Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Li Xinyun, 2018)

lobster cop poster 1Sadly, Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Lóngxiā Xíngjǐng) is not the story of a team of intrepid crustaceans in a trench coat but an amusing tale of bumbling cops made good as their plan to hole up in a seafood joint pays out in unexpected ways. Actress Li Xinyun’s directorial debut is a surprisingly subversive affair proving once again that light comedy is becoming the satirical battleground of the contemporary Chinese cinema industry and dancing rings around the censors in the process.

Our hero, bumbling policeman Yufei (Wang Qianyuan), has a habit of tracking down the bad guys but letting them get away at the critical moment. When yet another mistake puts him on the chief’s naughty list, he finds himself up against rival Xu Xin (Wang Zheng) and given a month to figure out how drug dealers are getting their merchandise into the country. Taking his best squad with him – grandfatherly Neng (Liu Hua), tomboyish Hua Jie (Yuan Shanshan), and rookie Chen (Zhou You ), Yufei vows to crack the case. Noticing that a rundown crayfish restaurant he often stops in to relieve himself has an excellent view of a “logistics company” they suspect is responsible for importing the drugs, Yufei catches on the idea of turning restauranteur in order to stakeout his quarry.

The unexpected snag is that Neng always fancied himself as a bit of a cook and his crayfish unexpectedly takes off, which is good news in one sense because it means the gang can pay back some of the money Chen had to borrow from his wealthy mother to get the restaurant off the ground, but bad in that it’s very difficult to run a successful eatery and chase drug dealers at the same time – especially when the drug dealers become some of your best customers.

In order to make their cover more credible, the gang end up posing as a family with Neng as the cuddly dad, Yufei and Hua Jie as an improbable couple, and Chen as the adorable little brother. As the restaurant starts to take off the cover identities start to take over with only Yufei digging his heels in as he tries his best to catch the bad guys in order to best his police rival and prove himself to the chief. Nevertheless, like any good police squad the secret ingredient of success is fellow feeling and it’s brotherly love that eventually saves our confuzzled cops as they get themselves into a series of sticky situations with the equally bumbling “logistics” guys while accidentally carving a path towards kingpin The General (Li Jianren).

In a slightly surprising move given the usual censors’ board squeamishness, Li inserts a fair amount of subtle homoerotic content beginning with straight-laced policeman Xu Xin walking into a potential cruising situation with the very flamboyant General hanging around in the Gents for reasons seemingly unrelated to crime (though he does later enjoy a carriage ride with a pretty lady), while a regular visitor to the shop openly flirts with Neng who seems to, on one level at least, be receptive to his advances. While it’s true that both of the presumably gay guys (Neng aside) turn out to be “bad” in one way or another, it is a refreshingly ordinary kind of representation in which homosexuality is not in itself the joke and, in a tacit sense, almost totally normalised.

Then again it is the traditional family, in model terms at least, which eventually wins out as the guys begin to pull together to make their lobster restaurant a success and eventually learn to work as a team while embracing their own strengths so they can take down the bad guys. An entertaining mix of witty banter and slapstick martial arts underpinned by tasty food photography and a cheeky subversive spirit, Lobster Cop is a surprisingly surreal concoction and a promisingly off the wall debut from Li who manages to ground the often strange goings on firmly in the real while ensuring her losers make good story commands genuine warmth.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shadow (影, Zhang Yimou, 2018)

Shadow poster 1Zhang Yimou waxes Shakespearean in a tale of palace intrigue and a world out of balance in his latest return to the age of wuxia, Shadow (影, Yǐng). Drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings, Zhang’s monochromatic world has a chilling beauty even in its intense layers of oppression which make prisoners of king and subjects alike. Like the yin yang diagram on which the climatic battle takes place, Shadow is a tale of dualities and oppositions as its hollowed out hero begins to wonder who exactly he might be without the mirror.

Long ago in feudal China, the Kingdom of Pei has been living in peace thanks to an “alliance” with the Yang who are technically occupying the former Pei city of Jing. Many in the Kingdom of Pei are unhappy with this arrangement, regarding the loss of Jing as a humiliation and the king’s refusal to retake it more cowardice than pragmatism. Despite the king’s instruction that the truce must be maintained and war avoided at all costs, his trusted commander has undertaken a secret meeting with Yang in which he has agreed to a personal duel for the honour of Pei. The king is very unhappy. A lesser man might have lost his head, but the king needs his commander. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the commander is not all he seems. Nobleman Yu (Deng Chao) was badly injured during a previous fight with Yang and has retreated to the catacombs while his double, Jing (also Deng Chao), has been playing his part in court.

Jing, “saved” from poverty as a young child brought to the palace as a double for Yu, is grateful and loyal. He respects his masters and has trained hard to learn the skills needed to pass as a nobleman and more particularly as Yu. As such he has no “identity”. Even his name was given to him by his master and is simply that of the town where he was found which happens to be the disputed city itself. Jing does everything right – his instincts are good, he is clever and quick-witted with a talent for intrigue, all of which makes him both a danger and a shield for Yu. Yu, meanwhile, trapped in the same underground cell which used to house Jing, has become warped and embittered. Nursing a mortal wound, he plots and schemes against the king, scuttling goblin-like as he rails against his fate.

Yu promises Jing a release from his mental imprisonment if he agrees to take part in the duel with Yang. Jing knows that Yu’s promise is hollow and that he is not intended to survive, but submits himself to his fate anyway. He does this, partly, in hope but also because of his longstanding but unspeakable love for Madam (Sun Li) – Yu’s wife, who is one of the few people ever to express pity for his miserable circumstances. As the film opens, Madam and the king’s sister are reading proverbs together including one which insists that men are meant to rule. The king, however, is weak – he is effete and prefers the art of the brush to that of the sword, while his sister is “wild” – a bold and impetuous young woman seemingly more suited to the throne than her foppish brother.

As if to complete the theme, it’s Madam who eventually reveals the technique to beat Yang to her increasingly crazed husband. In order to defeat his hyper masculine enemy who fights with a giant sabre, Yu resolves to fight like a girl armed with one of Pei’s iconic parasols reconfigured in sharpened iron. Only by creating balance can they hope to win, meeting the weight of Yang’s blunt force with a lightness of touch and feminine elegance. 

The world of Shadow is one defined by its dualities – male/female, lowborn and high, betrayal and loyalty, arrogance and supplication. Jing’s existence is defined by that of the “true” commander – a shadow cannot exist without a form to cast it, or so it had always been thought. Offered the possibility of escape, Jing’s original identity begins to resurface. Yet his victory over his “other self” is also a defeat which infects him with the dubious moralities of the court, allowing him to become more than himself alone and leaving the world once again dangerously unbalanced. As the opening narration told us, however, it is not Jing, or Yu, or the king who hold the fate of Pei in their hands but Madam whose final decision will dictate the course of history. Set in a world of oppressive greys broken only by the driving rain and shocking redness of blood, Shadow may not return Zhang to the balletic heights of the poetic Hero, but does its best to add Shakespearean grandeur to its tragic tale of fractured identities and conflicting desires.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)