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)

Animal World (动物世界, Han Yan, 2018)

Animal World Poster 1Greed is good. So Michael Douglas once told us many years ago and if Animal World (动物世界, Dòngwù Shìjiè) is anything to go by, the Gordon Gekkos of the world have not changed their tune. Inspired by Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor, Han Yan’s anarchic gambling drama is the latest in a long line of films to ask serious questions about a perceived moral decline accompanying the rapid economic development of the Chinese state occurring largely during the lifetime of the pure hearted hero Zheng Kaisi (Li Yi Feng) who has been dealt a bum deal and is doing very little to resist it. Describing himself as “crazy” (not unfairly, as it turns out), Kaisi is perhaps the last good man but his resolve is severely tested when he finds himself trapped aboard the good ship Destiny and forced to bet his life on a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Kaisi was one of the smartest kids in town but his father’s early death when Kaisi was eight and his mother’s long term illness have left him all alone in the world. Defeated and without hope, Kaisi’s only job is playing a sad clown at a local arcade and, in a failing he continues to find humiliating, he has to rely on childhood friend and putative sweetheart Qin (Zhong Dongyu), who is also his mother’s nurse, for the money to pay the medical fees that keep his mum in an actual room and not out in the corridor with all the other paupers. Another childhood friend of Kaisi’s, Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), claims to be in a similarly sticky situation and offers Kaisi a sweet deal if only he’ll consent to mortgaging the family apartment. Reluctant but backed into a corner, Kaisi agrees only to realise that not for the first or last time Li Jun has thrown him under the bus and he’s now on the hock for all his friend’s debts which seem to belong to a shady underworld kingpin by the name of Anderson (Michael Douglas). Anderson offers him a way out – he can win it all back and more if he agrees to submit himself to a high stakes game of chance way out in international waters aboard a disused warship called “Destiny”.

Describing himself as “crazy”, Kaisi has a strange fascination with clowns which extends past his occupation and directly into his psyche. Imprinted with a violent kids’ cartoon in which a vigilante clown metes out justice with a smile during a traumatic childhood incident, Kaisi feels as if there is a clown trapped inside him which wants to come out at moments of intense emotionality. Floating away in flights of fancy, he reimagines his enemies as weird space creatures and sees himself cut them down with twin samurai swords in the cramped environment of an otherwise empty subway car. Reality and imagination become blurred as we watch Kaisi run through a scenario in his head only to cut back to the “real” world where he more often than not decides to let things go. Despite his internal crazy clown, Kaisi is a defeated and passive figure who has been drifting aimlessly without hope or purpose, too afraid even accept the affection of his childhood sweetheart Qin due to his internalised insecurity regarding his lack of financial stability.

Dealt a bum deal by life, Kaisi has been relegated to an oppressed underclass with little chance of escape. He is, however, honest and pure hearted unlike his dodgy real estate broker friend, Li Jun. “Destiny” becomes a microcosm for exploring the evils of capitalism as the players quickly realise that they are only involved in a sub game – while they risk their lives at the gaming tables, the fabulously wealthy are busy betting on them from behind two way mirrors. Shady impresario Anderson gives a rousing introduction to proceedings, but pointedly omits to add anything about cheating. Cheating is not just allowed, it is encouraged, to a point at least, and playing the angles strongly advised. Games of chance are never quite just that and Kaisi’s finely tuned mathematical brain finally gets an excuse to kick back into action after a long period of wilful indolence.

Repeatedly, Kaisi is told that “loyalty” means nothing in this “animal world” where the only thing that counts is “profit”. While he is good hearted and originally taken in by the schemes of others, he is not naive and is able to see the “animal world” for what it is even if he refuses to become a full part of it. Maintaining his faith in the power of friendship proves to be a mistake, but still Kaisi realises that he’d much rather be a “clown” ridiculed for his principles than a soulless mercenary who’d sell out a friend for money. His attitude perhaps stands in stark contrast to those around him who’ve each found themselves at the Destiny for different reasons, some more eager than others to give in to their desperation. A mild critique of the heartlessness of a fiercely competitive society and its inbuilt societal inequalities, Animal World is a beautifully designed, surreal and anarchic tribute to fighting the good fight even if everyone else thinks you’re a “crazy clown”.


Animal World is released in UK cinemas from 29th June courtesy of Cine Asia. Check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you including screenings across Europe and the rest of the world!

Original trailer (Mandarin, no subtitles)