Pegasus (飞驰人生, Han Han, 2019)

Pegasus poster 1Traditionally speaking, New Year has often been a time for reconsidering one’s life choices, but can it ever really be too late to make up for past mistakes and charge ahead into a better future? The hero of Han Han’s New Year racing drama Pegasus (飞驰人生, Fēichí Rénshēng) is determined to find out as he tries to bounce back from disgrace and failure to prove to his young son that he was once a great man and not quite the hangdog loser he might at first seem. His battle, however, will be a tough one even with his best guys by his side.

Zheng Chi (Shen Teng) dreamed of racing glory and won it. He was a champion, the face on billboards across China, but a minor scandal put paid to his success and his driving and racing licenses have been suspended for the last five years during which time he’s been humbled and lived a workaday life as a fried rice stall vendor raising a young son alone. Now that his suspension is up for reconsideration, he’s beginning to wonder if he might be able to return to his rightful place at the centre of the podium but he’ll have to eat a considerable amount of humble pie if he’s to convince anyone that he’s a person worthy of respect now that he has nothing.

Director Han Han is, among other things, also a rally driver himself though his positioning of the sport within his tale of middle-aged loserdom is a slightly awkward fit. Racing is an expensive hobby, it quite literally relies on the involvement of those who have vast resources of disposable cash they can use to sponsor drivers so they can improve their equipment. Though a driver’s skill, and their relationship with a co-driver, are not insignificant parts of the equation, it is nevertheless true that money rules all when it comes to buying advantage (perhaps much like life).

Chi’s problem isn’t just his age, but that he’s up against extremely rich young guys with inherited wealth like his rival Zhengdong (Huang Jingyu) – a pretty boy with celebrity following and seemingly infinite resources. Han sets Chi’s struggle up as one of the chastened everyman – someone who came from nothing and made it only to crash and burn but still has the desire to get up and try again. He struggles on through various obstacles including bribing a driving instructor to get his licence back and charming a suspension board into letting him back in the game but discovers that friendships formed when successful might not survive a fall from grace. He can’t get the same kind of access as he could when he was riding high and no amount of chutzpah will make up for the disadvantage incurred through not having the kind of wealth that enables Zhengdong’s ongoing rise to glory.

Nevertheless, perhaps Zhengdong is simply a realist when he advises those looking for absolute fairness not to bother getting involved with racing. He’s not a bad guy, if somewhat insecure in feeling as if his own success has been enabled only by Chi’s fall from grace and perhaps he wouldn’t be top of the podium if the best driver hadn’t been hounded off the track. What we’re left with is an awkward admission that what makes the difference is men like Zhengdong deciding to feel philanthropic, though in this case he does so out of a sense of sportsmanship and a not entirely altruistic desire to prove himself by ensuring the participation of a worthy rival. Given this boost, Chi’s quest necessarily leaves the realm of the everyday loser and returns to the rarefied one of success enabled by privilege.

The final messages are also somewhat ambivalent in their death or glory, live full throttle intensity as Chi’s lectures on driving become lectures about life, affirming that those who win are the ones who drive fastest while making the fewest mistakes. Chi is not unencumbered, he has his son and therefore a responsibility to another which is sometimes forgotten in his own quest for glory which, we are reminded, carries risk and danger. Perhaps what we’re asked is if the gentle pleasures of a simple life selling fried rice for decades are worth giving up the hyper acceleration of a life measured in seconds following a dream. Chi might have found his answer, but it comes at a cost and he’s not the only one who’ll be paying it. As New Year messages go, it’s a decidedly mixed one which might not offer much positivity for the average middle-aged loser longing to relive their glory days in service of a dream which might long have flickered out in an increasingly unequal society.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original 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)

Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Dante Lam, 2018)

Operation Red Sea posterDante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.

The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.

Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.

The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.

Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.

Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)