Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Li Jun, 2021)

In recent years, Chinese big budget disaster extravaganzas have dedicated themselves to celebrating the selfless heroism of the undersung branches of the emergency services, firemen for example in Tony Chan’s The Bravest or the coast guard in Dante Lam’s The Rescue. Li Jun’s Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Fēng Bào) features its fair share of fearless rescue teams, but is nevertheless dedicated to the rather unlikely source of pride, the Rail Soldiers whose lives, at least according to the closing credits, were sacrificed in large numbers to complete the infrastructure necessary for the expansion of the Chinese state yet in 1984 they were renamed “China Railway Construction Corporation” a development the film at least seems to regard with a surprising degree of ambivalence. 

This becomes most obvious in the conflict between the two heroes, an estranged father and son burdened by personal trauma, one a former Rail Soldier and the other a high tech engineer working for a commercial enterprise on the building of a high speed railway network through terrain known to be geologically volatile. Grandpa Hong (Huang Zhizhong) is set to visit his son Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) for New Year, though he doesn’t really want to see him knowing that his father will only criticise his work on the tunnel leading to another intergenerational argument. Meanwhile, Yizhou also finds himself unpopular at work for requesting additional safety checks many seem to regard as a pointless waste of time, and oddly they might have a point seeing as Yizhou’s monitoring fails to detect a shift in the rock formation which causes water to flood the almost complete tunnel during routine blasting. 

The fact is Hong was a Rail Soldier and is also one of those old men who think they know best about everything. He kicks off at a bored young lady at service station because she doesn’t want to accept payment in cash and has no change to offer confused as to why Hong can’t just pay with Alipay or WeChat like everyone else. Despite his years of hands-on experience, he no longer understands the modern high tech engineering industry and thinks his son is somehow unmanly with his scientific data and use of drones, believing that if you want to solve a problem you just get in there and do it. This causes a minor problem when a manmade earthquake strikes just after his arrival as he pushes rescue crews out of the way to set about rescuing everyone trapped underground on his own only to end up trapped himself. 

The film is almost on his side, definitely ambivalent about the state of modern Chinese infrastructure. Mrs. Ding (Chen Shu), the female manager of the tunnel project, is initially positioned as a villain, insisting that the tunnel must be completed on schedule and they can’t be wasting money on things like safety checks, hinting at the nation’s notoriously lax approach to public safety and widespread corruption in the construction industry. One might even ask if it was a good idea to build this tunnel at all given the geological volatility of the local area, yet Mrs. Ding later becomes something of a hero in finally agreeing to sacrifice 10 years of her own work when it becomes clear a nearby town cannot be evacuated before disaster strikes. Stepping into propaganda mode she advances that while Westerners may pin their hopes on Noah’s Ark, Chinese men move mountains convincing the workmen to blow up the tunnel they’ve been spent the last decade working on by reminding them that they can simply build it again. 

Meanwhile, Yizhou and Hong begin to sort out their father/son problems underground most of which go back to the death of Yizhou’s mother for which he blames himself but also his father for failing to return home when his wife was ill because he had important nation building work to do. This minor barb might hint at a conflict between selfless dedication to the State and familial responsibility, which would seem to run against the secondary message that unchecked capitalism is doing the same thing while also endangering public safety. One reason the crews didn’t want to fall behind through “needless” safety checks was because they’d already agreed to sacrifice New Year with their families to get the tunnel done on time. Nevertheless the only way to save both the tunnel and the town depends on father and son working together, a mix of Yizhou’s high tech data analysis and Hong’s hands-on experience as they perilously climb up the slide of a sheer rock face in torrential rain to blow up an entirely different mountain to create a protective shield. 

The major villain, if there is one, is personal greed born of irresponsible capitalism, and its only cure is, paradoxically, a recommittal to the State as Mrs Ding offers inspirational messages about the legacy of the Rail Soldiers while self-sacrifice for the public good is held up as the only moral responsibility. In any case, Li piles on the tension with a series of possible negative outcomes from the tunnel disaster not only swamping the town and killing off the local population but also endangering an adjacent chemical plant, never quite making the case for why the tunnel is so necessary in the first place even as it swaps its literality for the metaphorical in allowing the reconnection of father and son overcoming a generational divide to find an ambivalent accommodation with the demands of the modern China. 


Cloudy Mountain screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-in Chicago on Nov. 13 courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (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)

Happy Times (幸福时光, Zhang Yimou, 2000)

Happy TimesPossibly the most successful of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou is not particularly known for his sense of humour though Happy Times (幸福时光, Xìngfú Shíguāng) is nothing is not drenched in irony. Less directly aimed at social criticism, Happy Times takes a sideswipe at modern culture with its increasing consumerism, lack of empathy, and relentless progress yet it also finds good hearted people coming together to help each other through even if they do it in slightly less than ideal ways.

An older man in his 50s, Zhao is a bachelor afraid that life has already passed him by. Desperate to get married for reasons of companionship, he’s settled on the idea of finding himself a larger lady who, he assumes, will be filled with warmth (both literally and figuratively), have a lovely flat he can move into and will also be able to delight him with delicious food. Not much to ask for really, is it? Unfortunately, he ends up with a woman nicknamed “Chunky Mama” who is pretty much devoid of all of these qualities beyond the physical. She has an overweight son whom she spoils ridiculously and a blind stepdaughter she treats with cruelty and disdain.

Zhao is eager to please his new lady love and has told her a mini fib about being a hotel manager. He and his friend Li had been planning to open a “love hut” in an abandoned trailer in the forest but this plan doesn’t quite work out so when Chunky Mama asks him to give the blind girl, Little Wu, a job in the hotel Zhao is in a fix. Together with some of his friends, he hatches a plan to create a fake massage room in an abandoned warehouse where they can take turns getting massages from the girl in the hope that she really believes she’s working and making money for herself. However, though Little Wu comes to truly love her mini band of would be saviours she also has a yearning to find her long absent father who has promised to get her treatment to restore her sight, as well as a growing sense of guilt as she feels she’s becoming a burden to them.

Zhao decided to name his “love hut” the Happy Times Hotel – to him there’s really no difference between a “hut” and a “hotel”. In some ways he’s quite correct but the expectation differential isn’t something that would really occur to him, straightforward fantasist as he is. In fact, Zhao is a master of the half-truth, constantly in a state of mild self delusion and self directed PR spin as he tries to win himself the brand new life he dreams of through sheer power of imagination. His friends seem to know this about him and find it quite an amusing, endearing quality rather than a serious personality flaw.

Unfortunately this same directness sometimes prevents him from noticing he’s also being played in return. The ghastly stepmother Chunky Mama is in many ways a clear symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern society – brash, forceful, and materially obsessed. For unclear reasons, she’s hung on to Little Wu after the breakdown of the marriage to her father but keeps her in a backroom and forces her do chores while her own son lounges about playing video games and eating ice-cream. Ice-cream itself becomes a symbol of the simple luxuries that are out of reach for people like Little Wu and Zhao but quickly gulped down by Chunky Mama’s son with an unpleasant degree of thoughtless entitlement. The son is a complete incarnation of the Little Emperor syndrome that has accompanied the One Child Policy as his mother indulges his every whim, teaching him to be just as selfish and materially obsessed as she is.

For much of its running time, Happy Times is a fairly typical low comedy with a slightly surreal set up filled with simple but good natured people rallying round to try and help each other through a series of awkward situations but begins to change tone markedly when reaching its final stretch. Zhao and Little Wu begin to develop a paternal relationship particularly as it becomes clear that the father she longs for has abandoned her and will probably never return but circumstances move them away from a happy ending and into an uncertain future. The film ends on a bittersweet note that is both melancholy but also uplifting as both characters send undeliverable messages to each other which are intended to spur them on with hope for the future. “Happy Times Hotel” then takes on its most ironic meaning as happiness becomes a temporary destination proceeded by a long and arduous journey which must then be abandoned as the traveller returns to the road.


Retitled “Happy Times Hotel” for the UK home video release.

US release trailer (complete with dreadful voice over and comic sans):