Changfeng Town (长风镇, Wang Jing, 2019)

“One strange thing follows another in this town” according to a world weary saloon owner attempting to process the mysterious theft of a handful of billiard balls. Like a magical realist fable, the village at the centre of Wang Jing’s whimsical nostalgia fest Changfeng Town (长风镇, Chángfēng Zhèn) exists slightly out of time, located at the intersection of memory and longing filled both with a sense of existential ennui and the comforting aimlessness of childhood. Yet even here where time passes and doesn’t the ironies of small-town life pervade as the older hero reflects on the wilful secrets and everyday mysteries which exist even in those places where everyone knows everyone and gossip is the lifeblood of the community. 

Narrated by the young “Scabby” (Song Daiwei), so nicknamed because of a prominent scar on the back of his head, Changfeng Town weaves together several stories set across one theoretical summer as seen through the eyes of a group of small boys continually on their periphery. Set comfortably in a “nostalgic past”, the atmosphere of the town shifts from a restrained post-war, early ‘60s tainted innocence towards something perhaps closer to its more logical position somewhere in the early to mid 1980s which of course places it after the Cultural Revolution but before Tiananmen Square in a China filled with a sense of hope and possibility for a brighter future mirroring perhaps Scabby’s own sense of growing adolescent energy. 

Nevertheless, Changfeng Town is a strange place where strange things do indeed happen though less one after another than all at once. Missing billiard balls, a plague of mice, a purifying flood, arrivals and disappearances each changing the unchanging town in small but marked ways, it’s nevertheless a sense of loneliness that defines each of the intersecting tales most of which have to do with misplaced or unfulfilled love. Redhead (Pema Jyad), the teenage ringleader of the local kids nicknamed for his red rinse hairdo, pines for the most beautiful girl in the village, Cai-xia (Luo Wenqing), half-sister of Scabby’s friend Four Eyes (Liu Xinrong) and box office girl at the local picture house, yet she has taken a liking to lovelorn poet Guang (Tao Taotao) who has just had his heart broken by the local school teacher. Redhead’s widowed mother (Cui Nan), meanwhile, has been carrying on an affair with the married local dentist (Wei Xidi), apparently an open secret in the village, while beloved truck driver Xi-shan (Chen Gang) continues to carry a torch for her knowing his love is impossible because he was involved in the accident which killed her husband. 

Known only as The Mute (San Shugong), an old man travels to the station every day with his parrot presumably hoping to meet someone who never arrives. One of the boys says his mother told him that he does so because he mistakenly thinks he can travel to other places by watching the trains go by, but no one really knows because no one really bothers to try to communicate with him. Some attempt to leave the village, occasionally returning like the much changed Redhead now dressed like someone who’s been to the city bringing back with him gifts of modernity such as a remote control Transformer that provokes a falling out between Four Eyes and Scabby which adds to the narrator’s growing sense of disillusionment, but to return is in many ways to fail, to be consumed by nostalgia and unable to move forward. Changfeng Town is also a charming trap. Scabby will soon outgrow it as spring travels towards autumn, the bald spot on the back of his head which gives him his name fast disappearing rendering him Scabby no more. Yet it will always in a sense be there for him, its residents permanently happy even as people come and go. 

Mirroring the ending of The 400 Blows, one of several films playing in the local cinema which also include Spring in a Small Town, A Touch of Zen, Steamboat Bill, Jr, and Nights of Cabiria among others, Wang closes with a freeze frame leaving Scabby “running towards the unknown” abandoning nostalgia in search of the elusive happiness of those who remain behind. Shot with a wistful ethereality, Changfeng Town marries an earthy, small-town rurality with an ironic absurdism as the various stories of its melancholy protagonists weave in and out of each other while remaining strangely unknown in the ever constant, ever changing village of nostalgia.


Changfeng Town streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Crosscurrent (長江圖, Yang Chao, 2016)

crosscurrent poster“Time, like a river, flows both day and night” as the narrator of Yang Chao’s poetical return to source Crosscurrent (長江圖,  Chang Jiang Tu) tells us early on. Like the crosscurrent of the title, ship’s captain Chun sails forth yet also in retrograde as he chases a love he can never truly embrace. Truth be told, the philosophical poetry of a lonely sailor condemned to sail a predetermined course at the mercy of the winds and tides is often obscure and confused, like the half mad ramblings of one who’s spent too much time all alone at sea. Yet his melancholy passage is more metaphor than reality, or several interconnected metaphors as water yearns for shore but is pulled towards the ocean, a man yearns to free himself of his father’s spirit, and mankind yearns for the land yet disrupts and destroys it in its quest for mastery. Often frustrating in its obscurity, Crosscurrent’s breathtaking visuals are the key to unlocking its meditative sadness as they paint the beautiful landscape in its own conflicting colours.

Gao Chun (Qin Hao), a melancholy young man, is mourning the death of his father in all the ways the river expects. Taking over his father’s cargo boat, Chun dutifully catches and keeps the blackfish that is the keeper of his father’s spirit, only once it starves to death will his spirit be free. Though the boat is a large one, Chun has only two other members of crew – his uncle, Xiang, and longstanding deckhand Wusheng. They have little business but Wusheng has managed to find them a new client who needs something or other transported on the hush hush. Once the mysterious cargo has been loaded, Chun manages to negotiate some extra hush money seeing as there’s obviously something not quite right here.

Part way through their journey up the Yangtze River, Chun finds a mysterious ledger hidden away on the boat which contains a number of poems each annotated with the name of a particular harbour. Linked to the book, Chun also encounters a mysterious woman, An Lu, and eventually strikes up a relationship with her during one of his infrequent returns to shore. Chun and An Lu are travelling in the same direction yet also through and past each other. Meeting and parting the pair re-encounter each other on land or make do with fleeting glances from sea to shore but An Lu (Xin Zhilei) is no ordinary woman, each time the same yet strikingly different as she too makes her way towards the origin of all things.

The name of the mysterious woman is “An Lu” – “safe land”. Chun, a sailor adrift on the wide river is always looking for safe harbour and generally finds it waiting for him, even occasionally put out at his lack of arrival. What or who she is remains obscure. An Lu is at once a harbour girl, prostitute, nun, hermit, and lover of all mankind who belongs to no man but refuses no one. Chun yearns for her, slowing the passage of his boat to look for her among the thick foliage of cliffside pathways. Yet there are reasons why they can only be together for short spaces of time. As the sea and the shore, theirs is a relationship of permanent though frustrated, ebbing connection.

As he follows An Lu, Chun reads his poetry like scripture and travels the river against the tide heading for its origin. The life giving river becomes a kind of metaphor as Chun witnesses how its gifts have been misused and subverted by man who wants to master it rather live with its obvious beauty. Passing through ruined villages, Chun eventually makes a gruelling two day passage through the Three Gorges Dam. This giant, manmade structure cleaves the land in two, leaving our two lovers forever separated as the past from the future. The river which flows both day and night, no longer flows at all.

Equal parts spiritual and geographical odyssey, Crosscurrent is a tale of man and landscape, of nationhood, history, and memory all condensed into a wide flowing river. Lyrical yet obscure, its truth is opaque and difficult to discern yet no less deeply felt. Shooting on 35mm and using mostly natural light in harsh conditions, Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography is nothing short of extraordinary, capturing all of this infinite sadness with an eternal aesthetic beauty. China swims against the tide as Chun and An Lu draw closer only by pulling further apart but all there may be at the end of the journey is the anxious comfort of eternal waiting.


Crosscurrent was screened as part of the 7th Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)