Give Me Five (哥,你好, Zhang Luan, 2022)

A struggling 30-year-old begins to repair his relationship with the difficult father he believed never liked him after being unexpectedly thrown back to the past and almost erasing himself from history in Zhang Luan’s sci-fi-inflected tale of filiality, Give Me Five (哥,你好, gē nǐhǎo). What begins as a Chinese riff on Back to the Future eventually skews closer to recent hit Hi, Mom which the Chinese title subtly echoes as the hero comes to appreciate the power of maternal love and sacrifice through bonding with the younger versions of his parents. 

Now 30 years old, Xiaowu (Chang Yuan) explains that he was long estranged from his grumpy father Wu Hongqi (Wei Xiang) and rarely visited him but has since become his main carer now that he is living with Alzheimer’s. Xiaowu makes his living as an e-sports entrepreneur which is not something former engineer Hongqi can well understand and in truth Xioawu doesn’t seem to be that successful as he’s been putting off proposing to longterm girlfriend Huahua because of an anxiety about his finances. When Hongqi suddenly jumps off a bridge for no apparent reason and ends up in a coma, Xiaowu is at first oddly pleased and immediately begins raiding his office looking for his bankbooks only to find a mysterious ring and an old diary penned by his mother who died when he was a baby. Putting the ring on sends him back to 1986 where he manages to mess up his parents’ meet cute, endangering his own existence. In order to put things right he has to go back in time Marty McFly-style to ensure his mum and dad fall in love just like they were supposed to. 

Back to the Future is a film from the 1980s expressing nostalgia for an idealised 1950s small-town America. Give Me Five to a degree romanticises the China of the mid-1980s but does so from an entirely different angle than the recent trend in 80s nostalgia which has taken hold in the West in that, other than a brief romantic moment featuring Teresa Teng’s Tian Mi Mi along with a few other retro hits, it is largely uninterested in pop culture or revisiting childhood memories but is attempting to draw a comparison between China before economic reform and the ultra-capitalist society of today. In what some might see as a simpler time, Xiaowu’s mother Daliu (Ma Li) is, as she’s fond of saying, a “model worker” in a factory which is in danger of closure while the “Biff” character, Qiang (Jia Bing), is a former employee who was dismissed for stealing coal. Having become wealthy after almost certainly doing something dodgy in Hong Kong he’s returned with a prominent Cantonese accent to buy the factory as part of a public-private partnership. A feisty young woman, Daliu sends him packing insisting she won’t let anyone disadvantage her fellow workers. 

The comparison is further borne out by the melancholy figure of Qin (Huang Yuntong) who dated Hongqi after getting the meet cute that was supposed to go to Daliu but thew him over for the promise of riches with Qiang only to be left lonely in her old age having unwisely betrayed love for material gain. Meanwhile, there’s an interestingly progressive element to the relationship between Daliu and Hongqi in which Hongqi is somewhat feminised as the domestic partner cooking and shopping for his wife while Daliu is the uncompromising model worker as she proves during a high impact welding competition while eight months pregnant. The couple first fall in love talking over industrial plans with Daliu offering advice from the shop floor to help improve educated engineer Hongqi’s designs. While interacting with his parents before he was born, Xiaowu gains the familial experience he always felt he lacked in being able to share a family meal while touched by the love that existed between his mother and father and the knowledge that his parents were at least blissfuly happy with each other even if it was only for a short time. 

Xiaowu had been resentful of his father that he never really told him how his mother died. He decides to try saving his mother’s life too and through his various experiences comes to an appreciation of maternal love not least through somehow being able to time travel into the womb to forge a more direct connection with her. In part an advocation for a more traditional filiality in which Xiaowu develops an understanding of the interplay between love and sacrifice between parent and child while coming to understand his relationship with his father after learning his family history, the film also offers a subtle rebuke against the consumerist society in idolising Daliu and her model worker attitude insisting that everything was better when people worked together for the good of all rather than for personal gain. It might be a slightly disingenuous message, Daliu’s factory life is indeed somewhat idealised, but there is something touching in Xiaowu’s eventual conversion and belated bonding with his heartbroken father. 


Give Me Five is in cinemas across the UK, Australia and New Zealand courtesy of CMC and Well Go USA in the US and Canada.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, Geng Jun, 2021)

An adulterous bulldozer operator in north east China finds himself in conflict with a failed construction magnate when his wife insists he find a new home for their Alsatian before their baby arrives in Geng Jun’s dark comedy Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, dōngběihǔ). A Manchurian tiger does indeed appear at certain points of the film, a child at the zoo asking their grandfather why the rather morose beast does not roar only to receive the explanation that the tiger is all alone with no one to talk to. The child sadly reflects that it’s like the tiger is in prison, but the grandfather corrects them that it’s in there for its own good so that it can be protected, loved, and admired, but its plight still calls out to an emotionally wounded poet (Xu Gang) who is also no longer young and feels isolated and constrained by the world around him. 

As for bulldozer operator Xu (Zhang Yu) who it seems may once have been a teacher, his problems seem to lie more in the inability to reconcile his conflicting emotions towards his family. His wife Meiling (Ma Li) tells him to get rid of the dog because it’ll be too much for them when the new baby arrives and he complies but is also sickened when he’s met with only prices by the pound on trying to find it a new home. He unwisely decides to leave the dog with a local businessman, Ma (Zhang Zhiyong), but Ma slaughters it to curry favour with a pair of “collection agents” he hires to help him get back money he invested into a construction project that’s clearly gone south and in truth sounds like it may have been a scam to begin with. When the heartbroken Xu discovers the truth he vows revenge only for a strange sort of solidarity to arise between them in shared victimhood both bested by the problems of the modern society in the formerly industrial north east. 

Ma could try to make the case that he’s a victim too and he is in a sense but he’s also a conman as Xu later brands him. Even so he does seem to feel some remorse if not for eating Xu’s dog then at least for plunging his friends and family into financial ruin after they sunk their lifesavings into his project because they believed in him. As he puts it they all, he included, fell for the fantasy of the modern China believing they could all get rich quick only to be undercut by the ironic flip side when cost cutting and subpar materials prevent the apartment block from being finished leaving Ma high and dry unable to recoup his costs until the apartments can be sold. The debt collection agents he unwisely hires are just thuggish loansharks who then ask him for a hefty deposit, smashing up his car to make a point when he tries to use it as collateral. 

In essence it seems as if all Xu wants is to Ma to apologise to the spirit of his dog but Ma apparently values his pride above money and complains the price is too high while Xu resents the attempt to place a monetary value on his friend or imply that perhaps his own flesh also has a price. He’s clearly in a space of mental despair, reminding his mistress that like the tiger he’s no longer young and has exhausted all other opportunities to improve his life so the only thing he has left is his marriage. As his wife Meiling starts starts visiting several women around the local area after noticing the scent of perfume along with stray hairs on Xu’s clothes, it becomes clear he has had several affairs already and is seemingly being punished for his sexual transgressions which are perhaps an attempt to escape his own sense of imprisonment, as caged as the tiger by his familial responsibilities and humiliated by the inability to meet them.

Yet none of these men, not Xu, nor Ma, nor the dejected poet are going to roar because they’ve long since accepted their captivity and believe themselves already too old to risk escape. A fight eventually breaks out among Ma’s creditors when one suggests that the money should first be given to the young because they will spend it, keeping the money moving through an uncertain economy, while the old will save having learned to be cautious amid the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly changing society. Darkly comic and tinged with the fatalism of Sino-noir along with its jazzy score, Manchurian Tiger seems to suggest that the cage is infinite and the only escape lies in accepting its myriad disappointments. 


Manchurian Tiger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Blackfin Production

Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳, Song Yang & Zhang Chiyu, 2017)

Never say die posterBody swapping drama seems to have come back in style of late, though they’ve rarely been as funny as the surprisingly laugh out loud Chinese comedy Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳, Xiūxiū de Tiěquán). Based on a stage play by the Chinese theatre company Mahua whose last effort Goodbye Mr. Loser did something similar only with time travel, Never Say Die is a story of never giving up, always getting even, and learning to understand yourself through someone else’s eyes.

Edison (Ai Lun) was once an MMA champion, but a scandal three years previously has left him disgraced and reduced to taking dives for his shady boss, Dong (Tian Yu). Edison has a reputation for being good at taking dives because he can make them look so “realistic”, and believes his special talent ought to earn him a few more dollars. Seconds after dramatically hitting the mat, Edison gets a call reminding him he’s late for a weigh-in at a “real” fight. When he gets there he’s confronted by a bulldog reporter, Xiao (Ma Li), who questions him about his history of taking bribes. Reacting angrily, Edison soon realises Xiao’s boyfriend is none other than top MMA fighter and arch-rival Wu Liang (Haowen Xue).

Just to make things more complicated, Xiao is also the daughter of Edison’s manager, Dong, whom she hates and is determined to expose for his corrupt dealings. Edison chases after Xiao when he and Dong discover her recording a very compromising conversation but after ignoring a warning sign the pair end up on a rooftop during a thunderstorm. Edison bumps into Xiao, kissing her by mistake and pushing her into the pool in which they then both get struck by lightning. Waking up in hospital, each of them discovers they’ve come back a little different than they remembered.

This being China with its relatively stringent censorship laws, the body gags are kept to a minimum with Xiao suddenly dropping her reporter’s poise for “manly” roughness and Edison becoming subtly effeminate. Both are horrified by the sudden colonisation of their own bodies and resentful that in order to look after it properly someone they intensely dislike is going to have to be very aware of their most intimate features. This is especially true of Edison who reacts to his new found femininity in the predictable way by fondling his own breasts and then having a fantastic time in a ladies’ only bathhouse (an extended set piece ironically set to YMCA).

The gag is simple enough but actors Ai Lun and Ma Li commit so totally to their new roles that the increasingly absurd situations ring true right up until the trio end up learning Kung Fu from a possibly gay, resentful deputy chief monk (Teng Shen) at a mountain retreat. Veering off from the standard rom-com route, Never Say Die makes a brief sojourn in revenge genre after Xiao finds out some unpleasant facts about Wu Liang (through being Edison) and decides she needs to get her own back by humiliating him in the MMA ring. Edison may have been a champ, but despite his physical training, Xiao is still an elegant female reporter who’s not exactly used to being in the middle of a fight.

Never Say Die does not manage to escape the inherently sexist bias of the gender swap movie, but it does its best to mitigate it. It is problematic, in one sense, that Xiao needs to “man up” to get revenge on her dreadful boyfriend and then is sidelined when it comes time for Edison finish the job for her, but on the other hand she is the more capable and pragmatic of the pair who teaches Edison how to get himself together whilst playing a supporting rather than leading role. Perhaps betraying its comedy stage show routes, the script may appear episodic and meandering but it’s all brought together in grand fashion at the end with nary a gag wasted. The lesson is that eventually you have to get off your high horse and really look at yourself and others whilst resolutely refusing to back down to dishonest bullies if you really want to earn the right to be happy in yourself. Hilarious and emotionally satisfying in equal measure, Never Say Die is an unexpected comic delight which proves surprisingly subversive even in its superficial innocence.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Chopflix.

Original trailer (Mandarin, no subtitles)