Blind Massage (推拿, Lou Ye, 2014)

Blind Massafe poster 1Lou Ye, defiantly controversial, has made those who cannot, for one reason or another, embrace their own desires the centre of his cinema. Seeking connection, his protagonists reel desperately from one traumatic event to the next but resist full commitment, no longer able to believe in the truth of their feelings in a society which has so often betrayed them. Blind Massage (推拿, T), a radical departure from the provocative politicisation that has hitherto marked his cinema, takes this one step further in setting itself inside what it sees as an entirely isolationist world – that of the blind who occupy a particular liminal space within modern Chinese society.

Lou begins with a voiceover and fractured vision of our most prominent protagonist, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), as he emerges from a childhood accident which killed his mother and cost him his sight. Though he is assured that his condition is only temporary and his eyes will eventually be healed, Xiao Ma later attempts suicide when he comes to understand that his doctors have been deceiving him and his sight will never return. Surviving, he learns to accept his blindness and attends a special school for those with disabilities where he learns to read braille and is trained as a masseuse – a traditional occupation for the blind in Chinese society. Once qualified he gets a job at the Sha Zongqi Massage Center which is staffed exclusively by those with visual impairments who live together on site and exist as a small and exclusive community.

The trouble begins when the two partners, Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and Zhong Zongqi (Wang Zhihua), invite an old colleague, Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), to join them. Wang brings with him his fiancée, Xiao Kong (Zhang Lei), with whom the young Xiao Ma eventually develops a fascination. Meanwhile, Fuming has also developed a fascination for another newcomer, Du Hong (Mei Ting), who, he has been told, is very “beautiful”. Du Hong, in turn, is attracted to the morose figure of Xiao Ma but perhaps understands that for one reason or another he is unable to “see” her (which might be one of the reasons she continues to pine for him).

As in his previous films, Lou centres himself in a question of haptic connection. The residents of the clinic feel themselves cut off from what they see as “mainstream society” which they believe belongs exclusively to the sighted. Mainstream society, unadaptable and perhaps unwelcoming, has seen fit to exile them to the extent that they are unable to survive outside of the specific career track it has laid down for them and without the support of their own community. Yet their occupation also depends on deep sensory perception on a level deemed inaccessible to the fully sighted and the ability to “see” the things which can’t be “seen”.

Fuming, outgoing and sociable, looks for outlets outside of his own community but is criticised by those within who worry that he is in someway attempting to deny his blindness by adhering to the conceptual world of the sighted which he is otherwise unable to comprehend on a sensory level. His “love” for Du Hong is rooted in ideas of “conventional” beauty which is, in fact, more an expression of his vanity as he longs to possess the “best” girl as Du Hong points out when she reminds him that he has no idea whether she is “beautiful” or not or even what visual “beauty” might be, and that in becoming obsessed with these incomprehensible ideas he has in fact missed all of the things which might be “beautiful” about her on another level than the visual.

Meanwhile, another resident at the clinic has become worried about Xiao Ma’s fixation on Kong and decided the best way to sort him out is to take him to a brothel (ironically, also a kind of “massage parlour”). Though originally reluctant Xiao Ma begins to develop a relationship with sex worker Mann (Huang Lu) which is forged through touch but occurs on a deeper level. A fight with one of Mann’s other clients has the ironic effect of restoring some of his vision, leaving him stumbling and confused but also excited and drunk on a kind of sensory euphoria as he tries to reconcile his differing kinds of perception to make his way home. Yet by this point in his life Xiao Ma’s entire identity and existence revolves around being a blind person – he cannot tell anyone at the clinic that his vision has begun to return for fear of losing his place in their community as well as his ability to support himself.

Eventually the community of the clinic becomes scattered as its residents begin to reassert themselves as individuals re-entering “mainstream society”. Casting visually impaired actors alongside familiar faces, Lou treats his subject with the utmost respect and demonstrates that many of the problems faced by those at the clinic are exactly the same as those faced by the protagonists of his previous films while also reflecting the various ways that society remains intolerant to those who have differing needs. Asking quite profound questions about the nature of “beauty” and “connection” when images have been absented from the frame Lou attempts to “visualise” what it might feel like to “see” without “seeing” in an exploration of defiant hidden realities which often go wilfully unseen in our own blinkered perceptions.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Summer Palace (颐和园, Lou Ye, 2006)

Summer palace posterThe personal is political for Lou Ye. Much as he had in Purple Butterfly, Lou paints love as a spiritual impossibility crushed under the weight of political oppression, though this time he leaves his protagonists breathing but wounded. Summer Palace (颐和园, Yíhé Yuán) is a member of a not exactly exclusive club of films deemed too controversial for the Chinese censors’ board. In truth, there are a number of reasons Lou’s wilfully provocative film might have upset the government, but chief among them is that he breaks a contemporary cinematic taboo in setting the Tiananmen Square massacre as the political singularity which causes the implosion of our protagonists’ youth, rendering them stunned, arrested, and empty. Personal and national revolutions fail, leaving nothing in their wake other than existential ennui and an inability to reconcile oneself to life’s disappointments.

In the late ‘80s, Yu Hong (Hao Lei) gets a scholarship to study in Beijing and prepares to leave her home in a small rural town near the North Korean border for the promise of big city life. Yu Hong craves sensation, she wants to live life intensely and the inability to connect on a true, existential level leaves her feeling progressively empty and confused. A chance meeting with another girl in her dorm, Li Ti (Hu Lingling), brings her into contact with Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) – a brooding intellectual and latterly the love of Yu Hong’s life, though one she becomes too afraid to embrace.

Yu Hong’s personal revolution, her quest for spiritual fulfilment largely through physical contact, occurs in tune with the chaos of her times. This is Beijing in 1988. The air is tense, anxious, as if hurtling towards an unavoidable climax. Yu Hong is not particularly political. She sees the protests, perhaps she agrees with them, but when she boards a pick up truck full of students waving banners and singing songs she does so more out of excitement and curiosity than she does out of commitment to political reform. Her tempestuous love affair with Zhou Wei mirrors the course of her city’s descent into chaos. Everything goes wrong, her heart is broken, something has been damaged beyond repair. Tiananmen Square, referenced only obliquely, serves as the event which traps an entire generation shell shocked by the brutal obliteration of their youthful hopes for a better world, leaving them imprisoned in a kind of limbo which prevents the natural progression from the innocence of youth to seasoned adulthood. They want the world to be better than it is but had the belief that it ever could be so brutally ripped away from them, that they are left with nothing more than a barren existence in which they cannot bear to touch the things they desire because they cannot believe in anything other than their own suffering.

Yu Hong’s early college days, marked as they are by rising anxiety, are also jubilant and filled with possibility. She dances innocently, nervously in a disco with Zhou Wei while a cheerfully wholesome piece of ‘50s American pop plays in the background – it’s this image Lou returns to at the end of the film. Something beautiful and innocent has been destroyed by an act of political violence, ruining the hearts of two soulmates who are now forever divided and bound by this one destructive incident. Yu Hong drops out of university and goes back to the country, bouncing around small town China occasionally thinking of Zhou Wei as an idealised figure of the love she has sacrificed, while Zhou Wei goes to Berlin and occasionally thinks about Yu Hong and missed opportunities. When they meet again years later it’s not an act of fate, or faith, or love but a prosaic interaction that leaves them both wondering “what now?”. There’s no answer for them, the future after all no longer exists.

As in Purple Butterfly, Lou makes history the enemy of love. Yu Hong didn’t ask for Tiananmen Square, she wasn’t even one of its major participants simply a mildly interested bystander, but she paid for it all the same in the way that history just happens to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The youthful impulsivity, the naivety and craving for new sensations and expressions of personal freedom are eventually crushed by an authoritarian state, frightened by the pure hearted desire of the young to take an active role in the direction of their destinies. The quest for love and freedom has produced only loss and listlessness as a cowed generation lives on in wilful emptiness, their only rebellion a rejection of life.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 10th September 2018.

Short scene from the film featuring “Don’t Break My Heart” by Heibao (Black Panther) which is also referenced in the poster’s tagline.

Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)