Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Zhang Yang, 2019)

Having turned his attention to Dali in China’s Yunnan province, Zhang Yang’s third in a series of documentaries exploring the area Mao Mao Cool (猫猫果考试记, Māo Māo Guǒ Kǎoshì Jì) takes a micro view of the modern society through the trials and tribulations of one little boy, Qu Hongrui, as he tries to pass the eccentric “exam” to graduate from Mao Mao primary school which takes the form of a daylong scavenger hunt leading to an overnight camp at a picturesque river. Perhaps a look at changing educational methods in a system which is often criticised for an over reliance on rote learning and test scores, Zhang’s documentary is also a gentle exploration of the art of growing up as Hongrui finds himself at loss for a way forward when he discovers that he cannot simply insist on having his own way. 

When we first meet Hongrui, he’s on the first of his tasks which involves a trip to the local market where he is charged with shopping for the various vegetables on his list to be used later in the day. Though he is accompanied by an “observer” to make sure he’s never in any immediate danger or causing trouble to others, the purpose of the test is to force Hongrui to act independently, teaching him how to interact with shopkeepers, manage his money, and shop for himself. When he’s got everything on his list, he’s supposed to go to the next checkpoint and have his “passport” stamped so he can proceed to the next stage. 

That’s when his problems begin. The next stage is a rock climbing challenge in which the children are supposed to venture up a climbing wall and retrieve a flag with the letter they’ve been assigned. Hongrui, however, seems to be more afraid than most of the other kids and finds the wall a confusing challenge despite frequent instructions and words of support from below. Eventually he bursts into tears and begins screaming to be let down but eventually composes himself enough to be able to complete the task successfully. That’s something of a pattern which will be repeated. It seems that Hongrui isn’t very popular with his peers and is regarded as a crybaby, one girl eventually asking him “why do you like to cry so much?” after getting fed up with one of his angry episodes. 

The same thing happens again during the next challenge when he’s placed in a group with four girls and asked to blend the juices of the vegetables he collected to create new colours and make a group painting. Some of the kids want to make a blue colour and the others pink. After a quick look around the room shows them most of the other groups have gone with blue the girls lean towards pink, which upsets Hongrui to the extent that he runs back out to the examiner complaining “We’ve got a massive schism over colours”. Every time Hongrui encounters a problem, he tries to run to the grownups to sort it out, but the examiners like the observers aren’t permitted to get involved. These exercises are about socialisation and harmonious living. They’re supposed to teach the kids how to compromise and work out their differences peacefully so they can work as a team, but Hongrui still has fairly underdeveloped interpersonal skills and makes frequent mistakes when it comes to negotiating with his teammates. When he comes back from speaking with the examiner, the girls have already found a solution on their own, making a pretty purple colour that suits everyone equally. 

Hongrui’s rage and frustration lead him to make unwise decisions, telling the teacher he wants to leave the group because the girls wouldn’t listen to him even if it means he won’t get a badge for this task, only relenting when the examiner explains the entire group will fail if he leaves so his friends won’t get their lunch either. He runs into a similar problem when he’s supposed to put a puzzle together as a clue to the next checkpoint but discovers that he’s lost a piece and concludes that another girl who has far more pieces than she needs must have picked it up. The girl insists the piece was in her pack to begin with and is therefore “hers” so she won’t help him, which proves very challenging to Hongrui who feels he’s been unfairly treated. He tries to appeal to the examiners again but they aren’t allowed to help, his observer explaining that he needs to learn to negotiate with others on his own. Sadly, though it appears not to benefit her in any way to hold on the puzzle piece, the girl continues to refuse to surrender it, perhaps irritated by Hongrui’s “accusation” that she took it from him, and eventually leaves him stranded, unable to move on the next task. 

This however a primary school exam so happily Hongrui is able to continue on his journey though it might be debatable how much he’s actually learnt. Crying hot, rage-fuelled tears in the car apparently unashamed to be so emotional in front of another girl in the same position who is increasingly exasperated by his “childishness”, Hongrui is reminded that he needs to learn to control his emotions as he grows up, but does at least seem to calm down enough to cheerfully make his way towards the finish line. The kids are, by and large, alright as they learn how to live in the world and with each other, overcoming their problems together and having fun along the way.


Mao Mao Cool is represented by Fortissimo Films.

The Sound of Dali (大理的声音, Zhang Yang, 2019)

Following his portrait of an artist Up the Mountain, Zhang Yang returns to Dali for the second in a trilogy of films celebrating this small area provincial China which has become known for its beautifully preserved traditional buildings and picturesque views. As such, it has already become a draw for tourists, but Zhang’s documentaries aim to explore the area from a more local perspective. The Sound of Dali (大理的声音, Dàlǐ de Shēngyīn), as the title suggests, captures the unique soundscape of the small city through four seasons as man and nature create their own symphonies. 

With more a straightforwardly observational approach than either of the other documentaries in the series, Zhang resists narrative but shows us scenes of Dali from unexpected angles beginning with the beauty of stormy skies filled with the perhaps ominous sound of rushing wind which soon gives way to snow. Ducks flap and fly, crash landing on water, while chickens strut and bees hum. Sheep and cows graze in the fields while oxen pull carts for the farmers labouring on the land. Women plant rice and later harvest it, shaking the sheaves to release the grain and making a music all of their own. 

Zhang cuts the sound of industry into an accidental symphony as a blacksmith bends and hammers metal, builders hammer wood, and engineers pummel the ground. Old women play their looms like lyres, and master carvers scrape wood into intricate designs with tiny, expert motions. 

Meanwhile, there is music of the more obvious kind in the singing of hymns in a Christian church, worship at a mosque, and rituals conducted by the farmers to ensure a good harvest. Others attend the local temple to make Buddhist offerings for perhaps much the same reason. Traditional opera takes place in the streets while buskers too add to the joyful sound of man-made music.

Zhang is keen to show us the sound of human industry in concert rather than conflict with nature. The seasons change, the skies darken, and sometimes the sound is frightening rather than harmonious, but there is life here at a nexus of the traditional and the modern. Colourful festivals fill the streets with processions of the old gods, farming is done the traditional way, and perhaps at times the sound of human voices drowns out the birds and rustle of the trees but does not destroy them. Meanwhile, a young man sets up a stand selling artisanal coffee and people dance and sing at the local markets enjoying family life as children play happily both amid the greenery and in the pleasant city streets. The young go to discos, and couples have their wedding photos taken against the backdrop of the beautiful local scenery. 

Perhaps cheating a little, Zhang cuts from an eagle soaring majestically above the landscape to drone footage giving us a birds’ eye view as we, for a moment, become “nature” too, observing the tremendous beauty of the land in all of its luscious greenery as the waterfalls tumble almost silently below. The Sound of Dali is one of harmony and happiness as human voices and the natural world blend as one in a great symphony of life in all its glorious cacophony.


The Sound of Dali is represented by Fortissimo Films.

Soul on a String (皮绳上的魂, Zhang Yang, 2016)

soul on a string posterAt the end of Zhang Yang’s Shower, there’s a lengthy fantasy sequence taking place in a desert in which a young girl is about to enjoy the first and last bath of her life as a right of passage before she is married off. Intended to emphasise the importance of water, the need of which acts as the great leveller for all living things, the brief movement away from the struggles of two brothers and their soon to be torn down bathhouse acted as a kind of lament for a perceived decline in values and priorities in a period of intense economic development. Jumping on a few films and many years later, Zhang Yang’s desert odyssey Soul on a String (皮绳上的魂 , Pisheng Shang de Hun) again takes place in an arid land where values and humanity are in peril. Adapted from two novels by Tibetan-Chinese novelist Tashi Dawa (Tibet, The Soul Tied on a String, and On the way to Lhasa), Zhang’s Tibetan western marries the classic wandering stranger narrative with a Buddhism infused magical realism.

Ruthless loner Tabei (Kimba) kills a deer only to find a mysterious amulet in its mouth recently acquired from a little girl who fell off a cliff. Experiencing his first bout of divine retribution, Tabei is struck by lighting only to be mysteriously revived by a cryptic Buddhist priest who tells him it’s his job to take the amulet to the holy land where he will also be cleansed of his considerable sins. Taking his rebirth seriously Tabei takes off even though the priest’s only hints about the location of the holy land are that the distance is under his feet and that the road is on his back.

Meanwhile, hot headed youngster Guori (Zerong Dages) is on Tabei’s trail hoping to kill him in answer to a blood feud. Tabei has committed many sins of his own but the murder of Guori’s father in a pointless gambling dispute is not one of them. Tashi died at the hands of the father Tabei never knew but as custom dictates, sons may take vengeance from sons to satisfy their honour. Trudging on through his quest, Tabei will have to face the legacy of his past even if he doesn’t really want to. Acquiring a persistent follower in Chun (Quni Ciren), a young woman with whom he spent a night on the road, and later a mysterious child with strange powers, Pu (Yizi Danzeng), Tabei pursues his spiritual quest finding his soul becoming lighter all along the way.

The futility of a blood feud, perhaps more a feature of the spaghetti western than the classic Hollywood model, lies at the heart of the spiritual drama as the spectre of vengeance for a father’s crime has overshadowed Tabei’s entire life. Guori, young, tough, and angry is determined to avenge the father who left him in such a stupid and pointless way but only increases the depth of the debt. When we first meet him he thinks he’s met his target only for the man to explain to him that many men have the name Tabei and he’s looking for someone else. Guori doesn’t believe him and kills the man anyway. If this man had a son, there is now a blood debt on Guori’s head to equal that of his quarry.

Guori’s persistent failures cause nothing but consternation to his ambivalent mother who worries for her son but also wants to see him prove himself a man and avenge her husband’s death as honour dictates. Older brother Kodi (Lei Chen) is less committed to the idea of vengeance but eventually takes on its burden. Kodi, like Tabei, sacrifices much out of the necessity of achieving this pointless goal, abandoning a woman he loved and a happy future as the father of a family. Tabei offers this same excuse to Chun in explaining his reluctance to father a child – the blood curse will simply pass to him should he be forced to kill Kodi or Guori in defending himself. The cycle never ends, only perpetuating itself through successive acts of violence.

Yet as Tabei gets closer to the promised land, his soul begins to clear. No longer so gruff and unapproachable he allows Chun to travel with him, becoming a kind of father figure to a makeshift family completed by the strange little boy, Pu. Shot against the beautiful yet unforgiving Tibetan landscapes, Soul on a String is a tale of redemption, violence, love, and legacy shot through with ancient mysticism and obscure spiritual questioning yet for all of its inherent inscrutability Zhang’s return to the desert proves infinitely fascinating despite its necessarily epic dimensions.


Soul on a String was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shower (洗澡, Zhang Yang, 1999)

Shower posterChina is changing. Transforming faster than any other society at any other point in history. This brave new future, flooding in as it has across an ancient nation, has nevertheless left a few islands of dry land untouched by modern progress. Old Liu’s bathhouse is just one of these oases, far away from the big city with its frantic pace and high technology. In the city, you can step into a tiny cubicle and “undergo” a shower inside a contraption that’s just like a carwash, only for people. In Liu’s bathhouse you can relax for as long as you like, laughing and joking with old friends or just hiding out from the world.

Prodigal son Da Ming returns to this untouched relic from his past on a brief reprieve from his busy businessman life, attempting to reconnect with his distant father and younger brother, Er Ming, who has some learning difficulties. Da Ming left here for something better, he looks down on his father’s profession and its old fashioned insistence on taking one’s time, but gradually as he returns to the rhythms of his childhood the warmth of the bathhouse atmosphere begins to soak into his heart.

Most of Liu’s customers are older men who grew up in an era when going to the bathhouse was normal rather than bathing at home as younger people do. They use the bathhouse as some would use a teahouse or a bar, they spend all day there getting various treatments, racing crickets and bickering about the past. If it weren’t for the bathhouse many of these older men would have nowhere to get together. However, times have changed and even if the bathhouse were more popular with the young folk, it seems the entire block has been bought up by property developers intent on throwing up an array of tall buildings replacing the cosy, traditional atmosphere of the small town shops, restaurants and amenities which currently occupy it.

Da Ming keeps meaning to go home, he even books a return flight, but keeps putting it off. Eventually he begins to bond with his father again, going so far as climbing up to the roof to help him secure a tarpaulin during a heavy thunderstorm. He enjoys hanging out with his brother but after being away for so long has perhaps forgotten how much looking after he really needs with the consequence that Er Ming actually wanders off somewhere for the first time in his life. However, Er Ming is much more resourceful than his father had assumed and returns with a broad grin and pockets full of apples as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

In its final stretch, Shower makes a tonal shift to the arid deserts of Northern China and a story which happens to reflect the early life of Da Ming’s parents. In this dry land, water is worth more than all the gold in the world. There is an ancient custom that on the night before her wedding, each bride enjoys a hot bath – a true luxury in a place where death from thirst is a real possibility. The extreme measures her family have to go to to allow their daughter to perform this important ritual emphasise its importance as do the tears shed by the girl in question as she sinks into what is possibly the first and last time she will ever enjoy the simple pleasure of a hot bath. Water unites all things, as a TV broadcast watched by Er Ming reminds us, the elephant and the dung beetle have exactly the same dependency on water and their access to it is entirely in the hands of fate.

Liu’s bathhouse is a place of solace where men can come and talk through their troubles together. One local man has a series of marital problems with his rather feisty wife whereas another enjoys loudly singing O Sole Mio whilst having a shower but freezes up when he tries to sing on stage, and then there’s the old guys with their crickets and decades old arguments. Liu listens to them all, allowing their tensions to run away with the bathwater. The “human wash” shower cubicle might be efficient and undoubtedly useful in the quickening pace of modern life, but you go in there alone with all your thoughts and no one to gently lead you to the truths you always knew were there but were unwilling to see.

Shower is another China at the cross roads movie as older brother Da Ming represents the forward marching younger generation who’ve abandoned their old hometowns for the bright lights of the cities only to feel cheated out of something more essential. Returning home is a journey filled with ambivalence – being hit both by the backwardness of the place but also by its wholesome goodness and the warmth of community spirit. It may be too late to save the bathhouse, but that doesn’t mean all that it represents has to go with it. The future is uncertain for Da Ming and Er Ming, as it is for China itself, but if anything can hold back the erasure of centuries of culture it has to start here, with two brothers and a bathhouse, or doesn’t start anywhere at all.


Shower (洗澡, Xǐzǎo) is available on DVD in the UK from Momentum and in the US from Sony Pictures Classic.

US release trailer: