Weekend Lover (周末情人, Lou Ye, 1995)

Lou Ye’s troubles with the censors began at the very beginning of his career. Shot in 1993, his first feature Weekend Lover (周末情人, Zhōumò Qíngrén) was held up until late ’95, making ’94’s Don’t Be Young his accidental “debut”. Set in the contemporary era the film nevertheless has a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia coupled with air of nihilism that perhaps distressed the censors more than the otherwise potentially problematic bohemian setting, finding the post-Tiananmen generation floundering in a changing China in which the dream of freedom has long since flown. 

In one of many title cards, Lou opens with a lengthy piece of text claiming that this is a true story, a claim he will return to with the closing card the fantastical quality of which perhaps undermines the idea of its “reality”. The author of the text claims that this is a story some did not want to tell but mostly because it makes them sad to recall bygone days for reasons we will come to understand. Nevertheless, the filmmakers claim to have tracked down the central figure of Lixin (Ma Xiaoqing) who has agreed to share her story, which turns out to be the story of two men, violent thug Axi (Jia Hongsheng) and sensitive musician Lala (Wang Zhiwen), who find themselves bound for confrontation in order to lay claim to the affections of Lixin. 

Axi is the “weekend lover” of the title, a high school boyfriend of Lixin’s who used to spend weekends in her apartment while her parents were out but later went to prison for killing another boy who threatened their relationship. Lixin vows to wait, but ends up meeting Lala in a case of mistaken identity tasked with venturing into the unfamiliar world of back street pool halls to find a man in plaid in order to deliver something on behalf of Axi. The pair start dating, but Axi returns unexpectedly some years later put out to realise that Lixin has forgotten him and quite literally moved on. Hoping to get her back he threatens Lala and later Lixin herself, remaining somewhat obsessed with recapturing the past while little more than a violent street thug with nothing to offer other than intimidation. 

One could see Axi and Lala as embodiments of past and future with Lixin trapped painfully in an interminable present. Lala dreams of becoming a singer, eventually joining a band with whom Lixin also becomes friends hanging out in the beatnik bohemian space of the disused building she decribes as a “jail” they repurpose as their arena. Yet even this potential future is flawed. The band’s leader (Wang Xiaoshuai) explains to Lala that they will disband after their big concert as most of the members are going abroad, perhaps he will even go to America. There is no future for any of them in China while Lala rejects the idea he may stay and marry Lixin, realising she has not completely severed her connection to Axi believing their relationship is doomed to failure. 

Westernisation is indeed a persistent background theme from the discarded Coke cans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Lipton tea in Axi’s rundown room to the fancy new fast-food restaurant where Lixin works going under the name “California Rainbow”. These Bohemians dream of Western freedoms aside from the power of consumerism, longing for the right to seize their artistic potential but finding themselves continually constrained by a society they do not understand. “We drank a lot, always felt we were the most miserable and that society didn’t understand us. Later I came to realise it’s not that society didn’t accept us it’s that we didn’t understand society” Lixin explains in voiceover apparently from the vantage point of “many years” later in which she seems to have in part at least rejected her countercultural youth and developed an understanding of the contemporary society. 

Nevertheless, the film closes with both her wilful self-exile and an improbably optimistic coda which may only be a reflection of her dream followed by the title card which suggests that the couple may find happiness but only “many years later” in another city. “We felt the whole world belonged to us, as if everything would last forever. But we didn’t know what would happen.” Lixin laments, recalling her brief moment of youthful freedom later ruptured by the re-introduction of the violent past in a touch of rather elliptical irony that perhaps evokes Lou’s later taste for non-linear narrative. Moody yet imbued with a kind of youthful ennui, Weekend Lover’s frequent use of title cards, pop music, and self-consciously cool imagery may never quite coalesce beyond their various influences but edge towards an attempt to capture youth in a new age of anxiety caught between the death of idealism and the opportunities of a newly consumerist economy. 


Weekend Lover is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Musical sequence (English subtitles)

So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001)

BeijingBicycleThere are nine million bicycles in Beijing (going by the obviously very accurate source of a chart topping song) but there are 11.5 million inhabitants so that’s at least two million people who do not own a bike. Still, if you’re in the unlucky position of having your bike stolen by one of the aforementioned two million, your chances of finding it again are slim. Luckily for the protagonist of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车, Shí Qī Suì de Dānchē), he manages to track his down through sheer perseverance though even once he gets hold of it again his troubles are far from over.

A young guy from the country, Guei has lucked out with a good job at a bicycle courier company. Each of the new employees is given a new, high-tech bicycle which they will eventually own after working off the cost through a 20/80 salary split and once the bike is theirs they’ll be on an even better 50/50 pay rate. This is a dream job for Guei and he’s pretty good at it – he’s nearly paid for the bike in under a month. However, after being messed about by a hotel reception desk which keeps him hanging around longer than usual, he emerges to find his bike no longer waiting for him.

The vehicle turns up in the hands of another boy of a similar age but very different background. Jian is a lower middle-class boy at a posh school where most of his classmates are considerably better off than he is and it seems to get to him. Jian’s father has been promising to buy him a bicycle for years but something always comes up and now it’s that his little sister got into a better school so they need the money for her fees. Resentfully, Jian gets himself a bike to hang out with his posh friends through other means and generally continues to be a little shit about it.

Quite obviously inspired by De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Theives, Beijing Bicycle doesn’t quite have that movie’s harsh sentimentalism but goes about as far as Wang could take a similar message and still get around China’s frighteningly tight censorship regulations. Guei does everything right – well, almost everything, he gets so upset about losing his bike that he forgets to deliver his final package which is what gets him fired from the delivery firm (they didn’t really mind about the bicycle anyway). He offers to find the bike and bring it back and is promised a second chance if he can actually beat the odds and track it down but his boss doesn’t seriously expect to see him again. Guei needs the bike to live, he can’t work without it and this was about the best job he’s likely to get in the bustling metropolis of Beijing without qualifications or family connections.

On the other hand, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathise with Jian and his petty squabbles with his very reasonable father and attempts to blend in with the equally awful group of thuggish rich boys from school. Of course, it’s all about a girl really – somehow he thinks she’d care about him having a bicycle (she wouldn’t) and luckily said girl is too sensible to hang out with someone who’d beat up some poor kid and take away his only way of supporting himself just because he could. Yes, he’s a young man and he’s angry so he’s doing stupid teenage boy stuff but he’s ruining lives in the process and desperately needs someone to explain to him about the world not being fair.

Guei eventually steals back his bike, only for Jian’s mates to beat him up and take it again. Guei doesn’t give up though and eventually the two end up sharing the bike even though Jian only uses it for swanning around and trying to impress a girl who isn’t interested in him. Needless to say it all ends quite badly. Jian gets Guei into even more trouble that he didn’t ask for and both boys end up losing out both ways. As in De Sica’s film, society turns us all into bicycle thieves whether we wanted to be or not. The boys are both chasing an unattainable dream but they’re doing it from very different places and though both are arguably at a disadvantage boys like Guei will always lose out to cowardly thugs with muscle like Jian.

Nicely filmed in a modern indie, neo-realist inspired style Beijing Bicycle does suffer a little with its lengthy running time especially as the tussle over the bicycle itself turns into a repetitious saga in which you just want someone to give Guei back his bicycle and have done with it. Nevertheless, having said that it actually does quite a lot with an economical script though Zhou Xun’s virtual walk on of a cameo as the glamorous neighbour feels a little underdeveloped even if it pays off in the second half of the film. A sadly realistic tale of a very unlucky boy who just wants to get on and works hard to get there only to come up against cowards and thugs with money Beijing Bicycle does what it can do to highlight the unfairness inherent in the post-communist world.


Beijing Bicycle was previously released by Tartan in the UK and is currently available to stream via Amazon. In the US it’s currently available on DVD through Sony Pictures Classic.

Watched via Mubi.