White Snake (白蛇:缘起, Zhao Ji & Amp Wong, 2019)

White Snake posterOne of the best known classical Chinese folktales, Madame White Snake has already inspired a host of cinematic adaptations, most famously Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. CGI animation White Snake (白蛇:缘起, Báishé: Yuánqǐ), co-produced by Warner Bros. in the US and China’s Light Chaser, takes a different tack in imagining a prequel to the original legend that hints at a wider destiny for the eponymous Bai Suzhen and the doctor Xu Xian. Like other similarly themed family films, White Snake is also a surprisingly progressive, if melancholy, love story which insists that love is love and does not, or should not, change if you discover the person that you love is a little different than you first thought – in this case, that she’s giant snake demon in beautiful human form.

A framing sequence opens with Bai Suzhen, here called Xiao Bai / Bianca, lamenting to her friend Xiao Qing / Verta (Tang Xiaoxi) that though she has meditated for 500 years she cannot achieve enlightenment and feels the block is due to a memory that she cannot recall. Xiao Qing then gives her a jade hairpin which casts us back 500 years to the Tang Dynasty and a time of chaos in which an evil general has ordered the mass killing of snakes in order to steal their energy for black magic purposes to improve his relationship with the emperor. The snake demons declare war and Xiao Bai is sent to assassinate the general but is injured before she can complete her mission. Washing up on a nearby shore, she is rescued by a local boy, Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), who happens to be a snake hunter. Having lost all her memories, Xiao Bai thinks she is human and bonds with Xuan as they team up to investigate her past with the hairpin as their first clue.

We are told that the land is in chaos and that the peasantry is cruelly oppressed by onerous loans and unjust treatment at the hands of the feudal lords. The general is forcing them to kill snakes and deliver them to him as a kind of tax incentive while threatening their livelihoods if they fail to comply. Despite participating in snake culls, however, Xuan is a kind and energetic young man who is also the village’s herbalist and dreams of becoming a doctor. Having rescued Xiao Bai, he does his best to help restore her memory and vows to be at her side protecting her no matter what. On figuring out that she is really a snake demon, his devotion doesn’t change and he stays with her all the same even knowing that she will be in danger if anyone else learns of her true identity.

Xuan may insist that your fate’s your fate but you can choose how you live, but he also acknowledges that “life is short and sorrows long”, affirming that it’s better to live in the moment making happy memories for less cheerful times. Then again, as Xiao Bai says, you can’t always do what you want and this is indeed a “heartless world” with rules which must be followed. As in any good fairytale, Xiao Bai and Xuan are divided by being on opposing sides of a supernatural plane with differing conceptions of time and eternity. As his song says, “this floating world is but a dream”, and Xiao Bai’s sojourn among the humans is likely to be a short one. Suspected of treachery, Xiao Bai’s good friend (or perhaps a little more than that) Xiao Qing volunteers to wear the Scale of Death, pledging her own life in place of Xiao Bai’s if she fails to fetch her back within three days only to immediately take against Xuan possibly for reasons unconnected to her distrust of humans who, she has been taught, are universally treacherous and hostile to snakes.

Of course, the original legend and the opening framing sequences are clues that this isn’t going to end happily but then with eternity to play with perhaps nothing is ever really as final as it seems. Beautifully animated with gorgeously rendered backgrounds and a melancholy romantic sensibility, White Snake is a huge step forward for Chinese animation which pays tribute the classic legend while creating a universe all of its own with sequel potential aplenty.


White Snake screens on 7th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival on 27th July.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English & Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Xing Jian, 2019)

Winter After Winter posterEven in the midst of war, life goes on. How to ensure it keeps doing so becomes a major preoccupation for one peasant farmer, confused as to how he’s supposed to fulfil his obligation to his ancestors if the Japanese insist on taking his sons. Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Dōng Qù Dōng Yòu Lái) takes a more stoical view of life under the occupation than you’d usually find in Mainland wartime drama, but then its themes are perhaps a little grander as it adopts the perspective of its most oppressed protagonist – the silent Kun (Yan Bingyan) whose bodily destiny is dictated by the men around her while her mild resistance is offered only through small acts of humanistic kindness.

Set in 1944 in the puppet state of Manchuria, Winter After Winter situates itself largely within a single farmhouse where ageing peasant Lao Si (Gao Qiang) is trying to fob off the local Japanese commander (Hibino Akira) who has come for his three sons. Though Lao Si of course does not want his children to go, his concern is more that his oldest son (Dong Lianhai) is impotent and has been unable to impregnate his daughter-in-law Kun so if all the boys are taken now the family line will die. To stop this happening, he tries to force his other two sons to have sex with Kun while he keeps Nakamura busy in the kitchen. His middle son (Yuan Liguo) flees in disgust, running off to join the guerrillas fighting the Japanese while the youngest, shy and inarticulate, tries his best but doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing and is eventually dragged away mid-act, bound for a Japanese forced labour camp.

In some ways, the atmosphere in Lao Si’s village is not as oppressive as one might expect. Now the men have gone, the other villagers are largely left alone with a minimal military presence in the town while they each figure out schemes for keeping the Japanese at bay. The main problem is that once winter sets in there is very little food and the Japanese are intent on keeping most of it for themselves while using their magnanimity as a bargaining chip. Regular searches are made of homes suspected of hoarding rice, while the residents are made to vomit to prove they’ve eaten nothing they weren’t supposed to. Nevertheless, the Japanese commander Nakamura is otherwise shown to be a fair and compassionate man if only largely when dealing with his countrymen – doting over his bedridden wife and little daughter, or making sure to ask a female assistant if she’s warm enough when they sit down to watch a film. Dealing with the Chinese, however, he remains rigid and unforgiving if not actually cruel or abusive. He presses Lao Si for the service owed to him by his absent sons, only reluctantly relenting when told that Kun is unable to work because she has become pregnant but expecting Lao Si to come up with a solution on his own.

Kun’s eventual pregnancy is a problem in itself. Unbeknownst to anyone, the youngest brother manages to escape and begins hiding in the family’s cellar where Kun finds him, keeping the secret and supplying him with food. The pair eventually bond and comfort each other through sex during which Kun conceives a child, but as no one can know of his return, Lao Si arranges to have her marry the “idiot” son (Young Fan) of the local teacher who he assumes is an innocent and will not bother his daughter-in-law with unwanted sexual contact (something that didn’t really bother him when he was keeping it all in the family).

Throughout it all Kun remains stoically silent, never complaining or resisting but simply existing as the right to decide is taken from her by the feckless menfolk who swap and share her with nary a word of kindness. Apparently “adopted” by Lao Si and brought up as a daughter until force married to the oldest son, Kun is made to feel beholden to her father-in-law who behaves as if she owes him her life. Lao Si, meanwhile, blames her for his misfortune – for not being attractive enough to enflame the desire of his oldest son and for sending the middle one running, denying him the heir he so longs for to fulfil his filial duties.

All Kun can do to resist is to rebel against the austerity of her surroundings with kindness. She fulfils her daughterly duties to Lao Si without complaint, tenderly looks after the boys, and finally even offers her own precious food to a Japanese soldier on the run only to pay dearly for it when he brutally betrays her. In the end, all Lao Si’s scheming comes to nothing, defeated by time and circumstance, but it’s Kun who finally makes a positive decision for the future as she perhaps finds him an “heir” even if not the kind he wanted in extending a hand to a crying child signalling an end to conflict and the advent of compassion in the willingness to move forward together without blame or rancour.


Winter After Winter screens on 5th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Clip (English / simplified Chinese subtitles)

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Hsieh Nien Tsu, 2019)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show poster 1New Year comedies are usually about food and community, but for those lonely souls with no one to go home to, perhaps TV can fill the void. That’s certainly been the way for kindhearted TV variety show producer Yeh (Ou Han-Sheng). As a young boy he was often all alone at home and turned to TV for comfort, but with the industry as soulless as it is, is it still possible to lose yourself in the glow of the television screen?

In truth, Yeh’s programming has never been very successful which is perhaps why he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to director by his shady boss Lo (Lin Yu-Chih) who abruptly fires almost everybody else while suddenly insisting on round the clock programming. Unbeknownst to the crew, Lo has fallen foul of eccentric gangster David (Yen Cheng-kuo) who has showbiz ambitions and is determined to buy Crazy TV at a rock bottom price. Lo promoted Yeh in the hope that he’d fail so the ratings would crash and the station would go bust. Yeh’s programming, however, while not exactly a smash begins to find its audience largely through the zany schemes he comes up with to make the most of his budget like substituting repetitive ads for a “signal problem” warning, running cutesy phone-in kids TV, and a deliberately boring overnight program narrated by a guy in a sheep costume and featuring complicated maths problems and military history designed to send you straight to sleep.

Meanwhile, the backstage drama kicks off as Yeh begins to get closer to aspiring Malayasian actress Diva (Lin Min-Chen) while still nursing a broken heart over a failed relationship with a rising star who dumped him for her career. The main issue is, however, his obsession with television as a lifelong friend. As lonely child, TV was there for him, and it was still there for him as an ambitious adult, but somehow it’s lost its way and Yeh isn’t sure how to guide it home. Eventually he has to consider selling his house and earning his living as a noodle vendor while he waits for TV to rediscover its sense of self.

Filled with references to retro Taiwanese television and Western movies, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (瘋狂電視台瘋電影, Fēngkuáng Diànshì Tái Fēng Diànyǐngwears its love of the medium on its sleeve but is clearly unafraid to stick the knife in as Crazy TV lives up to its name with a series of bizarre skits created to make up for the fact they have no actual reporters so cannot actually report the news. The only way back in for Yeh, his aspiring actor friend Abi (Liu Kuan-Ting), and Diva is to enter a competition where they have to go head to head with Mr. David reenacting The Godfather, a singer, a guy reading a book, and a pair of gamers. They choose the surreal with a high risk strategy inspired by the movie Money Monster which eventually goes in an unexpected direction. 

A chance meeting with an old friend currently shooting an indie movie brings home to Yeh what exactly has been missing in his TV life – “value”, as in everyone has something valuable in their hearts that ought to be expressed but often isn’t in the increasingly commercialised TV industry. The veteran director deposed during Lo’s mass purge eventually says something similar, that the audience for their programming is mostly the elderly and children and that therefore they should accept a little more responsibility for the programmes that they air and do their best to send positive messages rather than focus on sensationalist stunts designed to win short-term ratings.

Yeh’s epiphany comes a little late, but eventually leads him to realise that if TV was a friend to him it can be a friend of everyone else and then they can all be mutual friends bonding in shared enjoyment even if they’re apart. In true New Year spirit, it really was all about community after all. Adapted from the stage play by variety TV legend Hsieh Nien Tsu, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show is a warmhearted tribute to the healing power of silly TV, bringing tired people together through shared bemusement as they eagerly tune in to the next crazy onscreen antics as an antidote the increasingly surreal offscreen reality.


It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show screens on 4th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Australia on 26th July as part of the Taiwan Film Festival in Sydney.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

If You Are Happy (学区房72小时, Chen Xiaoming, 2019)

If you are happy poster 2“Win at the starting line” has become something of buzzword among parents eager to get their children the best start in the modern China where equality is no longer regarded as a social good. Even in the UK it’s not unusual for parents to go to great lengths to game the system so their children can get into the “better” state schools, but in China where educational background really can make or break a child’s future the stakes are obviously much higher. For the father at the centre of Chen Xiaoming’s biting debut, the ironically titled “If You Are Happy” (学区房72小时, X Fáng Xiǎoshí), the stakes are very high indeed as he bets pretty much everything – his family home, his career, and finally his integrity, on buying a grotty little flat in the rundown part of town where he grew up solely because it’s directly opposite the best primary school in the area.

University professor Fu (Guan Xuan) is a doting father to little daughter Cheng, but as keen as he is to keep up the facade of success his private life is falling apart. His wife, Jiayuan (Fu Miao), is suffering from long term depression and though Cheng seems cheerful, the atmosphere at home is frosty at best with husband and wife barely speaking. Meanwhile, Fu has also been carrying on an illicit affair with one of his students, Hang (Tu Hua) – a wealthy young woman whose mother (Rong Rong) is keen to send her abroad for graduate school to improve her prospects. Hang doesn’t want to go, she says because she’s become attached to Fu, but there are also rumours all over school about teachers accepting bribes to change students’ grades and the jury’s out on whether Hang has ulterior motives.

The main source of stress in Fu’s life is however his ongoing quest to buy a flat in the catchment area of a prestigious primary school. After two years of dashed hopes, an old friend working as an estate agent has a promising lead on a place that’s actually right by where they both grew up. Though the flat is in a bad state and really too small for a family (assuming they actually meant to live there), Fu is loathed to give up the opportunity even though he doesn’t have the ready cash together to seal the deal. Despite his outrage at the teachers who take bribes, he tries to force his friend to pull some strings before coming to the conclusion he’ll have to sell his flat. Fu goes ahead and lists it with another estate agent before even talking to his wife who is understandably not keen to move, insisting that the school around the corner is fine, only for Fu to snobbishly tell her that it’s fine for kids like Tao – a naughty little boy at kindergarten who accidentally slashed Jiayuan’s hand when he somehow got hold of a kitchen knife. 

Fu’s snobbishness is perhaps his defining characteristic. Forced to sell his family home, he bristles when the maid mentions that her son is looking for a flat, coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why he shouldn’t be able to afford it before accepting that money’s money no matter who it comes from. Auntie Niu’s (Xu Xing) son Bao (Liu Xiaodi) has troubles of his own, as they discover when paying him a visit and finding him near suicidal because his fiancée is thinking of breaking things off as her family have refused their blessing for the marriage until Bao can get hold of a flat in a very specific area. Bao’s case is frustrated because he’s not originally from Shanghai and a new law prevents non-locals from owning property. Luckily his fiancée is a Shanghai native but he doesn’t have the money to buy in the escalating Shanghai property market and only has this shot with Fu because he is a “motivated seller” and needs the deposit as soon as possible to put down on the property near the school.

Along with a superiority complex, Fu is also something of a prig and makes a point of being upstanding and respectable, even trying to return a box of expensive tea gifted by Hang’s wealthy businesswoman mother in the hope of currying favour. When someone gazumps him on the flat, he has a minor meltdown insisting on legal action and lamenting the decline of morality in the modern society, but then he turns around and does exactly the same to Auntie Niu despite knowing exactly what the flat means for Bao and having given his solemn word when signing the papers. Such duplicity is too much for Jiayuan who finally finds herself gaining the strength to defy her domineering husband to side with Auntie Niu who really has gone and got a lawyer when betrayed by Fu.

How much getting Cheng into a good school is about Cheng and how much about Fu’s status anxiety is up for debate, but nominally at least all of this is supposed to be for his little girl even though the stress of Fu’s ongoing quest is quietly destroying the family home, has sent his wife into a debilitating depression, and finally robbed him of his personal integrity as he continues to debase himself all in the hope of getting his hands on a really horrible flat in an otherwise undesirable area. Chen closes with a series of (seemingly) real interviews with parents who’ve considered bankrupting themselves just to move into the catchment area of a good school. Most of them concede it isn’t worth it, but are tempted all the same even if they intensely resent the way their society is going. After all, shouldn’t all children be starting in the same place? Why should one school be better than another, and why should the children have to pay for being born to parents with fewer resources to help them? There may not be real answers for any of these questions, but they’re ones the modern China continues to grapple with as the egalitarian past gives way to the moral dubiousness of a consumerist future.


If You Are Happy screens on 3rd July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Wushu Orphan (武林孤儿, Huang Huang, 2018)

Wushu orphan poster 1Anti-intellectualism comes in for a subtle kicking in Huang Huang’s whimsical ‘90s drama Wushu Orphan (武林孤儿, Wǔlín ér). Less a tale of martial arts, Huang’s poetic debut suggests that perhaps brawn is always going to win over brain, but as brain has the moral high ground it needs to keep fighting all the same even if all it can do is mentally resist. Set in the modernising China of the late ‘90s, Wushu Orphan conjures an achingly nostalgic picture of sleepy rural life, burdened as it is by visions of the past as the next generation pin their hopes on becoming the new Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li all while neglecting their studies in expectation of martial arts glory.

Our hero, Lu Youhong (Jin Jingcheng), has just transferred to Zhige Wushu Academy to take up a post as their new Chinese teacher. In actuality, Youhong doesn’t have much of an education himself. He has no degree and is almost entirely self-taught which is why he’s wound up here after being turned down by everyone else. In fact, he only got this job because his uncle (Ma Zhongshan), who works at the school, has brought him in as a “catfish” to stir up the otherwise stagnant educational environment which is mainly inhabited by meat headed martial arts fanatics.

Unfortunately for Youhong, no one is very interested in education. All the kids just want to be the next Bruce Lee, and you don’t need to memorise the story of Mulan to become a martial arts master. Zheng Cuishan (Hou Yunxiao), however, has already memorised Mulan, and all the other poems in their reader too. He read them in their entirety when they were first assigned. The problem is, that Zheng Cuishan has been labelled a “special case”. With no aptitude for wushu, he’s mercilessly bullied by his classmates and is forever trying to run away. All he wants is to go home to his family, but they’re fishermen and Zheng Cuishan is afraid of the water so they can’t take him with them on their boat.

As might be assumed, the nerdy, bespectacled Youhong quickly notices an affinity with the obviously bright Cuishan who effortlessly aces all his tests and outright refuses to engage in violence. During one of his earliest lectures, Yuhoung breaks down the character in the name of their school which means “wushu”, explaining that it’s made up of the characters for “stop” and “weapons” because the point of martial arts is to preserve “peace”. His rationale provokes only bored stares from boys who’d rather be outside and a cynical laugh from feckless headmaster’s son Qin (Shi Zhi), lurking outside the window, while he struggles to impress upon his pupils the importance of knowledge as a compliment to physicality.

Going through their tests one day, after being unexpectedly asked to teach maths (and English) after the other teachers quit, Youhong notices that one of the boys got all the questions right but erased his answers before turning in the paper. Confused, he turns to his uncle for an explanation only to be told not to press the issue. This is a martial arts school. It’s considered deeply uncool to be seen succeeding in anything that’s not wushu, as if that were somehow a betrayal or a sign that one has not dedicated oneself entirely to martial arts. That’s one reason Cuishan is so mercilessly bullied, because he’s the intellectual holdout in a school full of meat headed cowards too afraid to buck the system or too brainwashed to know why they should.

In a moment of madness, Youhong snaps, cruelly crushing the dreams of his young charges when he tells them that martial arts are useless in the modern world. They’ll never be the next Bruce Lee, all they can hope for is a life of petty crime and street performance. Predictably he’s silenced by a fist headed straight for his face as if to say that violence is always going to win over rational thought, but Youhong refuses to be beaten. Even if he cannot “fight” these ideas he can still resist them by sticking to his principles and refusing to go along with the inherent weirdness of the school.

In this Cuishan follows him, no longer quite so afraid of the water and one step closer to achieving his dream of learning to swim. Perhaps if Youhoung has encouraged one mind away from the groupthink he’s done enough, emerging with a new conviction as he bravely stands up to a rude woman and her son “threatening” him with a toy gun on the train. Meanwhile, a 70-year-old martial arts master gets of out prison and pointlessly tracks down his geriatric rivals in order to prove himself the master of masters. Filled with nostalgic ‘90s Mandopop and an evocative retro score, Huang Huang’s debut is a visually striking tribute to the solidarity of outsiders swimming against the tide as they strive to keep hold of themselves in the oppressive groupthink of a relentlessly conformist society.


Wushu Orphan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Han Dan (寒單, Huang Chao-liang, 2019)

Han Dan poster 1Military deity of wealth “Han Dan” is said to be afraid of the cold, so those who worship at his altar try to keep him warm with firecrackers during a ritual still practiced in the Eastern cities of Taiwan in which young men embody the god and brave the fiery assault in a daring show of their masculinity. Some volunteer to play the god for money, others for pride, and a few for atonement but there are some crimes you can’t simply burn away either with fire or by hate. The heroes of Huang Chao-liang’s Han Dan (寒單) bond through tragedy and try push past their pain through brotherhood but only one of them is aware their present relationship is founded on twisted hate fuelled revenge even as a genuine connection forms underneath.

Nerdy, earnest school-teacher-to-be Zheng-kun (George Hu Yuwei) has been fostering a lifelong crush on the girl next door, Xuan (Allison Lin), who went away to Taipei and only rarely returns home. Too shy to declare himself, he is enraged and hurt to discover that she has been secretly dating a guy they went to high school with – popular kid Ming-yi (Cheng Jen-shuo) who used to bully him for being only a trash collector’s son. Ming-yi is set to play Han Dan at this year’s Lantern Festival and his show of manly bravado is almost more than Zheng-kun can bear. In a moment of madness, he throws his lighter into a pile of firecrackers hoping to injure his rival, but Xuan runs to warn him and is caught in the crossfire. She dies from her injuries, leaving both men feeling guilty and bereft though no one else knows that it was Zheng-kun who started the fire. 

While Zheng-kun gives up on his teaching career and retreats into gloomy introspection, Ming-yi, who lost his hearing and the use of his hand in the accident, has become a drug addict and petty criminal. Riddled with guilt, Zheng-kun commits to “saving” his former enemy – locking him up while he goes cold turkey and then bringing him into the recycling business he’s started on his father’s land, but still harbours hate in his heart both for himself and for the man Ming-yi used to be.

“If only we were real friends” Zheng-kun mutters under his breath during an otherwise idyllic moment at the river. Learning more about his “blood brother”, Zheng-kun discovers that a toxic family situation is what made him such a terrible person in high school which might ordinarily have fostered compassionate forgiveness but only makes things worse for Zheng-kun who continues to hate Ming-yi to avoid having to think about how much he hates himself for what he did to Xuan. In an effort to atone, he forces himself through the Han Dan ritual year after year, scorching his body with firecrackers but finding little in the way of cathartic release.

“Feeling the pain means I’m alive” he tells a melancholy woman who seems to have had a thing for him ever since he was a shy student with a part-time job in the sleazy snack bar where she works. Now violent and angry, he’s not such a sensitive soul anymore but she loves him all the same and resents the intrusion of the late Xuan into their awkward relationship. Like the lovelorn hostess and the song they find themselves listening to, Zheng-kun too has a secret in his schoolbag that’s becoming impossible to keep but speaking it threatens to upset the carefully balanced semblance of a life that he’s forged with an oblivious, wounded Ming-yi.

Both men struggle to move on from the past, unable to forgive themselves not only for what happened to Xuan but for the choices they did or didn’t make in their youths that leave them afraid to move forward and locked into an awkward brotherhood bonded by love and hate in equal measure. A final cathartic explosion may provide a path towards a new life but only through shattering the fragile bond born of shared tragedy and irretrievable loss. A beautifully lensed morality tale, Han Dan is an acutely observed portrait of the corrosive effects of guilt and trauma but also a tragedy of misplaced male friendship as two lost souls find each other only in losing themselves as they battle the inescapable shadows of the past.


Han Dan screens as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival on June 30.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Li Xinyun, 2018)

lobster cop poster 1Sadly, Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Lóngxiā Xíngjǐng) is not the story of a team of intrepid crustaceans in a trench coat but an amusing tale of bumbling cops made good as their plan to hole up in a seafood joint pays out in unexpected ways. Actress Li Xinyun’s directorial debut is a surprisingly subversive affair proving once again that light comedy is becoming the satirical battleground of the contemporary Chinese cinema industry and dancing rings around the censors in the process.

Our hero, bumbling policeman Yufei (Wang Qianyuan), has a habit of tracking down the bad guys but letting them get away at the critical moment. When yet another mistake puts him on the chief’s naughty list, he finds himself up against rival Xu Xin (Wang Zheng) and given a month to figure out how drug dealers are getting their merchandise into the country. Taking his best squad with him – grandfatherly Neng (Liu Hua), tomboyish Hua Jie (Yuan Shanshan), and rookie Chen (Zhou You ), Yufei vows to crack the case. Noticing that a rundown crayfish restaurant he often stops in to relieve himself has an excellent view of a “logistics company” they suspect is responsible for importing the drugs, Yufei catches on the idea of turning restauranteur in order to stakeout his quarry.

The unexpected snag is that Neng always fancied himself as a bit of a cook and his crayfish unexpectedly takes off, which is good news in one sense because it means the gang can pay back some of the money Chen had to borrow from his wealthy mother to get the restaurant off the ground, but bad in that it’s very difficult to run a successful eatery and chase drug dealers at the same time – especially when the drug dealers become some of your best customers.

In order to make their cover more credible, the gang end up posing as a family with Neng as the cuddly dad, Yufei and Hua Jie as an improbable couple, and Chen as the adorable little brother. As the restaurant starts to take off the cover identities start to take over with only Yufei digging his heels in as he tries his best to catch the bad guys in order to best his police rival and prove himself to the chief. Nevertheless, like any good police squad the secret ingredient of success is fellow feeling and it’s brotherly love that eventually saves our confuzzled cops as they get themselves into a series of sticky situations with the equally bumbling “logistics” guys while accidentally carving a path towards kingpin The General (Li Jianren).

In a slightly surprising move given the usual censors’ board squeamishness, Li inserts a fair amount of subtle homoerotic content beginning with straight-laced policeman Xu Xin walking into a potential cruising situation with the very flamboyant General hanging around in the Gents for reasons seemingly unrelated to crime (though he does later enjoy a carriage ride with a pretty lady), while a regular visitor to the shop openly flirts with Neng who seems to, on one level at least, be receptive to his advances. While it’s true that both of the presumably gay guys (Neng aside) turn out to be “bad” in one way or another, it is a refreshingly ordinary kind of representation in which homosexuality is not in itself the joke and, in a tacit sense, almost totally normalised.

Then again it is the traditional family, in model terms at least, which eventually wins out as the guys begin to pull together to make their lobster restaurant a success and eventually learn to work as a team while embracing their own strengths so they can take down the bad guys. An entertaining mix of witty banter and slapstick martial arts underpinned by tasty food photography and a cheeky subversive spirit, Lobster Cop is a surprisingly surreal concoction and a promisingly off the wall debut from Li who manages to ground the often strange goings on firmly in the real while ensuring her losers make good story commands genuine warmth.


Original trailer (English subtitles)