Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Li Xiaofeng, 2020)

“How dare you want to live when your existence is pointless” a father admonishes his blameless son, deflecting his own willing complicity in the persistent decline of the modern China. Repeatedly abandoned and betrayed firstly by his society, then by his friend, and finally by his father, the hero of Li Xiaofeng’s moody neo-noir Back to the Wharf (风平浪静, Fēngpínglàngjìng) first chooses self-exile only to eventually return and wonder if his crime has been forgotten allowing him to live again before discovering that nothing really changes, there is no escape from the whims of the rich and powerful in an increasingly feudal society. 

Quiet and studious, Song Hao (at 17: Zhou Zhengjie / at 32: Zhang Yu) first wakes up to life’s unfairness in 1992 when he’s called into school on a holiday by his headmaster who breaks the news that he’s losing his guaranteed university place supposedly because his grades are good enough to get there on his own and others need it more. “I like to prioritise the collective over the individual” he explains, reminding him that an extra person from the school going to a top uni can only be a good thing though it’s obviously a blow to Hao not to mention his ambitious father Jianfei (Wang Yanhui) who immediately rings up to complain and discovers that the place is going not to a needy student but Hao’s best friend Li Tang (Lee Hong-chi), son of the local mayor. Angry and confused, father and son set off on circular journeys to confront their respective counterparts, but there’s a storm raging and Hao accidentally wanders into the wrong house after noticing the door flapping in the wind. After walking past a baby sleeping upstairs he runs into an old man who mistakes him for someone else and soon lashes out, shoving fruit into his mouth and trying to suffocate him at which point Hao picks up a knife and stabs his attacker in the belly. Taking flight in terror Hao believes he has just killed a man and orphaned a little girl, never knowing that his father arrived a few minutes later and finished the old man off to stop him talking or that Li Tang was watching the whole thing from a window in the opposite building. 

Returning 15 years later for his mother’s funeral, it’s Li Tang who is most pleased to see Hao when he runs into him by chance at the ruins of the scene of his crime now a future development site for the young real estate tycoon, that is if the now young woman (Den Enxi) the orphaned baby has become whom Hao had been following out of guilt-ridden curiosity would agree to vacate her family property. While Hao has been languishing as a lonely construction worker, Tang has prospered off the back of the 90s economic boom largely thanks to an entrenched network of local corruption that runs from his father the mayor through Hao’s father Jianfei who was handed a fat promotion presumably to placate him over the uni places scandal. Tang has, in a sense, stolen his future leaving him quite literally displaced wandering in the ruined landscape of a haunted past while his father, he discovers, had divorced his mother and remarried in order to have another son. “Your upbringing was a failure” he cooly explains, he needed another male heir to salvage the family reputation and restore his name. Jianfei has, however, done pretty well out of the arrangement now a wealthy man with a separate apartment Hao is not welcome to visit but planning to send his wife and child abroad and retire to Australia. 

Intending to leave as soon as possible, Hao nevertheless starts to wonder if it hasn’t blown over and he might in a sense be allowed to seek happiness, bamboozled into a romance with an old school friend (Song Jia) apparently carrying a torch for him all this time. The past, however, will not let him go. The corruption runs deeper than he even suspected as does Li Tang’s insecure greed and duplicity, attempting to force friendship through blackmail. An embodiment of post-70s fuerdai Li Tang is an amoral capitalist willing to do anything it takes in pursuit of wealth, but at heart a coward ashamed that he owes everything to his father’s machinations and perhaps projecting all of his resentment onto his old friend Hao whose future he so casually stole.   

Yet the message seems clear, men like Hao will always be at the mercy of men like Tang. Perhaps this is the bargain his father has made, but it’s one that Hao can no longer tolerate once Tang forces him to destroy the roots of his redemption. The only sane response to the madness of the modern China, he seems to say, is to go mad in one way or another. Even so, this being a Mainland movie, the nihilistic fatalism of the inevitable conclusion is somewhat undermined by the brief coda in which a policeman reassures a young woman that the crime has been investigated and the wrongdoers punished while the now familiar title card explains to us who went to prison and for how long for their many and various moral transgressions. Hao’s existence is rendered “pointless” because he is unable to live by the rules of a corrupt society, yet his self-destructive act of rebellion does perhaps bring about change if only in the names involved. Beautifully shot with brief flashes of expressionism amid the rain drenched streets of a decaying city to the melancholy strains of a noirish jazz score, Li’s fatalistic takedown of the inequalities of the post-90s society is an exercise in style but one which lets few off the hook as its nihilistic conclusion stabs right at the heart of patriarchal corruption. 


Back to the Wharf streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Super Me (超级的我, Zhang Chong, 2019)

Can you dream yourself into a better reality, or should you concentrate on being your best self in this one? That’s a dilemma that the hero of Zhang Chong’s Super Me (超级的我, Chāojí de Wǒ) barely has time to think about as he battles despair-fuelled hopelessness and possibly unrequited love for the beautiful woman who runs his local cafe. If only I were rich, he might well think, but though poverty is undoubtedly a factor in his malaise it’s his sense of inferiority which has him beaten down and all the money in the world won’t change that. 

We first meet Sang Yu (Darren Wang Talu) on a subway train where he recites a mantra to himself about how he’s “not an ordinary man”, he has the ability to work under pressure, and though his parents died and he has no friends those are merely tests from God which he has overcome. He is “brilliant and talented, diligent and motivated”, he expects success will soon arrive only he hasn’t slept a wink in the last six months because of the constant night terrors which plague him such as the one we’re about to witness. Sang Yu is asleep, and a nightmare is stalking him. 

Killed by having his head plunged through the train’s floor, Sang Yu wakes up and we realise his waking life is also quite depressing. A 20-something screenwriter, he’s behind on his rent and in debt to his friend/agent while unable to work because of his insomnia. Wandering around in a daze after being evicted from his apartment and getting his laptop stolen, he writes a note to his friend telling him he’ll have to pay him back in the next life and prepares to jump off the roof opposite the cafe where his true love, Hua (Song Jia), works, only to be saved by the intervention of the jian bing seller (Chin Shih-chieh) from down below who advises him to try waking up from his dreams before he gets killed by reminding himself that he is dreaming. Sang Yu takes him at his word and manages to emerge from the dreamworld unscathed clutching the weapon that once belonged to his attacker. After selling the antique sword to weapons brokers, he realises he’s sitting on a cash cow, routinely looting the dreamworld of many of its treasures and quickly harnessing its power to become a wealthy and successful man. All of which gives him the courage to finally approach Hua, wielding his newfound economic power to invest in the apparently failing cafe. 

A modern day take on Jack and the Beanstalk, Super Me finds its nice guy hero corrupted by his wealth, abandoning his artistic dreams and becoming a debauched playboy living in a five star hotel even if he continues to pine for Hua while his friend, Sangge (Cao Bingkun), reverts to being something like a minion riding on his coattails to enjoy the life of the rich and famous without really having to do anything. The irony is that the money and the fancy clothes give Sang Yu the confidence to talk to Hua, but those aren’t things she particularly cares about and may in a sense actually turn her off. Enjoying romantic evening walks, she guesses he’s a screenwriter from his veiled hints about robbing the dreamworld and is interested more in his artistic self than the wealthy man of mystery, all of which gives Sang Yu the inspiration to finish that screenplay which of course becomes a hit beyond his wildest dreams. 

After a while, Sang Yu starts to suspect there must be a cost involved in all this good fortune, realising that he’s traded some of his life away in return for riches and will perhaps never be free of his nightmares. Yet, as a cruel gangster tells him, everyone’s wealth comes at the sacrifice of life, echoing his earlier thoughts that those who are successful are either those who’ve chosen to sacrifice things that others won’t or are unscrupulous thieves and exploiters. “A person who betrays himself can never control his own destiny”, according to the gangster. Asleep or awake, Sang Yu realises he’s battling himself, that there are no quick fixes, and illusionary success is as hollow and as fleeting as the dreamworld from which he has perhaps failed to learn the appropriate lessons. As the old man told him, perhaps what he needs is to wake up, not only to life’s possibilities but to his own. Echoing his earlier The Fourth Wall, Zhang allows Sang Yu to walk through a door into a “better” reality which is perhaps the one he inhabited before but was too intimidated to actually live in. He hasn’t definitively beaten his demons, but perhaps subdued them while his new life seems determined to reward him for his choice in unexpected ways. Nevertheless, can you trust this reality more than any other? There may be no way to know, but you’ll have to learn to trust it all the same. 


Super Me is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Original trailer (no 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)

Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Bao Bei’er, 2018)

Fat Buddies posterChinese cinema hasn’t exactly had the best record when it comes to dealing with atypical heroes, but then no cinema really has. Gazing at the poster for Fat Buddies (胖子行动队, Pàngzi Xíngdòng Duì) – the debut directorial feature from actor Bao Beier who also stars, one can’t help but assume the next two hours will be one long joke at the protagonists’ expense, but to its credit Fat Buddies is not (entirely) the film it seems to be and, ironically enough, there is more going on beneath the surface than an excuse to have at a “permissible” target.

The hero, played by Bao Beier himself, is a very rotund security guard currently working in a hospital in Tokyo for reasons which will (mostly) be explained later. Though Hao is a cheerful and friendly man with a strong sense of justice, he is ostracised by the (strangely large number of) other guards and has no real friends save his extraordinarily beautiful Japanese wife. Hao’s life changes forever one day when another large Chinese man calling himself “J” arrives at the hospital and causes a ruckus by trying to escape without paying. J convinces Hao that he is an international super spy on a top secret mission and that he needs Hao’s help to get out of the hospital so he can save the world. Believing he is finally being given the chance to become the agent of justice he’s always dreamed of being, Hao is only too eager to oblige.

Strangely enough, the entire film takes place in Tokyo even though the heroes and antagonists are all Chinese. Even so, it never resorts to the comedic caricatures common in recent mainland cinema when depicting the Japanese with even the police characterised as dedicated and efficient if sometimes a little overzealous and misguided, though one does wonder if the setting was chosen solely for the sumo associations of the grand finale. There is however a degree of bite in Hao’s view of himself as a non-Japanese person living in Japan who is married to a Japanese citizen and speaks the language fluently but still remains an outsider both because of his unusual appearance and because of his nationality (with a mild implication from some that perhaps the two things are not entirely unrelated). In an early set piece, Hao and J find themselves trying to infiltrate an upscale party where they have unwittingly stolen the clothes of a pair of famous dancers and eventually end up improvising a strange routine to a bawdy song which is all about being a “foreigner” in Japan who “doesn’t understand Japanese but loves Sora Aoi” and then continues in a similarly lowbrow vein with a mix of Mandarin, international English, and intentionally broken Japanese.

Rather than a two hour fat joke – though there are a fair few of those in a recurrent motif of J getting stuck in things Pooh-style and losing his trousers in the process, the the major message is that the pair are fine as they are and apart from the aforementioned problem, their size is not a barrier to being able to do anything they want including taking on international spy missions. Despite his happy marriage, Hao still suffers from loneliness and low self-esteem due to a lifetime of being looked down and on belittled, unable to make friends because of prevalent social stigma towards those on the heavier side. The solution, however, is not a makeover or a crash diet but a gradual process towards Hao regaining his sense of self worth and realising he has plenty to offer the world despite what anyone else might say. Similarly J, who experienced rapid weight gain after a life threatening injury and also suffers from narcolepsy, proves that he is still able to do his job even if he benefits from having a partner around when he randomly falls asleep at inopportune moments.

Fat Buddies isn’t claiming to be high art and there is certainly enough of the low humour the title implies to keep those enticed by the poster happy enough, but there is also genuine heart in its odd couple buddy comedy as the two similarly under-appreciated big guys bond in their shared desire to reclaim their sense of dignity and refuse to be shamed or belittled just because of their size (even if they are otherwise quite bumbling and inefficient in their mission). Strangely uplifting, Fat Buddies is an extremely silly comedy starring two men in fat suits repeatedly bumping into things but like its heroes refuses to be bound by stereotypical conventions and manages to make heartwarming drama out of its admittedly ridiculous premise. 


Fat Buddies is currently on limited release in UK Cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)