The Island (一出好戏, Huang Bo, 2018)

the island poster 1Comedy seems to have regained its bite of late. Filmmakers seeking to deliver pointed barbs at the modern China are pulling away from the traditionally safe areas of the period drama for a natural home in satire which for the time being at least is running rings around the censors’ board, albeit in a subdued fashion. The directorial debut from comedic actor Huang Bo, The Island (一出好戏, Yìchū Hăoxì) offers a mini lesson on the perils of untapped capitalism, tyranny, propaganda and “fake news” agendas in the form of a genial romcom in which a nice guy loser makes himself the king and wins the heart of his fair princess only for his empire to crumble under the weight of his own conflicted moralities.

On the day a meteor may or may not be on course to fall to Earth, dejected middle-aged office worker Ma Jin (Huang Bo) is off on a “team building” trip with his colleagues which involves a lengthy journey on an aquatic bus. Ma seems to owe money to just about everyone but swears he will soon pay them back, meanwhile he’s also hoping to get close to office beauty Shanshan (Shu Qi ) on whom he has a longstanding crush. At long last, it seems like Ma’s ship has finally come in – on checking his lottery numbers, Ma realises he’s the jackpot winner and can probably quit his boring job as soon as they dock, possibly even sweeping Shanshan off her feet as he does so. Alas it is not to be as seconds later the meteorite strikes engulfing the duck boat in a tsunami and eventually marooning the entire party on a deserted rocky island somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Huang wastes no time mocking modern consumerism. Ma Jin is now a millionaire but it couldn’t matter less. Likewise, slick boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) is at a similar impasse. He’s supposed to be in charge, an innovator and entrepreneur with all the ideas and a clear path to success but he is stunned and can only scream into the ocean while vowing to use his vast wealth to buy a new ship. The passengers look for leaders, some sticking with their social superior Zhang while others start to flock to the energetic bus driver Wang (Wang Baoqiang) who offers more practical solutions having discovered an abundant crop of fruit trees during an early exploration of the terrain. Wang used to be a monkey keeper and quickly assumes control with an authority born of strength and dominance as well as the withholding of the means to survive from those who do not submit to him.

It’s not long before some of the passengers long to be free of his oppressive yoke and the ideal opportunity arises when capitalist boss Zhang chances on a ready supply of capital in the form of a shipwrecked, upside-down boat which is laden with supplies. Ma Jin and his cousin Xing (Lay Zhang) follow Zhang who later institutes a market economy using playing cards for currency which offers the illusion of freedom but traps the employees in a system of capitalistic wage slavery while Zhang gets “rich” at the top of the pile. Ma Jin and Xing eventually grow disillusioned with their increased status at Zhang’s side when they realise he doesn’t have a plan for getting off the island and has given up on the idea of returning to civilisation.

Pitting two sides against the other, Ma Jin manages to create unity under a system of communism with capitalist characteristics (you see where he going with this?) in which he reigns as something like first among equals. Ma Jin’s “communist” utopia filled with laughter, song, and impromptu dance sequences is only born when he realises he’s missed the date to claim his lottery ticket and that there’s nothing worth going back for whether civilisation still exists or not. With his new found status, he’s finally able to get close the emotionally wounded Shanshan but becomes increasingly conflicted as the “fakery’ required to keep his regime in place begins to weigh on his mind, especially when a boat is spotted on the horizon and the entire system seems primed to crumble. Ma Jin gives in to his worst instincts at the instigation of his even more corrupted cousin who brands the boat visionary a false prophet, a madman who can’t accept the wonders of the new regime.

Only when confronted with Shanshan’s genuine emotion for the man he was pretending to be does Ma Jin wake up from his embittered fever dream to realise the dangers of the world he has created out of his own sense of inferiority, and particularly the harm done to his cousin who perhaps always felt a little oppressed just by him. The message is however compromised by Ma Jin’s otherwise positive realisation that lack of money was not as big a barrier to his success as lack of self confidence and avoidance of truthful emotional connections which of course undermines the central criticism of the increasing inequalities of modern Chinese society just as the ironic coda undoes the anti-consumerist message. Nevertheless, though overlong The Island successfully marries its romantic comedy core with its satirical aspirations thanks to the committed performances of the always radiant Shu Qi who invests the underwritten Shanshan with the necessary levels of wavering earnest while Huang Bo brings his usual hangdog charm to the role of the corrupted everyman.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

My Best Friend’s Wedding (我最好朋友的婚礼, Chen Feihong, 2016)

My Best Friend's WeddingChinese cinema screens are no stranger to the event movie, and so a Chinese remake of the much loved 1997 Hollywood rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding (我最好朋友的婚礼, Wǒ Zuì Hǎo Péngyǒu de Hūnlǐ) arrives right on time for Chinese Valentine’s Day. Purely by coincidence of course! However, those familiar with the 1997 Julia Roberts starring movie may recall that My Best Friend’s Wedding is a classic example of the subverted romance which doesn’t end with the classic happy ever after, but acts as a tonic to the sickly sweet love stories Hollywood is known for by embracing the more realistic philosophy that sometimes it just really is too late and you have to accept that you let the moment get away from you, painful as that may be.

This time the story focuses on Gu Jia (Shu Qi), recently made editor-in-chief of a Chinese fashion magazine her career is riding high but there’s something nagging at Gu Jia’s happiness that she’s been content to keep on the back burner. On an important work assignment in Milan she begins remembering a wonderful holiday she had there with her childhood friend Lin Ran (Feng Shaofeng). Lin Ran is a football reporter who has been working in London with the BBC so he and Gu Jia have not seen each other for a while. Just as she’s going into her first fashion show, Gu Jia receives an unexpected phone call from Lin Ran who has some surprising news – he’s getting married. The following weekend. Suddenly Gu Jia’s world crumbles.

Jumping on the next plane to London, Gu Jia makes a fool of herself as a crying mess but meets a very nice, sympathetic guy who does a good job of pretending not to mind very much when she chucks champaign all over him during a drunken “conversation” with her mental Lin Ran. On arrival she’s thrilled to see the real Lin Ran but much less so to meet his wife to be – Xuan Xuan (Victoria Song), a very young, bubbly, and slightly silly girl from an extremely wealthy family. Gu Jia is even more determined than ever to derail Lin Ran’s wedding and win him back for herself.

There was undoubtedly something very 1990s about My Best Friend’s Wedding and its daring acknowledgement that sometimes the happy ending lies in learning to accept there are things you will always regret, but you just have to learn to live with them. Somehow it’s difficult to imagine a romantic comedy making a success of a “realistic” ending rather the dash to the airport final confessions and reconciliations the genre is known for in these more troubled times. It’s surprising that in switching the action to China the ages of the leads have increased – Julia Roberts’ character was 28 in the original film (the idea being to get married before 28) but Shu Qi and Feng Shaofeng are playing characters in their ‘30s who have already established themselves in extremely successful, international careers.

The majority of the film takes place in London and is filled with picturesque, touristy images of the various famous landmarks, sunshine filled green parks, and of course big red buses. This is the London inhabited by the elite super rich who flit between upscale boutiques and live in spacious Kensington townhouses with flashy convertibles parked in the paved driveway which is enclosed inside a large metal gate (at one point Gu Jia and Lin Ran take a ride on a double-decker as an “experience” because he hasn’t been on one in years). It’s all very “aspirational” in one sense, but also a little unpleasant as rich people hang out with other rich people because they’re all rich together and all anyone’s interested in is how much money everyone else has.

This becomes the film’s central problem as it indulges in some the least subtle product placement to ever grace the cinema screen. On arrival in Milan, Gu Jia heads into the Bulgari hotel which has adverts for Bulgari watches on the TV screens (as the real hotel undoubtedly does) with the brand then turning up on shopping bags and even prominently on the lid of a wedding ring box. The film also makes a show of everything from whiskies to airlines and fashion houses including an actual cameo from designer Christian Louboutin.

The one thing it doesn’t showcase is any kind of emotional connection with the material. Shu Qi does what she can with an extremely underwritten part which provides her with no real way to explain just why it is she finds it impossible to reveal her true feelings to Lin Ran, but there’s little chemistry between any of the co-stars and the various connections between them never ring true.  Unlike the original film, Gu Jia’s “boyfriend” stooge (a Mandarin speaking British Chinese guy, Nick, played by Rhydian Vaughn) is not gay though he does briefly pretend to be to open a path for Lin Ran to choose Gu Jia over his wife-to-be.

A big budget, prestige picture moving from upscale Chinese high rise cities to biscuit tin London and elegant, neo-classical Milan, My Best Friend’s Wedding is a shallow affair which attempts to cover up for its lack of soul with high production values. Shu Qi does her best and turns in another characteristically charming performance with good support from her co-stars but they can’t make up for the lack of any real connection throughout the overly glossy proceedings. A mild misfire despite its starry cast, My Best Friend’s Wedding fails on both the comedic and romantic fronts yet does offer some very pretty shots of various picturesque European locales.

Original trailer (English subtitles)