Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Li Xinyun, 2018)

lobster cop poster 1Sadly, Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Lóngxiā Xíngjǐng) is not the story of a team of intrepid crustaceans in a trench coat but an amusing tale of bumbling cops made good as their plan to hole up in a seafood joint pays out in unexpected ways. Actress Li Xinyun’s directorial debut is a surprisingly subversive affair proving once again that light comedy is becoming the satirical battleground of the contemporary Chinese cinema industry and dancing rings around the censors in the process.

Our hero, bumbling policeman Yufei (Wang Qianyuan), has a habit of tracking down the bad guys but letting them get away at the critical moment. When yet another mistake puts him on the chief’s naughty list, he finds himself up against rival Xu Xin (Wang Zheng) and given a month to figure out how drug dealers are getting their merchandise into the country. Taking his best squad with him – grandfatherly Neng (Liu Hua), tomboyish Hua Jie (Yuan Shanshan), and rookie Chen (Zhou You ), Yufei vows to crack the case. Noticing that a rundown crayfish restaurant he often stops in to relieve himself has an excellent view of a “logistics company” they suspect is responsible for importing the drugs, Yufei catches on the idea of turning restauranteur in order to stakeout his quarry.

The unexpected snag is that Neng always fancied himself as a bit of a cook and his crayfish unexpectedly takes off, which is good news in one sense because it means the gang can pay back some of the money Chen had to borrow from his wealthy mother to get the restaurant off the ground, but bad in that it’s very difficult to run a successful eatery and chase drug dealers at the same time – especially when the drug dealers become some of your best customers.

In order to make their cover more credible, the gang end up posing as a family with Neng as the cuddly dad, Yufei and Hua Jie as an improbable couple, and Chen as the adorable little brother. As the restaurant starts to take off the cover identities start to take over with only Yufei digging his heels in as he tries his best to catch the bad guys in order to best his police rival and prove himself to the chief. Nevertheless, like any good police squad the secret ingredient of success is fellow feeling and it’s brotherly love that eventually saves our confuzzled cops as they get themselves into a series of sticky situations with the equally bumbling “logistics” guys while accidentally carving a path towards kingpin The General (Li Jianren).

In a slightly surprising move given the usual censors’ board squeamishness, Li inserts a fair amount of subtle homoerotic content beginning with straight-laced policeman Xu Xin walking into a potential cruising situation with the very flamboyant General hanging around in the Gents for reasons seemingly unrelated to crime (though he does later enjoy a carriage ride with a pretty lady), while a regular visitor to the shop openly flirts with Neng who seems to, on one level at least, be receptive to his advances. While it’s true that both of the presumably gay guys (Neng aside) turn out to be “bad” in one way or another, it is a refreshingly ordinary kind of representation in which homosexuality is not in itself the joke and, in a tacit sense, almost totally normalised.

Then again it is the traditional family, in model terms at least, which eventually wins out as the guys begin to pull together to make their lobster restaurant a success and eventually learn to work as a team while embracing their own strengths so they can take down the bad guys. An entertaining mix of witty banter and slapstick martial arts underpinned by tasty food photography and a cheeky subversive spirit, Lobster Cop is a surprisingly surreal concoction and a promisingly off the wall debut from Li who manages to ground the often strange goings on firmly in the real while ensuring her losers make good story commands genuine warmth.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Da Peng, 2017)

201708162324218235They built this city on rock and roll! Right in the middle of Ji’An, there’s a giant statue of an electric guitar with a plaque underneath it reading “The Heart of Rock” that was erected in memory of a legendary concert given by a super famous band, Broken Guitar, who happen to hail from the region. This being a particularly musical town, Broken Guitar continues to inspire young and old alike to pursue their musical dreams, but there is trouble on the horizon. Shady mobbed up developers want to tear down the Great Guitar and put flats there instead, which is not very rock and roll when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, shady musical agent Chen Gong (Da Peng), who was actually the agent for Broken Guitar at the time they broke up, is working on his latest venture – trying to turn three middle-aged, pudgy rockers into a Chinese K-pop act. Needless to say it’s not going well and Gong is perpetually cash strapped. When he receives an unsolicited call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a Ji’An resident who wants him to help promote a local concert as a kind of benefit to help save the Great Guitar, Gong isn’t interested and quotes him a ridiculous sum of money only to see it instantly pop-up in his account. Jumping straight on a train, Gong is met at the station by a rapturous welcome parade which includes a marching band and kids throwing garlands but quickly figures out that Hu Liang is every bit as much of a schemer as he is. Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band and needs Gong to help him find one.

Once again, the conflict is between cynicism and artistic integrity as a group of misfits comes together to help stop a monument to true rock being torn down by soulless suits. Gong, as we later find out, had musical dreams himself but, after having gone against his father’s wishes to pursue a musical career, was forced out of the conservatoire after an accident robbed him of the feeling in two of his fingers and he became too depressed to sing. Having lost his faith in music, Gong has sold out and become a cynical money man, cutting deals anywhere and everywhere he can. Rather than work on the “unique” sound of the guys he was mentoring, he’s obsessed with the idea of sending them to Korea to get plastic surgery, and turning them into some kind of K-pop inspired Chinese song and dance group.

Hu Liang, meanwhile, is just as much of a con man but his heart is in a better place. Only two people show up for his auditions to join the band – jaded alcoholic with a broken leg, Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), and a drummer from Taiwan who calls himself “Explosive” (Li Hongqi) and sits with his back to the audience. The other bandmates include a former member of Broken Guitar now a gynaecologist (Han Tongsheng) whose daughter has forbidden him from playing rock and roll, and a little girl (Qu Junxi) who’s a whizz on the keyboards despite the disapproval of her Taekwondo loving mother who thinks things like music are a frivolous waste of time. Together they face various obstacles in their quest to save the great guitar and the spirit of rock and roll itself but finally discover that the true spirit of rock lies in getting the band back together for one last hurrah and channeling all into music.

Gong, tempted by the shady developer, is reminded that money can save lives but dreams cannot. Faced with a dilemma, Gong falls back into cynicism and rejects the new sense of fun and togetherness he’d found as a peripheral member of the band. Yet reuniting with his hopeless wannabes and easing back into his soulless Beijing life, he begins to realise what he’s been missing and rediscovers the the true nature of rock and roll which isn’t trapped inside a giant concrete guitar but inside the hearts of musicians who need their instruments to help bring it out. Dreams, it seems, save lives after all. An often hilarious, sometimes silly comedy, City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Féngrènjī Yduìis as full of heart as it encourages its protagonists to be, arguing for the importance of the right to express oneself in a society which often actively suppresses it.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)