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

Adoring (宠爱, Larry Yang, 2019)

Adoring poster 1Pets can often be a point of contention in your average romance. As often as they bring people together, they can also drive them apart which is perhaps why the tug of war over an unexpectedly orphaned dog has become such a trope in bitter divorce narratives. Cheerful New Year movie Adoring (宠爱, chǒngài), however, is 100% pet positive, showing us that shared love for an adorable little critter only brings people closer even if it takes a little while to get there.

Each of our animal loving heroes is connected through a network of friendship or simply by using the same, very cheerful, vet’s. Teenager Nan (Zhang Zifeng) uses her pet golden retriever Zha as an aid while looking after her best friend, Leyun (Leo Wu Lei), who has recently lost his sight through illness. Illustrator An Ying (Kan Qingzi) has a crush on a handsome reporter who lives in her building but is both extremely shy and incredibly germaphobic which poses a small problem for her when he suggests co-parenting a little kitten they rescue from under a car. An Ying’s boss Zhao Le (William Chan Wai-ting) has just married beautiful air hostess Fang Xin (Zhong Chuxi), but her beloved dog Seven is both extremely jealous and aggressively territorial making the start of their married life somewhat stressful. Fang Xin’s friend Fay (Yang Zishan) has been dating smartly turned out fund manager Li Xiang (Wallace Chung Hon-leung), but is concerned that they always meet in hotels. Fearing he has another woman at home, she barges into his swanky townhouse but is surprised to discover that his big secret is a pampered pretty pink pig called Bell that occupies his basement in the height of luxury. Meanwhile, divorced dad Gao Ming (Yu Hewei) has become overly attached to the family cat and fears his daughter Mengmeng (Li Landi) will take it back to the US with her, and rookie delivery driver Ah De (Guo Qilin) bonds with a stray dog who helps him navigate a complex housing estate.

Much as everyone loves their pets, the animals are in some way also conduits for love between people. Leyun has been struggling to accept the loss of his sight and the feeling that the world he’s always known is slipping away from him, which is why he takes it so badly hearing that Nan’s parents are thinking of moving to be closer to her new high school. Nan wants to help him, and chooses to do so by training Zha to be a guide dog, but Leyun only sees the ways in which his friend is trying to fob him off with a dog rather than embrace the warmth that was meant by her gesture. Likewise, Gao Ming, has become so attached to the cat, Hulu, because he sees it as the last remnant of his family, his wife having left him and taken their teenage daughter to the US. Mengmeng Skypes him to talk to the cat, and he worries about losing touch with her if she no longer needs to, but misses the fact that perhaps she merely lets him use the cat as an excuse because she knows he’s an awkward man who doesn’t know how to talk to her. Zhan Le, meanwhile, is understandably irritated by Seven’s jealously, but does his best to make friends with him because he loves his wife and she loves her dog. An Ying too begins to become less afraid of human contact thanks to unexpectedly bonding with the kitten, allowing her to grow closer to her crush.

Bell, however, continues to be a problem for Fay who can’t get her head around why her handsome, stylish boyfriend keeps a “dirty” farmyard animal in the basement, let alone why he lavishes so much luxury on her. Jealous of the pig, she misses all the ways that Bell is actually rooting her human’s love story and just trying to make friends with her while protecting the household like any good pet should, leading her to make a potentially disastrous decision only to realise her mistake just in the nick of time. Darkness also invades the tale of delivery driver Ah De who finds out his new friend is under threat from vicious gangs who apparently round up stray dogs and sell them to restaurants (!). Somewhat uncomfortably, the “gangsters” following Ah De have Korean names, but ultimately turn out to be the good guys and part of the rescue team when all the pet lovers come together to save the independent pup and convince him that it’s OK to love again. As Ah De said, people think they take care of their pets, but sometimes it’s them taking care of you.


Currently on limited release in UK/US/Canadian/Australian/New Zealand cinemas courtesy of CMC Pictures.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Li Ruijun, 2017)

Walking Past the Future poster 1Communism is a labour movement. It’s supposed to look after the workers, ensure fairness and equality through prosperity born of common endeavour. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was how the ruling powers tried to justify their headlong slide into globalised capitalism but thirty years on the modern China has left many behind while the rich get richer off the backs of the poor. The poetically titled Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Lùguò Wèilái) follows two such unlucky youngsters from Gansu who find themselves out of options in China’s shrinking industrial heartlands.

Our heroine Yaoting (Yang Zishan) has a job in an electronics factory assembling circuit boards. She lives with her parents – peasants from rural Gansu who came to Shenzhen 25 years previously in search of a better life, and a younger sister who is the family’s bright hope. Trouble is on horizon when Yaoting’s dad is taken ill and needs hospital treatment only to be unceremoniously “made redundant” when he tries to go back to work. On the very same day, Yaoting’s mother also announces she has been let go from her factory job leaving Yaoting as the family’s only earner. The day after Yaoting’s dad gets fired, his factory literally collapses and many workers are killed. You could say he’s had a lucky escape, but there are still few options for a man in his 60s with poor health and the family needs money. He decides they have no other option than to move back to Gansu and go back to farming, but when they get there, he discovers someone else has taken over his land (legally) and won’t give it back.

Meanwhile, Yingtao desperately wants to buy an apartment but with sending money back to her struggling parents her factory job is barely enough to live on. Her best friend Li Qian (Wang Ting), unburdened by a family, is addicted to plastic surgery and is saving to go to Korea for the best there is. On a hospital visit during which she is temporarily blinded, Li Qian runs into the roguish Xinmin (Yin Fang) who has a sideline recruiting desperate people to take part in potentially dangerous medical trials. Unbeknownst to either of them, Xinmin is also the “Desert Ship” to Yingtao’s “Misty Landscape”. They’ve become online best friends but have never met. Increasingly desperate to get the money for her dream apartment, Yingtao agrees to participate in a series of drug trials even though she has previously had a liver transplant and has a history of poor health.

Despite the supposed benefits of a movement led by workers, Yingtao and her family are victims of the modern era in which jobs are no longer for life, there is no community or fellow feeling between “boss” and “employee”, and those at the bottom of the ladder enjoy few rights. Yingtao’s father gets laid off when they find out he’s been ill with only a goodwill gesture of severance pay (which presumably goes up in smoke with the factory), while the same thing later happens to Yingtao when her liver condition resurfaces. When the electronics factory hits a rough patch, Yingtao is laid off for an entire week with no pay – so much for solidarity and a full belly for all.

Yingtao’s only pleasures are her constant conversations with “Desert Ship” who keeps needling her to officially accept his friendship request, but she won’t because moving their friendship to a more official level would prevent her from talking to him quite so freely. Neither Xinmin nor Yingtao is aware of the other’s identity, or that they are in fact texting each other while quietly miserable in the same room. A young orphan just trying to survive, Xinmin has a cynical and exploitative streak perfectly symptomatic of the world in which he lives but he is not completely heartless even if he is somewhat hypocritical in advising his online friend against the medical trials he has unwittingly persuaded her to undertake back in the real world. 

Pushed lower and lower, forced to undertake difficult and physically dangerous work with little protection and only the warning that their decisions are on their own heads, Yingtao and Xinmin find little to be hopeful about despite the eventual warmth of the connection between them and the innocent desire to see the snow back in the simpler world of rural Gansu. The future has indeed passed them by, marooning them in a miserable present yet, like the song the pair keep singing, they continue to dream of finding a “welcoming window” no matter how far off it seems to be.


Walking Past the Future screens in Chicago on Oct. 24 as part of the Seventh Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where director Lee Ruijun and producer Zhang Min will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)