Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Wei Shujun, 2021)

“I had to let it happen, I had to change” the rather incongruous voice of Madonna insists, finding a note of defiance on reaching the climactic “so I chose freedom” as the movie version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina erupts over the closing minutes of Wei Shujun’s Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Yǒng’ān Zhèn Gùshi Jí). Like much of the film, the use of the song is ironic but still somehow poignant its repurposing perfectly expressing the interior lives of each our “characters” who are all in some way or another looking for escape or at least a way out of personal dissatisfaction while trying to film a movie about the inertia of life in a small town in rural China where nothing ever happens. 

Divided into three segments, Wei’s film is as much about the positioning of rural China as it is about “cinema”. A Beijing film crew descend on this provincial small town with their own preconceived notions of rural life, determined not to “romanticise” country living but nevertheless bending it to their will looking only for signifiers that align with their mental image of the hinterlands of their nation. Only latterly do they realise that for true authenticity the film should be in Hunanese, but none of them speak it which is a significant stumbling block in their efforts to overcome ongoing creative differences over the script. 

Wei is, in part, satirising the recent trend in Chinese indie cinema for gritty stories of rural poverty usually filmed with depressing naturalism determined to stress the harshness of life outside of the cities amid the nation’s ever increasing wealth divide. The first chapter in part does this too, later shifting away from early Jia Zhangke towards the neon yearning of Wong Kar-wai but always undercut with a sense of meta irony not least in its choice of heroine. The infinitely cornered Gu (Huang Miyi) longs for “a different life”, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a gruff man she accuses of working night shifts to get away from their toddler daughter whom she is forced to take to work with her while he constantly undermines all her parenting decisions based on articles sent by his mother. A woman at the market coos over the baby and asks when the next one’s due, Gu crestfallen realising she’s trapped in this small-town existence where nothing ever happens. But then the film crew begin to notice her, telling her she has a “real cinema face” and likening her to Kim Min-hee of whom she has never heard. Their admiration is again ironic, considering they were looking for the authentic face of rural China but taken with this cinematic vision, yet it’s also callous and cruel. They give her false hope, allowing her to dream as she puts on makeup and models costumes only to be forgotten once again when the “real” actress arrives, cast back into a life of quiet desperation. 

Perhaps this too is another unfair stereotype assuming that everyone from a small town longs for escape, but Gu’s story does indeed mimic the earlier parts of the screenplay for the film within the film which the director sees as a tale of a small-town woman’s awakening to independence and agency while the screenwriter Chunlei (Kang Chunlei) opts for an old-fashioned take on consumerist corruption. Shifting away from Gu towards formerly successful actress Chen Chen (Yang Zishan), the second arc pulls towards Chunlei as Chen Chen searches for escape from a rut in her career apparently having left her commercial agent to do more earnest work but doing not much of anything for the previous year. In another meta touch, she is from this rural backwater and like her character in the film chose to leave but now admits that sometimes she misses life in the country. As someone else puts it, city folk all want a return to simple rural life but can’t accept the reality of it which is why the plan to rejuvenate the area largely relies on tourism including the building of a waxwork museum of which Chen Chen is expected to be a notable inclusion as a local girl made good. 

Chen Chen’s image has once again been commodified, stripping her of power or agency over her name and face but on returning to Yong’an she is forced to realise that she is no longer of there, this place where nothing ever happens has already changed while she exists on a slightly different plane. Realising the maid covering her room is a childhood friend she cheerfully tries to reconnect but the woman is awkward and evasive, embarrassed perhaps to acknowledge that she is a mere hotel employee while Chen Chen has achieved her dreams of stardom. Attempts to reconnect with two other male friends similarly backfire, the first a typical provincial bureaucrat who uses her for official business without her consent while a meal with the other’s family proves even less joyful as she endures countless barbed comments from his snippy wife who eventually tries something similar in asking her to find a job for her son on the film. As she’s leaving he asks her the same question the screenwriter obsessed over, suggesting that she left for mercenary reasons only for her to answer that she didn’t want to live like his wife, or indeed like Gu, but wanted “a different life”. 

This battle between image and authenticity lies at the heart of the conflict between the director, a hipsterish festival darling with a sideline in hip hop, and the schlubby screenwriter himself perhaps trapped in the previous generation of Chinese filmmaking but also in his way more idealistic believing in cinema as an art form which can move the world rather than mere entertainment created for commercial gain. He accuses the director of hypocrisy, exploiting the arthouse aesthetic for critical credibility and with it a vision of rural China, while the director criticises him for his old-fashioned mentality in seeking melodrama over message. Shot in cooling blues their heated arguments are noticeably dispassionate, Wei even descending into some ironic iconography which sees the pair talking through their issues with a wise man film critic on a boat on a misty river. The ironic conclusion brings the whole affair full circle as the words of Madonna as Eva Peron come to speak for each of the protagonists, Gu now angrier, impatient as she shifts dishes while her husband idles nearby, and Chen Chen forced to pose next to a wax figure of herself during a launch ceremony for this film in which the script has yet to be “finalised”. “But nothing impressed me at all” the song continues, “I never expected it to” hinting at the contradictions of the modern China in the internalised defeatism of small-town dreams and the cynical filmmakers who exploit them. 


Ripples of Life screens on Oct 11 & 12 as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival

Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Liang Ming, 2019)

A young woman rides the waves of changing times in Liang Ming’s Wisdom Tooth (日光之下, Rìguāng Zhīxià). Perhaps innocence is something slightly painful you’re better off without, but awakening to life’s light and shade can be a difficult process. Gu Xi (Celeste Lv) is suffering with a dull ache in her jaw and the solution is, apparently, merely pain killers but you can only numb yourself so long before you have to make a choice of whether to go on living with the pain, or free yourself from it. 

A young, if slightly immature woman, Gu Xi has a job in a local hotel and lives alone with her half-brother, Gu Liang (Wu Xiaoliang), who, until recently, has eked out a living as a fisherman. A recent oil spill revealed to have occurred some time ago but covered up by the authorities has put paid to that, while Xi also finds her job under threat because she has an undocumented status and there is shortly to be some kind of inspection. Having grown up without a mother and entirely ignorant of who her father might have been, Xi feels acutely anxious about her circumstances and is dependent on Liang for a sense of security. It is therefore unsettling for her when he develops an interest in the sophisticated Qingchang (Wang Jiajia), daughter of local mob boss Zhou (Chen Yongzhong) and a recent returnee from South Korea where she had been living with her mother. 

A mirror image of Xi, Qingchang is everything she she’s not. Xi is well known for wearing her brother’s clothes, dressing like a tomboy for reasons that are a combination of poverty and affection, where Qingchang has wardrobes full of the latest fashions brought back with her from overseas including a beautifully crafted Hanbok featuring an elaborate embroidered design. As much as she’s resentful and intimidated, Xi can’t help admiring the slightly older woman, captivated by her sense of self assuredness, and eventually develops a sisterly bond with her even while fearing that she may steal her brother away. 

A further intrusion, however, disrupts their tentative familial bonding. A fisherman found dead and floating on the sea hints at a burgeoning turf war between local bosses Zhou, Qingchang’s father and Liang’s employer now that he’s taken a job as a security guard at the docks, and Jiang (Tao Hai), a melancholy Christian who owns the hotel where Xi had been working. Though warned by others that Jiang seemed “creepy”, Xi feels indebted to him because her job at the hotel was saved after she approached him to intervene. Her habit of recording the conversations around her to listen to later presents her with a problem when she discovers that Zhou may have bumped off the fisherman himself and is planning to frame Jiang for the crime. Jiang, it seems is also receiving protection money to ensure the fishermen’s safety, apparently a promise he wasn’t able to keep. Xi is pulled three ways. She loses confidence in Qingchang who is now both tainted by association and a figure of mild discomfort, while fearful that if she reveals what she knows, serves justice and repays a debt by clearing Jiang, she will ruin her brother’s happiness and risk his rejection. 

Trapped in he realms of childhood, what she most wants is to preserve her status quo. Liang is everything to her – brother, father, and somewhat uncomfortably a figure of romantic impossibility. Her feelings towards Qingchang are mired in complexity, a nascent attraction perhaps underlying her sense of jealousy either misdirected through her complicated feelings for her brother or simply finding its anchor for the first time. An angry speech at her brother’s birthday party during which she inappropriately reads out a semi-explicit passage from a lesbian novel hints at an attempt to resolve an attraction she feels is taboo, though it is unclear for whom it is directed. As with most young people, she must come to an accommodation with the fact that her world is changing. A childhood promise that she and her brother would never marry, preserving their family of two forevermore, was always unrealistic but she struggles to let go of the idea of permanence in a childish sense of familial security. Like the oil polluting the seas, her world is coloured by uncertainties but like anyone else she discovers that her agency is limited and whatever choice she makes others will make their choices too. That dull ache in her jaw is a reflection of the ills of the world around her, an inconvenient tooth that needs to be plucked out and discarded leaving only the cold comfort of adult wisdom behind in its place. 


Wisdom Tooth screens on March 11/14 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wen Muye, 2018)

dying to survive poster 1Big box office Chinese comedy continues to run rings round the censors in Wen Muye’s Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wǒ Bú Shì Yào Shén). Not only does the film display on screen protest movements and tacitly imply that sometimes it’s OK to break the law when you think the law is wrong, but it also dares to criticise the state both for its slowness to introduce socialised healthcare provisions and for its failure to moderate increasing wealth inequality in the rapidly expanding modern economy.

In Shanghai in 2003, our hero Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) is the proprietor of a shop selling “Indian God Oil”. A divorced father, he is involved in a volatile custody dispute with his ex-wife who has remarried and wants to take their son abroad. Meanwhile, he’s behind on his rent and the god oil business is not exactly booming. That is, until he receives an unusual business proposition. Lv (Wang Chuanjun), a young man suffering from chronic myelogenous leukemia, asks him to begin importing a knock off Indian cancer drug which is a clone copy of the big brand variety at a fraction of the cost. The Indian drug is banned in China, but, Lv argues, not because it’s unsafe – only because Big Pharma is determined to protect its profits at the cost of people’s lives. Yong is not convinced. He knows there are heavy penalties for trafficking “fake” medications, but he needs money for his father’s medical care and to fight for custody of his son and so he decides to give it a go, if for mercenary rather than humanitarian reasons.

Yong’s transformation from schlubby snake oil peddler to (medical) drug dealer extraordinaire is a swift one and perhaps a satirical example of amoral capitalistic excess in his series of moral justifications which allow him to think he’s better than Big Pharma because the price he’s charging is lower even while knowing there are many people who still can’t afford it. Nevertheless, he quickly discovers he has competition. The even more dubious Professor Zhang (Wang Yanhui) claims to have a wonder drug that does the same thing, only it’s really paracetamol cut with flour. Zhang’s duplicity annoys Yong, not just from a competitive angle, but from a humanitarian one as he finds himself sympathising with the poor men and women who are unable to afford the extortionate fees imposed by the mainstream drug companies.

Afraid of the consequences, Yong gives up the drug trade and goes legit, becoming a successful textile merchant rich beyond his wildest dreams. Conveniently, it’s at this point his humanitarianism begins to reawaken as he’s brought back into contact with a sickly Lv who tells him that the smuggling ring has since dissolved. Zhang, irritated by Yong’s moralising, tells him that no real good will come of the “fake” drug trade because the “disease of poverty” can never be cured. Zhang does indeed have a point. These people are dying because they’re poor and have been deemed expendable. Yong’s change of heart may be all for the good, but it’s also fuelled largely by the fact he can now afford not to care very much about money which means he is free to care about other people’s welfare.

Then again, the police chief remonstrates with a conflicted underling that the law trumps sympathy. By this point, they have realised that the drug smuggling ring is close to a public service and people will die if they arrest the ringleaders, but their hands are also tied by the need to preserve order through enforcing the law. The law, however, is also corrupt as we see by the direct presence of Big Pharma sitting right in the incident room and asking the police to act on its behalf. Big Pharma would argue that it invested heavily in the research which led to the medical breakthrough and is entitled to reclaim its costs while those selling knockoffs are nothing more than pirates guilty of intellectual property theft, but the police has a duty to protect its people and a significant conflict when the “victim” is wilfully misusing its economic and political power to coerce it to do their dirty work.

This being a Mainland film, crime cannot pay but Yong manages to emerge from his straitened circumstances in heroic style as he stands both remorseful for having broken the law and angry that he even had to. A series of closing intertitles is quick to remind us that following the real life events which inspired Dying to Survive, the Chinese state began to reconsider its health polices, relaxed the law on “fake” drug trafficking, and took measures to make care more affordable to all. A subversive treat, Dying to Survive is the rare Chinese film which seems to suggest that civil disobedience is an effective weapon against an unfair society, making a hero of its lawbreaking humanitarian as he, ironically, learns to put the collective interest before the individual.


Dying to Survive was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)