Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Only Cloud Knows (只有芸知道, Feng Xiaogang, 2019)

930161b9ca654d4cac056b550c6d0542If contemporary Chinese cinema has one message, it’s come home to China. Feng Xiaogang, however, has never been keen to go with the flow for all of his occasionally problematic affection for the nation as it was before the ‘80s reforms. A co-production with New Zealand, unabashed romantic tearjerker Only Cloud Knows (只有芸知道, Z Yǒu Yún Zdào) seems primed to speak directly to the diaspora audience, asking if perhaps the meaning of the word “home” has changed, less place than people and, therefore, infinitely portable.

In the present day, recently widowed Dongfeng/Simon (Huang Xuan) prepares to say goodbye to his late wife, Yun/Jennifer (Yang Caiyu), by travelling back through their long years together facing many ups and downs as they strove to make a life for themselves in the laidback greenery of the New Zealand countryside. Dongfeng travels first to the small town where they started a humble restaurant, cooking the kind of food Westerners expect rather than the authentic Chinese dishes they fear no one will try, and using their English names “for convenience”. While there they employ a friendly waitress, Melinda (Lydia Peckham), who is something of a free spirit saving up money to travel to distant lands, touring Asia and Africa.

Though they are blissfully happy, life is not without its difficulties. Working so hard to make the restaurant a success leaves them with time for little else and wondering if they’ve perhaps lost sight of something important. Dongfeng no longer plays his flute, and Yun worries that he’s sacrificed a part of himself to provide for her, becoming a slightly different person in the process. Obsessed with blue whales, Yun craves protection and security, the kind of things many associate with a building a stable home, but she also yearns for freedom and for something more than ordinary happiness. Minor resentment creeps in born of that central contradiction. Dongfeng wants to give Yun the kind of security he assumes she needs by betting everything on the restaurant, but all she really wants is him.

Nevertheless, protection and security were the things which attracted her to Dongfeng in the first place as symbolised by her obsession with blue whales. Somewhat improbably, his hotheaded decision to start a fight with a man who cut them up in a carpark and then insulted Yun only endears him to her further and also gets him a commendation from a local policeman who even tells him he might be cut out for life on the force, but to ease back on the violence because New Zealand is a peaceful place. There are things, however, that one cannot be protected from and as much as fate gives it also takes away. Yun craves protection because she feels insecure in an existential sense, convinced that she is “unlucky” and originally reluctant to agree to Dongfeng’s proposal in fear that she is destined to make him unhappy.

Sadly, that prediction eventually proves correct though through no fault of her own. Lucky in love, the couple face their share of hardships from an inability to start a family to losing beloved pets and dealing with illness, but there’s no joy without sadness and if your time together is shorter perhaps it is equally sweet. In his opening monologue, Dongfeng muses, quoting poetry, that time moved slower in the past and there was only enough of it to love one person before telling us that his life has been about one woman. Only Cloud Knows is the story of how he learned to say goodbye, but also of a 20-year love that endures to transcend time.

Apparently inspired by the true life love story of one Feng’s friends and collaborators, Only Cloud Knows has a rare kind of authenticity in its deeply felt romance which somehow seems all the more real for its clichéd genesis. Foreshadowings of partings echo throughout, reminding us that all love ends one way or another and it’s the ones left behind who mind it most, but rather than dwell on the maudlin, Feng shows that life goes on even in the midst of heartbreak. Houses change hands, old owners with teary eyes making space for bright-eyed youngsters full of hope for the future, while those who are leaving bequeath their unlived years to those they love with hopeful generosity. What Dongfeng discovers is that home is where the heart is, even if the heart is forever in the past.


Currently on limited release in US/UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Ding Sheng, 2016)

railroad-tigersTrains! They seem to be the latest big thing in Chinese cinema, but at least Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Tiědào Fēi Hǔ) has more rolling stock on offer than the disappointingly CGI enhanced effort which formed the finale of The Vanished Murderer. The latest collaboration between the iconic but ageing Jackie Chan and director Ding Sheng, Railroad Tigers is a kind of western/war movie in which a gang of robin hood style railway bandits decide to get involved with the resistance movement during the ongoing Japanese invasion in 1941. Keeping the action to a minimum and stepping into the background for this comedy ensemble caper, Jackie channels Keaton but makes sure to backup this humorous yarn with a degree of pathos for these fatalistic patriots.

Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) is a railway worker at a large interstation currently operated by the Japanese. He and his men hatch elaborate plots to raid the incoming supply trains for foodstuffs and Japanese military equipment, but what they’re mostly doing is laughing at their captors rather than actively opposing them. When they return home one day to find a wounded resistance soldier collapsed in their courtyard, the game changes as they decide to help him complete his “secret” mission to blow up a local bridge. Eventually teaming up with a local noodle shop owner who used to be a dashing, sharp shooting hero bodyguard for a defeated warlord, the gang take on the entirety of the Japanese military in Manchuria armed with little more than good humour and hope.

If you were hoping for a nuanced take on the Japanese forces operating in China in the quite climactic year of 1941, you’d best look elsewhere because Railroad Tigers is another bumper outing for the “comedy Kempeitai” who, on the basis of the evidence here provided, could not successfully occupy their own uniforms for any great length of time. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi plays the local commander, Yamaguchi, with the necessary degree of moustache twirling, scenery munching hamminess which the ridiculous set up requires before being joined by the evil and improbable presence of a top female Kempeitai officer, Yuko (Zhang Lanxin), who mostly exists to provide the icy steel so obviously absent from her completely ridiculous countrymen. By and large the gang’s opposition pose very little real threat from the stationmaster who’s always in trouble for smiling too much, to the buffoonish soldier who fails to complete his harakiri because it looks too painful.

Somewhere between the classic western train robbery set piece and the derailment dramas familiar to the resistance movie, Railroad Tigers positions itself as a broad comedy in which it’s slapstick humour rather than high octane thrills which take centre stage. Thus Jackie takes down opponents by jokingly unloading their guns or accidentally knocking them over the side of the train. Enemies are downed as much by trickery as by skill, with several meeting an ignominious end such as being shot in the bum or simply running away. What it lacks in innovative action, Railroad Tigers makes up for with silly comedy set pieces making the most of the real-life father son comradery between Jackie and the recently disgraced Jaycee such as in a slapstick interrogation sequence where they argue about their distinctive noses and which of them is the most handsome.

Wildly uneven in terms of pace, Railroad Tigers takes its time to get moving as we’re introduced to the members of Ma Yuan’s team and their various oppositing counterparts, many of them under drawn in the already crowded rosta. Ding signposts each of the major players with a comic book style illustrated splash featuring names and occupations which is echoed in the stylishly illustrated title sequence and handful of animated segments which follow as well as in the video game style mission heading title cards. Inexplicably, the film begins with a modern day framing sequence of a young boy on a school trip to a train museum in which he wanders off and climbs inside a train, finding the flying tiger marker chalked on the coal hatch. Otherwise redundant and offering little concrete value, the sequence seems only to exist as an excuse for a ten second cameo from one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Still, even if far too long, old fashioned in execution and occasionally plagued by substandard CGI, Railroad Tigers does offer enough silly humour and low stakes action to make it fun for all the family, even if guilty of overdoing the patriotic fervour in its lightweight approach to a traumatic era.


International trailer (English subtitles)