A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见 南屏晚钟, Xiang Zi, 2019)

“How come she doesn’t cry?” a mother anxiously asks, still on the table following a caesarean section, “don’t worry, it’s a matter of time”, the doctor reassures her. Representations of LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Chinese cinema are few and far between, which might be one reason why the famed dragon seal does not appear before A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见 南屏晚钟, Zàijiàn Nán Bīng Wǎn Zhōng), a Spanish co-production and the autobiographical first feature from Xiang Zi. A melancholy contemplation of the various ways a repressive social system can echo through generations, Xiang’s film quietly suggests that one form of authoritarianism breeds another and that if conformity comes at the cost of happiness then it’s a price not worth paying. 

Heavily pregnant Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) has returned to China from the US with her Western husband (Thomas Fiquet) to have the baby under better medical conditions, but it appears that an extended stay with her parents may not exactly be a cause for celebration. Though her mother Jiumei (Na Renhua) originally seems cheerful and happy to see her daughter, it’s clear that there is frostiness between the two women and distance within the marriage. Gradually we discover that the iciness which pervades the Huang home is born of a sense of resentment and betrayal which stems back (partly, at least) to Jiumei’s discovery that her husband, Tao (Wu Renyuan), is a closeted homosexual after discovering him with his male lover. 

That does not, however, quite explain Jiumei’s ambivalent attitudes to her daughter. “I haven’t had a happy day since you were born” she’s fond of saying, regretting that she didn’t strangle her at birth after hearing from a fortune teller that Xiaoyu would be her “nemesis”. The allegorical quality of Jiumei’s story about going off the dog because he came to love her husband more is certainly not lost on Xiaoyu, awkwardly asked to translate for her husband, swinging between pity and resentment, as bound by social norms as her mother in feeling obliged to take care of a woman who does nothing other than reject her. 

Xiaoyu has long thought her parents should separate, but it never seems to happen. Her father tells her that he worries what will happen if they do. Jiumei says she wants to go to the US and live with Xiaoyu who can hardly refuse, but Tao knows that his wife is not an easy woman and the effect of her constant presence could prove detrimental to the state of his daughter’s marriage. Even so, Xiaoyu thinks it would be the best thing for all of them, if only to escape the never-ending hell of their cycle of bitterness. 

Jiumei, meanwhile, has found refuge elsewhere – in the arms of a shady Buddhist cult. Jiumei believes that her husband is “mentally ill”, blaming his mother for some sort of past trauma that’s made him the way he is. The cult preaches filial piety, family values, and loyalty to the state, and is always ready to “help” in return for “support”. Hoping to buy her way into a more respectable life, Jiumei donates vast amounts of money in the hope of meeting the mysterious Master Zhao who, it is claimed, can “amend” her husband’s sexuality and therefore fix all of the other problems in her life. 

“Gossip can bury you alive” we later hear Jiumei exclaim in a flashback, talking about about something else and perhaps explaining why she’s so desperate that her marriage of convenience be a superficial success. From the outside the Huangs are an ideal couple, wealthy and successful, and so their society tells them they shouldn’t complain. Having suppressed her own desires, complaining that Tao has been “impotent” for most of their marriage, Jiumei is angry and resentful of those who are unable or choose not to do the same. Meeting Tao’s lover, Xiaoyu laments that what Jiumei most wants is never to separate from her father until the end of time, but does not quite know the essential truth of it until an unexpected and all too brief moment of candour from her distant mother. Xiaoyu’s hand wants to reach out to her, but there is a barrier between them which it seems cannot be breached. 

Moving between Jiumei and Tao’s early courtship and the present day, moments of elliptical symmetry present themselves. Fengxi (Chen Zhengyuan), Tao’s younger lover, is it seems himself about to be married and become a father. Xiaoyu meets with him and explains that she is not in any way against their relationship, but pleads with him not to enter a marriage of convenience and ruin a young woman’s life, as her father did, solely for the sake of passing on the family name. He is quick to correct her that he would never consider it, his fiancée is a lesbian who wanted a child with her lover, he is merely helping them out while getting everyone’s parents off their backs.

Fengxi refuses “to build happiness over someone else’s sorrow”. Meanwhile, a long time in the past, someone asked Jiumei what the point was in marrying and having children to live a life you don’t believe in, but she could only answer that marriage was a matter of finding someone who fit the role more than it was of love. Jiumei has been playing her role at the cost of her soul and it’s left her lonely and bitter. Internalised homophobia has ruined them all, forcing them to live lives of empty conformity with only the cold comfort of having fulfilled their duty to society. Jiumei resents Xiaoyu because she is the symbol of the price she paid to lead a conventional life, doubling down on her bet for normality, and passing on that same, misery inducing repression to her daughter. Xiaoyu seems to have escaped by going abroad, but even if her husband tries to convince her that her parents’ lives are not her responsibility, remains equally bound by a sense of obligation now given new weight by her impending motherhood. Xiang ends with a heartbreaking dream sequence in which all can dance together, joyfully embracing their true selves free of shame or anxiety, but as others retreat from the rain some choose to stay, sitting all alone in darkened rooms knowing it is they themselves who elected to turn out the light.


A Dog Barking at the Moon is available to stream via BFI Player until 4th April as part of this year’s BFI Flare.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Wang Ran, 2017)

Doesn’t everyone deserve their time to shine? For the students at the music conservatoire at the centre of Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ), a glittering future may be difficult to imagine. Another in the recent series of Chinese youth comedies, Wang Ran’s debut may clearly be inspired by Japanese anime, but adds a noticeably patriotic beat in making its heroes devotees of traditional music facing off against the “pretentious” threat of European classical. 

The academy is strictly divided along class lines with the snooty classical kids pretty much ruling the roost. When an actual fight breaks out between factions, the conservative headmaster sides with the classical club and erects a series of prison-style gates to confine the folkists to their own corridors while also banning them from staying too late or eating in their rooms. Airy fairy nerd Chen Jing (Xu Lu) hadn’t previously cared about the folk vs classical drama, but is pulled into it when she falls for handsome pianist Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). That’s why she naively volunteers to be a page turner for him at a big concert, not quite understanding she’s being made fun of. Determined to prove herself to him, she decides to form a traditional folk ensemble but finds it difficult to get recruits, ending up with a group of four otaku girls everyone else is scared of who only agree on the condition that she buys them all plastic model kits every week. 

A true underdog story, Our Shining Days makes heroes of its “losers” whose uncool tastes have seen them roundly rejected not only by their fellow students but also by their families. Chen Jing is a talented Yangqin player, but conflicted in her ambivalence towards traditional Chinese music. Internalising a sense of shame about her niche interest, she half convinces herself that she’s only learned yangqin because her parents made her and is not truly invested in the instrument, which is why she immediately assumes they’ll dissolve the band as soon as her mission of winning Wang’s heart is over. 

The otaku students, however, rediscover a love of the admittedly fantastical music, giving it a cool modern edge inspired by their love of anime and games. The otaku live in the “second dimension” and have already more or less othered themselves, but begin to actively enjoy being part of the band along with the communal pleasure of making music together. Meanwhile, the scruffy Chen Jing begins learning a little about life from the sacred otaku texts of her new friends, only to take their shojo manga-style advice a little too seriously in deciding to make a public confession to Wang which brutally backfires. Wang is planning to go abroad to study classical music, he’s not interested in lowly yangqin players. 

The class drama reaches a crescendo when the conservative headmaster announces that as of the following year the school will cease admitting students playing traditional instruments altogether. Spurred on by Chen Jing and the otaku girls, the oppressed folkists finally find the strength to resist, rising to prove there is a viable ensemble for folk instruments to counter the “sophisticated” classicists. The classicists adopt the motto “let my music be the soundtrack of war”,  but the folkists are all about team effort and peaceful co-existence. When the local inspector reminds the headmaster there is no conflict in music and expresses disapproval of the school’s prison-like environment, the folk ensemble, rather than trying to defeat the classicists, come up with a “better” solution in which they can work together so that folk music can still be heard as part of the big end of year concert. 

A cheerful coming of age tale which ends in the message that there’s a place for everyone and that those who are generous of spirit are the likeliest to prosper and be happy as they do, Our Shining Days also has its share of high school drama as the scruffy Chen Jing gradually progresses to towards a more mature elegance while her best friend Li (Peng Yuchang) gets the courage to confess his feelings in a much less ostentatious manner. Subtly patriotic in its suggestion that traditional folk music is “better” than the false sophistication of pretentious Western classical, the central messages are of love, acceptance, and authenticity, insisting there’s a place for everyone who comes with an equally egalitarian spirit. 


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix

Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead (江湖無難事, Kao Pin-chuan, 2019)

You remember that film back in the ‘80s where those guys go to their boss’ house for a party only he’s dead but they want to have a good time without being murder suspects so they pretend that he’s alive, only it turns out he was going to have them killed because they found out about his massive fraud and embezzlement? The Gangs, The Oscars, and The Walking Dead (江湖無難事, Jiānghú Wú Nán Shì) is kind of like that, if lacking the mild critique of rampant consumerism. 

Our heroes are BS (Roy Chiu), a film producer, and his director/childhood best friend Wenxi (Huang Di-yang). Wenxi is a lifelong film buff who decided he had to grow up and make a zombie movie after falling in love with hopping vampires from Hong Kong. BS has been trying to make his friend’s dream come true, but the production gets derailed when the lead actor is engulfed by a sex scandal and the guys end up taking on odd jobs to make ends meet one of which involves filming the funeral of a recently deceased mob boss who later joined the boy scouts to give back to the community. The job goes just about as wrong as it’s possible to go seeing as they manage to set fire to the corpse, but somehow they manage to impress Boss Long (Lung Shao-hua) who agrees to fund their movie on the condition that part of it is shot in Japan, and his girlfriend Shanny (Yao Yi-ti) gets to play the lead. 

The second part is more of a deal breaker than the first because Wenxi’s long gestating zombie script revolves around a pure and innocent high school girl who quickly gets zombiefied during the initial outbreak but somehow retains her humanity while a heroic PE teacher/gangster falls in love with her as they fail to survive the apocalypse. Shanny is many things, but passing for a high schooler will be a stretch and in Wenxi’s eyes at least she is neither beautiful nor “pure”. To be fair, Shanny does look as if she may have suffered a lot in her life, but Wenxi’s peculiar obsession is with a mole on her face which he seems to find unsightly. In any case, it’s not a problem for very long because Shanny ends up dying during a freak accident at the launch party leaving the guys with several problems of a different order. Afraid of Boss Long, they decide to hire a top SFX artist and manipulate Shanny’s body as if she were a puppet so no one knows she’s dead. 

Sadly the film has little sympathy for Shanny who is treated more or less as a human plot device, a ridiculous figure of fun who seems to have sealed her own fate by being an “immoral” woman involved with a man like Boss Long who is, we find out, using her in more ways than one as are his not so loyal henchmen. Latent misogyny later gives over to mild homophobia as the boys figure out that Shanny got her unusual looks after getting plastic surgery to look like her favourite drag queen, so they decide to try asking him to help out, playing into an extended joke about Boss Long being fooled into canoodling with a man.

The theme, however, is brotherhood and loyalty not only between BS and Wenxi, but also Boss Long, Shanny/drag queen Hsiao Ching, and the gang. You have to die to figure out who your real brothers are, according to Boss Long, and it’s a lesson which gets put to pretty good use by just about everyone. At the end of Wenxi’s screenplay, everyone is supposed to become a zombie – the ultimate end of the world pay off for anxiety suffers, at least you won’t have to worry about getting zombified anymore, but is intended to render everyone “equal” so the world is “fair”. There is something quite ironic therefore in their unwitting zombification of Shanny, exploiting her body even after death while playing at being tough guy gangsters so they can make a film with zombies in it they are certain will win an Oscar. Aside from all that, however, the Wenxi gets his “happy” ending which eventually honours Shanny’s memory while cementing a feeling of brotherhood and acceptance placing Hsiao Ching firmly at the boss’ side as they look forward to a bright new movie making future founded on the ashes of the violent past.


The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Liu Kuang-hui, 2020)

Taiwan is often thought to be the most socially liberal of Asian nations and was the first to legalise same sex marriage in 2019, but a little over 30 years ago things were very different. Many thought that the lifting of martial law which had been in place for 38 years would usher in a new era of freedom only to discover that society is slow to change and despite a gradual opening up the old prejudices still remain. So it is for A-han, the hero of Liu Kuang-hui’s Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Kè Zài nǐ Xīndǐ de Míngzi) who finds himself struggling to accept his sexuality as young man coming of age in changing times. 

In 1987, as martial law is repealed, A-han (Edward Chen) is a student at a Catholic boys boarding school run along military lines. Many things are changing, but the school is much the same, as the principal Dirty Head (Ta Su) makes plain in conducting an impromptu inspection of the boys’ bunks looking for anything untoward. Nevertheless, A-Han and his friends sneak out at night to play in a band and hang out with girls. A-Han’s reticence is put down to shyness, but the reason he’s not much interested is that he’s taken a liking to a rebellious student, Birdy (Wang Shih-shien), only he’s not quite sure how to interpret his feelings or how to come to terms with them. 

This is in part because the school itself is extremely homophobic with the boys actively policing suspected homosexuality as a means of homosocial bonding. When the gang are caught sneaking out, band leader Horn (Barry Qu) targets an effeminate boy he accuses of dobbing them in, beating him up in the bathroom little knowing that A-han is hiding in a nearby stall after bringing ointment to Birdy who has also been caned. A-han emerges from the stalls after Horn hears a noise and is encouraged to join in the fun, handed a baseball bat and asked to participate in a literal act of queer bashing to prove his manhood. To his shame, A-Han prepares to comply, only to be saved by Birdy who breaks cover to rescue the other boy while casting scornful looks at Horn and the gang but most especially at the hypocritical A-Han. 

Taking his nickname from the Alan Parker film, Birdy may indeed be as “wild” as his namesake, but his rebelliousness has its limits and perhaps masks an internalised sense of shame. Nevertheless, he connects with the conflicted A-Han and the boys generate an intense friendship that of course has tension at its centre. A trip to Taipei to mourn the death of the president brings them closer, but also makes them feel ashamed as they witness a protester holding up a sign to the effect that homosexuality is not a disease and marriage is a human right being carted off by plain clothes police while the uniformed kind lurk in the shadows behind. Martial law may be over, but not everyone is free. As A-Han grows bolder, Birdy finds himself travelling in the opposite direction, dating a rebellious female student, Banban (Mimi Shao), as a kind of beard in the frustrated hope that he may “save” A-Han from his homosexuality by denying their feelings before they can fully develop. 

The central irony is that because of the changes to the educational system the high school is now required to take female pupils and the hardline Catholic, militarist teachers are paranoid about “misbehaviour”, even putting up a chainlink fence to divide the girls from the boys. Romance is forbidden even for heterosexual couples, and homosexuality unthinkable. A-Han finds himself trying to talk to his priest, Father Oliver (Fabio Grangeon), who would like to be more sympathetic but cannot offer him much by the way of advice. Later we discover that Father Oliver left his native Montreal to escape religious oppression and joined the priesthood to mask his own homosexuality, finally leaving the Church to live a more authentic life only many years later when such things were more acceptable. 30 years on A-han travels to a much changed Montreal where he sees lesbians dancing happily in bars and men kissing in the street with no one batting much of an eyelid. He reflects on all that’s changed and all the wasted time he and others like him were forced to endure hiding who they were, living in a world without love. A melancholy lament for the lost opportunities of a repressive society, Your Name Engraved Herein ends on a note of hope in which first love can blossom once again in a less restrictive world where all are free to love without shame.


Your Name Engraved Herein made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original Trailers (English subtitles)

Nobody (有鬼, Lin Chun-hua, 2020)

“Everyone has secrets that they don’t want others to know” according to the hero of Lin Chun-hua’s Nobody (有鬼, Yǒu Guǐ). He is indeed quite correct, everyone is in one sense or another living a lie, pretending to be something they’re not and often for quite complicated reasons which make them unhappy but convince them that their unhappiness is a kind of victory. Yet, there is no true connection without vulnerability and the sharing of a secret can be the most profound of intimacies, even if the connection itself is, perhaps wilfully, misunderstood by others. 

Credited only as “Weirdo” (Jian fu-sang), an old man lives in an illegally occupied attic space on top of an old-fashioned apartment building that he now finds difficult navigate due to his increasing mobility issues. For unclear reasons, he spends his days riding the bus to the hospital but making sure to spit somewhere along the journey, a habit which has made him the bane of bus drivers across the city. Thoroughly fed up, one particular driver decides to throw Weirdo off his bus by force despite his old age and relative frailty, causing him to sustain an injury to his head.

When he gets back to his apartment, Weirdo finds an unexpected intruder – teenager Zhenzhen (Wu Ya-ruo) who has snuck in in order to spy on the apartment opposite where her father meets his mistress. Zhenzhen is from a wealthy though conservative home where her mother, Yuping (Huang Jie-fe), is the perfect housewife but makes a point of prioritising her husband and son, leaving Zhenzhen feeling innately inferior simply for being female. Determined to be allowed to use the apartment to spy on her dad, Zhenzhen starts following Weirdo around, mostly trying to bully him into submission but Weirdo treats her the way he treats everyone else, simply ignoring her as if she didn’t exist. 

The original Chinese title means something more like “haunted” or more literally “there are ghosts” and in some senses it’s tempting to think of Weirdo as a ghost himself as he deliberately attempts to walk through the world as if he existed in a different plane. He is however haunted by lost love and a terrible sense of guilt that keeps him alone in his attic dressing the same way he dressed forty years previously though his hands are now too weak to be able to tie his tie. And then there are those secrets, things he feels obliged hide in the most literal of ways because others simply wouldn’t understand. 

What Zhenzhen discovers is that her family is full of secrets, but exposing them might cause more harm than good. She videos her father with another woman intending to expose him to her mother, but Weirdo tries to warn her that she’s the one that will probably end up hurt if she tries to use other people’s secrets against them. On the surface her family is a vision of upper-middleclass respectability, but her father’s having an affair, her mother is desperately unhappy, and her golden boy brother has secrets of his own. Challenged, Zhenzhen’s father resents her intrusion and points out that he provides for them as if his family life is just for show while he satisfies his desires outside of it, shutting down his wife’s admiration for her sister’s career as a pop idol manager by reminding her that she has a husband, home, and children while her sister has “nothing” because she is a single career woman and in his view an unsuccessful one. Yuping meanwhile is a taut, repressed, and unfulfilled middle-aged housewife actively lashing out at her daughter while sweetly supporting her husband and son, but tries to exorcise her own desires by teaching piano on the side and finding unexpected pleasure in flirtatious banter with one of her sister’s handsome idol stars. 

Nobody is exactly being honest, but it’s the way we live our lives because like it or not secrets are the lifeblood of civility but also an impermeable barrier to connection. Unable to bond with her prim and proper mother, Zhenzhen finds support from Weirdo who begins to open up despite knowing that Zhenzhen’s superficial niceness was only a ploy to get into the apartment, perhaps connecting with her sense of loneliness and betrayal as a young woman discovering that to one extent or another everyone lives a lie. Yet sharing the truth if only with one person can be its own kind of salvation, allowing youth and age to save each other from a world riddled with hypocrisy. 


Nobody made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Spring Tide (春潮, Yang Lina, 2019)

Toxic motherhood takes on strangely subversive, allegorical tones in Spring Tide (春潮, Chūn Cháo), Yang Lina’s painful examination of the relationships between three generations of Chinese women, each in different ways victims of the times in which they live. It’s true enough that the folk tunes sung so happily are often odes to the “motherland” which betray none of the eeriness of their propagandistic intentions in their full hearted endorsement of nation as family, but the darkness is inescapable as we see their metaphors made flesh in a woman destroyed by her sense of disappointment in life and in turn destroying her daughters literal and metaphorical in a pathological attempt to give her life meaning. 

30-something Jianbo (Han Lei) is a socially conscious investigative journalist whose refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is a constant thorn in the side of her more conservative editor. At home, meanwhile, she’s mother to nine-year-old Wanting (Qu Junxi), who, we later realise is being raised by Jianbo’s feisty mother, Minglan (Elaine Jin Yan-ling), while she splits her time between the family’s backroom and a bed in a student dorm with occasional nights spent with an intense yet silent musician. 

Aside from the obvious emotional disconnection, the fracture lines between mother and daughter are also ideological. Jianbo is a post-80s generation woman, she wants to hold mother China to account because she wants her society to be better than it is. She unroots scandal and corruption and brings them to light through the power of the press, trying to create real social change through shaming the populace into better patterns of behaviour. But her mother Minglan lived through the Cultural Revolution, because of all she’s suffered she thinks that things are fine the way they are and criticising the beneficent state is like scolding the person that raised you. Caught in the middle, Minglan’s fiancé Zhou (Li Wenbo) espouses contradictory views, at once proud to have Jianbo as a daughter because “journalists are the conscience of a country”, but also grateful for the iron rice bowl system that gave him a steady job, not to mention a pension and the old person’s flat that’s allowed him to meet Minglan. 

Minglan’s life has indeed been full of suffering, though it is perhaps surprising how casually she and her friends remark on the terror they experienced during their youth while continuing to sing the old patriotic songs. “My motherland and I can’t be apart for a moment”, according to patriotic hit My People, My Country (我和我的祖国), but its tones suddenly seem sinister in their breeziness as we’re forced to consider the icy Minglan as a stand-in for China as a toxic mother, insisting that she must be respected and that her children must repay their debts to her, no matter how abusive she has been and may continue to be. To her friends in the retirement community, Minglan is a warm and caring woman, running the choir and organising local events, but she’s also blindsided by the suicide of a friend who took her own life because of an entirely different kind of filial disappointment coupled with existential loneliness. Minglan can’t understand why she did it, but in characteristic fashion largely makes it all about herself in lashing out at Jianbo when she points out that Mrs Wang was not as happy about their (read: Minglan’s) potential retirement plan as Minglan had believed her to be. 

“When were you going to realise this was a family and not a battlefield?” Jianbo asks her mother knowing that she can make no further reply. The tug of love over motherhood of Wanting is, in many ways, a tussle over the future of China. Minglan digs her nails in, telling Wanting a few hurtful truths about her mother while insisting that you really can’t trust anyone anymore but that’s OK because grandma loves you, while Jianbo remains powerless to reassume her maternity knowing that her only weapon is to avoid unduly antagonising her mother in the hope that she won’t end up alienating Wanting in the same way Minglan alienated her. All that exists between them now is a torrent of resentment, Minglan seeing her daughter only as the symbol of all her frustrated desires, and Jianbo knowing she’s become a sad and lonely woman solely because her mother refused to love her in the way she wanted to be loved. Jianbo is determined that she won’t let Minglan’s “vanity and hypocrisy” corrupt her pretty, sensitive daughter, pushing her towards an “ignoble and ridiculous life”. She wants Wanting to be free of this chain of abuse and all its authoritarian gaslighting, but has no mechanism to free her other than distance. 

Wanting, by contrast, is cheerful and kind. She has absolutely no filter and is entirely unafraid of asking difficult questions, but is also brave and strong, willing to stand up for others. A little girl in her class who happens to be from the Korean minority is criticised for her “poor” Mandarin and ordered to switch seats but her new buddy refuses to sit with her because he claims not to be able to understand what she’s saying. Wanting immediately pipes up that she understands perfectly, instantly becoming the girl’s best friend and visiting her home which appears to be one of immense harmony and happiness where her dad whirls her round while proudly singing Arirang, standing in stark contrast to Minglan’s joyous yet somehow self-involved recitals. China as an authoritarian mother may be losing its grip on power, while Jianbo’s generation struggles to free itself from the trauma of toxic parenting, but there is perhaps hope for Wanting as she and her friend decide to leave the patriotism showcase to follow the spring tide right out into a wide river of joy and freedom.


Spring Tide was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Liang Ming, 2019)

A young woman rides the waves of changing times in Liang Ming’s Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Rìguāng Zhīxià). Perhaps innocence is something slightly painful you’re better off without, but awakening to life’s light and shade can be a difficult process. Gu Xi (Celeste Lv) is suffering with a dull ache in her jaw and the solution is, apparently, merely pain killers but you can only numb yourself so long before you have to make a choice of whether to go on living with the pain, or free yourself from it. 

A young, if slightly immature woman, Gu Xi has a job in a local hotel and lives alone with her half-brother, Gu Liang (Wu Xiaoliang), who, until recently, has eked out a living as a fisherman. A recent oil spill revealed to have occurred some time ago but covered up by the authorities has put paid to that, while Xi also finds her job under threat because she has an undocumented status and there is shortly to be some kind of inspection. Having grown up without a mother and entirely ignorant of who her father might have been, Xi feels acutely anxious about her circumstances and is dependent on Liang for a sense of security. It is therefore unsettling for her when he develops an interest in the sophisticated Qingchang (Wang Jiajia), daughter of local mob boss Zhou (Chen Yongzhong) and a recent returnee from South Korea where she had been living with her mother. 

A mirror image of Xi, Qingchang is everything she she’s not. Xi is well known for wearing her brother’s clothes, dressing like a tomboy for reasons that are a combination of poverty and affection, where Qingchang has wardrobes full of the latest fashions brought back with her from overseas including a beautifully crafted Hanbok featuring an elaborate embroidered design. As much as she’s resentful and intimidated, Xi can’t help admiring the slightly older woman, captivated by her sense of self assuredness, and eventually develops a sisterly bond with her even while fearing that she may steal her brother away. 

A further intrusion, however, disrupts their tentative familial bonding. A fisherman found dead and floating on the sea hints at a burgeoning turf war between local bosses Zhou, Qingchang’s father and Liang’s employer now that he’s taken a job as a security guard at the docks, and Jiang (Tao Hai), a melancholy Christian who owns the hotel where Xi had been working. Though warned by others that Jiang seemed “creepy”, Xi feels indebted to him because her job at the hotel was saved after she approached him to intervene. Her habit of recording the conversations around her to listen to later presents her with a problem when she discovers that Zhou may have bumped off the fisherman himself and is planning to frame Jiang for the crime. Jiang, it seems is also receiving protection money to ensure the fishermen’s safety, apparently a promise he wasn’t able to keep. Xi is pulled three ways. She loses confidence in Qingchang who is now both tainted by association and a figure of mild discomfort, while fearful that if she reveals what she knows, serves justice and repays a debt by clearing Jiang, she will ruin her brother’s happiness and risk his rejection. 

Trapped in he realms of childhood, what she most wants is to preserve her status quo. Liang is everything to her – brother, father, and somewhat uncomfortably a figure of romantic impossibility. Her feelings towards Qingchang are mired in complexity, a nascent attraction perhaps underlying her sense of jealousy either misdirected through her complicated feelings for her brother or simply finding its anchor for the first time. An angry speech at her brother’s birthday party during which she inappropriately reads out a semi-explicit passage from a lesbian novel hints at an attempt to resolve an attraction she feels is taboo, though it is unclear for whom it is directed. As with most young people, she must come to an accommodation with the fact that her world is changing. A childhood promise that she and her brother would never marry, preserving their family of two forevermore, was always unrealistic but she struggles to let go of the idea of permanence in a childish sense of familial security. Like the oil polluting the seas, her world is coloured by uncertainties but like anyone else she discovers that her agency is limited and whatever choice she makes others will make their choices too. That dull ache in her jaw is a reflection of the ills of the world around her, an inconvenient tooth that needs to be plucked out and discarded leaving only the cold comfort of adult wisdom behind in its place. 


Wisdom Tooth screens on March 11/14 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.