The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, Cheng Siyu, 2019)

“Chinese martial arts are unimpressive” sneers a Japanese soldier as a member of an aikido school which has just received permission to open in the martial arts homeland of Tianjin. Boasting surprisingly high production values in comparison with the average Chinese action movie streamer, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, huò yuán jiǎ zhī jīng wǔ tiānxià) once again sees a humble man stand up on behalf of all of China against an oppressive coloniser this time intent on fighting them on their own ground by beating the locals in a “fair” fight pitting Chinese boxing against Japanese martial arts. 

Set at a complex historical moment, the film opens with the news that new regulations have taken hold at the Imperial University which will introduce Western learning to China but that many fear it’s a ruse to open the door to a Japanese invasion. That does seem to be the case in Tianjin which is soon occupied by unpleasant and duplicitous Japanese military officers who plan on opening a martial arts school of their own to rival those already in the town and eventually take it over. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Wu Shu association is about to step down and is holding a contest to find his successor. The burly Zhao quickly sees off all challengers until the arrival of mysterious stranger Huo Yuanjia (Dennis To Yu-hang) places his victory in jeopardy. Zhao plays a few underhanded moves, but an irritated Yuanjia essentially lets him win knowing his next blow may kill him. Zhao seems like the wrong person to lead the association now that it is threatened by the Japanese but eventually encourages Yuanjia to take a stand refusing to allow the proud traditions of Tianjin to be destroyed by the burgeoning Japanese empire who brand China the “sick man of Asia”.

Indeed, from the offset the Japanese are shown to be cruel and dishonourable despite the captain’s early words that they should play strategically in their quest to colonise China. Colonel Takeda is in someways much more even handed, openly reprimanding his men for acting in a way that reflects badly on the Japanese such as ordering the entire school to attack Yuanjia after he defeats aikido champ Anbei. But even Takeda is playing the long game, hoping that he can break the spirit of the Chinese by defeating them at martial arts leaving them so demoralised that they will give up on all thoughts of rebellion. Yuanjia is not however so easily beaten and neither is China as he very directly says to the japanese soldiers who try to shut him down. He frames his battle as one that will decide the course of the entire nation, that if he fails to stand up to the Japanese now then China will forever be oppressed by foreign powers though as he’s also fond of pointing out, he’s “just” a porter that the martial arts society didn’t even really want to accept before he showed them what he can do.

Nevertheless, he finds himself torn by the admittedly well-worn plot device of a nagging wife who doesn’t like him going off fighting and would much rather he stay at home even if it means all of China falls. Even she eventually comes round and gives him a precious amulet that becomes his saving grace. Chinese kung fu is he points out all about love and the desire to protect, whereas as according to Takeda Japanese martial arts are all about conquest and destruction. Yuanjia tells him that there’s no need to look for a winner or a loser in a contest of martial arts, and that in the end he cannot win because his philosophy is soulless and little more than meaningless violence while his is rooted in love and country. Martial arts is about applying peace, he explains, not bullying the weak (which seems like an odd concession in its characterisation of China as a defenceless victim only Yuanjia can save). 

Running a tight 74 minutes, the film boasts a series of impressive fight sequences performed by genre star Dennis To along with a series of above average performances as the small band of Tianjin martial artists attempt to preserve their traditions while taking a stand against foreign incursion which might in is own way have a few uncomfortable implications in its nationalistic dimensions. Nevertheless, it boasts surprisingly good production values for a straight to streaming movie and largely manages to sell its admittedly familiar tale with considerable panache.


The Grandmaster of Kung Fu is released in the US on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 31 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (世间有她, Li Shaohong, Joan Chen, Sylvia Chang, 2022)

The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need  to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important. 

Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other. 

A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community. 

This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change. 

Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her. 

The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times. 


Hero streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, Bo Ren, 2021)

A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.

All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own. 

His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.

Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area. 

When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.


So Long Summer Vacation streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, Frant Gwo, 2023)

Back in what now seems like another world, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth became a Lunar New Year box office smash and was described by some as China’s first foray into big budget sci-fi. Adapted from a novel by Liu Cixin, the film was much about fathers and sons as it was about sacrifice and solidarity in the face of oncoming apocalypse all of which are quite traditional New Year themes. Arriving four years later, The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, liúlàng dìqiú 2) largely drops overt references to the Spring festival bar the repeated motif of journeying home, but does once again stress the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding the future of the planet.

Then again, it seems that many feel it’s not a good use of time or resources to address a problem that will occur in a hundred years when they are long dead. A prequel to the first film, Wandering Earth II begins in the early days of the Moving Mountain Project which is the plan to push the Earth onto a different orbit to escape the sun’s eventual implosion. Given its enormous expense and the reality that much of the population will simply be left to die, the majority of the public back the rival Digital Life program in which humanity would be saved by relocating to a new virtual reality. Where this virtual reality is supposed to be stored is not exactly clear if there is no Earth for it to exist on, but it’s clear that some consider the possibilities of the digital existence preferable to allowing millions to die in the tsunamis which will engulf the Earth as it uncouples from the moon’s gravitational pull. 

Chief among them is software engineer Tu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) who is griefstricken by the loss of his wife and child in a traffic accident and has been secretly working on creating a fully fledged AI simulacrum of his daughter Yaya. He tells his more practically minded colleague Ma (Ning Li) that he doesn’t have the right to define what is “real” while eventually jeopardising the Moving Mountain Project by prioritising his desire to save Yaya over saving the Earth and eventually creating the AI system that will become Moss, a possibly dangerous entity which decides the best way to save humanity is to destroy mankind. 

The first film’s hero, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), meanwhile is a rookie astronaut caught up in a terrorist incident carried out by militant opponents of the Moving Mountain project while enjoying an incongruously goofy courtship with fellow astronaut and future wife, Duoduo (Wang Zhi). This time around, he’s a dutiful son rather than conflicted father serving alongside his own dad who eventually becomes an example of intergenerational sacrifice as the old begin to make way for the young whose responsibility it now is to preserve the Earth. A nervous young aid serving the current premier later takes over the reigns and finds herself giving the same advice to a similarly nervous young man as they prepare to carry on the Wandering Earth project despite knowing that it will take thousands of years to complete. 

The ultimate message is therefore to choose hope, as Peiqiang later does striving to save the world even if it all turns out to be hopeless, rather than giving up and resigning oneself to one’s fate as many suggest doing when faced with the potential failure of their mission. As in the first film, the plan requires cooperation between nations and this time even more so as world powers must surrender their nuclear weapons to help blow up the moon. The Chinese premier looks forward to a day when governments can work on solving future problems rather than preparing for war, but then in an echo of the ongoing climate crisis some just don’t seem to see the point in dealing with something that won’t happen for a hundred years despite likely being among the first to complain no one did anything sooner when it finally affects them. Gwo adds a little whimsy in the technically pre-apocalypse setting with charming details such as Tu’s warm relationship with his dog-like robot helper and the general goofiness of Peiqiang’s attempt to court Duoduo while improving on the already polished visuals of the first film through several high impact set pieces but finally returns to its messages of hope and solidarity perhaps intended for a weary world attempting to find its own way out of a period of protracted strife.


The Wandering Earth II is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.

International trailer (English voice over, Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Liu Jiangjiang, 2022)

An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are. 

At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point. 

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl. 

These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself. 

Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.


Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)

Millennium Mambo (千禧曼波, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)

In the iconic opening sequence of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo (千禧曼波, Qiānxī Mànbō), a young woman bounces enigmatically along a walkway, filled with joy and abandon and seemingly exultant in her freedom. Occasionally she glances back as if someone were actually filming her but then we start to wonder if this isn’t just her looking back at herself as she narrates her story in the third person, as if it happened to someone else because in a sense it did. “This happened 10 years ago,” she explains from the vantage point of 2011 looking back on the coming millennium and her own slow dance towards a new world. 

Then again, as she admits Vicky (Shu Qi) always seems to be drawn back into the orbit of Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), her no good, abusive boyfriend who is so controlling that he deliberately prevented her from taking her high school exams out of fear that she’d “move on”. Circling around Vicky’s memories, Hou often cuts to Hao in exactly the same position as he was before while Vicky has indeed moved on if not always in the direction she might have chosen such as the abrupt transition to her naked behind as a dancer at a nightclub where she is forced to work because Hao refuses to earn a living. When we first see her arrive at their apartment, Hao is sitting in the dark and we don’t even notice him until he gets up after Vicky enters the bathroom. Where her bedroom is colourful and cosy, bathed in soft light and demonstrating her ability to find small comforts in an otherwise harsh existence, Hao’s space is gloomy and ominous in its austerity. 

While Vicky tries to move into a more responsible adulthood, Hao extends Taipei clubland into their home frequently hanging out with friends while djing on the rig in his room. He takes drugs to keep his weight down to evade military service and gets into trouble with the law after pinching and pawning an expensive watch from his dad rather than trying to get job. He is the force which seems to keep Vicky trapped in a disappointing existence. By her own admission she finds herself returning to him as if she were in a kind a kind of trance, unable to escape though at times clearly despising him and perhaps herself too. Even Hao is fond of saying that they’re from different worlds, stuck on parallel orbits and otherwise incompatible. Even their apartment seems to be divided into night and day. 

Yet it’s also Taipei clubland that offers Vicky an escape route through the community she finds surrounding her amid the pulsing beats of millennial techno. A kindhearted gangster, Jack (Jack Kao), comes to her aid though he is later brought low by the recklessness of youth as his naive underlings bring their world crashing down around them. Jack takes her in and protects her with paternal affection, eventually inviting her to go on the run with him in Japan but immediately disappearing, just like the snowman she later describes Hao to have been in a moment imprinted on her memory. She carries Jack’s phone around with her unable to let go of him while recalling the scent of his abandoned jacket as she tries to make a decision in a snowy Tokyo just as she’d sworn to herself she’d leave Hao when she ran through her savings. 

Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing shoot all of this through the breeziness memory, following emotional logic rather than the literal as Vicki narrates to us events which are at odds with those occurring on screen and zig zags through the story of her youth before arriving at what seems to be a genuine moment of warmth amid heavy snow, perhaps finally “moving on” from the dissatisfying past to a future of her own choosing. Then again, her fleeting recollections amount to a constructed narrative, the story of the girl on the walkway who finally reaches the other side and disappears into the night either progressing into the new millennium or remaining trapped in a thousand year mambo of memory reliving the key moments of her life in a gentle oscillation, “as if under a spell or hypnotised” , unable to escape from the dangerous allure of nostalgia. 


Millennium Mambo is screening now at New York’s Metrograph and available to stream in the US via Metrograph at Home courtesy of Metrograph Pictures.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Terrorizers (青春弒戀, Ho Wi Ding, 2021)

A collection of youngsters is drawn into a dangerous web of simmering violence in Ho Wi Ding’s Taipei-set drama, Terrorizers (青春弒戀, qīngchūn shì liàn). The film may share its name with an Edward Yang classic, but it is very clearly society that is the terroriser in this instance from toxic masculinity and social conservatism to youthful isolation, video games, and pornography. The film seems to ask if it’s ever really possible to move on from the past and discovers that it may not be though some may be prepared to help carry your baggage as they travel towards the future so long as they know what’s in it. 

The youngsters are brought together by the ominous presence of Ming Liang (Austin Lin Bo-Hong), an isolated young man who barely speaks and spends all his time playing video games. It’s him we see dressed in full ninja garb attacking a young woman, Yu Fang (Moon Lee), with a katana at the train station only for her boyfriend Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) to heroically throw himself in front of her to fight Ming Liang off. 

Later a dejected middle-aged woman Ming Liang befriends ironically tells him that guy who protects his girlfriend is a real man, working the wound of Ming Liang’s bruised masculinity and causing him to double down on his frequent insistence that he can protect women, though later he indeed does on separating precocious teen Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) from the previously diffident best friend who tried to assault her. Having given up on Yu Fang he begins stalking a woman from her acting class, Monica (Annie Chen Ting-Ni), whose admittedly no good ex boyfriend he later beats up assuming it will buy him white knight credits as a protector in the shadows when in reality he’s a total creep who cloned the key to her apartment and has been hiding in her wardrobe later driven into a frenzy by the irony of watching Yu Fang and Monica, the two women he wanted, deciding they’d rather be with each other. 

Part of Ming Liang’s problem is a sense of parental abandonment, something he shares with Yu Fang whose mother abandoned her when young while her relationship with her father, who has recently remarried, has always been strained. After his parents’ divorce, Ming Liang moved in with Yu Fang’s politician father after being palmed off off by his own, the implication being that he has never really been shown parental love or given any guidance about how to live in the world save that he gleaned from the violent video games he constantly plays along with voyeuristic pornography. 

Yu Fang and Ming Liang are attempting to escape the legacy of parental failure, but Monica is left with a much more recent dilemma in her history as an early cam girl named Missy, a character created by her ex, David, who has since moved on. The more Monica tries to chase her dreams, the more her past comes out to haunt her with creepy men for some reason making a point of telling her they saw her sex tape while on some occasions actually playing it for her on their phone. Hoping to crush her spirit, David tells her that she’ll always be Missy, unable to escape the social stigma of having participated in a pornographic video, while she and Yu Fang are subject to a public shaming when a tape of them goes viral allowing the authorities to all but justify Ming Liang’s attack on Yu Fang on the grounds that she stole his girlfriend and therefore was in the wrong as if such feudalistic behaviour could ever be permissible. 

Yu Fang finds herself terrorised by the media storm of the 24hr news cycle, her new life with Xiao Zhang in jeopardy while she feels ever more isolated realising that her father cares less for her wellbeing than the optics in the light of his ongoing political campaign. Ming Liang meanwhile is forever reminding people that his father is rich and influential as if his misuse of his status is a direct rebellion against it and the parents he feels abandoned him. The fact that the news essentially reframes the slashing incident as a defence of heterosexual love, demonising same sex relationships, only emphasises the tyranny of outdated social prejudice and misogyny as Yu Fang becomes the villain and Ming Liang the victim entirely ignoring his predatory stalking of Monica and otherwise disturbing behaviour. It may not be possible to effectively move on from the past, overcome the legacy of parental abandonment and develop the ability to trust in others, but there may be less destructive ways to take the past with you if only in finding someone willing to share your burden. 


Terrorizers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © changheFilms 2021

Barbarian Invasion (野蛮人入侵, Tan Chui Mui, 2021)

“Who are you?” the lead actress asks herself, at one point in several languages, as she tries to reclaim her identity from the library of roles which she must play key among them mother to six-year-old son and recent divorcee plagued by scandal. Tan Chui Mui’s meta drama Barbarian Invasion (野蛮人入侵), in which she also stars, is in part a search for the self along with the desire to assert ownership over a physicality that is otherwise uncomfortably shared but also an exploration of local indie filmmaking and the unique challenges faced by a female filmmaker in the South East Asian industry. 

Moon Lee (named for the Hong Kong star and played by Tan Chui Mui herself) was formerly a successful actress who married a high profile actor but has now divorced and is raising her six-year-old son Yu Zhou alone. Responding to a request from an old friend, she’s agreed to travel to the coast to revive her film career and has brought Yu Zhou with her as his father is filming in Japan and her mother has just had a knee operation. What Moon hadn’t realised is that she’ll be starring in a low budget action movie inspired by The Bourne Identity and that the director, Roger (Pete Teo), wants her to look convincing as a top assassin. Moon isn’t really convinced but begins to see it as an opportunity for personal growth training with the mysterious Master Loh (James Lee) who, like the wise old monk sitting outside, is fond of cryptic aphorisms.

Nevertheless, Moon’s attention is constantly diverted by Yu Zhou’s restlessness. He darts in to defend her while she’s trying to practice martial arts and runs away when left with a baby sitter, making friends with the daughter of a local cafe owner. She tells the assistant Cathy that when she was pregnant people would come up and touch her belly as if her body no longer belonged to her but had become public property. Moon resented being told that her baby was her greatest work, as if all of her other achievements paled in comparison to her motherhood and she herself had become nothing more than a conduit for her child’s existence. A mere 3D printer for the next generation, as she puts it. Yet what’s she’s doing is in effect an attempt to reintegrate body and soul. As the wise old monk tells her the body is not the prison of the mind but the mind a prison of the body. She achieves mastery over herself through embracing unconscious action. “What is “myself?” she asks Loh and finds the answer in the her that automatically raises its fist to her head in self-protection. 

But that doesn’t perhaps help her differentiate Moon Lee the woman from Moon Lee the actress and the various roles she’s played on and off screen. It seems there was a degree of scandal in her recent divorce that’s prompted her into a reconsideration of herself, while she is left feeling betrayed when Roger explains that the producers want to cast her ex Julliard (Bront Palarae) as her love interest and may even pick him over her if she refuses because he is still a big box office draw. Roger then gets a major offer of investment, but it’s from a Chinese actress who wants Moon’s part. Chinese producers want a Chinese star he tries to explain to an increasingly exasperated Moon who wonders what all this is for if she is so easily replaceable. 

In any case, an event which seems to transgress the borders between the real and the fictive throws her into the role of her amnesiac heroine who has only muscle memory along with the ability to speak several languages chiefly those spoken by roles she previously played such as a Burmese refugee and Vietnamese bride. Still, as her character begins to recover her identity she too comes into herself, brings some ironic closure to her relationship with her ex, and embarks on a somewhat mystic journey into the self all while ironically riffing on classic kung fu movie themes injected with a little contemporary pop culture. To the challenger the sword was everything, to Musashi everything was the sword Roger explains of a tale in which the elderly Miyamoto Musashi defeated a young rival through turning the world around him into a weapon, adding that to him while film was once everything everything is now film. And so it is for Moon in her ongoing psychodrama rediscovering herself among many others as she fights her way towards bodily autonomy and the reclamation of her authentic identity.


Barbarian Invasion screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Remember Me (金門留念, Hung Chun-hsiu, 2022)

Some way into Hung Chun-hsiu’s documentary Remember Me (金門留念) a woman takes part in a military reenactment firing large scale artillery from a now disused military base. What’s ironic is both that what was once a frightening reality of ongoing warfare has now been commercialised as an attraction for tourists, and the fact that the woman firing the gun pointed at China on this technically Taiwanese island is herself Chinese. As the opening graphics point out, the island of Quemoy (also known as Kinmen) is geographically closer to Mainland China though governed by Taiwan and for much of its mid-20th century history at the front line of an ongoing ideological battle between communists and nationalists. 

In the stock footage often employed by Hung, newsreaders can be heard uttering phrases about “vile communists” and eliminating communist “scum” along with impassioned sloganeering about taking back the “motherland” and freeing its people from the yoke of communism. The island was under near constant shelling until as recently as 1979 and consequently largely populated by the military many of whom were ordinary young men conscripted for national service. The island has obviously changed a great deal since then, though one unexpected casualty has been the gradual decline of the island’s photo studios. Less due to technological than demographic change, the first of Huang’s subjects explains that given the precarity of life in Quemoy soldiers would have their pictures taken as often as once a week, often full body portraits they would send home to their families as evidence that they had not been severely injured. Kuo-ming has been operating his photo studio for 46 years now one of only two still operating on the island. Like the gun show, the military portraits have also become a kind of costume play, Kuo-ming handing out army uniforms and prop weapons for people to pose with often against a painted matte backdrop of a local lake or else Japan’s Mount Fuji. 

Meanwhile, the photographs taken at the time hint at the loneliness felt by the men who were dispatched to the island, many of them opting to have pictures of their wives or girlfriends inset alongside them. Those who had no girlfriends sometimes used a picture of a famous model or actress as a personal keepsake though one photo which goes unexplained is inset with the photo of another man in uniform. It has to be said that many of these photos have a homoerotic quality, especially the ones featuring shirtless well-built men striking muscle poses, while others are unexpectedly feminine in nature featuring the soldier in soft focus and surrounded by flowers. The ones from later years are also sometimes playful, featuring soldiers sitting in a model speedboat in or in more relaxed, artistic poses. A man who had his photos taken there while on his military service reads a letter he wrote to a woman he loved promising a photo, one in which he later inset her portrait, little knowing that she did not return his feelings and only kept the correspondence up in fear he might harm himself if she turned him down. Though he discovered on his return she had married someone else, the couple found each other decades later and decided to have a “real” photo taken together at Kuo-ming’s shop dressed in faux army uniforms. 

Having married a local woman and decided to stay on Quemoy, former solder Shan-yung also used to have his picture taken at Kuo-ming’s to send back to his mother. He joined the army voluntarily as his family was poor and was shocked to be sent effectively to the front line. After leaving the service, he and his wife opened a karaoke bar largely catering to military personnel and though his business still seems to be doing well, bears out Kuo-ming’s description of the economic changes brought about by decreasing militarisation. Even so he feels a sense of guilt that his life has taken him so far away from his family that he is no longer able to care for his parents in their old age while taking care of his in-laws on Quemoy.

Chen-mei, the woman staging the live reenactment of firing the artillery gun, expresses something similar while explaining that she came to the island from the Mainland for an arranged marriage and now works as a civil servant. She concedes that it’s a little awkward for some of the Chinese visitors realising that their nation had been firing shells at the island for three decades, but suggests that it’s all in the past while espousing a well-meaning but possibility reductive One China philosophy that they are all one Chinese family who no longer need to care about labels like “communist” or “nationalist” because they live in an era of peace. The gun, and the remaining military garrison, may be a reminder it might be dangerous to take that for granted given the rising rhetoric on the Mainland in response to the desire for a recognition of Taiwanese independence. A father explains to his son that the artillery gun was a loan from the Americans to help resist communism, but when the boy asks him how long is left on the lease the man can only look confused and reply that he doesn’t really know. In any case, Remember Me seems to be keener on remembering the rosier side of life on Quemoy under fire as old soldiers look back on their youth if grateful that goats now roam their barracks and the only shells to be found are the ones commemorating a war that for now at least has ended. 


Remember Me screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stonewalling (石门, Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka, 2022)

A young woman finds herself caught between one generation and the next while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka’s pressing examination of contemporary womanhood, Stonewalling (石门, Shímén). Faced with an impossible situation she makes a decision that is in someways very old-fashioned and others very modern but certainly as another young woman describes it, very naive. Realising she has very little control over the decisions of her life the woman struggles to reaccommodate herself to the contradictions of the modern China. 

At 20, Lynn (Yao Honggui) has moved to the city from her home in provincial Changsha and is studying to become a flight attendant. Pressed to make money to support herself and pay off her mother’s debts, she’s taken up part-time modelling work and is dating a fellow student who seems to be something of a social climber constantly pressuring her to improve her English and mingle with the internationalist set. Hoping to earn more money she finds herself acting on a suggestion from an acquaintance to sell her eggs and discovers she is pregnant. While the boyfriend pressures her into an abortion, she isn’t really sure and decides to return to her parents’ home. One there she discovers her mother is struggling to pay off compensation payments after a mistake at her obstetrics clinic resulted in a woman losing her baby. Rather childishly Lynn suggests that she carry her child to term and then offer it to the other woman in return for the cancellation of the debt. 

It’s a very feudal solution to a very contemporary problem. Lynn does not see it as selling her baby only a way to overcome the futility of her situation. Everyone around her tells her to have an abortion as if it were as simple as having a tooth pulled and there’s really not much need to think about it. The film seems to ask if the silent consequences of the three decades of the One Child Policy have profoundly affected the way people think about motherhood and childbirth, normalising abortion to the point of becoming numb to its emotional dimensions. Lynn tells her mother that she does not want the baby to die inside her, having apparently witnessed an abortion going wrong at the clinic though her mother only tells her not to be so silly. She knows she can’t raise the child herself and accepts the arguments of others that early motherhood will derail her life and prospects, but wants the child to survive and naively believes both that it will help heal another woman’s pain and be raised in a loving family with better prospects than she could ever give it. 

But it’s obvious that the man she’s dealing with who claims to be a cousin of the woman who lost her baby is in no way on the level and most likely intends something quite different for the child perhaps selling it on in China’s child trafficking network, another unintended consequence of the One Child Policy. He suggests the cruelest solution of all, that Lynn and her family should raise the baby for a year and then part with it to him which aside from its emotional implications destroys the point of giving it away in the first place in that Lynn needs to keep her pregnancy secret to avoid the social stigma of unwed motherhood while returning to her studies after giving birth. Meanwhile, through the contacts she made in egg donation Lynn finds herself shepherding other young women many of whom are from the persecuted Uyghur minority to shady appointments with men in hotel rooms who quiz them on their physical health and mental attitudes in what seems to be a matchmaking/surrogacy service. In any case, these women seem to have little value outside of their ability to bear “healthy” children. “What is the standard for health?” a Lynn asks the middleman only for him to tell her that he’ll know it when he sees it, leading her to fear he may reject her child once it’s born leaving her quite literally holding the baby. 

Left with little means of support, Lynn is forced to continue working throughout her pregnancy even though medical personnel imply she is malnourished and should make sure to get plenty of rest while eating a protein rich diet. The only reason she is given such care at all is ironically because of the accidental commercialistion of the baby, the middleman willing to fund its development in return for the end product. Lynn’s mother tries to reason with the middleman to take the baby as soon as its born fearing that he will change his mind or that Lynn will be unable to go through with it after bonding with her child but does not really appreciate how little power they have in this situation. Using shady connections, the middleman has engineered it so that Lynn is getting medical care as “Sylvia”, the woman whose baby died and whose name will appear on its birth certificate leaving Lynn with no legal right to it anyway. 

Her mother, meanwhile, trying to take agency over her own life has been sucked into an obvious pyramid scheme selling fancy skin cream and has gained a false sense of success in her new business enterprise, arguing with her husband and wanting to close down the outdated maternity clinic altogether. Lynn struggles with English but is caught amid the dichotomies of the modern China, translating between standard Mandarin and the local Changsha dialect while trapped between the need to support her parents and providing for the next generation leaving little room for herself, her own hopes and desires. A grim picture of life on the margins of the contemporary society, Huang and Otsuka’s pressing drama ends with rain and hazard lights along with a helpless sense of abandonment and little hope in sight.


Stonewalling screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)