Blind Massage (推拿, Lou Ye, 2014)

Blind Massafe poster 1Lou Ye, defiantly controversial, has made those who cannot, for one reason or another, embrace their own desires the centre of his cinema. Seeking connection, his protagonists reel desperately from one traumatic event to the next but resist full commitment, no longer able to believe in the truth of their feelings in a society which has so often betrayed them. Blind Massage (推拿, T), a radical departure from the provocative politicisation that has hitherto marked his cinema, takes this one step further in setting itself inside what it sees as an entirely isolationist world – that of the blind who occupy a particular liminal space within modern Chinese society.

Lou begins with a voiceover and fractured vision of our most prominent protagonist, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), as he emerges from a childhood accident which killed his mother and cost him his sight. Though he is assured that his condition is only temporary and his eyes will eventually be healed, Xiao Ma later attempts suicide when he comes to understand that his doctors have been deceiving him and his sight will never return. Surviving, he learns to accept his blindness and attends a special school for those with disabilities where he learns to read braille and is trained as a masseuse – a traditional occupation for the blind in Chinese society. Once qualified he gets a job at the Sha Zongqi Massage Center which is staffed exclusively by those with visual impairments who live together on site and exist as a small and exclusive community.

The trouble begins when the two partners, Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and Zhong Zongqi (Wang Zhihua), invite an old colleague, Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), to join them. Wang brings with him his fiancée, Xiao Kong (Zhang Lei), with whom the young Xiao Ma eventually develops a fascination. Meanwhile, Fuming has also developed a fascination for another newcomer, Du Hong (Mei Ting), who, he has been told, is very “beautiful”. Du Hong, in turn, is attracted to the morose figure of Xiao Ma but perhaps understands that for one reason or another he is unable to “see” her (which might be one of the reasons she continues to pine for him).

As in his previous films, Lou centres himself in a question of haptic connection. The residents of the clinic feel themselves cut off from what they see as “mainstream society” which they believe belongs exclusively to the sighted. Mainstream society, unadaptable and perhaps unwelcoming, has seen fit to exile them to the extent that they are unable to survive outside of the specific career track it has laid down for them and without the support of their own community. Yet their occupation also depends on deep sensory perception on a level deemed inaccessible to the fully sighted and the ability to “see” the things which can’t be “seen”.

Fuming, outgoing and sociable, looks for outlets outside of his own community but is criticised by those within who worry that he is in someway attempting to deny his blindness by adhering to the conceptual world of the sighted which he is otherwise unable to comprehend on a sensory level. His “love” for Du Hong is rooted in ideas of “conventional” beauty which is, in fact, more an expression of his vanity as he longs to possess the “best” girl as Du Hong points out when she reminds him that he has no idea whether she is “beautiful” or not or even what visual “beauty” might be, and that in becoming obsessed with these incomprehensible ideas he has in fact missed all of the things which might be “beautiful” about her on another level than the visual.

Meanwhile, another resident at the clinic has become worried about Xiao Ma’s fixation on Kong and decided the best way to sort him out is to take him to a brothel (ironically, also a kind of “massage parlour”). Though originally reluctant Xiao Ma begins to develop a relationship with sex worker Mann (Huang Lu) which is forged through touch but occurs on a deeper level. A fight with one of Mann’s other clients has the ironic effect of restoring some of his vision, leaving him stumbling and confused but also excited and drunk on a kind of sensory euphoria as he tries to reconcile his differing kinds of perception to make his way home. Yet by this point in his life Xiao Ma’s entire identity and existence revolves around being a blind person – he cannot tell anyone at the clinic that his vision has begun to return for fear of losing his place in their community as well as his ability to support himself.

Eventually the community of the clinic becomes scattered as its residents begin to reassert themselves as individuals re-entering “mainstream society”. Casting visually impaired actors alongside familiar faces, Lou treats his subject with the utmost respect and demonstrates that many of the problems faced by those at the clinic are exactly the same as those faced by the protagonists of his previous films while also reflecting the various ways that society remains intolerant to those who have differing needs. Asking quite profound questions about the nature of “beauty” and “connection” when images have been absented from the frame Lou attempts to “visualise” what it might feel like to “see” without “seeing” in an exploration of defiant hidden realities which often go wilfully unseen in our own blinkered perceptions.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Han Jie, 2017)

Namiya posterKeigo Higashino is almost certainly best known for his crime novels and in particular his most famous detective, Galileo, whose exploits have spawned a successful TV drama series and a fair few cinematic adaptations including the international bestseller, The Devotion of Suspect X. One might expect a writer of mystery novels to be a fierce rationalist, but Higashino occasionally dabbles in the fantastic – The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is more or less a nostalgia fest praising the pre-bubble Japan, implying that the modern world is colder and less kind than the aspiring society of 1979. Adapted for the Chinese market by Han Jie, Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Jiě Yōu Zá Huò Diàn) retains the corner shop where time stands still but locates it in 1993, which is not so much a significant date save being 25 years in the past.

On New Year’s Eve 2017, three teens break into a woman’s home with the idea of causing some damage, but the event goes south when she comes home early and one of the three decides to tie her up and steal a bunch of her stuff. Having gone further than they meant to, the trio wind up in an unfamiliar part of town when the car they’ve stolen runs out of petrol. An improbably quaint, apparently disused corner shop attracts their attention but when they break in to shelter for the night they discover that this is no ordinary store. A ghostly miasma gradually creeps its way in and the three youngsters find themselves answering a collection of letters meant for the store’s owner written in 1993 but only dropping through the letter box now. They funny thing is, they get almost immediate replies.

As one of the teens points out, they weren’t even born in 1993 – this store might as well be from 1793 as far as they’re concerned. Though it drips with nostalgia for a simpler time, Namiya treads (understandably) more carefully in painting early ‘90s Beijing and its rural backwater setting, strenuously avoiding any mention of politics and characterising China’s economic development as an entirely good thing despite the troubles the three teens at the centre have been subject to throughout their apparently difficult lives.

The letter writers have various problems but each in someway relates to being a little lost, a little bit confused about how to move forward in life. A frustrated musician (Lee Hong-chi) whose career is not taking off wants to know whether he should give up and come home, a little boy has a bad relationship with his go-getter parents who have lost all their money and got into trouble with loan sharks, and a melancholy bar hostess (Hao Lei) wants to know if she should become the mistress of a gangster who promises to set her up in a shop that would get her out of her dead end life and still enable her to support her family. The kids are not really qualified to offer any kind of real life advice, with sensitive Xiaobo (Karry Wang) and plucky Tong Tong (Dilraba Dilmurat) reacting in broadly sympathetic terms while the sullen Jie takes a hardline moralist stance in which he just wants to write angry letters to everyone telling them they’re doing everything wrong.

Jie has his own reasons for being so angry, especially as one of the letters touches a nerve in his own personal history but his ambivalence was at one point shared by Papa Namiya (Jackie Chan) himself after he feared his treasured advice might have ended up having a negative effect on people’s lives. Papa Namiya tells the troubled little boy to stick with his parents no matter what because family is the most important thing in a person’s life which might be true much of the time, but not when the parents actively endanger their child. What he finally reassures himself with is that his advice was largely meaningless because most people have already made up their minds what they’re going to do, they just want someone to help them feel like they’re doing the right thing. In fact, no one really follows Papa Namiya’s advice anyway, but the kids are able to make a concrete change when they reveal the economic realities of modern China to a young hopeful who then uses the knowledge to build an international business empire (but makes sure to pay it forward whilst paying tribute to their roots by committing to sponsor an orphanage in need of renovation/expansion).

The slightly awkward message Namiya leaves behind is that dreams come true when people work hard to achieve them but that the young are also free to forge their own destinies, that the world is, for them, infinite and filled with boundless possibility. Optimistic and inspiring as it is, it isn’t terribly realistic and does rather imply that those who haven’t made it are either lazy or dishonest as echoed in the mildly moralistic tone taken with the bar hostess’ dilemma or the odiousness of the corrupt businessman and his failure to protect his family from his own mistakes. Moral judgements and naivety aside, Namiya is an otherwise heartwarming, deliberately uncynical New Year tale which does its best to engender hope for the future in an otherwise cold and unforgiving month.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Crosscurrent (長江圖, Yang Chao, 2016)

crosscurrent poster“Time, like a river, flows both day and night” as the narrator of Yang Chao’s poetical return to source Crosscurrent (長江圖,  Chang Jiang Tu) tells us early on. Like the crosscurrent of the title, ship’s captain Chun sails forth yet also in retrograde as he chases a love he can never truly embrace. Truth be told, the philosophical poetry of a lonely sailor condemned to sail a predetermined course at the mercy of the winds and tides is often obscure and confused, like the half mad ramblings of one who’s spent too much time all alone at sea. Yet his melancholy passage is more metaphor than reality, or several interconnected metaphors as water yearns for shore but is pulled towards the ocean, a man yearns to free himself of his father’s spirit, and mankind yearns for the land yet disrupts and destroys it in its quest for mastery. Often frustrating in its obscurity, Crosscurrent’s breathtaking visuals are the key to unlocking its meditative sadness as they paint the beautiful landscape in its own conflicting colours.

Gao Chun (Qin Hao), a melancholy young man, is mourning the death of his father in all the ways the river expects. Taking over his father’s cargo boat, Chun dutifully catches and keeps the blackfish that is the keeper of his father’s spirit, only once it starves to death will his spirit be free. Though the boat is a large one, Chun has only two other members of crew – his uncle, Xiang, and longstanding deckhand Wusheng. They have little business but Wusheng has managed to find them a new client who needs something or other transported on the hush hush. Once the mysterious cargo has been loaded, Chun manages to negotiate some extra hush money seeing as there’s obviously something not quite right here.

Part way through their journey up the Yangtze River, Chun finds a mysterious ledger hidden away on the boat which contains a number of poems each annotated with the name of a particular harbour. Linked to the book, Chun also encounters a mysterious woman, An Lu, and eventually strikes up a relationship with her during one of his infrequent returns to shore. Chun and An Lu are travelling in the same direction yet also through and past each other. Meeting and parting the pair re-encounter each other on land or make do with fleeting glances from sea to shore but An Lu (Xin Zhilei) is no ordinary woman, each time the same yet strikingly different as she too makes her way towards the origin of all things.

The name of the mysterious woman is “An Lu” – “safe land”. Chun, a sailor adrift on the wide river is always looking for safe harbour and generally finds it waiting for him, even occasionally put out at his lack of arrival. What or who she is remains obscure. An Lu is at once a harbour girl, prostitute, nun, hermit, and lover of all mankind who belongs to no man but refuses no one. Chun yearns for her, slowing the passage of his boat to look for her among the thick foliage of cliffside pathways. Yet there are reasons why they can only be together for short spaces of time. As the sea and the shore, theirs is a relationship of permanent though frustrated, ebbing connection.

As he follows An Lu, Chun reads his poetry like scripture and travels the river against the tide heading for its origin. The life giving river becomes a kind of metaphor as Chun witnesses how its gifts have been misused and subverted by man who wants to master it rather live with its obvious beauty. Passing through ruined villages, Chun eventually makes a gruelling two day passage through the Three Gorges Dam. This giant, manmade structure cleaves the land in two, leaving our two lovers forever separated as the past from the future. The river which flows both day and night, no longer flows at all.

Equal parts spiritual and geographical odyssey, Crosscurrent is a tale of man and landscape, of nationhood, history, and memory all condensed into a wide flowing river. Lyrical yet obscure, its truth is opaque and difficult to discern yet no less deeply felt. Shooting on 35mm and using mostly natural light in harsh conditions, Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary, capturing all of this infinite sadness with an eternal aesthetic beauty. China swims against the tide as Chun and An Lu draw closer only by pulling further apart but all there may be at the end of the journey is the anxious comfort of eternal waiting.


Crosscurrent was screened as part of the 7th Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)