The Island (一出好戏, Huang Bo, 2018)

the island poster 1Comedy seems to have regained its bite of late. Filmmakers seeking to deliver pointed barbs at the modern China are pulling away from the traditionally safe areas of the period drama for a natural home in satire which for the time being at least is running rings around the censors’ board, albeit in a subdued fashion. The directorial debut from comedic actor Huang Bo, The Island (一出好戏, Yìchū Hăoxì) offers a mini lesson on the perils of untapped capitalism, tyranny, propaganda and “fake news” agendas in the form of a genial romcom in which a nice guy loser makes himself the king and wins the heart of his fair princess only for his empire to crumble under the weight of his own conflicted moralities.

On the day a meteor may or may not be on course to fall to Earth, dejected middle-aged office worker Ma Jin (Huang Bo) is off on a “team building” trip with his colleagues which involves a lengthy journey on an aquatic bus. Ma seems to owe money to just about everyone but swears he will soon pay them back, meanwhile he’s also hoping to get close to office beauty Shanshan (Shu Qi ) on whom he has a longstanding crush. At long last, it seems like Ma’s ship has finally come in – on checking his lottery numbers, Ma realises he’s the jackpot winner and can probably quit his boring job as soon as they dock, possibly even sweeping Shanshan off her feet as he does so. Alas it is not to be as seconds later the meteorite strikes engulfing the duck boat in a tsunami and eventually marooning the entire party on a deserted rocky island somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Huang wastes no time mocking modern consumerism. Ma Jin is now a millionaire but it couldn’t matter less. Likewise, slick boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) is at a similar impasse. He’s supposed to be in charge, an innovator and entrepreneur with all the ideas and a clear path to success but he is stunned and can only scream into the ocean while vowing to use his vast wealth to buy a new ship. The passengers look for leaders, some sticking with their social superior Zhang while others start to flock to the energetic bus driver Wang (Wang Baoqiang) who offers more practical solutions having discovered an abundant crop of fruit trees during an early exploration of the terrain. Wang used to be a monkey keeper and quickly assumes control with an authority born of strength and dominance as well as the withholding of the means to survive from those who do not submit to him.

It’s not long before some of the passengers long to be free of his oppressive yoke and the ideal opportunity arises when capitalist boss Zhang chances on a ready supply of capital in the form of a shipwrecked, upside-down boat which is laden with supplies. Ma Jin and his cousin Xing (Lay Zhang) follow Zhang who later institutes a market economy using playing cards for currency which offers the illusion of freedom but traps the employees in a system of capitalistic wage slavery while Zhang gets “rich” at the top of the pile. Ma Jin and Xing eventually grow disillusioned with their increased status at Zhang’s side when they realise he doesn’t have a plan for getting off the island and has given up on the idea of returning to civilisation.

Pitting two sides against the other, Ma Jin manages to create unity under a system of communism with capitalist characteristics (you see where he going with this?) in which he reigns as something like first among equals. Ma Jin’s “communist” utopia filled with laughter, song, and impromptu dance sequences is only born when he realises he’s missed the date to claim his lottery ticket and that there’s nothing worth going back for whether civilisation still exists or not. With his new found status, he’s finally able to get close the emotionally wounded Shanshan but becomes increasingly conflicted as the “fakery’ required to keep his regime in place begins to weigh on his mind, especially when a boat is spotted on the horizon and the entire system seems primed to crumble. Ma Jin gives in to his worst instincts at the instigation of his even more corrupted cousin who brands the boat visionary a false prophet, a madman who can’t accept the wonders of the new regime.

Only when confronted with Shanshan’s genuine emotion for the man he was pretending to be does Ma Jin wake up from his embittered fever dream to realise the dangers of the world he has created out of his own sense of inferiority, and particularly the harm done to his cousin who perhaps always felt a little oppressed just by him. The message is however compromised by Ma Jin’s otherwise positive realisation that lack of money was not as big a barrier to his success as lack of self confidence and avoidance of truthful emotional connections which of course undermines the central criticism of the increasing inequalities of modern Chinese society just as the ironic coda undoes the anti-consumerist message. Nevertheless, though overlong The Island successfully marries its romantic comedy core with its satirical aspirations thanks to the committed performances of the always radiant Shu Qi who invests the underwritten Shanshan with the necessary levels of wavering earnest while Huang Bo brings his usual hangdog charm to the role of the corrupted everyman.


International trailer (English subtitles)

I am Not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

I-Am-Not-Madame-Bovary-posterFeng Xiaogang, often likened to the “Chinese Spielberg”, has spent much of his career creating giant box office hits and crowd pleasing pop culture phenomenons from World Without Thieves to Cell Phone and You Are the One. Looking at his later career which includes such “patriotic” fare as Aftershock, Assembly, and Back to 1942 it would be easy to think that he’s in the pocket of the censors board. Nevertheless, there’s a thin strain of resistance ever-present in his work which is fully brought out in the biting satire, I am not Madame Bovary (我不是潘金莲, Wǒ Búshì Pān Jīnlián).

Truth be told, the adopted Western title is mostly unhelpful as the film’s heroine, Liu Xuelian (Fan Bingbing), is no romantic girl chasing a lovelorn dream to escape from the stultifying boredom of provincial bourgeois society, but a wronged peasant woman intent on reclaiming her dignity from a world expressly set up to keep people like her in their place. Feng begins the movie with a brief narrative voice over to set the scene in which he shows us a traditional Chinese painting depicting the famous “Pan Jinlian” whose name has become synonymous with romantic betrayal. More Thérèse Raquin than Madame Bovary, Pan Jinlian conspired with her lover to kill her husband rather than becoming consumed by an eternal stream of romantic betrayals.

Xuelian has, however, been betrayed. She and her husband faked a divorce so that he could get a fancy apartment the government gives to separated people where they could live together after remarrying sometime later. Only, Xuelian’s husband tricked her – the divorce was real and he married someone else instead. Not only that, he’s publicly damaged her reputation by branding her a “Pan Jinlian” and suggesting she’s a fallen woman who was not a virgin when they married. Understandably upset, Xuelian wants the law to answer for her by cancelling her husband’s duplicitous divorce and clearing her name of any wrongdoing.

Xuelian’s case is thrown out of the local courts, but she doesn’t stop there, she musters all of her resources and takes her complaint all the way to Beijing. Rightfully angry, her rage carries her far beyond the realms a peasant woman of limited education would expect to roam always in search of someone who will listen to her grievances. When no one will, Xuelian resorts to extreme yet peaceful measures, making a spectacle of herself by holding up large signs and stopping petty officials in their fancy government cars. Eventually Liu Xuelian becomes an embarrassment to her governmental protectors, a symbol of wrongs they have no time to right. These men in suits aren’t interested in her suffering, but she makes them look bad and puts a stain on their impressive political careers. Thus they need to solve the Liu Xuelian problem one way or another – something which involves more personal manipulation than well-meaning compromise.

Bureaucratic corruption is an ongoing theme in Chinese cinema, albeit a subtle one when the censors get their way, but the ongoing frustration of needing, on the one hand, to work within a system which actively embraces its corruption, and on the other that of necessarily being seen to disapprove of it can prove a challenging task. Xuelian’s struggles may lean towards pettiness and her original attempt to subvert the law for personal gain is never something which thought worthy of remark, but her personal outrage at being treated so unfairly and then so easily ignored is likely to strike a chord with many finding themselves in a similar situation with local institutions who consistently place their own gain above their duty to protect the good men and women of China.

A low-key feminist tale, Xuelian’s quest also highlights the plight of the lone woman in Chinese society. Tricked by unscrupulous men, she’s left to fend for herself with the full expectation that she will fail and be forced to throw herself on male mercy. Xuelian does not fail. What she wants is recognition of her right to a dignified life. The purpose of getting her divorce cancelled is not getting her husband back but for the right to divorce him properly and refute his allegations of adultery once and for all. Xuelian wants her good name back, and then she wants to make a life for herself freed from all of this finagling. She’s done the unthinkable – a petty peasant woman has rattled Beijing and threatened the state entire. Making oneself ridiculous has become a powerful political weapon. All of this self-assertion and refusal to backdown with one’s tail between one’s legs might just be catching.

Adding to his slightly absurdist air, Feng frames the tale through the old-fashioned device of an iris. Intended to recall the traditional scroll paintings which opened the film, the iris also implies a kind of stagnation in Xuelian’s surroundings. Her movements are impeded, her world is small, and she’s always caught within a literal circle of gossip and awkward, embarrassing scenes. Moving into the city, Feng switches to a square instead – this world is ordered and straightened but it’s still one of enforced rigidity, offering more physical movement but demanding adherence to its strict political rules. Only approaching the end does something more like widescreen with its expansive vistas appear, suggesting either that a degree of freedom has been found or the need to comply with the forces at be rejected but Xuelian’s “satisfaction” or lack of it is perhaps not worth the ten years of strife spent as a petty thorn in the government’s side. Perhaps this is Feng’s most subversive piece of advice, that true freedom is found only in refusing to play their game. They can call you Pan Jinlian all they please, but you don’t need to answer them.


I am not Madame Bovary was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)