Kaili Blues (路边野餐, Bi Gan, 2015)

Kaili blues poster 5“There is bound to be one who will return, to fill an empty bamboo basket with love.” intones the lonely poet at the centre of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (路边野餐, Lùbiān Yěcān) part way through his strange odyssey through the tiny yet infinite village of Dangmai, a place either out of time or entirely made of it. Longing, regret, the temporal impossibilities of memory, injustice, disappointment – a lifetime’s unresolved emotional trauma works its way into a dreamlike exploration of the past as a work in progress, half built but already obsolete. Time is just memory mixed with desire, in the words of another poet, and contrary to conventional wisdom, perhaps it does not flow ceaselessly in only one direction.

Our hero is Chen (Chen Yongzhong) – a middle aged doctor and published poet who once served time prison and inherited the money to start his clinic from his mother who passed away while he was inside. His major preoccupation in life is his young nephew – the son of his half-brother, the aptly named Crazy Face (Xie Lixun). Crazy Face is, to put it mildly, not a reliable father and often locks his son, Weiwei (Luo Feiyang), in their apartment while he wastes his life drinking and gambling. Chen has taken it upon himself to ensure the boy is well looked after – taking him on days out to the amusement park, buying him nutritious dinners, and just generally keeping him company. Chen is even prepared to adopt the boy, but Crazy Face is resentful and vindictive, irritated their mother left the family home to Chen and not to him. Eventually, Crazy Face “sells” Weiwei to an old man in another town, Zhenyuan, and Chen decides to try and fetch him back while delivering a long overdue message from his assistant to a man she once knew there before the cultural revolution who is now gravely ill.

Chen himself was once abandoned in Zhenyuan, by the mother who now haunts his dreams with the sound of lusheng pipes and memories of the Miao people who are now themselves rapidly disappearing. All Chen can see of her in his dreams is her shoes with their floral embroidery, distorted by their journey in the water. His assistant urges him to burn some paper money for her that she can use in the afterlife but to do it when no one’s looking – such ancient superstitions, like the lusheng pipes, are not to be seen or heard in the new “modern” China. Even Chen’s clinic is due to be pulled down, rendering the animosity between himself and his unhinged brother all the more pointless.

Looking for the lonely boy, who is also in a way himself, Chen chases ghosts of future and past. His passage to find the famed lusheng players and the last remnants of the Miao is precipitated by an act of fate – a young man’s attempts to kick start his motorbike to give his “girlfriend” (he seems to think that what she is, she may feel differently) Yangyang (Guo Yue) a lift fails miserably and she gets one from someone else, enabling Chen to climb on. Later we learn the young man’s name is Weiwei, and his mission is that he wants to make time run backwards because Yangyang is leaving to go to Kaili to work as a “tour guide” (it remains unclear who needs a tour in Kaili) and says she will only return if he can “turn back time”. Whether this Weiwei is somehow the teenage version of the boy Chen was looking for or not, he shares his obsession with imagined time, scrawling fake clocks on trains so that time really will be running backwards as one train passes another as if travelling into the past.

If the future can yield its ghosts then the past can too. A young hairdresser is the spitting image of Chen’s late wife who, according to a story he tells her disguised as that of a friend, he discovered had died while he was is in prison but had written him several letters in advance to hide the truth. Chen’s strange life, his time “on the streets” and accidental involvement with a stoic loanshark who accepted the death of his son at the hands of an enemy but demanded vengeance for his severed hand, might as well have been a dream for its all meandering disappointments. The gangster is now a horologist, as luck would have it. Even dreams have their logic. Only on arrival at his secondary destination does it all come together, the dream world and the real somehow merging and becoming whole once again. The past is a call that can’t be answered, but must be heard all the same.


International trailer (English subtitles)

End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Zhou Quan, 2017)

The End of Summer posterMany things were changing in late ‘90s China. For one little boy in the summer of 1998, however, nothing much mattered beyond the World Cup which was being broadcast in its entirety for the very first time. Part nostalgia fest for a more innocent world, Zhou Quan’s End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Xī Xiǎo de Xiàtiān) is, as the title implies, a story of befores as its various protagonists attempt to resolve a series of personal crises that will lead to great changes preceding the autumn of 1998.

Football obsessed little boy Xiaoyang (Rong Zishan) has to keep his love a secret because his dad, Jianhua (Zhang Songwen), thinks all sports are frivolous and has forbidden his son to play with the other children. Jianhua is also a high ranking teacher at Xiaoyang’s school and demands high levels of discipline and commitment from his family, even forcing Xiaoyang to dob one of his friends in under heavy questioning about a playground fight. Bored and lonely at home, Xiaoyang has begun to bond with an older man at their courtyard who also loves football and has promised to help Xiaoyang train for the upcoming school tryouts next term if only he can persuade his dad to sign the consent form.

Meanwhile, there’s trouble brewing on the home front. Xiaoyang’s mother Huifang (Tan Zhuo) is a successful Peking Opera performer whose career is skyrocketing now that she’s been nominated for a prestigious award. Jianhua has also been earmarked for a promotion at work and is covering for a sick colleague, but the arrival of a new teacher threatens to dangerously unbalance the carefully won equilibrium of the Gu family.

Miss Shen (Dong Qing) is indeed a harbinger of social change. The polar opposite of Huifang, Miss Shen is a hippyish free spirit who plays the guitar and sings folk songs in a local cafe with her boyfriend. She teaches the children English through singing songs and playing games, always cheerful and energetic with an adorable smile and easy going personality. Xiaoyang proves himself unusually astute for his years when he misinterprets an innocent scene between Miss Shen and his father, correctly guessing that Jianhua has developed a mild crush on the lovely young woman though perhaps not realising that Miss Shen is merely naive and entirely oblivious to her boss’ ulterior motives.

The camera first catches Xiaoyang caught between two football teams, standing motionless and staring vacantly ahead. He remains caught between two worlds while prompted a little early towards the compromises of adulthood as he experiences the moral outrage of realising his rigid, authoritarian father maybe breaking all the rules of conventional morality by stepping out on his mum. A victim of China’s one child policy, he is often intensely lonely, left alone at home with nothing to do but study while his mother is out rehearsing and his dad increasingly staying out late to offer “guidance” to Miss Shen.

Xiaoyang’s loneliness finds a mirror in the grumpy old man from across the way, Zheng (Ku Pao-Ming), who appears to have fallen out with his family and is missing his own absent grandson, Bao. Zheng picks up the fatherly responsibilities Jianhua has failed to fulfil – supporting Xiaoyang in his football dreams, giving him little bits of life advice, listening intently to his worries regarding his parents’ marital problems without trying to sugarcoat the seriousness of the issues or making a pretence of humouring a perspicuous little boy as they turn detective and catch Jianhua in the act but just miss out on his humiliating defeat and the epiphany which accompanies it as he is forced to confront the fact that he has become a sad old man. Jianhua’s major problems stem from an intense lack of self confidence as his growing son begins to reject his rigid authority and his wife’s increasing success punches a hole through his male pride. Temporarily boosted by the possibility of a promotion, he decides to try rebelling by chasing a younger woman who is very much not his type, little knowing that she sees him only as a venerable teacher and is shocked by his improper interest in her.

Meanwhile change is on the horizon everywhere. The courtyard is earmarked for “redevelopment”, and Mr. Zheng’s family are constantly trying to convince him to come and live with them in the city. By the end of the summer everything will have changed, some things for the better and some perhaps not but there will at least be a shift as each is forced into a reconsideration of their present circumstances. End of Summer is gentler than its title would suggest, a wistful look back one dramatic summer in the childhood of a sensitive little boy, but what it lacks in impact it makes up for with sincerity and a good deal of warmth.


End of Summer was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Zhou Quan from the 2017 Busan Film Festival.

Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Summer Palace (颐和园, Lou Ye, 2006)

Summer palace posterThe personal is political for Lou Ye. Much as he had in Purple Butterfly, Lou paints love as a spiritual impossibility crushed under the weight of political oppression, though this time he leaves his protagonists breathing but wounded. Summer Palace (颐和园, Yíhé Yuán) is a member of a not exactly exclusive club of films deemed too controversial for the Chinese censors’ board. In truth, there are a number of reasons Lou’s wilfully provocative film might have upset the government, but chief among them is that he breaks a contemporary cinematic taboo in setting the Tiananmen Square massacre as the political singularity which causes the implosion of our protagonists’ youth, rendering them stunned, arrested, and empty. Personal and national revolutions fail, leaving nothing in their wake other than existential ennui and an inability to reconcile oneself to life’s disappointments.

In the late ‘80s, Yu Hong (Hao Lei) gets a scholarship to study in Beijing and prepares to leave her home in a small rural town near the North Korean border for the promise of big city life. Yu Hong craves sensation, she wants to live life intensely and the inability to connect on a true, existential level leaves her feeling progressively empty and confused. A chance meeting with another girl in her dorm, Li Ti (Hu Lingling), brings her into contact with Zhou Wei (Guo Xiaodong) – a brooding intellectual and latterly the love of Yu Hong’s life, though one she becomes too afraid to embrace.

Yu Hong’s personal revolution, her quest for spiritual fulfilment largely through physical contact, occurs in tune with the chaos of her times. This is Beijing in 1988. The air is tense, anxious, as if hurtling towards an unavoidable climax. Yu Hong is not particularly political. She sees the protests, perhaps she agrees with them, but when she boards a pick up truck full of students waving banners and singing songs she does so more out of excitement and curiosity than she does out of commitment to political reform. Her tempestuous love affair with Zhou Wei mirrors the course of her city’s descent into chaos. Everything goes wrong, her heart is broken, something has been damaged beyond repair. Tiananmen Square, referenced only obliquely, serves as the event which traps an entire generation shell shocked by the brutal obliteration of their youthful hopes for a better world, leaving them imprisoned in a kind of limbo which prevents the natural progression from the innocence of youth to seasoned adulthood. They want the world to be better than it is but had the belief that it ever could be so brutally ripped away from them, that they are left with nothing more than a barren existence in which they cannot bear to touch the things they desire because they cannot believe in anything other than their own suffering.

Yu Hong’s early college days, marked as they are by rising anxiety, are also jubilant and filled with possibility. She dances innocently, nervously in a disco with Zhou Wei while a cheerfully wholesome piece of ‘50s American pop plays in the background – it’s this image Lou returns to at the end of the film. Something beautiful and innocent has been destroyed by an act of political violence, ruining the hearts of two soulmates who are now forever divided and bound by this one destructive incident. Yu Hong drops out of university and goes back to the country, bouncing around small town China occasionally thinking of Zhou Wei as an idealised figure of the love she has sacrificed, while Zhou Wei goes to Berlin and occasionally thinks about Yu Hong and missed opportunities. When they meet again years later it’s not an act of fate, or faith, or love but a prosaic interaction that leaves them both wondering “what now?”. There’s no answer for them, the future after all no longer exists.

As in Purple Butterfly, Lou makes history the enemy of love. Yu Hong didn’t ask for Tiananmen Square, she wasn’t even one of its major participants simply a mildly interested bystander, but she paid for it all the same in the way that history just happens to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The youthful impulsivity, the naivety and craving for new sensations and expressions of personal freedom are eventually crushed by an authoritarian state, frightened by the pure hearted desire of the young to take an active role in the direction of their destinies. The quest for love and freedom has produced only loss and listlessness as a cowed generation lives on in wilful emptiness, their only rebellion a rejection of life.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 10th September 2018.

Short scene from the film featuring “Don’t Break My Heart” by Heibao (Black Panther) which is also referenced in the poster’s tagline.

Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Tsui Hark, 2018)

Detective Dee four heavenlu kings posterMaybe we could use a Detective Dee or two in this bold new age of fake news and powerful ideologies. Tsui Hark at least finds another case for the famed Tang Dynasty detective though this time one which sees him at the centre of a conspiracy, a bug in the system which must be squashed in order to pave the way for someone else’s revolution. The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Rénjié zhī Sìtiānwáng) of the title (no, sadly Andy Lau has not returned with a few of his friends in tow) refers to the four Buddhist deities which ought to tip us off to the kind of story this is as personal desires, of one sort or another, threaten to destabilise a state.

At the end of the previous film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, Dee (Mark Chao) was “rewarded” with a place in the inspectorate and guardianship of the Dragon Taming Mace. However, scheming consort Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is not particularly happy about her husband’s grand gesture and still has her doubts about Dee. Claiming that she fears such a powerful weapon/symbol being in the hands of someone who may betray the crown, Wu instructs Dee’s Sworn Brother and head of the Justice department Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) to retrieve the Mace at any cost. Yuchi is reassured that Dee is not in danger and so agrees to work alongside Wu’s handpicked troop of “magical” crooks (who have actually been hired to take care of Dee to stop him messing up Wu’s grand plan). Needless to say all is not as it seems and Wu has fallen under the influence of nefarious forces who are merely using her lust for power as a convenient mechanism for facilitating their own agenda of revenge for a past era’s betrayal and oppression.

Dee’s methods are, more or less, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, granting him almost supernatural powers of foresight and observation though this time he is not occupied with one specific case so much as solving the mystery of the hidden insurrection within the Tang. The Mace may seem like a MacGuffin but its power is real and eventually holds the key to defeating the forces of chaos which threaten to bring down the state. Wu’s quartet of “Taoist” magical mercenaries are quickly exposed as expert wielders of tricks and trinkets rather than supernaturally charged avengers, but the state can’t help being captivated by the “magic” which finally puts paid to their ambition and is rocked by the power of the false images which continue to assault their senses.

Tellingly the big bad here is a foreign cult which makes extensive use of “hypnosis”, strange potions, and smokescreens in order to create the illusion of magic. Illusion, however, is as good as or perhaps better than the truth when it comes to political manipulation. The cult’s powers apparently aided the creation of the Tang state but once they were no longer needed, they found themselves cast out, tortured, and humiliated. Unsurprisingly they want their revenge and will settle for nothing less than the humiliating fall of the nation they helped to build.

Good old fashioned deduction and rationality are useless in the battle to free infected minds from the hypnotic power of fake news perfectly tailored to embrace one’s darker instincts. Wu, secretly or otherwise, lusts for power of her own and was easily manipulated by the promise of support in her campaign to seize the throne. Meanwhile, the leader of the Wind Warriors is infected with an intense desire for violence and killing to ease his deep seated rage over the misuse of his people. The answer is, of course, Buddhism. Life is too beautiful to be marred by hate while the act of forgiveness is the ultimate show of strength. Nevertheless, Tsui abandons Dee’s cool, analytical approach for a strangely spiritual final battle in which the fake news machines wielded by the Wind Warriors are pitted against the intense calm of a finely tuned mind (and the slightly moodier one of a giant white gorilla). Hell is full of suffering, Dee reminds the monk, enlightenment will have to wait. Perhaps “enlightenment” is merely another selfish desire won at the expense of blocking out the calls for help from those in need.

The Dragon Taming Mace is the ultimate symbol of justice, literally able to cut through the spell of illusion to expose the truth below. Wu had reason to fear it, even if she was not in the position to understand why. Dee is indeed a worthy guardian and unsullied soul, committed to the pursuit of compassionate justice wherever he goes even if he does so as a representative of the authority. Wu may have regained her senses, but that doesn’t mean she’s cured of the underlying causes of her possession as the large statue of Guan Yin which looks mysteriously like her seems to prove. Dee may have another mystery on his hands, but in any case his work is far from done in a land of intrigue and duplicity in which justice hangs by a slippery thread.


Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Find out where it’s playing near you via the official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Wu Hao, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

People's Republic of Desire PosterCan you outsource a dream? According to Wu Hao’s People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Yùwàng gòngguó), many in modern China have resigned themselves to doing just that. Feeling lonely, disconnected, hopeless, they turn to people just like them who’ve been luckier and have not yet decided to give up the fight. Video streaming service YY acts like the future’s version of pirate radio, lining up a selection “personalities” male and female offering pretty much anything from stand up comedy and political diatribes to off key singing and a window into someone else’s every day life from breakfast to dinner. Of course, it all comes at a price – one which YY gleefully takes a 60% cut of, but there are hidden costs too – to a society, to the deluded fans, and even to the aspiring stars themselves forced into various debasing acts in the knowledge that their time in the spotlight will soon come to an end.

Wu follows two very different YY stars – 21-year-old former nurse Shen Man, and Big Li – a former migrant worker whose rough voice and man’s man attitudes have endeared him to a host of other “diaosi” fans. “Diaosi”, once an unpleasant slur meaning “loser” and most often applied to those stuck in the lower orders of China’s rapidly increasing social equality gap, has been reclaimed by those who self identify with its sense of ironic hopelessness. As Shen Man explains, YY works as a kind of pyramid system in which millions of dreaming diaosi throw money they don’t really have at online stars in the hope of connection while Tuhao – the nouveau riche looking for new ways to splash the cash, act as patrons deciding the direction of the service.

What many diaosi forget to factor in is that in reality the entire service is run by agents and promoters who push their various stars to steal “votes” from their online fans. YY is not a public service platform, but a vast money making machine which sucks in cash from every conceivable angle. As cynical patron Songge points out, those seeking fame on YY cannot expect to make any money. In order to win the site’s popularity contest, they need to get an agent and their agent will need to spend a vast amount of money to promote them which the star will then need to make back.

Shen Man, on one level naive, is perfectly aware of the way the system works. She knows she needs to keep her fans happy or they’ll leave. Like Big Li she’s a poor girl made good, a figure her female fans can look up to as someone just like them that’s been able to escape the world of diaosi drudgery. Her male fans, by contrast, are probably looking for something different. Some of them like the idea of her ordinariness, that she comes from the same place they do and is therefore attainable while also being unattainable thanks to her quickly acquired wealth which allows her to live the life of a modern princess. There is however a cost. In order to hook more fans the youthful 21-year-old has already spent a lot of money on extensive plastic surgery (perhaps veering dangerously close to destroying her “natural charm” selling point), and is expected to play nice with her sometimes insulting clientele. One patron, chatting idly on the phone, tries to throw money at her in return for sex whilst simultaneously insisting that she’s not like the other YY girls who will do anything for money. Shen Man points out that she has money already and is not that sort of girl while her patron continues along the same line of argument insisting that all you need to do get a girl is flash the cash.

Big Li, by contrast, is much less cynical. He recognises that he’s become a kind of leader for his diaosi brothers and is eager not to let his fans down. Married to YY talent manager Dabao and with a young son to take care of, Big Li is originally grateful for his rock star life, but the pressure begins to get to him and he longs for the simple days of the village filled with the warmth of family and friends rather than the lonely false connection of YY’s race to fame mentality. Big Li genuinely cares, but this is his downfall. He wants the freedom that YY promises and refuses to play the game, but the game continues to play him.

Adoration quickly to hate. Shen Man finds herself out in the cold when she is publicly slut shamed, accused of taking money from fans in return for sexual favours, earning the nickname of “300 Man” as a woman who can be brought so cheaply she has no value at all. The constant double standard – that she must be beautiful and desirable, yet pure and chaste, has something to say about the nature of China’s conservative social values even in a modernising age. Once your reputation has gone it cannot be rebuilt and even the loyalist fans will find themselves moving on. Big Li might not have to put up with the same kind of pressures as Shen Man, but is personally hurt when fans call him “scammer” because of his constant failures to take home the big prize.

So what of the fans themselves? There are those who’ve made vast amounts money thanks to China’s rapidly modernising economy and don’t know what to do with it other than show off by giving it away. They too are trying to buy connection through becoming patrons, “owning” someone less fortunate and taking pleasure in dictating their lives. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the scale, the diaosi have all but given up on their own dreams and so “enjoy” investing money to “support” the dreams of those just like them out of a sense of frustrated solidarity.

The picture Wu paints of modern China is one of a world spiralling out of control in which intense loneliness and alienation have corrupted the nature of social connection. Money rules all. Wealth is all that matters and in the crowded online world, if you want to be noticed you’ll have to pay. Interactions are bought and paid for with petty, entirely virtual trinkets, while in the offline world all there is is work and sleep and cheap fast food. Only the platform is the winner, as one unlucky hopeful puts it. The sad truth is that everyone knows it’s a losing game and has resigned themselves to conceding defeat in a society already leaving them behind.


People’s Republic of Desire was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)