Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊, Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, 2022)

Seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors come together for a collection of personal tales of Hong Kong past and present in the seven-part anthology film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊). Produced by Johnnie To’s Milky Way, the film was first announced several years ago and originally titled Eight & a Half though director John Woo sadly had to leave the project due to his wife’s ill health which explains why there is no short set in the 1970s.

Each of the segments reflects the director’s personal nostalgia for a particular moment in time and there is certainly a divide between the 1950s and 60s sequences directed by Sammo Hung and Ann Hui respectively and those of the 80s and 90s which are imbued with a sense of Handover anxiety along with the closing meditation on the various ways the city has or has not changed. In any case, Sammo Hung’s opener Exercise is a slice of personal nostalgia which looks back to the heyday of Hong Kong kung fu as the young Sammo learns to buckle down and train with discipline under the guidance of his authoritarian teacher played by his own son, Timmy Hung. Similarly education-themed, Hui’s Headmaster echoes the documentary aesthetic seen in the later stages of Our Time Will Come in her naturalistic capture of a primary school reunion taking place in 2001 before flashing back to the early ‘60s as the headmaster and the children reminisce about a kind and idealistic young teacher who sadly passed away at 39 from a longterm illness exacerbated by misapplied traditional medicine. Essentially a tale of old-fashioned reserve in the unrealised desires of the headmaster and the teacher who elected not to marry because of her illness in the knowledge she would die young, Hui’s gentle melodrama harks back to a subtler age. 

Patrick Tam’s 80s segment, Tender is the Night, perhaps does the opposite in its incredibly theatrical tale of love thwarted by political realities as a lovelorn middle-aged man looks back on the failure of his first, and last, love for the teenage girlfriend who like so many of that time emigrated with her parents to escape Handover anxiety. Rich in period detail and imbued with the overwhelming quality of adolescent emotion, Tam’s maximalist romance is a tale of love in the age of excess but also of middle-aged nostalgia and personal myth making which nevertheless positions the looming Handover as a point of youthful transition. 

The 1997 sequence itself, Homecoming directed by Yuen Wo-ping, is in someways subversive in again presenting a young woman who firmly believes her future lies abroad rather than in post-Handover Hong Kong and placing her at playful odds with her traditionalist grandfather, a former martial arts champion who spends his days watching old Wong Fei-Hung movies. The eventual resolution that the girl, who insists on going by her Western name Samantha, returns to Hong Kong a few years later to care for the grandfather who has aged quite rapidly undercuts the sense of anxiety, yet there is something in the cultural and generational conflict that exists between them eased by mutual exchange as she teaches him basic English and he teaches her kungfu that hints less that the traditional is better than the modern than that there’s room for both hamburgers and rice rolls. 

Moving into the 2000s, Johnnie To’s Bonanza then takes aim at the increasingly consumerist mindset of the contemporary society in picking up a theme from Life Without Principle as three young Hong Konger’s become obsessed with getting rich quick through financial investment beginning with the dot-com bubble and shifting into property profiteering during the SARS epidemic. The trio fail every time before hitting the jackpot with some shares they bought by mistake during the 2008 financial crisis suggesting that it all just luck after all. One of the guys comically switches business opportunities in line with each of the crises/opportunities, firstly getting into mobile phones, then peddling healthcare products, and finally investing in self-storage in an echo of his society’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. 

The final film from Ringo Lam who completed his segment Astray shortly before passing away 2018 continues the theme in meditating on the modern city as its hero is literally killed by a sense of cultural dislocation after getting lost in a very changed Hong Kong having emigrated to the UK and returned with his family for a New Year holiday. While ironically remembering his own father complaining that times had changed, he finds himself bewildered by the absence of familiar landmarks and adrift in his home city. He dreams another life for himself in the countryside in which his son decides to emigrate to America while his wife would prefer he find a job in Hong Kong but his final message to him that it’s not difficult to live happily perhaps frees him of the sense of nostalgia which has led to his father’s death.

The best and final episode, however, Tsui Hark’s Conversation is set at no particular time and my in fact take place in the future as a mental patient, who might actually be a doctor pretending to be a mental patient, suddenly gives his name as Ann Hui followed by Maggie Cheung and a string of Hong Kong directors from Ringo Lan to Jonnie To and John Woo and challenges the doctor, who might be a mental patient, as he struggles to keep up with him. Tsui and Hui make reflective cameo’s at the segment’s conclusion perhaps hinting that this has been a deep conversation with the history not only of Hong Kong but its cinema through the eyes of those who helped to make it what it is.


Septet: The Story of Hong Kong screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Deliverance (源生罪, Kelvin Shum, 2022)

A young woman haunted by the buried memories of repressed trauma discovers that sometimes it really is better not to know but also comes to a new appreciation of familial love in Kelvin Shum’s visually striking psychological chiller, Deliverance (源生罪). Meaning something more like original sin the Chinese title hints at the reconsideration of the traditional family which lies under the central mystery and prompts the heroine, long separated from her siblings, to question the nature of her familial bonds and whether she can really say that those closest to her have her best interests at heart. 

After living abroad for 15 years, Nicole (Summer Chan) has married and returned home to Hong Kong with her husband but is haunted by a shadowy figure that reminds her of her childhood trauma in being unable to remember anything about the night her mother passed away after a long illness. Back in a familiar environment and reconnecting with her siblings, old memories begin to surface particularly after a few sessions with her famous hypnotist brother, Joseph (Simon Yam). Gradually she begins to suspect that her mother may not have died of her illness as she was led to believe but may have been murdered and possibly by a member of her immediate family which was then under intense pressure from loansharks due to debts run up by her absent father who ran away and abandoned the family to their fate. 

The theme of abandonment continues to resonate, Nicole insecure in her familial relationships as her brothers sent her abroad to study shortly after their mother’s death. She can’t escape the idea that they are keeping something from her, and is quite literally haunted by her inability to remember what happened on the night her mother died. But as Joseph had said during one of his lectures, memory is a treacherous thing and if you don’t remember something perhaps that’s because it’s better not to. Then again as her brother Will adds, it’s impossible to escape your past and someday you will be expected to answer for it whether you remember it or not. 

Nicole’s insistence on knowing the truth may partly be motivated by the fact that she is shortly to become a mother herself, though Joseph tries to convince her that her eerie visions and increasing paranoia are side effects of her pregnancy. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and Nicole is beginning to feel as if she can’t trust anyone anymore, but nor can she trust her memories many of which are influenced by her brother’s hypnotism. Working as a doctor she is touched by the relationship between an elderly couple who remain devoted to each other as the husband (Kenneth Tsang) contends with terminal cancer, but is also struck by the discord between their children who argue loudly in the corridor about the responsibilities of care and the financial burden of their father’s medical treatment. 

The understanding she begins to come to is that all of these reactions can in fact come from a place of love even if it doesn’t really seem like it on the surface. Whatever happened to her mother it may be no different, and if her family are indeed keeping something from her it may be out of a desire to protect her from the truth however misguided a desire that may be. As Joseph had said in his speech, emotions can take lives but they can also save them, though it appears the pain of not knowing is eating away at Nicole’s soul and only the truth can set her free. Mr Lam, the terminal cancer patient, cheerfully explains that all of life is a journey towards death but only to emphasise that it’s how you use the time that’s important so obsessing over the past might not serve you so well in the end. In any case, the journey into her own psyche may be uncomfortable and reveal truths that are painful but allows Nicole to begin overcoming her trauma while repairing her existing familial bonds before beginning new ones. Shot with noirish visual flair featuring high contrast colour and a dreamlike eeriness in Nicole’s ever present haunting, Shum’s psychological mystery suggests orphaned files must be brought back into the fold and that there can be no healing without truth but also that the expression of love can take many forms not all of which are easily understood. 


Deliverance had its World Premiere as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (dialogue free)

Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生, Danny Lee Sau-Yin & Billy Tang Hin-Shing, 1992) [Fantasia 2022]

“Every good man should get revenge” the young protagonist of Danny Lee Sau-Yin and Billy Tang Hin-Shing’s depraved Cat III shocker Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生) is told though as will become apparent, he is not a good man and if his heinous crimes are born of vengeance the target may remain indistinct. Long available only in a censored version which perhaps helped to create its gruesome reputation, the film like others in the early ‘90s Cat III boom is based on a real life case, that of taxi driver Lam Kor-wan who murdered four female passengers before being caught by police when an assistant at a photo shop alerted them to the disturbing quality of the negatives he had brought in to be developed. 

As such, the film is not a procedural. It begins with the arrest of a man here called Lin Gwao-yu (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) who claims the negatives are not his and that he brought them in on behalf of a friend named Chang (which is also coincidentally the name of the half-brother he continues to resent). On investigating the flat where he lives with his father, half-siblings, and niece, the police realise that Gwao-yu is in indeed a serial killer and the rest of the film is divided into a series of flashbacks as they try to convince him to confess and reveal how and why he committed these crimes the last of which he actually videoed himself doing. 

Nevertheless, the police themselves are depicted not quite as bumbling but certainly not much better than the criminals they prosecute in their own lust for violence, savagely beating Gwao-yu who refuses to speak in order to force him to confess. Fat Bing (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) is portrayed as a particularly bad example, encouraging the other cops to play cards rather than focus on their stakeout of the photo shop almost allowing Gwao-yu to escape and then titillated by the more normal pinups and glamour shots pinned to Gwao-yu’s wardrobe as well as some of the less normal ones before realising that the women in them are dead. There is some original controversy over whether they should be investigating at all given that taking weird pictures of nude women is not in itself illegal while the misogynistic attitudes of the police are carried over onto one of their own officers who is forced to play the part of the victim during a re-enactment and is later struck by a stray body part as a result of Fat Bing’s crime scene incompetence. One of the murders even takes place directly outside a police box where the victim had tried to ask for help but got no reply.

Pressed for a reason for his crimes Gwao-yu offers only that all but the last of his victims were bad women who deserved die, each in a repeated motif fatalistically colliding with his cab and crawling inside having had too much to drink. Flashbacks to his childhood place the blame on his wicked step-mother’s rejection along with that of his siblings while his father alone defends him if somewhat indifferently, describing him as merely “curious” on catching Gwao-yu voyeuristically spying on he and his wife having sex and disowning him only on discovering that he has also been abusing his niece who is strangely the only member of the family who seems to be fond of him. Yet it’s also this problematically incestuous living environment that has facilitated his crimes. Gwao-yu takes the bodies home to play with and dismember having the house to himself during the day because he works nights while continuing to share a pair of bunk beds with the brother he hates at the age of 28 either unwilling or unable to get a place of his own on a taxi driver’s earnings. Aside from his brother noticing a strange smell, the family who all think him weird anyway apparently remain oblivious to Gwao-yu’s crimes despite the jars containing body parts he keeps in a locked cupboard along with disturbing photographs of his dark deeds. Nevertheless it’s their police-sanctioned beating of him which eventually provokes his confessions. 

Set off by rainy nights, Gwao-yu twitches, gurns, and howls like a dog leering at his victims like a predatory wolf. In the police interrogation scenes he continues with his strange, dancelike movements as if in a trance reliving his crimes. The truth is that the police had not really investigated the disappearances of the women he killed, had no clue a serial killer was operating, and would not have caught Gwao-yu if it were not for his own lack of interest in not being caught in taking the photos to be developed publicly despite claiming to have the ability to have simply developed them himself while videoing his brutal treatment of one victim’s body and his disturbing “wedding night” with another. A final scene of Inspector Lee visiting Gwao-yu in prison visually references Clarice’s first visit to Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs which might go someway to explaining the title which is otherwise perhaps ironic in Gwao-yu’s ritualistic use of a scalpel and specimen jars. In any case for all its lurid, disturbing content the film has a strange beauty in its atmospheric capture of a neon-lit Hong Kong stalked as it is by an almost palpable evil. 


Dr. Lamb screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is available on blu-ray in the US courtesy of Unearthed Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Raging Fire (怒火, Benny Chan, 2021)

“If you had chased Coke that day, would our destinies have been reversed?” a cop turned villain asks of his righteous colleague, but his friend has no answer for him. The final film from director Benny Chan who sadly passed away last year after being diagnosed with cancer while filming, Raging Fire (怒火) pits a disgruntled police officer wronged by the system against an incorruptible detective but suggests that the real villain is an increasingly corrupt society in which the rich and powerful have a direct line to justice. 

As the film opens, noble officer Cheung (Donnie Yen) is racing towards some kind of altercation in a shipyard but later wakes up next to his much younger and very pregnant wife (Qin Lan). After a years long operation, his team is about to take out a petty criminal involved with a previous investigation which resulted in fellow officers getting sent to prison for excessive use of force. After refusing to to help a wealthy businessman make his son’s drunken car accident go away, Cheung is taken off the case while the raid turns out to have been a trap leaving eight of his friends dead and many more injured. Through his investigations, Cheung begins to realise that his former colleague Ngo (Nicholas Tse), recently released from prison, may be responsible for the deaths of his friends in pursuing a vigilante revenge against the police force he feels betrayed him. 

“This society doesn’t reward good men” Ngo later insists, though his total and relatively sudden transformation from earnest cop to bloodthirsty psychopathic killer seems something of a stretch. Cheung aside, the Hong Kong police force is depicted as infinitely corrupt and working at the behest of the rich and powerful to further agendas not always in the interests of justice. The case which caused so much trouble related to the kidnapping of a prominent financier and the secretary he was canoodling with at the time, the financier’s wife having obeyed the kidnappers’ instructions not to call the police by ringing a government contact instead which is why the operation is covert. Ngo and his team were told to do whatever it took to extract information from a suspect who later wound up dead but were hung out to dry by the superior officer who ordered it. Not unreasonably they see themselves as victims of a corrupt system but care little who might get in the way of their vicious bid for revenge. 

For his part, Chueng is also a thorn in the side of his colleagues because of his refusal to play along with the base level corruption all around him. Dragged to the meeting with the businessman by nervous colleague Beau (Patrick Tam), Cheung sips tea rather than the wine everyone else is drinking and eventually storms out making a point of paying for his exorbitantly priced beverage while refusing to be complicit with systemic corruption. So upright is he that he asks a passing driver if he has insurance before borrowing his car to chase down Ngo and when he himself is accused of breaking protocol the entire squad shows up to petition the disciplinary panel on his behalf. Ngo asks him if the situation would have been reversed had it been Cheung who had questioned the suspect that night, but of course it wouldn’t because Cheung would never have beaten a suspect to death in the first place. 

Chan places this debate front and centre by setting the final showdown in a church currently undergoing renovation, Ngo seemingly judged for his moral transgressions while Cheung meditates on the man he used to be in a bromance montage that laments the tragedy of Ngo’s fall from grace. The battle of wits between the two men, Ngo of course uniquely positioned to game the system he rails against, ends only in futility while the system which created him remains unchanged. Chan shoots with characteristic visual flare sending his compromised cops through a golden hellscape of the contemporary city veering between beautifully choreographed, high octane action sequences including a lengthy car chase through a highly populated area, and procedural thrills tinged with ambivalent social commentary in which justice itself has become commodified while police officers exceed their authority and bow to the rich and powerful. A throwback to classic Hong Kong action, Chan’s final film is a fitting finale for the career of a director taken far too soon. 


Raging Fire screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and will be released in US cinemas on Aug, 13 courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王, Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

In the grandest tradition of Hong Kong “sequels”, Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王) has almost no connection to 2017’s Chasing the Dragon which starred Donnie Yen and Andy Lau as famed ‘70s gangster Crippled Ho and bent copper Lee Rock respectively. It is however part of a planned trilogy of films directed by Wong Jing and Jason Kwan “celebrating” legendary Hong Kong “heroes”. Abandoning the grand historical sweep of the first film, Wild Wild Bunch situates itself firmly in 1996 on the eve of the handover when, it claims, Hong Kong was close to a lawless state seeing as the colonial British authorities were already in retreat and therefore largely disinterested in governing. 

It’s this laxity, coupled with an age of excess, which has enabled the rise of real life kidnapping kingpin Cheung Tze-keung (Tony Leung Ka-fai) also known as Big Spender and here known as Logan Long. Logan makes his money by ransoming the richest figures not only in Hong Kong but the wealthier stretches of the Sinosphere and the Mainland cops are after him because they see him as an inconvenience from old Hong Kong they’d rather not inherit. Accordingly, they enlist veteran Hong Kong policemen, Inspector Li (Simon Yam Tat-wah) and bomb disposals expert He Sky (Louis Koo Tin-lok), to help them because they’ve heard that Logan is in need of a new explosives guy after the last one blew himself up. Sky is supposed to go deep undercover in Logan’s gang to save his next victim and take him down in the process. 

Though inspired by the real life legend, Sky’s infiltration is obviously fiction and in actuality Cheung Tze-keung was caught before his kidnapping of Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho, here Standford He (Michael Wong Man-tak), could take place though setting the tale in the former Portuguese colony famous for its casinos (illegal in Mainland China) adds another meta level of colonial critique in situating itself firmly in the world of wealthy elites corrupted by their fabulous wealth. Real life gangster Cheung was apparently a well-liked figure, branding himself as a loveable rogue and less altruistic Robin Hood who liked to spread his wealth around by giving out lavish gifts seemingly at random though also enjoying living the high life himself. Logan is much the same, holing up at his mansion safe house in the rolling hills with his criminal “family”, declaring himself a fair man. If you cross him he’ll be sure to investigate fully but if he finds you betrayed him his revenge will be merciless. He cares deeply about his guys but also, perhaps unwittingly, terrorises them to the extent that they all pretend to enjoy eating durian fruit to please him, while reacting to tragedy with old-fashioned gangster ethics in trading his own girlfriend and a significant amount of cash to a gang member whose pregnant wife ended up dead because of his cowardly brother Farrell (Sherman Ye Xiangming) who is frankly a walking liability. 

Sky too is a family man, constantly worrying about his elderly mother and giving instructions to Li as to how to look after her if anything goes wrong and he doesn’t make it back from Macau. Sky’s mum is also quite concerned that her son has never married, and there is something quite homely in the strangely deep friendship between Li and Sky which has its unavoidably homoerotic context in Li’s cheerfully intimate banter in which it often seems he’s about to kiss his brother-in-arms which might not go down so well with the Mainland censors board who are otherwise so obviously being courted with the heroic presentation of the PRC police force only too eager to clear up the mess the British left behind. 

Then again, Cheung Tze-keung’s case was notable in that is presented an early constitutional conflict to the One Country Two Systems principle seeing as he was a Hong Konger tried (and sentenced to death) on the Mainland for crimes committed outside its jurisdiction, something which had additional resonance in the climate of summer 2019 in which vast proportions of the city came out to protest the hated Extradition Bill. In any case, Wild Wild Bunch owes more to classic ‘90s Hollywood actioners than it perhaps does to local cinema with its frequent bomb disposal set pieces and final climactic car chase which nevertheless literally pushes Logan over the line and into the arms of the PRC, the flamboyant gangster taking a bow as he tears up his ill gotten gains with a rueful grin in acknowledging his loss to a superior power. 


US release trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Little Q (小Q, Law Wing-Cheong, 2019)

little q poster 4You might think, in this day and age, that guide dogs are a fairly uncontroversial subject, but it might interest you to know that Hong Kong apparently has a vast guide dog deficit with fewer than 40 working in the city as of 2016 which is around one for every 4,300 visually impaired people. That might be part of the reason that Little Q (小Q, Xiǎo Q), adapted from a Japanese photobook by Ryohei Akimoto & Kengo Ishiguro, largely plays out as a feature length advert for the Hong Kong Guide Dogs Association, which is one of only two organisations training guide dogs and was set up in 2011 ending a 26-year absence of any such body.

The film charts the entire life cycle of the titular Little Q, whom we first meet literally falling into the arms of grumpy pastry chef Po-ting (Simon Yam Tat-wah). Rewinding a little, we realise that Po-ting’s sister and her vet husband are involved with the raising of guide dogs, sending Little Q off to live with his “foster family” which, perhaps irresponsibly, is in the home of plucky little girl Tsz-kiu (Jessica Liu Chutian). For those who don’t know, and as the film perhaps hopes to illuminate, guide dogs are trained in a family home by ordinary people who’ve agreed to look after them for the first 18 months of their lives, after which the dogs are given a final aptitude test and then placed with a blind person for a probationary period to assess their compatibility. Of course, agreeing to foster a dog knowing that you’ll eventually have to give it up can be emotionally difficult even for an adult, so placing that responsibility on a child is only going to lead to tears, of which there are plenty as Tsz-kiu is finally forced to accept that Little Q can’t stay with her forever because she has a greater calling.

Simon (Him Law Chung-him), the trainer/co-ordinator, promises Tsz-kiu that he’ll make sure Little Q has a lovely life with a person who truly appreciates her and that he’ll be sure to bring Little Q right back if she’s ever hurt or mistreated, but in part he knows he’s being disingenuous because they’ve already decided she’ll be going to Po-ting. Po-ting does not want a guide dog and is only getting one because of his sister’s connection to the programme. The problem is that Po-ting was always a “difficult” person. A well known TV pastry chef, he made a name for himself being mean in the way only a celebrity chef can. He has no respect for his service animal in part because he has no respect for other people, and because he was good at what he did people let him get away with it. Po-ting once cut down a contestant on the TV show by insisting that a chef must use all five senses, so he feels particularly trolled by the universe to have lost his sight and is struggling to accept his blindness. Feeling a sense of internalised shame because of his disability in addition to the fear and anxiety involved with adjusting to his new life has made him even more unpleasant and resentful than he was before. Angrily insisting he needs no additional help, he rejects and mistreats Little Q, even violently throwing her out of his well appointed home in the pouring rain.

As this is Little Q’s story, however, we only get a back seat view to Po-ting’s gradual softening as he begins to let her into his life, engineering not only a warmer relationship with his sister/partner in the pastry shop (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) but also with his apprentices, while he begins to see that the loss of his sight is only a change and not a tragedy. Through it all, Little Q is at his side, steadfastly loyal even when he tries to push her away, which is perhaps not quite the best message to be sending though it does emphasise the intense attachment that necessarily develops between a guide dog and its owner.

Law hints at an ethical dilemma in pointing out the toll taken on the dogs in the course of their work, but heads it off in reminding us that they get to “retire” and live out their final days as pampered pets while demonstrating that the reformed Po-ting breaks all the rules by playing ball with Little Q like a regular family dog. The paradox is difficult to bear as owners must act in symbiosis with their dogs, but are reminded that they’re service animals belonging to the organisation not personal pets and should something happen to them, will be shuffled on to others in need or returned to their foster families. Nevertheless, Little Q gets the best of both worlds, bonding fiercely with the grumpy Po-ting as he figures out how to live and love by following her lead.


Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.

Trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

A or B (幕后玩家, Ren Pengyuan, 2018)

A or B poster 2It’s difficult not to read every film that comes out of the Mainland as a comment on modern China but there does seem to be a persistent need to address the rapid changes engulfing the increasingly prosperous society through the medium of cinema. A or B (幕后玩家, Mùhòu Wánjiā) is the latest in a long line of thrillers to ask if the pursuit of economic success has resulted in the decline of traditional morality. Life is, according to a mysterious voice on the other end of a walkie talkie, a series of choices – A or B, you or me. When someone says they have no choice, what they usually mean is that they have chosen me over you and expect the decision to be understood because if the situation were reversed, you would have done the same.

Corrupt financial billionaire Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) has been content to justify himself with this excuse. Having ousted his predecessor through blackmail and manipulation, he rose to be the head of a vast corporate empire while Zeng (Simon Yam), his former boss, committed suicide, a ruined and humiliated figure reduced to abject despair by Zhong’s campaign of malicious finagling. Despite his vast wealth, Zhong’s appetite for success remains unsatisfied while his wife Simeng (Wang Likun), disgusted by his ongoing descent into avaricious amorality, threatens to leave rather than watch him destroy himself.

With a number of schemes in operation, Zhong returns home drunk one evening to find his wife gone, collapsing into a restless drunken stupor. When he wakes up he discovers that he is now trapped inside his mansion – the windows have been boarded up and all the doors locked. Finding a walkie talkie in a box, Zhong is messaged by a mysterious voice who tells him that every morning at 9.30 (just as the financial news begins) he will be given a binary choice. Zhong must choose A or B or his kidnapper will set both in motion.

A or B is a complex kidnap thriller, but it’s also the story of a marriage and a metaphor for the compromises of modernity. Zhong, once an ambitious youngster from a humble background, claims he set himself on the road to ruin in pursuit of a “good life” on behalf of his wife. His wife, however, has a wildly different view of a “good life” to that of her husband. Simeng sacrificed her journalistic ambitious of becoming a war photographer to shift into technology in order to better understand Zhong only to be forced to give that up too when her discoveries of his duplicities began to alarm her. What Simeng wanted was less the huge mansion and expensive jewellery than a stable life of ordinary comfort with a loving and attentive husband who strived to understand her in the way she tried to understand him – something Zhong has completely failed to realise in his male drive to get ahead. Simeng threatens to leave, not because Zhong’s increasing moral depravity has killed her love for him, but that through leaving (and taking a number of his shares with her) she may be able to wake him up and put a stop to his headlong descent into amoral criminality.

Zhong has indeed fallen quite far as his first few A or B choices make clear. It doesn’t take him long to decide to throw a lifelong friend under the bus rather than further damage his business enterprise, only latterly making a frantic appeal to his captor to find out what happened to him. Confronted by the very real and often tragic consequences of his “choices” Zhong is forced into a reconsideration of the last decade of his life. Rather than ruminate, his first instinct is for action and so he sets about trying to escape his makeshift cage little knowing that his captor may have factored his ingenuity in to their original plan. He cannot however escape his final responsibility for becoming the man he is and faces the ultimate binary choice – to continue as he is and slide further down the road to ruin, or turn himself in to the police admitting his wrongdoing and pledging to start again on a more comfortable moral footing.

The identity of the kidnapper and their motives may be fairly easy to guess, but director Ren Pengyuan keeps the tension high as Zhong – played by comedy star Xu Zheng flexing his dramatic muscles, battles himself while trying to bridge the gap between the man he’d like to be and the one he has become. Fiercely critical of the empty materialism that has begun to define modern success, A or B insists that there is a choice to be made when it comes to deciding what gets sacrificed in the quest for prosperity. Zhong at least seems to have rediscovered what is important, reaffirming his commitment to an honest, if simpler, life warmed by the humble pleasure of wanton soup delivered by loving hands.


A or B opens in selected UK cinemas on 4th May courtesy of Cine Asia – check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Dante Lam, 2018)

Operation Red Sea posterDante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.

The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.

Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.

The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.

Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.

Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)