The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Frant Gwo, 2019)

Wandering Earth poster 5Chinese cinema has not been as averse to science fiction as some would have it, but it’s true enough that The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Liúlàng Dìqiú) marks a bold new chapter in its ambitious attempt to take Hollywood on at its own game. Adapting the novel by China’s premier sci-fi author Liu Cixin, Frant Gwo’s third feature is an interesting take on the New Year movie in which new beginnings are sought and families desperately try to reunite to see them in, only this time they do so against the backdrop of impending apocalypse as the universe threatens to swallow us whole.

Far in the future, the vast expansion of the sun will soon consume the Earth. The Wandering Earth project aims to save humanity by attaching jet thrusters to the Earth’s surface to push it out of harm’s way yet this safety measure has also had grave effects on the planet’s climate rendering the surface uninhabitable. 17 years previously, astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) left his 4-year-old son behind in the care of his father (Ng Man-tat) to take up a position on the space station intended to safeguard the Earth’s future. Now 21, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) has grown up into a resentful, rebellious young man intent on seeing the surface for himself if only not to be home when Peiqiang finally returns to Earth. A natural disaster, however, leaves him stranded with his adopted teenage sister, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), just as the Earth is inconveniently drawn into a fatal collision course with Jupiter.

As much about fatherhood as it is about survival of a species, The Wandering Earth centres itself on the angry figure of Liu Qi who has been forced to live his entire adolescence underground and has come to deeply resent the memory of the father who allowed his sickly mother to die and then abandoned him. Peiqiang, meanwhile, has spent 17 years on the space station solely in order to save his son’s future, dreaming of the day they will finally be reunited. He cares little for his own life and has already spiritually handed the baton on to the next generation whose descendants, he hopes, may finally see a kinder sun rise over a new Earth.

This kind of selflessness is also reflected in the film’s refreshingly globalist outlook in which the world, no longer divided, has learned to act as one in order to combat the extreme threat from its own sun. The resistance may be China led, but depends on common endeavour and personal sacrifice. When a last ditch effort is required, the government cannot order its forces away from their families but can offer them the individual choice to keep fighting for survival, bringing teams from all corners of the Earth together as they descend on Indonesia where there just might be a one in a million chance to strike back at Jupiter and escape its gravitational pull.

Meanwhile, Peiqiang is up still up on the space station all alone and powerless while the annoyingly efficient operating system MOSS attempts to frustrate his efforts to save the Earth in service of its own mission to preserve humanity’s legacy. MOSS has made a series of calculations and given up, but giving up is not a very human trait and Peiqiang won’t do it. He makes impassioned speeches to the French-accented global authorities and ponders the best way to ensure his son’s survival even at the cost of his own but finally can only resist by literally attacking the system in overruling MOSS and acting on his own initiative.

A New Year tale through and through, The Wandering Earth is a celebration of family, togetherness, and home but is careful to dial down the patriotism for an insistence on the importance of mutual cooperation between peoples in order to combat existential threat with the spectre of climate change always on the horizon. The point, however, is that it is important to keep hope alive, if not for yourself then at least for others rather than give in to nihilistic despair. The Wandering Earth, grand and ambitious in scale, marks a new dawn of its own in terms of Chinese blockbuster sci-fi and does so with refreshing positivity as it places its hopes in human solidarity and individual sacrifice over jingoism and self-interest.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

The Climbers (攀登者, Daniel Lee, 2019)

The Climbers poster 1“Because it’s there” George Mallory famously said when questioned why exactly he wanted to climb Mount Everest. The hero of Daniel Lee’s The Climbers (攀登者, Pāndēngzhĕ) who regards Mallory as his idol has a slightly more reasoned response when similarly questioned by a student, pausing before explaining that humans are always eager to climb towards the future. That will prove to be a rather ironic statement in that Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) is a man in many ways trapped by past injustice, unable to move on from simultaneously achieving his dream and being denied its glory.

Narrated by meteorologist and Wuzhou’s innocent love interest Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), the action begins in 1960 when the Chinese National Mountaineering Team makes an attempt to conquer Everest from the North Face in response to a territorial challenge from the other side. During the ascent, the team’s captain is killed leaving the three remaining members to press on to the summit alone. Having conquered the mountain, they are unable to record their achievement because they lost the camera during an avalanche and so their success goes unrecognised by the international community. This is particularly bad news for Wuzhou whose intensely romantic attempt to woo shy meteorology student Xu Ying is interrupted at the critical moment by the news they’ve been denied and all their dreams are dashed. Wuzhou becomes sullen and withdrawn, resentful at being thought a fraud. The failure costs him the courage he had mustered to pursue his romantic destiny, allowing Xu Ying to leave for many years of research in the Soviet Union without telling her how he really feels.

Xu Ying’s commentary opts for understatement when it briefly remarks that the nation entered a period of “darkness” following the “failure” of the Everest attempt after which the Chinese National Mountaineering Team was disbanded. Wuzhou is relegated to the boiler room in a factory while his surviving friends, Jiebu (Lawang Lop) and Songlin (Zhang Yi), pursue their separate destinies, Jiebu returning to his sheep farm and Songlin, whose foot was ruined by frostbite, joining a sports training facility. By 1975, times have changed and the powers that be see fit to mount another attempt on Everest in order to measure it “properly” and restore China’s international mountain climbing reputation.

For all that The Climbers is a propaganda epic filled with calls to “show the world what Chinese men can do”, it has its share of flawed heroes failing to measure up to a vision of themselves as fearless champions of their nation. Wuzhou is understandably an embittered man obsessed with the rejection of his first summit, but he’s also an emotional coward who ties the need to have his success validated with the right to speak his heart to the improbably patient Xu Ying who apparently continues holding a torch for him throughout her long years in Russia, only implying she can’t wait for him any longer by putting their relationship on a professional footing when she arrives to lead the meteorological department on the 1975 summit attempt. Nevertheless, the pair share an array of meaningful looks filled with poignant longing while Xu Ying laments the presence of the mountain which stands between them before seemingly deciding to sacrifice herself for Wuzhou’s dream in the forlorn hope of finally conquering it.

Songlin, meanwhile, is resentful not so much towards the mountain or the fact that he will never be able to climb it again but towards Wuzhou who saved his life and let the camera fall, thereby bringing shame on the Chinese nation. Later, a brave young man opts to sacrifice his life to ensure the camera’s survival, and as Songlin later comes to understand the climb is a heavy responsibility which puts young lives at risk for a fairly meaningless prize which may not bring the glory to their nation that the young men and women trying to reach the summit might expect. Nevertheless, they plough on regardless. 1960 leads to 1975, and then to 2019 in which intrepid Chinese climbers once again attempt to conquer Everest in the company of a (in some ways not terribly) surprising star cameo in order to reemphasise the nation’s manly prowess and overwhelming desire to protect what it sees as its territory. Lee makes the most of the snowy vistas for a series of death defying stunts as the team (repeatedly) encounter avalanches, rock falls, and dangerous storms, risking all to bring glory to China but remaining resolute in their determination to make it all the way to the top.


The Climbers is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Call of Heroes (危城, Benny Chan, 2016)

call of heroesA blast from the past in more ways than one, Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes (危城, Wēi Chéng) is a western in disguise though one filtered through Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone more than John Ford. Filled with Morricone-esque musical riffs and poncho wearing reluctant heroes, Chan’s bounce back to the post-revolutionary warlord era is one pregnant with contemporary echoes yet totally unafraid to add a touch of uncinematic darkness to its wisecracking world.

1914 – three years after the collapse of Chinese feudalism and warlords rule the land, each vying for power and terrain but taking little account of the displaced people in their path. The residents of Stone City find this out the hard way when notorious general Cao Ying wades into town and conducts a widespread massacre seemingly for the fun of it. Plucky school teacher Bai Ling manages to escape with some of her pupils even whilst other teachers and children are being summarily executed by Cao’s troupes.

Having left with nothing and walked miles, Bai and the children are near starvation when they stop into a noodle house to share a single bowl. Unfortunately the noodle house is about to be robbed but fortunately one of the diners is bearded wanderer Ma Feng (Eddie Peng) who isn’t up for anyone disturbing his serious food coma. Impressed with Ma’s skills, the kids and Bai make their way to Pucheng where Bai has a cousin but Cao is still on the warpath and trouble has a way of tracking good people down.

Pucheng (the name of which literally means ordinary town), is watched over by the noble sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-wan) though the protective garrison has been sent to the front leaving them with only a skeleton defence. When a mysterious visitor arrives in town and proceeds to shoot dead a man, woman, and even a child, Yang arrests him but when the killer turns out to be Cao Ying’s unhinged son, a number of questions arise. Yang is committed to justice – no matter the man’s name, he ought to pay for his crimes. Yet, Cao Shaolun’s presence is sure to attract his father’s attention and so many of the townspeople feel it might be better to let Cao Shaolun go. Placate a tyrant and undermine the idea of justice by failing to enforce the law or sign your own death warrant by standing up for your principles, it’s a frontiersman’s dilemma.

The references to classic Hollywood westerns are obvious enough, particularly when the narrative takes a turn for the High Noons as Yang finds himself standing alone as the sole resistance to the oncoming militia man threat. Though the townspeople do not exactly turn on Yang in the same way they turn on Kane, they clearly choose appeasement over war. Yang’s dedication to justice is purehearted, there’s little hint of personal vanity in his decision to stand up for the rule of law but only the knowledge that folding now is the same as bowing to Cao’s tyranny.

Though introduced as a possible protagonist, Ma Feng takes a far smaller role in the action than might be expected. Clearly channeling Mifune’s Sanjuro, Peng’s wisecracking drifter and cynical, reluctant hero is almost at odds with the serious business of law vs politics over in Pucheng. His character centric subplot of conflict with a former friend who works for the other side is insufficiently developed to support the emotional weight it’s intended to carry and sometimes feels like a distraction from the main narrative though the great pot mountain based martial arts set piece is certainly one worth waiting for.

If Peng’s Ma Feng feels slightly misplaced with his cynicism and comic stunts, Louis Koo’s hammed up villain Cao Shaolun is in an entirely different film altogether. Wildly over the top, Koo plays Cao Shaolun as a permanently amused psychopath, all crazy eyes and manic laughter. A self consciously cool guy, Cao Shaolun dresses in white and murders innocents with a golden gun all the while knowing he can do as he pleases simply by the virtue of his name.

Shot with a heavily digital aesthetic, Call of Heroes’ evidently high production values are sometimes reduced to a televisual quality or otherwise let down by substandard CGI. The fight scenes themselves are filmed with an old fashioned rigour filled with innovative and exciting choreography and are refreshingly humour free. Like the best westerns, Call of Heroes contains its own parable in that the best weapon against tyranny is a strong and righteous populace but the final stretch almost undermines its noble aims by presenting what is either a revolutionary spring lead by the people for the people, or a worrying case of mob justice.

Prone to narrative dead ends in setting up major characters only to sideline or kill them off unexpectedly, Call of Heroes has a frustrated quality in not being able to decide whether it wants to be a serious call to arms for standing up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming force, or a comedic romp in which a cocky drifter sorts everything out by accident. Either way, Call of Heroes does provide a number of genuinely exciting martial arts set pieces even if floundering slightly in-between them.


Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)