Better Days (少年的你, Derek Tsang, 2019)

Better Days poster high resWith the Chinese censors board seemingly on high alert, the news that yet another highly anticipated film from an internationally acclaimed director has been pulled from its prime festival slot for “technical reasons” comes as no surprise. Derek Tsang’s Better Days (少年的你, Shàonián de Nǐ) proved an early Berlin casualty, missing out on the festival season in its entirety while gaining approval for a regular release in June only to be abruptly pulled three days before the film was set to open nationwide. Finally making its way into multiplexes all over the world (largely thanks to its boyband star), it’s clear that concessions have been made but it’s not difficult to see why the censors might have been nervous given that Tsang, while perhaps coy, is not afraid to paint his two tragic protagonists as bullied by their society, victims of a series of concentric social ills which define the modern China.

Opening with a brief, melancholy framing sequence featuring the older Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) teaching English in a small provincial classroom, Tsang flashes back to 2011 when she was a mousey student studying at a top cram school while preparing for China’s gruelling two-day Gaokao university entrance exams. Nian shuts out the rest of the world and buries herself in books, but is jolted out of her trance-like dedication when a classmate, Hu Xiaodie (Zhang Yifan), jumps from the school roof into the courtyard below. Wanting to remain distant yet somehow moved, she attracts the wrong kind of attention with a gesture of kindness, placing her school jacket over Xiaodie’s ruined face to protect her from the cruel gaze of the smartphone cameras trained on her contorted body with a strange kind of hungry triumph.

Questioned by the police, Nian denies that she and Xiaodie were friends, refusing to disclose any information which might explain what led her to take her own life. Nian, however, is perfectly aware of what made her do it, because she too is one of a small group of students terrorised by a trio of rich kids led by the sociopathic Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). Now that Xiaodie is out of the picture, Nian is first in the firing line. Along with a male student apparently also among the bullied, Nian had believed that the bullying was just something she’d have to endure until she’s done with Gaokao and graduates into adulthood, but with the violence and cruelty escalating she decides to try getting help from the authorities.

The authorities, however, are largely absent. Despite concrete evidence that Wei Lai and her friends hounded Xiaodie to her death, the girls are merely given a slap on the wrist, suspended from school still but allowed to take the Gaokao with no further action taken because, after all, they’re still young and have their whole lives ahead of them. The irony is that the tannoys at this expensive cram school blast out the message that life isn’t fair but the Gaokao is, as if it were some great leveller giving equal opportunity to all rather than advantaging those who have the most money to throw at. Wei Lai is a young woman from a wealthy family who feels herself entitled to success and resentful of those who might eclipse her through talent alone while deeply believing that her money gives her the right to do whatever she pleases. She makes Nian’s life a misery in order to assert a power she does not really have, bullied herself at home by a father apparently dissatisfied with her lack of academic results.

Parents, like teachers and policemen, are generally distant figures of authority, bullying their kids into academic success through a combination of shaming and violence. Nian is singled out for bullying partly for being from the “wrong” socioeconomic background, the child of a single mother currently on the run from debt collectors and selling potentially harmful black-market cosmetics to get by. Unlike some of the other parents, Nian’s largely absent mother encourages rather than disciplines her but is too far away to offer much in the way of support or protection and quite clearly views her daughter’s academic success as her own salvation. Nian cannot ask her mother for help, nor can she turn to the school who have already made it clear they’ll bend over backwards to back the rich kids, or to the police who profess they can’t do anything because they always end up looking for someone in loco parentis and finding no one there.

That is perhaps why Nian ends up turning to the unconventional source of protection, bad boy Bei (Jackson Yee). Himself a victim of bullying in being abused and then abandoned by his parents, Bei, a noble street punk, though rough and unpredictable swears to protect her with his fists, willing to take a beating to do it (and eventually far more) if necessary. Bonding in their shared sadness, Bei realises that Nian has one shot but she could still get out and escape the misery of poverty whereas there is no way out for him.   

Nian tells the policemen investigating Xiaodie’s death that there is no room for friendship among those single-mindedly studying for the Gaokao, but slowly opens up to Bei while beginning to address her deep seated feelings of guilt and resentment in her complicity with social oppression. Grateful that it wasn’t her, she let Xiaodie suffer. Meanwhile, another student knowing herself to be a potential victim wilfully joins in with the bullies in the hope they’ll leave her alone only to find herself next in the firing line while Nian is protected by the shadow of Bei. Awakening to her social responsibility now that she is no longer alone, Nian resolves to try and help the other girl by bringing her into her circle of protection but finds herself betrayed by the girl’s failure to overcome her fear in order to reject her complicity.

Nian is repeatedly told that Gaokao is the doorway to adulthood, that all she has to do is endure until it’s over and she’s “free”. Sympathetic police detectives lament that empathy is something you learn only when grownup while simultaneously convinced that only those as young and naive as Nian and Bei would willingly sacrifice themselves for one another. Tsang begins in the realms of moody, achingly cool nihilistic youth drama in which there can be no way out for our doomed lovers, but soon segues into something more palatable to the censors in once again victim blaming the teens, suggesting that their problems are partly of their own making in their resistance to benevolent authority, refusing to trust an earnest, emotionally astute police detective intent on saving them from themselves.

Rather than accept that the tyranny of the Gaokao, increasing social inequality, entrenched authoritarianism, a shame culture, and an epidemic of absentee parenting in the midst of China’s go for broke economic development, are creating a pressure cooker society in which cruelty and violence are the only inevitability, the film ends on an incongruously rosy note which emphasises our collective responsibility to combat bullying (aided by the state whose efforts to tackle it are detailed in an awkward propagandist coda) while uncomfortably implying that it too is something that ends in childhood. Nian resolves to protect the world, as if she could solve all of society’s ills through solidarity alone, but emerges with little more than world weary resignation to its refusal to protect her. Still, in a world of unreliable authority figures and hopeless futures, solidarity’s better than nothing and as likely as anything else to lead to Better Days ahead.


Currently on limited release in UK, Australian, and New Zealand cinemas courtesy of Magnum Films, and in the US from Well Go.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Diao Yinan, 2019)

wild goose lake poster 1Chaos and desperation are about as far as it’s possible to get from the image of the modern China the nation’s cinema has been keen to project, but that’s exactly where we find ourselves in the murky world of The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会, Nánfāng Czhàn de Jùhuì). Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice followup finds the director in much the same territory only this time embracing the absurdity of existential flight as his twin heroes seek impossible escape in the garish neon of a provincial underworld.

Diao opens on the rain-drenched streets as sullen gangster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waits impatiently for a rendezvous with his estranged wife Shujun (Wan Qian), only to be met by a stranger – “bathing beauty” Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei), who explains she won’t be coming. A lengthy flashback reveals that Zenong is currently on the run after getting embroiled in a dispute over turf assignments at some kind of gangster briefing session during in which one of his guys shot one of the Cat brothers’ men in the leg. To settle the matter, the boss proposes a good old-fashioned competition to see who can nick the most bikes in one night with the winner getting the prime spot, but Zenong doesn’t know he’s been set up and mistakenly kills a policeman after being attacked by Cat Eyes. Realising there’s no longer any way out for him, Zenong’s last hope is to keep the police at bay long enough to get back in touch with his wife and convince her to turn him in to the police so that she can claim the reward money.

Like many men of his generation, Zenong couldn’t find the kind of honest work that would allow him to provide for his family and so he left home. Too ashamed to own his no-good gangster ways, he stayed away for five years but all that’s on his mind is family and this is the only chance that he will ever have to provide for them. Shujun isn’t even really sure she wants anything to do with her absentee husband, but is dragged back into his orbit once again harassed by the police every step of the way.

In striking contrast to most Chinese crime dramas, these police are far from a force for order. Describing Wild Goose Lake as a lawless land, they have their very own briefing to formulate a plan to catch Zenong but aren’t averse to underhanded tactics like threatening Shujun and trying to undermine her attachment to her husband through a fabricated story about a pregnant girlfriend. The line between cop and thug isn’t so thick as you’d think it would be, and you can’t trust the police any more than brotherhood or honour amongst thieves.

Devoid of morality, Wild Goose Lake is indeed a chaotic place defined by shifting loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Fights break out without warning, plans change, and there are no safe spaces. Bumbling as they are, the police are everywhere watching everything and trying to blend in. Anyone might be a cop, or secretly working against you. Zenong is on the classic wrong man path, except that he’s the right man and he knows it. He might not have pulled the trigger if he knew it was a policeman he was firing at, but pull the trigger he did and now he’ll have to make peace with it. Trying to outrun the law only so long as to subvert it, he finds himself slipping past checkpoints distracted by pointless officiousness and consistently evading the net.

When Shujun is unable to make it to the rendezvous, Aiai offers to take her place by turning Zenong in and claiming the reward money to pass it on to Zenong’s wife (minus a small fee), meaning they will need to trust each other until the mission is completed. Aiai, a dejected young woman supplementing her income with casual sex work as one of the “bathing beauties” found at the lake, longs to escape her dead end existence, eventually telling the policeman she’d use the reward money to open a small store back in her hometown. Like Shujun, she lives in a fiercely patriarchal, unforgiving society  from which there is little sign of escape or independence. Yet, as afraid of everything Zenong represents as she eventually becomes, Aiai remains steadfast and true, keeping her promise and paving the way towards a brighter future for Shujun and her son away from the haphazard chaos of Wild Goose Lake. An absurdist fable drenched in neon, Diao’s conception of life on the margins of provincial China is as bleak as they come but eventually finds space for positivity on returning to a world more ordinary in which two women walk away from the traumatic past arm in arm and the law has to be content to let them go.


The Wild Goose Lake was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English captions)

Summer of Changsha (六欲天, Zu Feng, 2019)

Summer of Changsha poster 1Escaping from the traumatic past is fast becoming a favourite theme of Chinese cinema, but Summer of Changsha (Liù Yù Tiān) swerves away from the neon-lit, rain-drenched streets of your average melancholy police procedural for the fetid air of sun-baked provincial China where death haunts the shadows. Each dealing (or failing to deal) with guilt and responsibility, a depressed detective and seemingly emotionless doctor bond through a shared sense of impossibility only to discover that there may be a way out after all only not of the kind they might have assumed.

Detective Bin (Zu Feng) has already handed in his resignation but has no real plans for his post-police life. Consumed by powerlessness and regret over failing to prevent the death by suicide of his girlfriend who had been living with longterm depression, he cannot seem to find a place for himself back in the world. When a severed arm is fished up from a local lake, he gets a new sense of purpose and eventually connects the lonely limb to a missing persons ad found after trawling the internet which mentions a prominent scar on the right hand.

The ad was placed by a doctor, Li Xue (Huang Lu), who emotionlessly confirms to Bin and his earthier partner Lei (Chen Minghao) that she believes the hand to be her brother’s, shocking them by correctly guessing where they might have found it. Xue tells them that her brother Yi appeared to her in a dream and showed her where the rest of his body parts are – something later confirmed to be true when the three drive out to a remote spot and dig up a suitcase buried under a tree.

Strangely, Bin takes the “dream” theory at face value with only Lei seemingly unconvinced. He never quite entertains the obvious conclusion that Xue knows where the body parts are because she put them there, even after discovering that the pair were seen to be arguing recently and that their relationship became strained after a tragic accident during which Xue’s daughter, who was suffering with a heart condition, sadly passed away.

What draws Bin to Xue is a shared sadness, a deepening gulf of introspection which, ironically, convinces them they exist outside of regular society and should not permit themselves genuine human connections. Xue’s animosity towards her brother, it seems, was less because of what happened to her daughter than because of his conversion to Buddhism which had, she felt, allowed him to move on and start to forget about their past. By contrast, Xue condemns herself to a life of suffering as atonement, wilfully carrying on an affair with a married surgeon (Tian Yu) she doesn’t seem to like very much solely because his research area was closely connected to her daughter’s condition and if she’d lived he might have saved her. Bin, meanwhile, criticises his partner Lei for trying to ghost a girlfriend, cute as a button Ting Ting (Zhang Qianru), because he thought she was annoying, but finds himself doing the same thing after he sleeps with her when she approaches him for comfort only for her to become emotionally attached.

Ting Ting wants to help him overcome his emotional pain, but Bin isn’t sure he can. Like Xue, his grief and guilt have made him selfish and self-involved. Reconnecting with his late girlfriend’s family, he has the urge to make some kind of confession in order to ease his burden only for her sister (Liu Tianchi) to rightly round him for the cruelty of what he’s about to do. She was just starting to move on with her life, and now Bin’s sudden chattiness seems primed to stir everything up again. His desire to ease his conscience is entirely for his own benefit whatever he might say about wanting the family to know the truth. Each conflicted by their awkward connection, neither Xue or Bin can see a way out of their suffering because they don’t believe they deserve one.

To stave off the inevitable, they continue investigating the mysteries behind Yi’s death but the answers they find turn out to be depressingly banal. While a mysterious collective of Buddhists release fish back into the rivers (perhaps not as responsible as it first sounds), the pair remain similarly trapped in a solipsistic world of suffering little realising the consequences of their (in)actions on those around them. Yet solving the case in its entirety does at least offer the opportunity of new beginnings, however far they choose to take them. A detached exploration of the entrenched effects of trauma, guilt, and regret, Summer of Changsha is not quite the film it first appears to be but an icy journey from the cold heat of summer into the unexpected warmth of winter snow as its dejected leads learn to look for new directions towards a less uncomfortable future.


Summer of Changsha was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Ho Wi Ding, 2018)

Cities of last things poster 1A sense of finality defines the appropriately titled Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Xìngfú Chéngshì), even as it works itself backwards from the darkness towards the light. Still more ironic, the Chinese title hints at “Happiness City” (neatly subverting Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness”) but that, it seems, is somewhere its hero has never quite felt himself to be. Embittered by a series of abandonments, betrayals, and impossibilities, he grows resentful of the brave new world in which old age has marooned him. 

Ho opens with a bouncy, retro track advising that one should never be too generous with love only for a body to suddenly rain down from above. As we later discover, the body belongs to 60-something former policeman Dong-ling (Jack Kao) who has grown disillusioned with his futuristic, digital world, stubbornly smoking cigarettes and growing old gracefully while surrounded by vapers and ads for rejuvenating drugs. For reasons we don’t yet understand, he ventures into the red light district to buy a gun, punches his wife’s dance partner, and visits a hard-nosed sex worker who reminds him of a woman he loved and lost thirty years previously.

Love, guns, death and revenge become persistent themes for the older Dong-ling whose only bright spot seems to be a grownup daughter preparing to move abroad with her foreign boyfriend. Thirty years previously Dong-ling (Lee Hong-chi) too dreamed of running overseas. Consumed with rage on discovering his wife’s infidelity, he imagines himself killing her, her lover, and himself but settles only for a petty revenge against a colleague which exposes the entrenched police corruption he had refused to participate in, alienating his fellow officers. Bonding with a French kleptomaniac (Louise Grinberg) on the run from some kind of unresolved conflict with her father, he sees a way out only to have the door cruelly closed on him just as it was so many years before when he was just a teenager picked up for trying to steal a scooter.

In true film noir style, all women are perhaps one woman. Abruptly shifting tone in venturing into the recent past, we are introduced to Big Sister Wang (Ding Ning) – an embittered, disappointed femme fatale running out of road, hemmed in by the choices she has already made. She may already know there’s no way out for her, little needing the policeman’s warning that after her arrest everyone in gangland will assume she talked when they let her go, but she refuses to give in, repeatedly insisting on cigarettes and asserting her dominance while the unsympathetic policemen get on with their grim business.

Cornered, Ara, the shoplifting free spirit, decides to interrogate her interrogator, calling back to the later version of herself in asking why it is that prostitution is illegal. The policeman has no answer for her, save that he does not make the rules only follow them. Dong-ling too wanted to be a force of order, perhaps taking Big Sister Wang’s impassioned pleas to be a good person and not end up like her a little too much to heart. He follows the rules too closely for the comfort of his colleagues but finds himself dangerously exposed by an inability to regulate his feelings, a victim of toxic masculinity humiliated by his wife’s betrayal but unable to stand up to the corrupt superior who so casually closes down the only escape route he has been able to find.

The older Dong-ling is horrified by his daughter’s revelation that she lasered away a birthmark. How else can you recognise someone you lost long ago in the great wide world other than by a mark placed on them when they were born? His daughter rolls her eyes and reminds him that these days everyone is chipped, but there may be something in his rationale that everyone is marked at birth. Dong-ling is surrounded by handcuffs, self-driving vehicles, and locked doors. His fate is sealed, as we know, because we saw him fall, yet like Big Sister Wang he fought back only his resistance was violent and vengeful, abhorrent in its enraged pettiness. His is a tale of fatalistic resentment and of an existence consumed by a sense of hopeless abandonment, coloured only by a longing for lost love. Ho’s decision to end the film with its happiest moment, bright sunshine in place of rain soaked night, is ironic in the extreme but returns us to the grim serenity of the opening as the cheerful retro strains re-echo and Dong-ling catapults himself into a life of misery in the cities of last things where all hope is futile and all love loss. 


Screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival, Cities of Last Things is also available to stream online via Netflix.

TIFF trailer (English subtitles)

Liu Wen-cheng – Don’t Be Too Generous About Love

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (奇門遁甲, Yuen Woo-ping, 2017)

Thousand faces of Dunjia poster 6The Dunjia has a thousand faces. Or maybe not. Yuen Woo-ping teams up with Tsui Hark for a “remake” of Yuen’s 1982 classic The Miracle Fighters retitled The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (奇門遁甲, Qíméndùnjiǎ), only it isn’t much of a remake at all and simply pinches the idea of supernaturally-charged heroes fighting for justice which, it has to be said, is hardly original or at least not enough to justify Tsui’s claim that the two films are linked by a desire to push the boundaries of the wuxia film. Nevertheless, Yuen does his best to craft a tale of brotherhood and rebirth for his noble warriors newly re-energised by a life-giving phoenix, but struggles under the weight of an otherwise incoherent narrative.

So, in fantasy medieval China, the land is beset by a stealth invasion from otherworldly powers. Our heroes, the Wuyin clan, are the last line of defence against the increasingly powerful alien marauders. In order to beat them, they need to unlock the mysterious power of Dunjia, which, according to a prophecy, can only be done by a very specific person. Accordingly, the clan’s “big brother”, Zhuge (Da Peng), has gone out looking. Unfortunately, not everyone is convinced by what he brings back – a young woman he found in some kind of institution who has a childish, ethereal quality and a surprising ability to suddenly morph into a giant colourful phoenix.

Yuen opens with a brief discussion of Qimen and the Dunjia which seems to have something to do with interdimensional co-ordinates but truth to tell it turns out not to be very important. The main thrust is that weird alien beings have been living amongst us for centuries and are quietly waiting for us to die out so that they can inherit the Earth. Only some of them have lost patience. The aliens might be about to get their hands on a world destroying device, something the Wuyin are desperate to prevent but the aliens keep using their abilities against them and their prospects look increasingly hopeless.

With the narrative in disarray, Yuen relies on the camaraderie between the members of the Wuyin to carry the film (which it largely does). There’s history between the de facto leader Dragonfly (Ni Ni) and healer Zhuge despite the Wuyin’s increasingly silly code which forbids affection between comrades and punishes it with mutual slapping. Accordingly the pair spend most of the film bickering while conflicted by the arrival of romantic rivals in the form of the mysterious Circle (Zhou Dongyu) and an earnest young policeman, Dao (Aarif Lee), who keeps stumbling on the activities of the Wuyin but has his memory wiped to prevent the truth getting out. Despite the plot holes and inconsistencies, the Wuyin are an intriguing bunch who do their best to earn our sympathies even whilst shouldered with a series of incomprehensible events.

Incomprehensibility is not necessarily a problem in a wuxia film, in fact it can sometimes be an asset, but the concept is continually let down by over reliance on poor quality CGI and bland production design. Yuen opens with an engaging, if surprisingly cutesy, sequence of Dao and Dragonfly enjoying a (re)meet cute while chasing a giant three-eyed fish through the streets of an ordinary city, but despite the resurgent beauty of Circle’s colourful phoenix the cartoonish battles between soulless alien mecha giants largely fail to convince.

Cartoonish though it may be, there is charm in Dunjia’s lowbrow humour as the gang bicker amongst themselves and engage in a comically romantic tug of war. Yuen breaks the tale into a series of chapters as if mimicking an old fashioned wuxia serial and there is certainly a strain of meandering fairytale nonsense in the film’s refusal to pick a direction and follow it even if it takes things too far with an all too abrupt ending designed only as an inelegant hook for an upcoming sequel. Ironically enough, Dunjia is a film about coming “full circle” and then being reborn anew like a phoenix from the flames but pushes itself too far in threatening to set the wheel turning again just when it ought to be hitting its stride. Flawed but intermittently entertaining, the first adventure fo the Wuyin clan is off to a rocky start but sheer charisma alone may be enough to ensure repeat custom.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Johnny Ma, 2019)

To Sing to Live poster 2“Boundless is the land for all to sing” according to the reverberating strains of a Sichuan Opera troupe practicing their art in the open air, ironically surrounded by the ruins of a decaying land. According to Chinese cinema at least, China is very much “under construction” though there is considerable ambivalence about the costs involved with such rapid “progress”. According to Johnny Ma’s second feature To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Hzhe Chàngzhe), Sichuan Opera maybe one of them though melancholy as it is and performed by real life opera stars, Ma’s film perhaps suggests that art’s transience is an unavoidable consequence of modernity.

We first meet our heroes, the Jinli Sichuan Opera Group, giving a small stage demonstration at a local cultural event straight after a team of high school girls in cheerleader uniforms inexpertly performing a traditional fan dance. Obviously running on a shoestring budget, the troupe gets around by means of a motorbike pickup truck which allows them to advertise on the road. Their main base, however, is a dilapidated theatre in a small corner of a rapidly depleting village.

The theatre, such as it is, is the only holdout surrounded by the rubble of the old town currently being “redeveloped” in keeping with the modern China. The wolf is quite literally at the door as the bulldozers’ claws tear through walls like an all powerful villain in an opera casting a spell of destruction over a disobedient kingdom. Leader of the company, Zhao Li has been ignoring the numerous “for demolition” tags all over the building hoping that something will come up, but now she’s had a letter to tell her that the end is nigh and she has no idea what to do.

Meanwhile, she’s also worrying about the future of the troupe seeing as they are all ageing and, according to her niece Dan Dan, Sichuan Opera isn’t “cool” anymore which why most of their audience members count themselves among the very elderly. Dan Dan, the troupe’s bright hope and leading lady, is conflicted in her role as a potential saviour. Mildly resentful at having been brought up in the trade, she both loves and rejects it, sorry to see it go but sure there is no future for traditional opera in the modern world. In her spare time she dances to K-pop hits alone in her room and, unbeknownst to Zhao Li until she’s guided by to the realisation by the manifestation of a stock Dwarf character, Dan Dan has taken a part-time job singing in a cabaret bar both to express herself and to earn a little extra money.

As the crisis deepens, the opera in Zhou Li’s head intensifies. Entering a dream stage, she finds herself once again in full costume valiantly battling villains only to emerge victorious but alone striking a heroic pose atop a pile of rubble. Worse, her fighting spirit threatens to harm those close to her including her beloved niece Dan Dan who longs to leave the world of opera behind but knows to do so would be to break her aunt’s heart. While her well-meaning husband goes behind her back to try and earn a few extra pennies by selling out the art of opera with a cheap “mask changing” act in a local hotpot restaurant, she makes use of a connection for a last ditch effort to get bureaucracy interested in her case by inviting a local dignitary to a show for which they’ll be pulling out all the stops, but also performing for free to make sure they get the punters in.

Zhao Li’s efforts prove fruitless. You can’t stop progress, after all. But, it’s not just the troupe who feel the sadness of something passing but the audiences too. With no performance scheduled, the old regulars dutifully show up to see the troupe off lamenting that there’s nothing left for them to do in this tiny, crumbling village. Sichuan Opera maybe be “uncool” to some, but it was the only splash of colour in an otherwise dull existence for many of the elderly residents and so it’s sad to say goodbye. At once signalling the tragedy of this moribund world and suggesting it’s time to let it go, Ma closes with a note of poignant, perhaps ironic positivity. “Boundless is the land for all to sing”, the Sichuan Opera troupe reminds us, rendering the ruined building that was its former home irrelevant as they offer their song to the open air for nothing more than the love of it.


To Live to Sing was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)