A Song for You (他与罗耶戴尔, Dukar Tserang, 2020)

A resentful musician is confronted with the corrupting influences of modernity while trying to make it as a singer in the directorial debut from Dukar Tserang, A Song For You (他与罗耶戴尔, tā yǔ luó ye dài’ ěr) . Guided by the goddess of music, Ngawang travels from his home in the desert to the city and then still further while holding fast to the purity of his traditional art but perhaps begins to discover that evolution is not always betrayal while learning a little something from those he meets along the way even if his elliptical journey ends in its own kind of tragedy. 

The son of a prominent musician in his home community, Ngawang (Damtin Tserang) longs to prove himself as a singer but is also rigid and uncompromising, getting into a fight with a friend of a friend who mocks him for stubbornly playing his traditional Zhanian zither when others have long since moved on to mandolin. Lhagyal sings the praises of popular musician Samdrup who seems to be something of a sore point to Ngawang, kickstarting a rant in which he accuses him of corrupting the art of Amdo singing with his modern evolutions such as drum machines and electronic backing. Lhagyal meanwhile argues that Samdrup has in fact saved their art and without his innovations no one would be at all interested in folk singing to begin with. The two men butt heads, but it’s Ngawang who ends up looking like a prig especially after he fails to place in the singing competition in which he’s come to perform after having arrogantly boasted of his talent. 

It’s at the concert that he first lays eyes on a mysterious woman, another singer singing of the birth of Amdo music. Ngawang later comes to believe she is some kind of incarnation of the goddess of music, Loyiter, owing to the similarity she bears to an icon revealed once he accidentally breaks open a talisman his father had given him after having a tantrum that it clearly doesn’t work because he didn’t win the competition. The nameless woman advises that the reason Ngawang’s talent was not appreciated was because no one takes you seriously if you don’t have an album which is why he ropes in his feckless friend Pathar to help him get to Xining where it seems records are made.

It’s in the cities where he begins to feel his most severe pangs of culture shock, taken to a bar where he again spots the mysterious woman but this time she’s a rock singer named Yangchen who again begins helping him meet the right people to further his musical ambitions. The contrast between his songs which sing of the beauty of the natural world, and the highly corporatised, technologically advanced world of the music business couldn’t be more stark. Ngawang could not understand the words of Yangchen’s song even though he appreciated the melody because it was in Mandarin, while the design shop he uses for a poster ends up making an embarrassing typo in the Tibetan script which they are unable to read. Ngawang just wants to sing, but finds himself roped in to making a “video album” with an over zealous director who accuses him of having no presence and a lack of expression that make him unfilmable as a performer. 

In any case, it isn’t just in the cities that modernity has begun to seep into the traditional. Stopping off on their road trip to deliver the sister of a man who ambushed them and then gave them a brief musical lesson to a monastery, Ngawang encounters a little boy begging in the street who seems to be homeless and alone. Noting the oversize Zhanian on his back he asks the boy for a song, which he sings in a melancholy rendition of life’s unfairness that some children have wealthy parents, some poor, and some none at all. Ngawang is embarrassed to realise he only has large notes, but the boy cheerfully pulls out a lanyard with a QR code Ngawang could have scanned to pay him via WeChat if only he had his phone. Throughout his wanderings Ngawang comes to a new understanding of the world around him which softens his rigidity while informing his music with a greater sense of openness even as he fails to notice a note of foreshadowing in Yangchen’s troubles only later realising he’s been away from home too long and there is always a price to be paid even if you serve the goddess of music. A light hearted musical odyssey and brief tour of the Tibetan plains, Dukar Tserang’s soulful road movie is an ode to singing for the love of it but also to openness and friendships, no matter how brief, made along the way. 


A Song for You screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Shen Yu, 2020)

The left behind children of decaying industrial China find themselves at the mercy of a corrupted parental legacy in Shen Yu’s neo-noir tragedy The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Tùzi Bàolì). Each longing for escape but living in defeat, the three young women at the film’s centre search for signs of possibility in a world they fear has already rejected them but encounter only darkness and futility brokered by the broken adults apparently unable or unwilling to parent or protect them from the world their indifference has forged. 

Beginning at the narrative’s conclusion, Shen introduces us to a frantic woman, Qu Ting (Wan Qian), an anxious man Shui Hao (An Shi), and the confused Ma (Pan Binlong) as they desperately search for their missing daughters apparently kidnapped for a ransom none of them could ever hope to be able to pay. Fed up with the whole thing, Shui Hao determines to go to the police while Qu Ting is reluctant, fearful that the kidnappers will kill their daughter Shui Qing (Li Genxi), Ma simply going along with it. At the police station, however, they receive a call to say the girls are safe and Shui Qing is already at home but there’s more going on here than we first assumed other than Ma’s sudden heart attack on being told that his daughter Yueyue (Zhou Ziyue) has simply gone to visit a friend in another town. 

Flashing back some days before the climactic night, we realise that Shui Hao and Qu Ting are long separated and Shui Qing is living a miserable life rejected by her stepmother who coldly tells her to stay out a little longer because her parents are visiting and they don’t want any “outsiders” at dinner. At an open air noodle stand, she happens to catch sight of the radiant Qu Ting realising her mother has returned but unsure if she recognises her. The two women awkwardly reconnect, Qu Ting making it clear that she will be leaving in a few days and isn’t keen on having a teenage girl cramp her style, but gradually bond as they begin to spend more time together. 

What immediately becomes clear is that Qu Ting is somewhat arrested and emotionally immature, hanging out with Shui Qing’s high school friends Jin Xi (Chai Ye) and Yueyue as if she were a teenager but inappropriately allowing them to drink wine at dinner as if they were on a girls’ night out. Lonely and rejected by her stepmother Shui Qing longs for approval, but also to save her mother who is currently living in an abandoned theatre and seemingly desperate for money she claims is for a “project”, later implying that when it’s over she may start a business and be with her daughter full time but soon enough Shui Qing is pulled into an urban world of gangsters and loansharks governed by rules she is ill-equipped to understand. 

Her friends, meanwhile, have their own problems. Rich kid Jin Xi carries self harm scars on her arms and seems to be the only one at school not wearing a uniform. Her wealthy parents work away in the city and so Jin Xi is largely left alone as abandoned and fearful as Shui Qing but also filled with resentful anger. Yueyue perhaps has the opposite problem in that she feels trapped by her controlling, abusive father, Ma. Raised by wealthy relatives until her father returned, Yueyue longs to be free of him but he refuses to let her go even though the relatives are keen to adopt her and can obviously promise a more comfortable way of life and better opportunities for the future than the impoverished Ma. 

“Everyone’s looking for a carefree paradise” according a mournful pop song heard on the radio and it’s certainly true of the three girls and Qu Ting each looking for something more if unsure exactly of what it is or how to get it. Shui Qing yearns for maternal approval but ends up playing mother while Qu Ting finally accepts her corrupted maternity only in the most tragic of maternal sacrifices in attempting to protect her daughter from the radiating darkness her return has cast over her life. “It doesn’t matter if our dreams sink they’ll just be floating bottles” the girls cheerfully uttered, but each of them find themselves unanchored longing for the security of parental affection and dependability but left largely alone quasi-orphaned by the demands and contradictions of the modern China. Shen’s melancholy neo-noir is a stark coming-of-age tale which finds little place for innocence in the contemporary society relegating it only to the space of memory a casualty of parental disconnection and adolescent futility. 


The Old Town Girls streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Wang Yun Fei, 2021)

Sun Wukong comes to believe in his own soul while standing up to a cruel and oppressive reincarnated demon king intent on destroying the world in Wang Yun Fei’s anarchic family animation The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Xīyóujì zhī zài shì yāo Wáng). Reborn is in a sense also what Sun Wukong becomes in Wang’s defiantly egalitarian adventure which sees the regular crew from Journey to the West becoming temporary guardians to an adorable ball of anthropomorphised qi while The Great Sage Equal to Heaven contemplates what it is to be a “demon” and if he’s necessarily as “bad” or “evil” as some seem to believe him to be. 

As usual, Wukong (Bian Jiang) is travelling with the monk Tang Sanzang (Su Shangqing) and fellow demons Bajie (Zhang He) and Wujing (Lin Qiang) heading to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. On the way, they stop off at a temple where Wukong and his friends end up causing a ruckus by eating some of the temple’s treasured manfruit from a tree which only produces 30 every 1000 years. 1000 years doesn’t seem so long to Wukong so he thinks little of it but is later caught out by two snooty monks, grows indignant, and gets into a fight with an immortal eventually destroying the tree in temper only to realise that he’s accidentally released Yuandi (Zhang Lei), the ancestor of all the demons sealed within the tree thousands of years previously by a Buddhist monk who sacrificed all of his qi to do so. Threatened with being re-imprisoned himself and determined to rescue Tang who has been kidnapped, Wukong has no choice but to stop Yuandi before he reassumes his full strength in around three days time. 

Meanwhile, the trio is joined by a tiny manfruit-like ball of qi Wukong nicknames “Fruity” (Cai Haiting), originally reluctant to take him with them but advised that his qi is the best weapon against Yuandi. As the film opened, Wujing had been contemplating what it means to have a soul, Tang reassuring him that when he feels he has one it will be there. Following through on the egalitarian message, he later says something similar to Yuandi, certain that all sentient creatures are equal, but the moody Wukong remains sullen and resentful constantly insulted as an “evil” demon while internally convinced he can’t be anything else. Yet despite himself he takes on a paternal role while looking after Fruity who later explains to him that there are good demons and bad and that he has a kind soul. 

Yuandi by contrast merely rolls his eyes when most of his demon minions are cut down, lamenting that they had become weak and the weak do not deserve to live. In the process of searching for his own soul, it’s this cruel and oppressive worldview that Wukong and the others must finally resist, protecting Fruity while battling the darkness with the confidence of self knowledge as their best weapon. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the Buddhist world is not exactly free of corruption either, the two snooty monks instantly looking down on Tang ironically because of his unostentatious attire uncertain why they’re expected to share their treasure with someone so seemingly undeserving. Then again, when they’re sent off to petition the Jade Emperor quite the reverse is true as they’re kept waiting outside while heaven’s border guard painstakingly fills out paperwork in only the best calligraphy while insisting each petition should be treated impartially no matter who it comes from even though the monks had quite clearly expected to jump the queue. 

Selling a positive message of self-acceptance and universal equality The Monkey King: Reborn also boasts a series of thrilling and elegantly drawn action sequences as the trio face off against the forces of darkness, along with some zany humour and Wukong’s characteristically anarchic energy not to mention the unbelievably cute yet somehow profound Fruity who can’t bear all the senseless carnage and depletes himself to cure the innocent townspeople of their demonic corruption. In the end it’s not only Wukong who is reborn as he realises that nothing’s ever really gone forever, just altered in form, while it is possible to repair damage done with humility leveraging the power of self-acceptance against a dark and selfish desire for destruction. 


The Monkey King: Reborn is released in the US on DVD & blu-ray Dec. 7 courtesy of Well Go USA in an edition which includes both the original Mandarin-language voice track with English subtitles and an English dub.

Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Leste Chen, 2006)

A trio of emotionally displaced teens find themselves swept into an awkward love triangle while longing to escape their loneliness in Leste Chen’s melancholy youth drama Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Shèngxià Guāngnián). Each in someway marginalised and searching for acceptance, the teens struggle to define themselves as the world changes itself around them while bound by the paradoxical qualities of their circular relationships, their unspoken secrets continually driving them apart even as they continue to long for the intimacy born only of sharing their authentic selves. 

A quiet, studious boy, Joseph Kang (Ray Chang) is asked to befriend his deskmate Shane (Jopseph Hsiao-chuan) who has ADHD and has been labeled disruptive in the hope that creating social relationships with other children will help calm him down. The arrangement in a sense backfires, Joseph’s academic achievement falling while his friendship with Shane only grows in strength and intensity. By the time they are teenagers, the pair are inseparable but Joseph has also fallen in deep, unrequited love with his best friend, a secret he is afraid to share with anyone and ironically cannot share with the one person to whom he is supposed to be able to tell anything. The friendship is further disrupted by the sudden introduction of transfer student Carrie (Kate Yeung Mei-ling) who has returned to Taipei to live with her mother after years of living with her father in Hong Kong. Carrie first develops a fondness for Joseph while working with him on the school paper, but later figures out that he’s secretly in love with Shane and decides to support him as a friend while in another irony Joseph’s ongoing internal crisis eventually forces his friends together, Carrie secretly dating Shane while each of them knows on differing levels how their relationship may hurt Joseph when he eventually finds out. 

In 2006 Taiwanese society was perhaps not quite as accepting as it would become, yet Joseph’s anxiety in his sexuality in compounded by the desire not to lose his friendship with Shane fearing not just that his feelings are not returned but that he may reject him altogether just for being gay. While Shane, a high school sports star with terrible grades, eventually blossoms academically after Carrie makes the ironic promise to go out with him in the unlikely event he gets into uni, it’s heavily implied that Joseph’s previously high level of achievement is damaged because of his preoccupation with his sexuality shockingly failing his uni entrance exams and thereafter further separated from his friends as they move on and he remains in cram school limbo hoping for better luck next year. Meanwhile he finds himself in potentially dangerous situations cruising in parks trying to verify his homosexuality while privately consumed by shame. 

For Shane, meanwhile, his problem is that he feels rejected by the world around him because of the way his ADHD was treated as a child. Regarded as a disruptive troublemaker none of the other kids would play with him save Joseph, meaning that he too is desperate to maintain the friendship in fear of his inescapable loneliness even while finding a similar connection with Carrie who is herself longing for love seemingly having strained relationships with each of her divorced parents while geographically and culturally displaced in having spent much of her life in Hong Kong. Carrie is, however, the only one to know the whole truth frustrated with the two men in her life that they can’t simply clear the air by voicing the secrets that continue to erode their relationship. 

Then again perhaps what they really fear is “change”, afraid of an uncertain adulthood in which their childhood connection will necessarily weaken. “We will lose each other in the future?” a conflicted Shane wonders, uncertain if his co-dependency is entirely healthy or fair on his friends but fearing becoming alone or having to make a choice unable to lose one or both of his essential connections. At heart a mood piece, Chen’s melancholy drama is filled with the strange canted angles of a world out of kilter and poignant reflections of the past in the midst of present torment, both elegiac and nostalgic for a particular moment in time which must in some way pass even if his parting words are painfully ironic in their cutting intensity.


Eternal Summer streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

4K restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Li Jun, 2021)

In recent years, Chinese big budget disaster extravaganzas have dedicated themselves to celebrating the selfless heroism of the undersung branches of the emergency services, firemen for example in Tony Chan’s The Bravest or the coast guard in Dante Lam’s The Rescue. Li Jun’s Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Fēng Bào) features its fair share of fearless rescue teams, but is nevertheless dedicated to the rather unlikely source of pride, the Rail Soldiers whose lives, at least according to the closing credits, were sacrificed in large numbers to complete the infrastructure necessary for the expansion of the Chinese state yet in 1984 they were renamed “China Railway Construction Corporation” a development the film at least seems to regard with a surprising degree of ambivalence. 

This becomes most obvious in the conflict between the two heroes, an estranged father and son burdened by personal trauma, one a former Rail Soldier and the other a high tech engineer working for a commercial enterprise on the building of a high speed railway network through terrain known to be geologically volatile. Grandpa Hong (Huang Zhizhong) is set to visit his son Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) for New Year, though he doesn’t really want to see him knowing that his father will only criticise his work on the tunnel leading to another intergenerational argument. Meanwhile, Yizhou also finds himself unpopular at work for requesting additional safety checks many seem to regard as a pointless waste of time, and oddly they might have a point seeing as Yizhou’s monitoring fails to detect a shift in the rock formation which causes water to flood the almost complete tunnel during routine blasting. 

The fact is Hong was a Rail Soldier and is also one of those old men who think they know best about everything. He kicks off at a bored young lady at service station because she doesn’t want to accept payment in cash and has no change to offer confused as to why Hong can’t just pay with Alipay or WeChat like everyone else. Despite his years of hands-on experience, he no longer understands the modern high tech engineering industry and thinks his son is somehow unmanly with his scientific data and use of drones, believing that if you want to solve a problem you just get in there and do it. This causes a minor problem when a manmade earthquake strikes just after his arrival as he pushes rescue crews out of the way to set about rescuing everyone trapped underground on his own only to end up trapped himself. 

The film is almost on his side, definitely ambivalent about the state of modern Chinese infrastructure. Mrs. Ding (Chen Shu), the female manager of the tunnel project, is initially positioned as a villain, insisting that the tunnel must be completed on schedule and they can’t be wasting money on things like safety checks, hinting at the nation’s notoriously lax approach to public safety and widespread corruption in the construction industry. One might even ask if it was a good idea to build this tunnel at all given the geological volatility of the local area, yet Mrs. Ding later becomes something of a hero in finally agreeing to sacrifice 10 years of her own work when it becomes clear a nearby town cannot be evacuated before disaster strikes. Stepping into propaganda mode she advances that while Westerners may pin their hopes on Noah’s Ark, Chinese men move mountains convincing the workmen to blow up the tunnel they’ve been spent the last decade working on by reminding them that they can simply build it again. 

Meanwhile, Yizhou and Hong begin to sort out their father/son problems underground most of which go back to the death of Yizhou’s mother for which he blames himself but also his father for failing to return home when his wife was ill because he had important nation building work to do. This minor barb might hint at a conflict between selfless dedication to the State and familial responsibility, which would seem to run against the secondary message that unchecked capitalism is doing the same thing while also endangering public safety. One reason the crews didn’t want to fall behind through “needless” safety checks was because they’d already agreed to sacrifice New Year with their families to get the tunnel done on time. Nevertheless the only way to save both the tunnel and the town depends on father and son working together, a mix of Yizhou’s high tech data analysis and Hong’s hands-on experience as they perilously climb up the slide of a sheer rock face in torrential rain to blow up an entirely different mountain to create a protective shield. 

The major villain, if there is one, is personal greed born of irresponsible capitalism, and its only cure is, paradoxically, a recommittal to the State as Mrs Ding offers inspirational messages about the legacy of the Rail Soldiers while self-sacrifice for the public good is held up as the only moral responsibility. In any case, Li piles on the tension with a series of possible negative outcomes from the tunnel disaster not only swamping the town and killing off the local population but also endangering an adjacent chemical plant, never quite making the case for why the tunnel is so necessary in the first place even as it swaps its literality for the metaphorical in allowing the reconnection of father and son overcoming a generational divide to find an ambivalent accommodation with the demands of the modern China. 


Cloudy Mountain screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-in Chicago on Nov. 13 courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Execution in Autumn (秋決, Li Hsing, 1972)

“We all have to die, but we must die in peace and honour” the hero of Li Hsing’s tale of spiritual redemption Execution in Autumn (秋決, Qiū Jué) finally realises, resigning himself to the cruelty of his fate. Partly an advocation for “responsible” childrearing, Li’s philosophical tale is also one of growing enlightenment as the boorish, entitled hero is cajoled towards a sense of social responsibility through the ministrations firstly of his cellmates and then of a good woman who finally learns to see the good in him if through a gentle process of emotional excavation. 

As the opening voiceover explains, at this time it was thought somehow offensive to conduct an execution during the seasons of life and rebirth and so they were relegated to the autumn amid its ominous mists. As we first meet Pei Gang (Ou Wei), however, he’s on the run, trying to make a break for it in refusing to accept the judgement which has been passed on him. The sole heir of a wealthy family, he has been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of two men and a woman who claimed he was the father of her child (as for what became of the baby, no further mention is made). His grandmother (Fuh Bih-Huei) vows to get him out of jail, pulling every trick in the book and bribing a local official to engineer a good outcome at the upcoming retrial. But in an ironic indication of his buried goodness, Pei Gang refuses to lie to the court and freely admits his crime claiming he was “overcome with rage” believing the woman and her cousins intended to blackmail him but was otherwise in sound mind when he murdered her because he was “sick of being duped” and wanted to vindicate his family honour by taking vengeance on those who’d wronged him. 

Unable to save her grandson, Gang’s grandmother blames herself realising that her failure to discipline him in childhood has led to his immense sense of entitlement and conviction that the rules do not apply to him. Grandma promised that whatever sort of trouble he got into, she would get him out which is obviously a promise she wouldn’t be able to keep but also somewhat irresponsible. For these reasons, Gang regards his treatment as extremely unfair, unable to understand why any of this is happening to him or to accept that this is one fix grandma won’t be able to smooth over even with her money and the power of her name.  

The lesson would seem to be that you have to be cruel to be kind, a message later confirmed by Gang’s conflicted jailor (Ko Hsiang-Ting) who we learn had a son of his own he wrongly indulged which led to him becoming a wayward lad like Gang drowning in a river in the middle of a fist fight. Learning that his grandmother has passed away, Gang once again rails against his fate offering proclamations of hate which are really of love while blaming his grandmother for never having beaten him when he was a child recognising her problematic love for him, mixed as it was with his importance to her as the heir, but also his own abuse of her indulgence. Bad parenting may be the cause of Gang’s amorality, but he is not and never was blameless. He had a free choice to become a better person but did not take it, engaging in persistent boundary pushing even as an adult culminating in the murder of three people mostly out of spite. 

At first Gang can’t bear the mention of the word death, caught between the earthy philosophies of the street thief in the cell to him and the Confucianist scholar opposite serving a one year term as a proxy for his elderly, debt-laden father. Slowly he begins to come around the scholar’s way of thinking, coming to accept death as an inevitability of life as certain as the seasons. His second lessons begin on realising he cannot escape his sentence, his grandmother has given up on him and enacted her back up plan to ensure the family line continues by marrying him to his adopted “sister” Lian (Tang Pao-Yun). Other signs of his buried goodness manifest themselves in his initial reluctance to go along with the plan, not only resenting being used as a stud but unwilling to make Lian an instant widow. “I don’t want you to hate me the rest of your life” he adds in a moment of vulnerability, trying to convince his new bride to find someone more able to give her a happy life stretching further than the next autumn. 

Gang’s tragedy is, in a sense, that as he approaches his execution he experiences true happiness and is genuinely reformed but only by accepting the necessity of his death can he fully redeem himself. Though he tried to escape, he refuses to leave even when the jailor offers to let him go fearing both for the jailor’s fate and for that of his wife and child if he were to become a fugitive. Nevertheless he cannot prevent their victimhood, knowing that just as grandma and Lian had done he must sacrifice himself in order to protect his family accepting not just his moral and social responsibility but the filial. Taking place mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, Li’s melancholy existential drama uses the rhythm of the seasons as a metaphor for life but also as a kind of ticking clock accelerating Gang’s remaining time as he lives out his glory days and twilight years in the span of months awaiting his execution as the first leaves fall. It might be tempting to draw the conclusion that they are each victims of a cruel and oppressive social system taken to authoritarian extremes though Li may have intended the opposite in reminding parents, literal and figural, that the moral education of their children through physical discipline is their primary duty. Nevertheless, Gang’s spiritual awakening and subsequent redemption prove profoundly moving even in their concurrent tragedy. 


Execution in Autumn screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Emperor’s Sword (乱世之定秦剑, Chen Hao-nan & Zhang Ying-li, 2020)

Can you ever truly preserve peace peacefully or will human greed and envy always triumph over a simple desire for comfort and safety? Chen Hao-nan and Zhang Ying-li’s wuxia drama The Emperor’s Sword (乱世之定秦剑, Luànshì zhī Dìng Qín Jiàn) situates itself at a moment of historical chaos in which the Qin Emperor, having ended the Warring States period through universal unity ten years previously, has died. In order to ensure peace throughout the land, his sword was melted down and recast as two with one residing in a palace and the other with trusty general Meng. Ambitious courtier Zhao Gao, however, has his mind set on usurpation having wiped out most of the previous regime hellbent on retrieving both of the swords in order to secure his grip on power. 

Unfortunately for him, Meng managed to send his daughter Xue away from the falling castle with the sword in hand instructing her to take it to the Tomb Keepers of Qin. Luckily for her, she runs into Jilian, one of the famed “Seven Gentlemen” who were once students of her father’s most of whom retreated to the Red Valley once the wars ended hoping to live lives of peace. Xue’s father brought her up to be kind and considerate, always thinking of others first, but she wonders if there’ll ever be a day with no more war when everyone is free to live happily together. The remainders of the Seven Gentlemen find themselves conflicted, some wanting to help Xue while others are reluctant to involve themselves in worldly conflict having had enough of war, but their belief that they could isolate themselves from external chaos turns out to be an illusion even if it were not also a contravention of their moral code not to stand for justice when the kingdom is threatened. 

A secondary dilemma is that the man hunting them down is in fact one of their former brethren who entered the service of usurping lord Zhao. Conflicted himself, Tian meets with Jilian each essentially asking the other to back off, not get involved in this particular fight, but that’s not something either of them can do leading to a series of emotional showdowns filled with tragic romance, betrayed brotherhood, and divided loyalties. In an echo of Xue’s advocation for a kinder world if one informed by the values of jianghu, Jilian claims he serves the Meng because they really care about the people, unlike Zhao it’s implied with his authoritarian lust for power. Yet in essence the two men have the same mission, not wanting anyone else’s life to be ruined by the chaos of war, only Tian has chosen the iron fist as a means of preserving peace while Jilian has opted for a less oppressive vision of a settled future. 

Still our heroes find themselves in a precarious position as they attempt to stop Zhao Gao completing his evil mission by getting his hands on both the swords. Making the most of their meagre budget, Chen and Zhang choreograph some impressive action sequences as Jilian becomes a veritable one man army taking on hordes of Zhao’s minions while making his way towards the man himself. Xue meanwhile does perhaps become something of a damsel in distress, largely unable to defend herself and reliant on the assistance of Seven Gentlemen foster son Han Jue, appointed to protect in a compromise measure though the expected romance never quite materialises even as she begins to push him towards a more mature contemplation of a better world of peace and justice. She is however pursued by a dogged female assassin with brotherhood issues of her own who remains hot on her trail despite the fecklessness of her evil middle manager boss Lord Wei who is every inch the cowardly wuxia villain. In true jianghu fashion, the good guys don’t always win and are heavily punished for the contraventions of their codes but eventually permit good to triumph over evil in successfully conveying the sword to a more just custodian. 


The Emperor’s Sword is released in the US on Nov. 9 on digital, blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release Trailer (English subtitles)

All About My Sisters (家庭錄像, Wang Qiong, 2021)

Following a series of demographic fluctuations including decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancy, the Chinese state began to impose population controls in the early 1970s finally introducing the infamous One Child Policy in 1980. Though the name is perhaps a misnomer given that numerous exceptions existed permitting certain families such as those in rural areas to have two children, the effects of the policy’s often violent and inhuman enforcement continue to linger despite its vast relaxation with most now permitted to have up to three children in an effort to combat the ironic side effect of China’s rapidly ageing society. Wang Qiong’s All About My Sisters (家庭錄像, Jiātíng Lùxiàng) is, quite literally, about her sisters but also all of the women of China past and present whose lives continue to be defined by cruel and thoughtless authoritarian government along with outdated patriarchal social codes. 

The sadness in her own family, however, locates itself in the liminal figure of her younger sister Jin, the family’s third child born at the height of the One Child Policy and therefore in some senses illegal. As Qiong’s mother Xiaoqing later recounts, she became pregnant seven times and each time a girl. She had four abortions, but was still determined to conceive a son in order to perform what she saw as her filial duty. Despite undergoing partial sterilisation in 1992, a country doctor helped her to maintain one functioning ovary expressly because she had not yet had a male child, Xiaoqing eventually had a son, Sifan, in 2002, but prior to that had already made the difficult decision to opt for a late term abortion when pregnant with Jin in the conviction the baby would be another girl. Ambivalent in her decision she also took herbs which she believes were responsible for counteracting the effects of the injections she was given to induce abortion allowing Jin to survive, but because of their poverty and the stringency of the One Child Policy Xiaoqing and her husband Jianhua decided to abandon the baby hoping someone who had a son already would take her in. Having left her outside an orangery, the couple were distraught to learn that Jin had only been moved to a better location outside a school where she apparently lay for several days. Eventually the decision was taken to retrieve her, Jianhua’s mother persuading his sister Jinlian and her husband Zhenggen to raise the child alongside their son Jun. 

This awkward situation has continued to present a fault line in the organisation of both families, Jin a member of both and neither at the same time. Having been lovingly raised by Jinlian and Zhenggen as their own until her early teenage years, it was impossible for Jin to avoid the reality of her abandonment and the knowledge that it would not have happened if she had been male. Though she lived in a different village, most seemed to be aware of the circumstances of her birth with local children mocking her for having been “picked out of the trash can”, a cruelty even more chilling on hearing the accounts of Qiong’s parents who recall being told by a doctor that if they did not want the baby who had been born healthy they should throw her in the bin then and there. Qiong herself recalls seeing the corpses of other late term abortions in a gutter on her way to school almost all of them female. The One Child Policy may not be so draconian as it once was, but the patriarchal mindset is still very much in place. Qiong’s older sister Li is currently pregnant with her third child and shocks her sister by revealing that she plans to have an abortion should the baby be another girl in order to avoid displeasing her husband. 

Li already had a son from a previous marriage who is, perhaps tellingly, not seen here and does not seem to be living with her presumably having remained with the father’s family in order to carry on their name. Asking her mother why everyone continues to value male children over female, Xiaoqing reflects that daughters become a part of someone else’s family when they marry and thereafter are responsible for looking after their in-laws. Only by having sons and gaining daughter-in-laws can you expect someone to be around to care for you in your old age.

It’s this rigid definition of family units which has caused so many problems for Jin who continues to refer to the uncle aunt who raised her as her parents while careful to refer to Xiaoqing and Jinhua as “your mother and father” when talking to Qiong, yet also encouraged to participate in filial rituals presenting gifts to her birth parents. The same problem occurs at her wedding when deciding which set of uncles should sit at the top table given her peculiar situation of having two sets of parents, worrying if her young son Chengxi will later be confused and wonder why it is he has three grandmas and grandads. For her part, she often loses her temper with him telling him that he’s a “useless baby” and “anyone is better than you”, a particularly heartbreaking moment occurring some years later while she berates him for having apparently bitten another child at school as he sadly removes a little paper heart from his forehead as if agreeing with her that he doesn’t really deserve it. Having married young trying to forge her own family while unable to repair the rifts with her parents and siblings, she contemplates leaving her husband who struggles with employment and has a gambling problem but ultimately decides not to because she doesn’t want her son to “live in a broken family” as she has done while simultaneously making him a “left behind child” as they head to the city in search of work and a little space from Jin’s overly complicated family situation. 

Even as she describes her father as “abusive”, and depicts her mother as a difficult person, Qiong is also careful to frame their actions within the confines of their times, the ultimate villain the cruel inhumanity of the One Child Policy. Xiaoqing’s brother was a local official in charge of the policy’s enforcement and tearfully declares himself haunted by the memory of exposing two of his own children in a forest behind the hospital in which they were born, preferring to regard it as water under the bridge and simply a consequence of the political reality he would have been unable to resist even had he chosen to. Meanwhile, Qiong’s elder sister remains somewhat complicit equally unwilling to confront a reality she sees as unchangeable while irritated by Jin’s attitude describing her as “childish” seeing as she is already a mother herself and should therefore “understand” the circumstances of her birth. We see countless signs in doctors’ offices reminding patients that “sex selective testing and abortion are prohibited”, but they only serve to remind that this is obviously something many people still consider when faced with the nation’s ever increasing wealth inequality and persistent patriarchal social codes which value sons over daughters. A complex examination of the ramifications of the One Child Policy through the prism of one particular family, Wang’s raw, personal documentary is an unflinching condemnation of repressive authoritarianism but also of continuing female subjugation in an unequal society. 


All About My Sisters screens in San Diego on Nov. 3 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Edward Yang, 1985)

“Just a fleeting hope. The illusion that you can start over” the hero of Edward Yang’s melancholy drama of the costs of modernity, Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Qīngméizhúmǎ), eventually laments. Yang apparently chose the English title himself in a deliberate echo of Yasujiro Ozu’s equally pessimistic drama, yet the original title literally translated as “childhood sweethearts” also has its poignancy in hinting at the loss of innocence and hopeless impossibility of the fracturing love between its twin protagonists. 

Yang begins and ends in an empty room, for an empty room is always a possibility. As the film opens, high-flying career woman Chin (Tsai Chin) is buying her own apartment, already envisioning her life there in pointing out to her boyfriend Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) where they’ll put the TV and VCR so they can watch movies in bed hinting at a new level of consumerist success. More practically minded, he points out that the place needs a little work but Chin is confident she can manage it, saving up and paying in instalments having no immediate anxiety about her income. 

Yet Yang seems to suggest that this burgeoning economic powerhouse is built on shaky ground. The construction firm at which Chin works has recently been hit with a potential lawsuit about a lethal building error, while Chin’s mentor has already moved on and the firm has been bought up by another company presumably intent on some shady business of its own. This Chin discovers to her cost on hearing the not entirely unexpected news that the new bosses don’t understand her job title and want to demote her to the role of secretary which, she suspects, is just a way of pushing her to resign (which she then does). 

Shoddy business practices are also it seems responsible for her father’s present moment of financial insecurity though he only further alienates his daughter by talking entirely with Lung when the pair come to visit stopping only to ask awkward questions about marriage and children. Later we realise that part of Chin’s resentment towards her father is due to a long history of domestic abuse, her mother later crying silently prompting Chin to withdraw some of her savings something she would not have done had her father asked it. Yet Lung, old-fashioned in many ways and not least in his filiality, feels duty bound to help his not-quite father-in-law provoking a row between the pair when he gives him money he’d saved in the forlorn hope of going into business with his brother-in-law in America. 

Once childhood friends and now seeking a new start, the couple begin to dream of a new life though as Lung later says, America, like marriage, is not a panacea. Chin is in a sense torn between past and future neither of which have much possibility, in a committed relationship with Lung yet jealous over his past with a mutual childhood friend, and also carrying on an affair with an unhappily married man at work. A high-flying executive and independent career woman, she is determined to keep moving forward while Lung is stuck in the past hung up on baseball glory and morally righteous to a fault, helping out Chin’s feckless father while knowing it will do no good while his attempt to help a friend sort out his complicated family life leads only to tragedy. It’s obvious that he does not fit in with Chin’s yuppie friends, one particularly obnoxious male colleague describing him as having the face of a yam farmer and needling him to the point that it eventually leads to an altercation in a karaoke bar. Chin doesn’t seem particularly upset about the fight, comforting Lung as he confesses that he ends up in fights in order to stick up for himself or else because of his love of justice, but continues hanging out with her unpleasant friend for otherwise unclear reasons. 

But it’s less a love of justice than frustrated masculinity that eventually seals Lung’s fate, unwisely picking a fight with a young tough not so much in order to protect Chin as to preserve his own sense of wounded male pride. Realising the futility of his situation, he is unable to move forward into the new society, whereas Chin eventually finds herself substituting his role as her former mentor shows her around a potential new office space just as she had him her apartment envisioning how they will exist within it, where their offices will be along with the state of the art computer room. “It’s actually nice here,” she assures her, “now we have a big American company right in our hometown. Why go abroad?”. Yet Chin perhaps remembers her dejected colleague lamenting that all the new buildings look the same and he can’t even remember which ones he worked on so anonymous has the landscape become. In this Taipei story, the city is devoid of life or character a highly corporatised arena of increasingly dehumanising capitalism where everyone dreams of escape abroad to America or Japan, yet all Chin can do lowering her sunshades is to gaze from the window of her new office onto the lonely streets below and ask herself where it is she thinks she’s going. 


Taipei Story streamed as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón, Juan Martín Hsu, 2021)

Named for the classic song by Teresa Teng that connects the mother and son at its centre, Juan Martín Hsu’s documentary/fiction hybrid The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón) sees the director himself making two trips from his home in Argentina seven years apart to see his mother in Taipei in part in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his father when he was six years old. It may be a minor spoiler to reveal that the truth remains frustratingly out of reach though he perhaps discovers other, equally hidden, familial traumas in the complicated history of post-war Taiwan. 

Martín and his brother Marcelo were born in Argentina where their parents ran a restaurant but his mother later elected to return to Taiwan while they stayed behind. The earlier visit in 2012 is apparently the first in the 10 years since his mother left, the difficulty of obtaining visas and the expense being the reasons he gives for leaving it so long. His next trip, however, is not for another seven years, he and his brother instantly remarking on the various ways his mother may or may not have aged. Martín seems to want to talk about his father, but his mother would rather not drag up the past. In fact so averse is she that she’s developed a habit of cutting the faces of those she doesn’t like or want to remember out of her photos which is why the boys complain they don’t have any of their father. While chatting about that, she advances that their father was murdered because of an extramarital affair he’d been having with a local woman, later claiming that he may have had a drug problem or been involved with organised crime. 

Mostly what she tells her son is that she was unhappy, having left a previous marriage because her husband was intensely patriarchal refusing to allow her go on working after becoming his wife. She met Martín’s dad after persuading her first husband to allow her to work at a restaurant and left with him for Argentina pregnant with her first husband’s child, Diego. But in Argentina her new husband was little different, actively preventing her from learning Spanish while also discouraging her from associating with other Chinese-speaking migrants, especially men. The boys speak to her in awkward Mandarin with the assistance of smartphone dictionaries while she complains that her Spanish was never good enough even after she began running the restaurant on her own. “You two wouldn’t be able to spend “la vida” in Taiwan” she explains, “just like your mum couldn’t spend “la vida” in Argentina”. 

Martín’s mother keeps telling him to leave it alone, that he might not like what he finds he if keeps poking into his father’s death though as we find out later he has own traumatic memories of the night his father died along with a burning desire to understand why as if hoping to unlock the secrets of his history. In a raw hotel room exchange, his brother complains that he doesn’t feel part of this extended Taiwan family and is upset that Martín threatened to disown him if he refused to take part in the documentary, feeling a little tricked in having agreed to come only to be forced to participate while his brother seemingly ignores his discomfort. Yet while looking for his father Martín discovers a darker history of his grandfather’s suffering during the White Terror adding new layers to a legacy of familial trauma in the buried history of his maternal family as complicated as it already seemed to be. 

In between each of these difficult conversations and meetings with family members, Hsu splices brief fiction shorts along the theme of exile, the first featuring a returnee who emigrated as a young man leaving a lover behind who is now it seems about to marry someone else but carrying regrets, while another sequence follows a young woman preparing to go abroad but feeling terribly guilty about abandoning her mother. At times the sense of cultural dislocation seems unbreachable as the brothers accompany their mother and her partner to karaoke sessions and tourist excursions but then there’s the song and its universal ability to connect, Martín’s mother singing it firstly with a guitar and later a microphone almost like a long forgotten lullaby. Martín may not unlock the secrets of his father’s death, but does perhaps gain a new understanding of his mother, a resilient woman but also a perpetual victim of a patriarchal society, an oppressive regime, and finally of distance in the separations emotional and physical between herself and her sons. 


The Moon Represents My Heart screens in San Diego on Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng – The Moon Represents My Heart