Send Me to the Clouds (送我上青云, Teng Congcong, 2019)

Send me to the clouds posterWomen hold up half the sky, Chairman Mao once said, but in contemporary China sexual equality is an unrealised dream of a previous era. The debut feature from Teng Congcong, Send Me to the Clouds (送我上青云, Sòng Wǒ Shàng Qīngyún) follows one “left-over” woman as she attempts to assert her independence in a world which still expects her to accept her subjugated position in a male dominated society by marrying and subsuming herself within a man’s career.

Ageing investigative journalist Shengnan (Yao Chen) whose name literally means “surpass men” has a cynical eye and fiercely independent nature but is struggling to make a living while protecting her integrity in an increasingly acquisitive culture. Getting kicked in the stomach by a “nutcase” while looking for evidence to support her theory that a local wildfire was started by a politician hoping to capitalise on successfully putting it out forces her to make a long delayed trip to the doctor who tells her that the pain in her abdomen is a result of advanced ovarian cancer and that she needs expensive surgery as quickly as possible.

As she’s been keen to ensure she acts ethically, ready money’s something Shengnan doesn’t have a lot of. Confiding in her cynical, ambitious best friend Simao (Li Jiuxiao) who has no such scruples, Shengnan finds him unwilling to help because, after all, there’s a chance Shengnan might die anyway which would mean it’s a bad investment because she won’t be able to pay him back. He does, however, offer her a job ghostwriting an autobiography for the eccentric father of the local official she was just in the business of exposing for shady double dealing. Understandably she doesn’t want to take the job and decides to try asking her parents without disclosing what the money’s for. Shengnan’s skeevy industrialist father (Shi Qiang), however, is currently losing out in the precarious Chinese economy and actually deigns to ask Shengnan for a loan before she can even broach the subject leading to a spiky father daughter argument. Shengnan has to take the job and throw her lot in with Simao even if she doesn’t feel quite right about it.

Simao cynically affirms that a problem which can be solved with money isn’t a problem, but unlike Shengnan he has no qualms about bowing before power if he feels there’s something to be gained by it. Shengnan nearly blows the gig when she takes offence to the official’s extremely condescending attitude but does after all have little choice given that her life is on the line. Meanwhile, the job is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of her mother (Wu Yufang) who decides to tag along while feeling neglected seeing as her now estranged husband is having yet another affair leaving her entirely alone in a culture which expects women to go back in their boxes until the menfolk want to take them out.

Shengnan and her mother come from very different generations, but in essence not much has changed. Shengnan’s mother married young and had her only daughter at 19 only to see her husband tire of her and the deeply entrenched idea that a woman’s career is a home and family exposed as a fallacy. Shengnan meanwhile was born during China’s reformist period and told that she had total equality only to be frequently criticised for her “manliness” in her desire to assert her independence. On visiting the doctor she displays worryingly little awareness of her health in her confusion regarding the cause of her cancer, stating that her love life ended years ago, but even if she’s quick to roll her eyes at Simao’s insensitive story about a woman who had the surgery and found it ruined her sex drive eventually decides she’d like to have one last hurrah with someone she really likes only to have her proactive stance on female desire rejected as unfeminine.

Yet this hyper capitalistic, intensely sexist environment is also harming men as Shengnan discovers in her unsatisfying encounters both with Simao and with a philosophical photographer she meets on a boat. Shengnan develops an attraction for Guangming (Yuan Hong) because of his softness and seeming desire to see further than others but eventually he disappoints her, trapped as he is by a hierarchal system to which he can offer only token resistance while hating himself for his cowardly complicity. Simao meanwhile has jumped headlong into the consumerist dream, obsessed with getting rich and not particularly caring what he has to do to make that happen.

The most meaningful connection Shengnan makes turns out to be with the subject of her biography, a randy 80-year-old poet (Yang Xinming) who quickly sets about romancing her mother with a series of cryptic text messages. The old man knows his son is a “complete moron” and even changed his name to something bland and commonplace so that the police might arrest someone else by mistake if he got caught while committing a crime, but has a sort of exasperated love for him and for the world that transcends his failing body and worldweary philosophy. Thanks to his refreshing earthiness, Shengnan starts to see a way forward, once again claiming her independence and resolving to live her life in the way she chooses for as long as it lasts while the men around her largely crumble under the weight of social expectations and a rampantly capitalist society.


Send Me to the Clouds  was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Lost, Found (找到你, Lü Yue, 2018)

Lü Yue’s Lost, Found (找到你, Zhǎodào Nǐ) follows hot on the heels of Korean kidnap drama Missing but it is not, apparently, a remake but part of an increasing trend of global filmmaking in which an original scenario is developed for several territories simultaneously with Qin Haiyan’s script reportedly produced while the Korean version was shooting. Despite sharing the same plot outline, however, Lost, Found puts a distinctly Chinese spin on the central dilemma as its cynical heroine is forced to reassess her life choices and her entire relationship with her society when her daughter disappears.

Li Jie (Yao Chen) is a high flying, cynical lawyer who only cares about winning cases. At home, she’s mother to two-year-old Duo Duo and is currently engaged in a custody battle with her daughter’s father following the breakdown of her marriage to a successful surgeon. To help her out at home with her busy schedule, she’s employed a young woman, Sun Fang (Ma Yili), as a nanny but is at times jealous that her little girl seems more attached to the traditionally maternal home help than to her biological mother. Her worst fears are realised one day when she returns home to find dirty breakfast dishes still on the table and the flat empty. Worrying her mother-in-law has managed to snatch Duo Duo, Li Jie is reluctant to get the authorities involved but is eventually forced to acknowledge that something more serious may have occurred with Sun Fang nowhere to be found.

Talking to her former husband, Li Jie insists that a woman’s future shouldn’t be decided by love or marriage and that she wants Duo Duo to have more freedom but she’s distinctly slow to warm up the theme of female solidarity as shown by her callous treatment of the defendant in her divorce case in which she is trying to win custody on behalf of an adulterous husband by calling into question the wife’s mental stability. Despite the woman’s pleas as one mother to another, Li Jie coldly tells her that the circumstances are largely irrelevant – she is merely a lawyer wielding the law and will do her best to win the case because that is her job.

Forced to investigate the life of Sun Fang, however, her perspective begins to shift. Busy as she is, Li Jie did not perhaps pay as much attention to her nanny as she should have. She took the word of a neighbour with whom she was not particularly close that Sun Fang was a trusted relative with childcare experience without asking for documentation or employment records. Besides, Sun Fang was good with the child and Duo Duo seemed to like her so Li Jie felt comfortable leaving her in Sun Fang’s care. What she discovers is that Sun Fang had experienced many difficulties in her life which she, as an urban middle-class and highly educated woman, had largely been protected from. Because she personally had not suffered, she was content not consider the suffering of others and thought only of herself, even perhaps regarding possession of Duo Duo as something to be won on a point of pride rather than an expression of maternal love or a deeply seated belief that she could offer better care.

Despite its fairly progressive message of social responsibility and female solidarity, Lost, Found takes a disappointing turn for the conservative when it implies that Li Jie should ease back on her career to focus on motherhood rather than allowing her simply to re-embrace her love for her daughter without fear or anxiety. Yet it does also encourage her to contemplate the increasingly unequal nature of the modern China – men/women, town/country, rich/poor, destinies are decided largely by circumstances of birth rather than individual merit. If Li Jie had been born in the same place as Sun Fang, her life might have been much the same. Realising she should have taken more of an interest in the woman raising her child, Li Jie is forced to accept that her own privilege has blinded her and that she does indeed have a responsibility to others and to her society if most particularly to her daughter. A tense, frantic tale of frustrated motherhood, Lost, Found is at once a condemnation of modern disconnection and a quiet plea for a return to kindhearted altruism.


Lost, Found was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Raman Hui, 2015)

Monster Hunt posterA runaway box office hit and veritable pop culture phenomenon, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖記, Zhuō Yāo Jì) is nothing more than a slice of family friendly entertainment in the vein of a dozen other live-action/animation hybrid fantasy films. The monsters are cute, yes, and there is enough darkness here to rival Lord of the Rings, but there’s a little more going on under the surface of this otherwise heartwarming tale of a persecuted minority and its hidden princeling. A family drama of epic proportions, Monster Hunt speaks directly to China’s left behind children and to those who, perhaps, were worried their destiny had always been misplaced.

Set sometime in the distant fantasy past, Monster Hunt takes place in a universe in which men and Monsters co-exist but, owing to their defeat in a war, the Monsters have been forced back into the forests and mountains away from humankind many of whom no longer even believe they exist. However, there is fresh strife among the Monsters forcing a pregnant Queen to flee along with her retainers, straying into the human world in hope of saving her baby. Luckily she finds herself in a small village presided over by a kindly mayor with a limp, Tianyin (Jing Boran), who is also the son of a long missing Monster Hunter but much prefers domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing to hunting Monsters. The Queen manages to “transfer” her baby to Tianyin just before she dies, leaving him quite literally holding the baby assisted only by cynical bounty hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe).

Inspired by ancient folklore, Monster Hunt plays the chosen one trope to the max as Tianyin wrestles with his destiny while the baby, a true king displaced from his throne, awaits in ignorance. Like many contemporary fantasy tales, Monster Hunt also revels in subverting genre norms with its noticeably feminised hero. Tianyin is the son of a great warrior, but it’s his grandmother who practices kung fu and goes out looking for her long lost son, while Tianyin professes his love of domesticity, staying home cooking and sewing. His simplicity and softness is contrasted with the more masculine figure of the cynical Monster Hunter Xiaolan who becomes Tianyin’s casual love interest and the putative “father” in the loose family unit they form with the tiny baby radish-like figure they eventually christen Wuba.

The formation of a family unit in itself proves a problematic development for both Tianyin and Xiaolan who have both been abandoned by their own families and left to fend for themselves (with almost opposite results). Resentful at having been cast out by his apparently “heroic” father, Tianyin has definite views about the nature of fatherhood and the mistakes he does not wish to repeat with his own children while Xiaolan has grown wary of forming attachments altogether and strives to remind herself that she is only looking after Wuba until he’s big enough to sell on the Monster Hunter black market. Nevertheless, the pair cannot help becoming “accidental” parents even if they must first make a mistake they later need to rectify in trying to abandon their charge for financial gain. Tianyin “repeats” the “mistake” of his own father but finally comes to understand it for what it was – a father’s sacrifice of his paternal love to keep his child safe. Something that will certainly ring true for children who may be living apart from their own parents for reasons they don’t quite understand.

Yet a fairytale darkness is never far away as Tianyin and Xiaolan consider selling off little Wuba to a dodgy mahjong obsessed Monster fence (Tang Wei) who apparently knows how valuable he is but is planning to sell him to a local restaurant anyway. Despite the fact that everyone has forgotten Monsters exist, Monster meat is a delicacy reserved for the super rich (a subtle dig at China’s eat anything that can’t run faster than you philosophy ushered in by the sight of caged monkeys at the roadside) and little Wuba does look quite like a tasty daikon radish.

Cute monsters getting chopped up and eaten may be a horror too far for sensitive young children (if it weren’t for the fact the Monsters are all inspired by veggies Monster Hunt might be the greatest proselytising mechanism for vegetarianism the world has ever seen) but rest assured, little Wuba is quite the resourceful little tyke and he does after all have a grand destiny awaiting him. A tribute to unlikely heroes, gentle men, feisty women, and atypical families, Monster Hunt is an oddly subversive family friendly adventure and one which has clearly hit its mark in capturing the hearts of a whole generation who will doubtless be excited for the further adventures of Wuba as he moves closer towards his own Messianic destiny.


International trailer (English captions)