My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no 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)

Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Xin Yukun, 2017)

wrath of silence posterNature red in tooth and claw – life in the arid Northlands of modern China is surprisingly bloody in Xin Yukun’s The Coffin in the Mountain followup, Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Bào Liè Wúshēng). The film’s Chinese release has, apparently, been indefinitely delayed for unclear reasons but it’s easy to see what might have given the censors occasion for pause in this tale of missing children, corrupt businessmen, and the relentless lusty greed of the new middle classes. A voiceless everyman forced away from his family by a series of unfortunate events, returns to look for his missing son but finds only a malevolent darkness invading the corners of his once peaceful rural mountain town.

In the winter of 2004, a small boy watches his sheep whilst building a small rock tower and drinking from his Ultraman flask. A short while later, his dad, Baomin (Song Yang), is pulled away from a fistfight at the bottom of a coal mine by a phone call from his wife informing him that their son has gone missing. Baomin drops everything and goes home but he’s still persona non grata in the small mountain village after stabbing the local chef in the eye with a lamb bone during a fight over Baomin’s refusal to sign over his land to developers hoping to open a coal mine.

Baomin’s path crosses with that of two other men, gangster-like mining magnate Chang (Jiang Wu) who has recently been “acquitted” of running illegal operations, and Chang’s lawyer, Xu (Yuan Wenkang), a conflicted single parent. Baomin and Xu are at opposite ends of China’s recently born class system – one educated, successful, and inhabiting the new pristine cities, the other literally rendered voiceless by an act of violence, poor, and living an antiquated rural life in a desert wasteland. Chang exists in the no man’s land between them as an example of the new elite – his life is one of Westernised elegance in his smart study and wood panelled drawing room with its deer heads on the walls. Yet it’s not business acumen which underpins his success but thuggery and a thorough disrespect for conventional morality.

There is a double irony in Baomin’s life in that his original objection to the coal mine has sent him straight into one. Owing vast compensation to the chef whose eye he ruined as well as needing money to pay for his sickly wife’s medical treatment, Baomin has little choice but to leave his farm and travel to a distant city where he can earn the money he needs to pay for his various responsibilities. Not only are the coal mines ripping up the landscape, they’re destroying families firstly through forced absences and secondarily through disease born of industrial pollution.

This veniality is all too plain in Chang’s ostentatious display of needless slaughter as he sits at a large dining table entirely covered in plates of raw meat ready to be sizzled in Chang’s favourite hot pots while a finely tuned slicer runs in the background churning out an endless supply of repurposed flesh. Chang’s overwhelming need for consumption is less about hunger than conquest as his hunting hobby proves but the trophies on his walls are as fake as the hairpieces which cover his receding hairline. The force which drives him is not so much need as vanity, fear, and insecurity. Desperate to be hunter and not hunted, he has abandoned all morality and will stop at nothing to ensure his place at the table is secure.

Baomin will stop at nothing until he finds his son. The film’s title, ironically enough, includes a slight pun in its first two characters which are pronounced “Bao” and “Lie” (the name of Baomin’s son) but mean “violence” and “spilt” while the characters of Baomin’s name (保民) mean protect and citizenry. Baomin is a violent man. According to his wife he was always fond of a fight even before rendering himself mute, but it has to be said that violence is, in his voiceless state, his most efficient method of communication. Flashing pictures everywhere he goes, Baomin chases visions of his son, haunted by small boys in Ultraman masks, fighting monsters far more real than the tokusatsu hero’s usual foes.

Fable-like in execution, the final revelations are heavily foreshadowed though dual meanings are plentiful as in a small boy’s innocent assumption of a classic Ultraman pose which looks eerily like something else to those with a guilty conscience, planting the seed of doubt as to whether it really was quite that innocent after all. Xin shoots with Lynchian surrealism as darkness seems to creep idly into the frame and then hover there, threatening something terrible, like the manifestation of willingly unseen truths. The rapid pace of social change has brought with it a loss of morality that endangers the foundation of society itself, sacrificing the young on the altar of greed while the state turns a blind eye to systemic corruption and cowards save their own skins rather than ease the suffering of others. Filled with a quiet rage mediated through melancholy poetry, Wrath of Silence takes a long, hard look into that creeping darkness but finds the darkness looking back with accusing eyes.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles)