Moon Man (独行月球, Zhang Chiyu, 2022)

A diffident everyman battles loneliness and despair only to become a selfless sacrifice for a world that left him behind in the latest film from the Mahua FunAge gang, Moon Man (独行月球, Dúxíng Yuèqiú). Not quite the raucous comedy that Mahua FunAge has become known for with popular hits Never Say Die and Hello, Mrs. Money, Moon Man is a more contemplative affair adapted from a South Korean manhwa by Cho Seok and equal parts absurdist exploration of the human condition and cathartic post-pandemic dramedy that insists there is always a homecoming in one way or another. 

Yue Dugu (Shen Teng) is proud to refer to himself as a “middle man” in that he has deliberately cultivated the image of Mr. Average in an intense attempt never to stand out from the crowd. On applying for an engineering job on a space programme he’s told the position has been filled but there’s an opening in maintenance. Yue didn’t really want to take it but does, as we later learn, after falling in love at first sight with Xing (Ma Li), the commander of a mission set to save the Earth from a meteor strike some years in the future. Being the kind of guy he is, Yue never makes an attempt to get close to her but thinks his chance has finally come when the mission is concluded successfully though Xing doesn’t appear to even know he exists. He decides to write a long love letter while listening to romantic music and consequently misses all of the alarms alerting him to the fact that something has gone very wrong, the mission is being aborted, and they all need to evacuate as soon as possible. Left behind as the rockets take off he can only look on in horror as a meteor strikes the Earth leading him to believe he is the sole survivor of the human race. 

Of course, that turns out not quite to be the truth. What starts out as Robinson Crusoe quickly becomes The Truman Show as Xing, who has found safe refuge on a nearby space base, realises someone was left behind and plans to livestream their daily life to give hope to the survivors on Earth who are now living a dismal post-apocalyptic existence underground. Recruiting a former live-streaming king, they try to set Yue up as an idealised propaganda hero but, as they are unable to communicate with him, Yue still thinks he’s the last of his kind and his behaviour cannot really be called inspirational seeing as he spends most of his time trying to crack the code to enter Xing’s quarters and having dinner with a mannequin he’s pasted her face on. Meanwhile, he’s also discovered that he’s not quite as alone as he thought but is trapped with a very angry kangaroo left behind by a research team. 

Yue was a lonely man before, but begins to experience true despair while quite literally alone on the moon wondering what the point of his life is especially if, as he assumes, Xing is no longer in this world. He contemplates suicide and then, after hearing radio static and coming to believe there may be someone else out there comes into his own trying to plot his escape by thinking outside of the box and proving himself a talented scientist. Struck again by despair he realises that cure for loneliness is knowing there’s someone there to keep the light on for you to guide you home only to see the Earth light up with a message intended to read “you are not alone” but which accidentally reads “you are no one” reinforcing Yue’s everyman status as a middle of the road guy who shouldered the burden that was handed to him and set out to save the world all while locked outside of it. 

Yue’s accidental heroism begins to soften Xing’s austerity as she gradually falls for this “awkward” man, while he learns to step up to the plate to protect her and the rest of humanity all of which lends hope to those trapped in the bowels of the Earth and encourages them to begin rebuilding even if at great personal cost. Shifting into Armageddon territory, it’s a nobody who finally saves the world in a final act of selfless heroism. Over the past few years, many may have felt as if they were alone on the moon or found themselves trying to parse grief on a mass scale while mourning the world they knew which had been so abruptly taken from them. Yet as the final title card puts it, the universe is vast, “we will meet again” and there will always be a homecoming in one way or another. Boasting excellent production values including some adorable animated sequences, Moon Man is a strangely cathartic experience filled with zany humour but also genuine hope for brighter future on the other side of the darkness. 


Moon Man is in UK cinemas now.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Give Me Five (哥,你好, Zhang Luan, 2022)

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

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

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

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

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


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

International trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, Geng Jun, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Blackfin Production

Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, Derek Kwok, 2021)

Two very different men square off in the race to find a precious Buddha head and reclaim their family honour in an old-fashioned tomb raiding mystery from Derek Kwok, Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, gǔdǒng jú zhōngjú). The key to the future seems to lie in the past as the heroes approach from opposing sides, one keen to expose a truth and the other seemingly to conceal it but both otherwise unable to escape a problematic family history and be rehabilitated as a member of one of the top five antiquing families in the China of 1992. 

Now a middle-aged drunkard, down on his luck Xu Yuan (Lei Jiayin) lays the blame for his present circumstances solely with his immediate forbears. A member of the Plum Blossom Five, five families who are the ultimate authorities on the authenticity of historical artefacts, Xu Yuan’s grandfather was executed as a traitor during the war for having gifted a precious Buddha head to the Japanese. In a fairly traumatic childhood, Yuan was abandoned by his his dad whom he believes to have been too badly damaged by seeing his grandfather die to be any sort of father while somehow even kids his own age called him scum in the streets because of the shame his grandfather’s transgression had placed on the family. Now running an electronics store which is in its way the opposite of antiques, Yuan has a fairly cynical view of the artefacts trade but is dragged back into it when the granddaughter of the Japanese soldier who received the Buddha head (Lili Matsumoto) insists on returning it to a direct descendent of the Xu family. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the issue isn’t really with the Japanese but the current status of the Buddha head which, after a duel of detection with well dressed rival Yao Buran (Li Xian) who is also trying to redeem his family honour, Yuan quickly realises is a fake suggesting his grandfather wasn’t really a traitor after all while giving rise to the question of what actually happened to the “real” one. When it comes to the antiques trade, perhaps there’s a question mark over the degree to which “authenticity”, whatever that might mean, really matters and if all the Plum Blossom Five are really doing is attempting to assert their authority over an unruly market as the accusation that one head of family in particular has long been knowingly authenticating fakes when it suits them to do so bears out. In something of a plot hole, Yuan is revealed to be an antiques expert despite having been abandoned by his father at a young age but his ability is for some problematic even if admired by his main rival in its ability to expose the hidden truth or as the film later puts it the real within the fake. 

In any case, it’s true enough that the battles of the past are still being fought by the grandchildren of those who started what they couldn’t finish. Yuan is joined in his quest by the feisty granddaughter of another Plum Blossom family (Xin Zhilei) who is also battling her grandfather’s sexism in his refusal to trust her with anything important in the antiques trade. She and Yuan end up squaring off against Yao who is largely playing his own game as they embark on a good old-fashioned treasure hunt in which they solve a series of puzzles set down by Yuan’s father to lead them towards the truth.

Discovering another father figure along the way, Yuan learns to accept his complicated legacy while redeeming his family honour and along with it his self worth in outsmarting just about everyone else to solve the final mystery. There is something refreshingly innocent in these well constructed, defiantly analogue puzzles which rely on cultural knowledge and mental acumen along with a spirit of curiosity, while there’s also a fair amount of running away from bad guys and escaping from collapsing tombs filled with artefacts that might in a sense be cursed even if not quite literally. There are definitely a lot of schemes in antiques, something of which Yuan himself takes full advantage, but they’re also in their own way pieces of a puzzle in which the fakes are less red herrings than gentle pointers towards other truths some of them buried under layers of subterfuge and obfuscation only to be dragged into the light by those with dangerously curious minds.


Schemes in Antiques streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou (天工苏作, Sun Zengtian, 2022)

Suzhou was once such a bustling hub of traditional arts that the guild had to institute a quota system forbidding artisans from taking on too many apprentices lest they generate a monopoly. Times are now very different and such businesses often have trouble recruiting young people willing to learn traditional crafts or are even in a sense reluctant to do so knowing that their industry is in decline and those entering it now may never be able to support themselves fully on an artisan’s earnings alone. 

Sun Zengtian’s documentary The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou (天工苏作, tiān gōng sū zuō) is however a little more hopeful than some of its subjects examining the still thriving local culture along with some of the efforts and perhaps compromises of those trying to ensure the traditional arts survive. A lantern maker laments that his industry has become so straitened that his small team often have to work to incredibly tight schedules with little time for rest yet he refuses to compromise on quality and is determined not to damage his hard-won reputation as a master of the art. The demand may be more limited than it might have been in the past but is still very much there as the crowds of visitors at a local festival marvel at the spectacle of light illuminating the darkness through the beautiful lantern designs. In any case, he takes pride in showing his daughter some of his work safely installed in a local museum while giving talks in local schools to ensure the next generation is at least familiar with the art of lantern making.

Meanwhile, another man’s business carving intricate designs into olive stones continues to grow while he takes on pupils to pass on his knowledge. Others meticulously craft traditional furniture and aim to reintroduce an element of serenity through simplicity in an increasingly chaotic modern society. A chair can be whipped up in as little as eight minutes by a skilled carpenter, but the wood requires two years of seasoning and a seasoned craftsman to understand the process. Many believe that only a handmade piece can perfectly match the spirituality of the natural materials rather than the soulless mass produced furniture of a similar design. 

For the carpenters, their craft is almost a ritual and for that reason largely unchangeable save for the use of modern sandpaper in place of the leaves their ancestors may have used with a kind of tenderness to protect the wood. Yet for the craft itself may be less important that the end result such as it is for a local architect who sometimes butts heads with his father trying to explain that things cannot always be done like the old days given modern building and employment regulations. Their problem is that many of the craftsmen are now elderly and few are keen to learn their skills while the veterans often find it difficult to follow the plans constructed by young and inexperienced architects sometimes choosing to disregard them in favour of their well honed professional judgement. Yet the young architect feels compromise is the way to go, building traditionally but with the assistance of modern technology while preserving the aesthetic charm of traditional buildings. 

Others look to the international market drawing inspiration from global fashion trends and making innovations of their own such as an embroidery master who has patented her own style and firmly believes her craft to be an art rather than a simple means to support oneself as it had been for her mother and grandmother. She worries about taking on apprentices knowing that there is little scope for them to earn a decent living through handmade embroidery, but there is a poignant moment as she discusses options with a young woman wanting to learn as she sews the needle and the potential apprentice pulls it through. Meanwhile, a pair of female visitors from overseas ask how they might be able to learn traditional weaving. The woman running the store just laughs while the narrator explains that it’s easy to learn but difficult to master and many give up halfway. She is trying to modernise by building an online platform for practitioners in her field but finds it difficult to get the older artists on board. In any case, it seems that the traditional arts are very much alive in Suzhou, not fossilised or stuck in the past but constantly evolving as they fight for their survival along with the pleasures of a simpler existence in a fast moving culture. 


The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Back to Love (带你去见我妈, Lan Hongchun, 2021)

Change comes slow to rural China in Lan Hongchun’s lighthearted drama, Back to Love (带你去见我妈, dài nǐ qù jiàn wǒ mā). Shot largely in the local Chaozhou dialect, the film explores the increasing distance between the kids who left for the city and their small-town parents whose views are often more conservative especially given the fluctuating local hierarchies which are often defined by successful marriages of the children. True love may be hard-won in a sometimes judgemental society but it is in the end the older generation who will have to make a shift if it’s really their children’s happiness that they care about most. 

Xian (Zhong Shaoxian) runs a backstreet butcher shop in a small rural town and lives with her retired husband, who is also a performer of traditional opera, her elderly mother, and her youngest son. Engaged in a sort of competition with another local old lady, Xian is forever trying to organise blind dates for her older son who works in a warehouse in the city. Unbeknownst to her, Zekai (Zheng Runqi) already has a girlfriend, Shan (Lu Shan), and the pair have been living together for some time. Though his uncle who works with him already knows about the relationship, Zekai has been reluctant to tell his family back home because not only is Shan not from their local area but has also been married once before which he knows will not play well in his hometown where divorce and remarriage are still taboo subjects. As his uncle advises him, his diffidence is unfair to Shan who deserves a little more commitment along with the possibility of starting a family before the chance passes her by. 

Having thought it over, Zekai proposes and talks about becoming a father while suggesting they visit his family en route to her hometown for a wedding but still hasn’t explained to his parents about Shan’s marital status. Their immediate problem with her, however, is simply that she isn’t from the Shantou area and does not understand their local dialect while, living as they do in a fairly isolated community, they do not understand standard Mandarin. Xian and the grandmother who is otherwise more accepting of the situation continue to refer to Shan as “the non-local” while she does her best to pitch in, learning little bits of dialect and helping out as much as she can with the family’s ancestral rites while getting on well with Zekai’s already married sister. 

Gradually Xian warms to her, but the divorce may still be a dealbreaker given Xian’s preoccupation with her status in the local community reflecting that the family would become a laughing stock if people find out their already old to be unmarried son stooped to marrying a divorcee. Most people don’t mean any harm, but there are also a lot of accidentally hurtful comments about a wedding being a once in a lifetime affair and that a woman should stick by the man she married no matter what else might happen. But then it’s also true that Zekai has been keeping secret from his mother and she can’t help but feel deceived. If he’d told her earlier, she might have just got over it after getting to know Shan personally. At the end of the day, perhaps it’s Zekai’s own internalised anxiety that’s standing in the way of his romantic happiness rather than the outdated social codes of small-town life.  

As Zekai points out, he’s always done what his mother told him to. He wanted to study fine art and she convinced him to switch to general sciences but in the long run it hasn’t made a lot of difference to his life and he might have been happier doing what he wanted. The couple could of course choose to just ignore Xian’s resentment and continue to hope she’ll change her mind in the future, but then Shan is also carrying some baggage in internalised shame over her failed marriage. She didn’t think she’d marry again not because of the bad experience but because of the stigma surrounding divorce, fearing she’d never have the opportunity. In any case, it’s Xian who finally has to reconsider her actions, accepting that she may have unfairly projected some of her own feelings of disappointment onto her son while accidentally denying him the possibility of happiness solely for her own selfish reasons in fearing a change in her status in the community. Filled with local character, Lan’s gentle drama doesn’t necessarily come down on either side but advocates for compromise while clear that the youngsters should be free to find their own path to love with nothing but gentle support from all those who love them. 


Back to Love streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, Xue Xiaolu, 2021)

Another in the recent line of “Main Melody” features celebrating ordinary heroism during the extraordinary period of the pandemic, Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, chuānguò hándōng yōngbào nǐ) is dedicated to the volunteers who risked their own safety to support frontline workers in the early days of the Wuhan lockdown. Though sometimes bittersweet, the film is noticeably lighter in tone and somewhat rosy in comparison to other similarly themed dramas such as Ode to the Spring but it is in its own way prepared to concede that the initial response was not handled perfectly and that fear, chaos and panic were the defining features of New Year 2020 even if it does so to throw the heroism of those who stepped up to help in stark relief. 

Like other pandemic films, Embrace Again is comprised of a series of interlocking stories connected by the volunteer effort helmed by A-Yong (Huang Bo) who has something of a hero complex and is caught in a mini war with his feisty wife who is quite understandably upset with him seeing as he’s left her all alone with their son during these difficult times while he runs around helping other people having decided to stay elsewhere so as not to expose them to further risk of disease. As he ferries people around, it becomes clear that there were not so many people like him in the beginning with most preferring to keep to themselves out of fear leaving the medical staff who were risking their own lives to protect those suffering from the virus with nowhere to turn for support.

A-Yong’s heroism is contrasted with the indifference of wealthy businessman Li (Gao Yalin) who rudely tells him where to go when A-Yong rings up trying to organise food donations for hospitals. Li is at odds with his wife (Xu Fan) whose successful tourist business has been all but destroyed by the virus, unable to understand her decision to keep her staff on payroll with full salaries and resentful of her insistence on calling in a longstanding loan from an old friend of his. Yet like so many his attitude is gradually changed by witnessing responses to the pandemic, allowing him to regain his social conscience becoming a volunteer himself and agreeing to donate a significant proportion of his stock to frontline workers while rediscovering his love for his wife who started her own business not for the money but for her dignity after being called a “stupid housewife” by their daughter now soon to be a mother herself and trapped overseas in New Zealand by the lockdown. 

Nicknamed Brother Wu (Jia Ling) because of her forthright character and robust frame, a female delivery driver associate of A-yong’s experiences something similar as she firstly befriends a cheerful young nurse, Xiaoxiao (Zhou Dongyu), working at the hospital and engages in a tentative romance with a sensitive divorcee, Mr. Ye (Zhu Yilong), she picks up prescriptions for. In a pleasantly progressive plot strand, Wu is forever telling people she’s trying to lose weight but both Xiaoxiao and Mr. Ye make a point of telling her that she’s fine as she is and has no need to. When Xiaoxiao gifts her lipstick, it’s not a suggestion that she is unfeminine but the reverse allowing her a means to reclaim her femininity for herself and believe that she is both beautiful and desirable exactly as she is. 

Similarly, an elderly woman (Wu Yanshu) living with her widowed son-in-law and grandson is given permission to begin moving on with her life when when she’s called out of retirement to return to the hospital as a midwife. While telling her son-in-law that he shouldn’t feel guilty about seeking new happiness, she too finds love with a Cantonese chef (Hui Shiu-hung) who ends up becoming a volunteer solely so he can deliver her lovingly prepared meals direct to the hospital. Each of these tales are essentially about people finding love in unexpected places while rediscovering their ties to the community, setting greed and self-interest to one side as they risk their own safety to preserve that of others. Wuhan is cut off from the rest of the world, but receives support in the form of external supplies celebrated by A-Yong and the small core of volunteers pitching in to keep the city running. Ending on a bittersweet note acknowledging a sense of loss but also that of a new beginning, the film closes with touching scenes of community in action before giving way to the now familiar stock footage of the real volunteers celebrating Wuhan’s reopening with a sense of joy and relief that might in retrospect seem premature but is also a perfect encapsulation of the view from April 2020.


Embrace Again screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, Sun Haipeng, 2021)

A diffident young man learns to unleash the lion inside while battling the fierce inequality of the modern China in Sun Haipeng’s heartfelt family animation, I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, xióngshī shàonián). With its beautifully animated opening and closing sequences inspired by classic ink painting and the enormously detailed, painterly backgrounds, the film is at once a celebration of tradition and advocation for seizing the moment, continuing to believe that miracles really are possible even for ordinary people no matter how hopeless it may seem. 

The hero, Gyun (Li Xin), is a left behind child cared for by his elderly grandfather and it seems regarded as a good for nothing by most of the local community. Relentlessly bullied by a well built neighbour who is also a talented lion dancer, Gyun finds it impossible to stand up for himself but is given fresh hope by a young woman who makes a dramatic entrance into the village’s lion dance competition and later gifts him her lion head telling him to listen to the roar in his heart. 

The young woman is presented as an almost spiritual figure embodying the lion dance itself, yet later reveals that her family were against her practicing the traditional art because she is female exposing the persistent sexism at the heart of the contemporary society. Gyun’s heart is indeed roaring, desperately missing his parents who were forced to travel to the city to find work while leaving him behind in the country hoping to earn enough for his college education. Part of the reason he wants to master the art of the lion dance is so that he can travel to the city where his parents can see him compete, while privately like his friends Kat and Doggie he may despair for his lack of options stuck in his small hometown. 

But even in small towns there are masters of art as the boys discover when directed to a small dried fish store in search of a once famous lion dancer. Perhaps the guy selling grain at the market is a master poet, or the local fisherman a talented calligrapher, genius often lies in unexpected places. Now 45, Qiang (Li Meng) is a henpecked husband who seems to have had the life-force knocked out of him after being forced to give up lion dancing in order to earn money to support his family, but as the film is keen to point out it’s never really too late to chase a dream. After agreeing to coach the boys, Qiang begins to reclaim his sense of confidence and possibility with even his wife reflecting that she’s sorry she made him give up a part of himself all those years ago. 

Then again, Gyun faces a series of setbacks not least when he’s forced to travel to the city himself in search of work to support his family taking his lion mask with him but only as an awkward burden reminding him of all he’s sacrificing. Taking every job that comes, he lives in a series of squalid dorms and gradually begins to lose the sense of hope the lion mask granted him under the crushing impossibility of a life of casual labour.  The final pole on the lion dance course is there, according to the judges, to remind contestants that there are miracles which cannot be achieved and that there will always be an unreachable peak that is simply beyond them. But as Gyun discovers sometimes miracles really do happen though only when it stops being a competition and becomes more of a collective liberation born of mutual support. 

In the end, Gyun can’t exactly overcome the vagaries of the contemporary society, still stuck in a crushing cycle of poverty marked by poor living conditions and exploitative employment, but he has at least learned to listen to himself roar while reconnecting with his family and forming new ones with friends and fellow lion dancers. While most Chinese animation has drawn inspiration from classic tales and legends, I Am What I Am roots itself firmly in the present day yet with its beautifully drawn backgrounds of verdant red forests lends itself a mythic quality while simultaneously insisting that even in the “real” world miracles can happen even for lowly village boys like Gyun when they take charge of their destiny not only standing up for themselves but for others too.


I Am What I Am screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as the opening movie of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 15.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Virgin Blue (不要再見啊,魚花塘, Niu Xiaoyu, 2021)

A young woman becomes lost in a confusingly timeless world of fractured memory in Niu Xiaoyu’s ethereal drama, Virgin Blue (不要再見啊,魚花塘, bùyào zàijiàn ā, yúhuā táng). As realities continue to shift and blur, we begin to wonder if two women are really one as seen through the memories of another and what we are experiencing is the confusion of dementia or perhaps a dying dream in which the heroine tries to put the pieces of her memory back in the right place only to end up at a mythical lake populated by those no longer able to live in the “real” world. 

Nominally Yezi (Ye Zi) is a recently graduated student returned home to stay with the widowed grandmother (Shengzhi Zheng) who raised her after her parents divorce over the summer, yet we often see her taking her grandmother’s place, finishing her knitting, while alternately rebelling against childhood’s end in insisting that she doesn’t want to grow up, has no interest in a relationship, and most of all wants her grandmother to go on knitting sweaters for her. At a hospital appointment, the pregnant nurse who in someways at least stands in for her own mother simultaneously her criticises for being unattached at such a “late” age and cites her celibacy as a possible explanation for her youthful appearance. 

We see that Yezi walks with a limp, she is diagnosed with hypoplasia at the hospital appointment, and that grandma has bad knees which she is later treated for by a buddhist nun in a dream. It’s grandma who keeps fearing that she’s forgetting but Yezi who isn’t clear with her, first of all telling her that grandpa died in 2020 (which is the current year) and then that it’s only 2013. Grandma claims that she always feels out of place, as if she were in someone else’s home and never her own which might in a sense be true. At times, the meta voice of the director can be heard off camera sharing stories of her own such as a traumatic dream in which her grandparents came to rescue her after youthful heartbreak but her grandmother got stabbed by a mystery attacker on the way home leaving her feeling that if only she were stronger and more independent, she would not have needed rescuing and grandma would be alive. Could the director be the “real” Yezi and her film counterpart a search for self in the memories of her grandparents? Perhaps so, as the image of her parents seems to drift into the scene along with potential friends and suitors who may or may not be figments of her imagination.

Even so her eventual destination is a surreal fantasyland peopled by a runaway princess who escaped from the real world after a failed elopement, a man who might once have been a kidnapped boy dressed in a bear suit, and a series of tiny dancers who perform elaborate dance routines for classic Chinese pop songs. The princess, Jingjing, and the bear describe themselves as monsters, marginalised to the lake, while monstrous is also how grandma describes the vision of herself as a dementia sufferer worried that even Yezi would reject her. The pregnant nurse and her colleague discuss the new trend for caesarean births, the colleague advising her to see a fortune teller and choose a good day in order to ensure that the child will not bring bad luck on its parents. 

Through it all, Yezi has visions of herself as a child with her late grandfather as if looking for childhood safety and comfort while trying to reorient herself as an adult. The fantasy world with its larger than life, childlike designs and nostalgic tunes is somewhere between fairytale safety and a kind of limbo from which Yezi is either eventually released or fully condemned as she looks back us, breaking the fourth wall to shake her head as if in warning. Infinitely strange yet also charming even in its confusions, Virgin Blue has a kind of melancholy warmth as Yezi tries to reintegrate this fragmenting world while processing her grief perhaps even for her self along with interrogating her past before ending on a note of joyful celebration as the monsters of Yuhua pond dance in the daylight to an unexpected rendition of Jun Togawa’s 1988 hit Daitenshi no you ni (Like an Angel).


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

Trailer (dialogue free)

Jun Togawa – Daitenshi no you ni (Like an Angel)

Images © Yu Tang Films (Anhui)

Reclaim (一家之主, CJ Wang, 2022)

An ordinary middle-aged woman begins to wonder what it’s all been for when dealing with her insensitive, authoritarian husband, distant children, and the sacrifices she continually made to make others happy in CJ Wang’s touching family drama, Reclaim (一家之主, yījiāzhīzhǔ). The Chinese title, master of the house, is in its way ironic in the various ways in which Lan-xin (Nina Paw Hee-ching) is expected to shoulder all of the domestic responsibility with none of the control, though she is indeed attempting to reclaim something of herself as a woman and an individual as distinct from being someone’s, wife, mother, friend, or teacher. 

Lan-xin wanted to study art in Paris, but she got married young and started family and ever since then has led a conventional life doing what she thought to be right thing. Now, however, with her husband David (Kou Hsi-Shun) recently retired and both her children grown up she’s wondering a little what it’s all been for especially as David is a chauvinistic throwback who belittles her work as an art teacher while harping on about ways to make money patiently waiting for his collection of antique teapots to rise in value. Now that her mother’s dementia has intensified and she keeps escaping from her nursing home, Lan-xin wants to bring her to live with them but David is both dismissive and disinterested talking about it in the same way one would to a child who wants to get a dog asking if they really have the space and making it clear that looking after her will be Lan-xin’s responsibility. 

While David holds on to a substantial cheque with the intention of investing it in a series of harebrained schemes from luxury tombs to VR cafes, Lan-xin’s desire is essentially to try and repair her fracturing family by buying a larger apartment where they could all live together. David complains that no one tells him anything, but that’s largely because he’s continually dismissive of their dreams and aspirations blowing a hole in his daughter’s new project designing eco-friendly homes that prioritise individual comfort by telling her that she should just extend the living area into the balcony to trick people into thinking they’re getting more for their money. Jia-ning (Ko Chia-yen) in particular is feeling lost in her life unsure of what role it is she’s supposed to be playing while clearly disillusioned with the nature of the relationship between her parents in which her mother is expected to sacrifice her desires in service of her father’s. It’s clear that neither of the children want the kind of futures their parents envisaged for them, their professor son also preparing to return from the US to live a simple life in the Taiwanese countryside. 

Both of the children, however, take their mother for granted and often treat her poorly. The son orders her to book his plane tickets for him and abruptly hangs up after asking her to clean his room and make his favourite food, while Jia-ning also snaps at her expecting her to handle domestic tasks and locate missing items. Lan-xin forms a quasi-maternal relationship with a former student who has returned from America (Mason Lee) and now works in finance but is faced with the implosion of all her hopes firstly in her daughter’s more immediate needs to claim independence in her working life while avoiding the same compromises she was forced to make, and then by the illusionary nature of her home owning dream buying one home for fragmenting family rather than enduring her dissatisfying living arrangements while investing in separate homes for each of her children. 

There may be a degree of personal myth making in her meditating on the lost opportunity of a Parisian education as implied in an imaginary conversation with her mother, though as her miniature-making hobby implies perhaps she played the role she wanted to play but lost sight of herself somewhere along the way. A voyage into her own memory reunites her with her essential self and allows her to reclaim her name no longer willing to be subservient to her husband’s desires but prioritising her own. As in her dream, all her sacrifices will eventually be repaid while Jia-ning too comes to a better understanding of her mother and grandmother along with her own place in a changing society. Lan-xin is finally a master of herself no longer afraid to take up space in her own home and in full control of her own aspirations and desires. 


Reclaim screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 Rong Gwan Productions ALL RIGHTS RESERVED