might say, but that’s no way to run a healthy society as the sensitive, slightly damaged Tim seems to see.

Like the Birlings, the Kaus attempt to brush the Inspector’s warning off, thinking it’s all been some elaborate prank that can they laugh about and then forget, but there will be a reckoning even if they attempt to gloss over the various revelations regarding their moral failings. Wong and Yau’s vague gesturing towards the outlandish greed of the hypocritical super wealthy is undercut by the ridiculous New Year slapstick of it all despite the Metropolis-like production design and expressionist trappings, giving in to an excess of its own in an extremely unexpected musical cameo from a martial arts star and the decision to end on a social realist photo of an innocent, pigtailed proletarian woman dressed in red. Nevertheless, strange as it all is the bizarre adaptation of Priestley’s play has its own peculiar charm even if it’s outrageousness rather than moral outrage which takes centre stage.


Currently available to stream online via Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

My Dear Liar (受益人, Shen Ao, 2019)

My Dear Liar poster 1The Chinese censors board can sometimes be unpredictable, but the one thing that remains absolutely certain is that crime cannot pay in a contemporary mainland movie. That’s why so many recent films from China end with an incongruous piece of on screen text telling us how long everyone is going to jail for after being convicted of the crimes we just saw them commit, often with a supplementary paragraph expressing their remorse and hope to make it up to the people and the party. All of this merely makes the existence of unconventional, dark rom-com My Dear Liar (受益人, Shòurén) even more improbable than it already seemed seeing as the entire conceit is the murder of an innocent woman for financial gain.

Shen opens with childhood friends Zhong (Zhang Zixian) and Hai (Da Peng) rehearsing the story they will give to the police assuming their plan comes off. Zhong, an accountant, has been part of a large scale embezzlement scam which is currently under investigation. He needs to find a large amount of money quickly to cover up his crimes, getting together with Hai, a widowed single-father to a little boy with severe asthma, to commit small acts of minor extortion. When their random schemes stop paying the bills, Zhong makes a radical suggestion – insurance fraud. He proposes that Hai marry an internet web streaming star named “Foxy Fairy” (Liu Yan) so that he can start an affair and then drive over a bridge with her on the back of his motorcycle to collect the life insurance pay out. This whole plan hinges on the fact that Zhong knows Foxy Fairy can’t swim because she mentioned it on one of her live streams.

As plans go, it could use some work. Neither Zhong nor Hai seem to be particularly worried about the fact that they’re plotting to deceive and then murder a young woman solely for financial gain. Hai, who otherwise seems sweet and naive, is expected to live with and pretend to love a woman he is going to kill for money. One gets the impression he’s been doing Zhong’s bidding since they were kids without really thinking about it, but you’d expect him to at least ask a few more questions about being involved in an elaborate conspiracy to murder aside from clarifying that he won’t be expected to off her himself (except that he might, because Zhong’s plan isn’t as “watertight” as he first thought it to be).

Hai’s motivation for going along with all this, besides wanting to help the sociopathic Zhong, is his son’s health. Perhaps surprisingly, the film makes an implicit criticism of the declining air quality in the modern Chinese city, almost as a sort of metaphor for a moral decline coupled with a critique of increasing social inequality in suggesting that this is a problem which disproportionately affects the poor not least because they cannot afford to buy expensive machinery to improve it. Hai’s wife apparently died of a lung complaint, and his son Yoyo is in constant discomfort because living above the smoky internet cafe where Hai works irritates his asthma. In the park one day, Hai runs into a sales point for a new development, Diamond Bay, built out on the coast where they promise access to clean air. It sounds like a dodgy timeshare pyramid scheme, but it’s the only source of hope in Hai’s wretched life and so he sets his heart on getting enough money together for a luxury condo on the beach where Yoyo could breathe freely.

To get it, he sends his son away and makes an unconvincing attempt to play the part of “Big Ben” – one of China’s new brand of sleazy millionaires and a character apparently played by Zhong online for some time in order to romance the money hungry Foxy Fairy through her live stream channel. Why exactly Zhong picked her isn’t clear, save that he hopes to exploit her greed, justifying the scam with the rationale that she is also a “fraud” extorting money from her deluded fans under false pretences. Lacking the resources and an ill fit for the “Big Ben” mould, Hai struggles to win “Miaomiao’s”, to go by her “real” name, heart, but eventually begins to fall for her after seeing the woman underneath the makeup.

Once married, Miaomiao quickly slides into the conventional roles of wife and mother, even bonding with little Yoyo who makes an unscheduled reappearance mid-scam. Despite her rabidly consumerist online persona, it turns out that what Miaomiao wanted wasn’t riches but the warmth of a family home which is something she’s unexpectedly found living in the cramped apartment above the internet cafe. She remains completely clueless as to Hai’s true motives and desperately tries to make the marriage work, even going on TV to talk about what a good man her husband is.

One begins to wonder if Miaomiao is going to turn the tables on the scheming guys, but her big secret is just that she’s actually “nice” and wants to settle down for a conventional home life she assumed might have already passed her by. Hai hypocritically tells his son who keeps forging his signature on subpar report cards that the most important thing about being a man is “honesty”, but continues lying to Miaomiao right until the very end, getting cold feet only moments before it’s too late. Addressing some fairly subversive themes from the clean air issue to social inequality, institutionalised property fraud, corporate corruption, and organised embezzlement, My Dear Liar nevertheless refuses to engage with the deeply troubling nature of its central conceit even when indulging in the incongruous sweetness of its otherwise “wholesome” romance.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of CMC Pictures.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Raman Hui, 2018)

Monster Hunt Poster 2Despite numerous production difficulties, Monster Hunt went on to become a bona fide box office smash and international pop culture phenomenon on its release in 2015. Children and adults alike fell in love with the adorable little radish monster Wuba who, in grand fairytale tradition, is the secret heir to all of Monsterdom and the subject of a prophecy which posits him as the long awaited unifying force set to restore equality between humans and their Monster brethren. By the time this sequel, Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Zhuō Yāo Jì 2), rolls around, things are looking up for Wuba seeing as no one’s actively trying to eat him, but like so many kids in modern China he misses his human mum and dad who made a difficult decision at the end of the last film that Wuba should live with Monsters in Monsterland because it just wasn’t safe for him in the human realm.

Consequently Wuba has been living happily in the forest where the Monsters have made a little village for themselves. The Monster village is a place of laughter and song where everyone is welcome and they dance cheerfully all night long. That is, until evil monsters turn up looking for Wuba again, destroying the village and leaving him on the run all alone back in the human world. Meanwhile, Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) are on a quest to look for Tianyin’s long lost dad – a famous monster hunter who left Tianyin behind as a child to keep him safe, just like Tianyin had to leave Wuba. Nevertheless, though Tianyin and Xiaolan have developed a sparky domesticity, they’re both unwilling to admit how much they miss little Wuba and wish they could go get him back from Monsterland even if they know he’s probably safer hidden away from those who might want to do him harm. While looking for Tianyu and Xiaolan, Wuba gets himself semi-adopted by a very odd couple of chancers in the form of shady gambler Tu (Tony Leung) and his monster partner Ben-Ben.

Once again the theme is family. Monster Hunt spoke, perhaps, to all those separated families in modern China or more particularly to the children in revealing that parents sometimes have to make difficult choices and end up living apart from their kids so that they can give them a better life. Monster Hunt 2 accepts the premise but then provides an emotional correction in making plain the pain Tianyu and Xiaolan feel on being separated (perhaps forever) from Wuba, until they eventually settle on tracking him down and facing whatever dangers come their way together. They come to this realisation after saving a mother and son who’ve been (unfairly) arrested by the Monster Hunt Bureau and witnessing their happiness just in being together despite the sticky situation they may be in.

Meanwhile Wuba, sad and alone, is happy to have found himself a surrogate family in the form of kindly Ben-Ben and the spiky Tu – a virtual mirror of Tianyu and Xiaolan when they first met. As in the first film, Tu originally takes Wuba in because he wants to sell him to Madame Zhu (Li Yuchun) – a woman he has cheated in both love and money, whose patience apparently knows no end. This brief episode of Wuba and his two new uncles is a subversive one in terms of mainstream Chinese cinema, and unlike the early union of Tianyu and Xiaolan there is little comedy in the easy coupledom of Ben-Ben and Tu who become two men raising a child together in relative happiness. This is perhaps the reason for the strange coda in which Tu and Ben-Ben have a brief chat about girls, relegating Tu’s earlier awkward admission of affection one more of brotherhood than love and affirming their total heterosexuality (both the female love interests are also from the same species, just to make things crystal clear).

Yet the message is strong – families want to stay together, parents want to be with their kids and kids want to be with their parents so maybe the world should just let them, even if those families aren’t quite like everyone else’s. With much better production values than the first film and a much more consistent tone, Monster Hunt 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor though it treads more or less the same ground and is content to meander between several set pieces with more than a few seemingly extraneous sequences of Tu getting up to mischief or Xiaolan using her feminine wiles on a nerdy inventor (though these at least add to the more complex arc of the feminised Tianyu and masculine Xiaolan each moving towards a gender neutral centre). Monster Hunt 2 maybe more of the same and little more than the next instalment in a series, but nevertheless its winning charm and gentle warmth are enough to ensure there will still be devotees of Wuba ready to reserve their seats for the inevitable part three.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas. Screening locations for the UK, Ireland, US and Canada available via the official website.

International trailer (English subtitles)