The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Climbers (攀登者, Daniel Lee, 2019)

The Climbers poster 1“Because it’s there” George Mallory famously said when questioned why exactly he wanted to climb Mount Everest. The hero of Daniel Lee’s The Climbers (攀登者, Pāndēngzhĕ) who regards Mallory as his idol has a slightly more reasoned response when similarly questioned by a student, pausing before explaining that humans are always eager to climb towards the future. That will prove to be a rather ironic statement in that Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) is a man in many ways trapped by past injustice, unable to move on from simultaneously achieving his dream and being denied its glory.

Narrated by meteorologist and Wuzhou’s innocent love interest Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), the action begins in 1960 when the Chinese National Mountaineering Team makes an attempt to conquer Everest from the North Face in response to a territorial challenge from the other side. During the ascent, the team’s captain is killed leaving the three remaining members to press on to the summit alone. Having conquered the mountain, they are unable to record their achievement because they lost the camera during an avalanche and so their success goes unrecognised by the international community. This is particularly bad news for Wuzhou whose intensely romantic attempt to woo shy meteorology student Xu Ying is interrupted at the critical moment by the news they’ve been denied and all their dreams are dashed. Wuzhou becomes sullen and withdrawn, resentful at being thought a fraud. The failure costs him the courage he had mustered to pursue his romantic destiny, allowing Xu Ying to leave for many years of research in the Soviet Union without telling her how he really feels.

Xu Ying’s commentary opts for understatement when it briefly remarks that the nation entered a period of “darkness” following the “failure” of the Everest attempt after which the Chinese National Mountaineering Team was disbanded. Wuzhou is relegated to the boiler room in a factory while his surviving friends, Jiebu (Lawang Lop) and Songlin (Zhang Yi), pursue their separate destinies, Jiebu returning to his sheep farm and Songlin, whose foot was ruined by frostbite, joining a sports training facility. By 1975, times have changed and the powers that be see fit to mount another attempt on Everest in order to measure it “properly” and restore China’s international mountain climbing reputation.

For all that The Climbers is a propaganda epic filled with calls to “show the world what Chinese men can do”, it has its share of flawed heroes failing to measure up to a vision of themselves as fearless champions of their nation. Wuzhou is understandably an embittered man obsessed with the rejection of his first summit, but he’s also an emotional coward who ties the need to have his success validated with the right to speak his heart to the improbably patient Xu Ying who apparently continues holding a torch for him throughout her long years in Russia, only implying she can’t wait for him any longer by putting their relationship on a professional footing when she arrives to lead the meteorological department on the 1975 summit attempt. Nevertheless, the pair share an array of meaningful looks filled with poignant longing while Xu Ying laments the presence of the mountain which stands between them before seemingly deciding to sacrifice herself for Wuzhou’s dream in the forlorn hope of finally conquering it.

Songlin, meanwhile, is resentful not so much towards the mountain or the fact that he will never be able to climb it again but towards Wuzhou who saved his life and let the camera fall, thereby bringing shame on the Chinese nation. Later, a brave young man opts to sacrifice his life to ensure the camera’s survival, and as Songlin later comes to understand the climb is a heavy responsibility which puts young lives at risk for a fairly meaningless prize which may not bring the glory to their nation that the young men and women trying to reach the summit might expect. Nevertheless, they plough on regardless. 1960 leads to 1975, and then to 2019 in which intrepid Chinese climbers once again attempt to conquer Everest in the company of a (in some ways not terribly) surprising star cameo in order to reemphasise the nation’s manly prowess and overwhelming desire to protect what it sees as its territory. Lee makes the most of the snowy vistas for a series of death defying stunts as the team (repeatedly) encounter avalanches, rock falls, and dangerous storms, risking all to bring glory to China but remaining resolute in their determination to make it all the way to the top.


The Climbers is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jia Zhangke, 2018)

Ash is purest white poster 1Jia Zhangke returns to the world of crime for a slice of jianghu blues in his latest chronicle of modern China through the eyes of its ordinary, downtrodden citizens. Self referential in the extreme, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jiānghú Érnǚ) is a sad story of conflicting values and missed connection as a lovelorn woman proves herself too good, too pure, and ultimately too strong for the weak willed man she can neither love nor abandon. Times change and feelings change with them. To survive is not enough but integrity comes at a heavy price in a land where everything is for sale.

Echoing the time jumping narrative of Mountains May Depart, Jia opens in 4:3 and in 2001 as Qiao (Zhao Tao), sporting a black Cleopatra-esque haircut (the same as that worn by the identically named heroine of Jia’s own Unknown Pleasures from 2002) takes the bus into town. The first lady of the local “jianghu” underworld, Qiao is the devoted righthand woman of petty gang boss Bin (Liao Fan), enjoying the loyalty, honour, and respect of all in the slightly depressing environs of a small corner of dusty Datong. Bin is a walking monument to the idea of “jianghu” as mediated through Hong Kong action movies, swaggering around with a gun in his belt to prove that he’s the top dog in this tiny town. To live by jianghu is know that someone is always coming and when another prominent gangster is offed by young thugs, it’s not long before they come knocking on Bin’s door. Humiliatingly thrashed in the main square, Bin is only saved by a heroic intervention from Qiao who takes up his gun and fires into the air, a look of imperious authority on her face even as her eyes flicker with fear and excitement.

Qiao didn’t shoot anyone, but as the gun was illegal and she brought its presence to the notice of the police she gets into trouble anyway. A fierce devotee of the jianghu way, she refuses to give up Bin and insists the gun is hers and always has been. The gun was not hers in a real sense, and though she intends to lie in order to protect the man she loves from her mistake in firing it, spiritually speaking she and the gun are one. Having admired Bin’s skilful defusing of a petty gangster dispute without needing to use it, Qiao picks up the pistol and turns it over in her hands. The irony is, Qiao doesn’t need the gun but it completes her all the same, or at least completes the image she has of herself as an action movie heroine. Bin, however, has the gun because he doesn’t believe in himself in the same way Qiao does. He knows he’s weak and that his time is limited.

When Qiao is sent to prison for five years, she fully expects to find Bin waiting for her on the other side when she gets out. In the meantime Bin has proved true to form – he’s found himself another powerful woman to hide behind, though this time he’s chosen (or, in reality, is chosen by) one with good connections rather than fighting spirit. Bin has left the world of jianghu behind to try and make it in the rapidly developing capitalist economy, but as Qiao tells him when they finally reunite she had to live as a jianghu just to find him. Alone and friendless, betrayed by her love and disrespected by her new environment, Qiao turns to a cheeky strain of petty crime to get by – taking social revenge by attempting to blackmail random men over secret affairs, gatecrashing wedding parties for food, living by her wits on the streets and, if she’s honest, enjoying it.

Qiao is, in a sense, living in an imagined past. The frequent strains of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s seminal noir-tinged hitman drama The Killer underscore the yearning for an era of heroic bloodshed, brotherhood, and honour which never really existed outside of the movies. While Qiao grips her gun and fires in the air, Bin lights a melancholy cigarette watching Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, grumpily passive as always. Qiao saves Bin, more than once, but he can’t forgive her for it or reconcile himself to his own lack of resolve.

The film’s Chinese title, loosely translated as “the sons and daughters of jianghu” hints at the power of this double edged inheritance in which the archaic social codes of brotherly honour and loyalty are both barrier and bridge in an increasingly amoral society. Jia shows us a world of mine closures and forced migration, revisits the Three Gorges damn in which the past is sunk to pave way for the future, and introduces us to a modern day prospector with a big idea about UFOs. Bin, weak and opportunistic, doesn’t have the ability to ride the waves of China’s changing tides, but Qiao doesn’t have the will. Burned right through to her jianghu core, she sticks steadfastly to her code as she retreats to her spiritual home but owns her place within it even as the modern world rises up all around her. Qiao’s independence is both victory and defeat, an echo of the failed ideologies of a nation drunk on capitalism in which newfound freedom confuses and corrupts in equal measure. Nevertheless, there is something tragically romantic in Qiao’s lovelorn longing for a more passionate era in which the bonds between people still counted for something even if their demands were not always fair.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Full version of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s 1989 existential hitman noir The Killer

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)

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)

Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Jia Zhangke, 2015)

mountains may depart poster verticleJia Zhangke has made something of a career out of charting his nation’s history through the lives of ordinary people caught up in the business of living when everything about them is changing. Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Shānhé gùrén) isn’t the first of his films to span a comparatively wide period of time, though it is the first to venture into the “future” if only by a decade or so. Through a story of dislocation and isolation both cultural and personal, Jia has traversed the melancholy odyssey of those who grow up to discover that all the wrong choices have already been made.

The film begins at Chinese New Year 1999 – the dawning of a new age. Tao line dances and conga lines to The Pet Shop Boys’ Go West before joining in the celebrations by singing a song in the town square. She’s good friends with Liangzi whose company she seems to enjoy and they seem to get on together very well but it’s unclear if there’s anything more to it than that. Obnoxious rich boy Jiangsheng is also VERY interested in Tao and resents her friendship with Liangzi. Eventually things come to a head and Tao has to choose, and she does but in trying not to hurt anyone she ends up hurting everyone. On Tao’s eventual marriage to Jiangsheng, Liangzi, heartbroken, leaves town intending never to return. The segment ends with the birth of Tao and Jiansheng’s son, Dollar.

In 2014, Tao is divorced and Jiangsheng has taken her son to live with him in Shanghai where he’s a high stakes capitalist mogul. Liangzi, meanwhile, has married and had a child but has ended up working in a coal mine and has now become gravely ill. Unable to work he returns home and considers asking friends and family to help him through these difficult times. Sometime later a family tragedy occurs – the one silver lining being that Tao gets to see Dollar again but he barely remembers her and makes constant phone calls to his “mommy” in Shanghai.

In 2025, Dollar and Jingsheng have moved to Australia. Dollar is taking classes in Chinese which he barely remembers while Jingsheng has become a dishevelled and angry old man. Dollar has almost no memory of his real mother or his childhood in China and starts up an oedipal relationship with a lonely, middle-aged Chinese woman.

Jia paints the passing of time through a series of expanding screen ratios – beginning with 4:3 in 1999, to 16:9 in 2014 and finally 2.35:1 in 2025. The world literally gets bigger, wider, and our focus shifts from Tao to a more expansive canvas of displaced Chinese citizens finally reaching far across the seas. The first segment is more like Jia’s earlier films as Tao is caught between two lovers with possibly tragic consequences whereas the second part has more in common with his more recent work but part three takes things in an entirely new direction.

The 2025 segment doesn’t even feature Tao until the very end and focuses on her son – the ironically named “Dollar”. Having lived the last ten years in Australia he barely speaks Mandarin and has become an angry young man determined to drop out of college because “nothing really interests” him. Jinsheng never learned English and the pair can’t communicate. Gone is Jinsheng’s swagger – now he has a paunch, dishevelled hair and an unruly mustache. In 1999 he dressed in the self consciously stylish clothes of someone who has money and really wants you know it, but now his clothes are worn out and typical of any old man you might find sitting reading a paper on the side of a road. Dollar is lost. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with his Chinese teacher that’s founded on the shared loneliness of two people who’ve been separated from their homelands and loved ones. Looking for his mother in all the wrong places, Dollar’s eventual romance is likely to end in tears but luckily his Chinese teacher is a wise and kind woman who is able to offer some of her wisdom and a steady hand of guidance.

Though much has been made of the “futurism” of the 2025 segment, it’s in no way a science fiction experiment. The chief difference, as might be expected, is in technology though even this is subtle – see through tablets, electronic displays rather than blackboards (only a little more advanced than many institutions already use) and a much more intuitive embedding of google translate. More distracting are the strange anachronisms – vinyl records being played on a classroom turntable, visiting a travel agent to book a flight (does anyone even do this now?) and a preference for older cars. Most damaging though is that, as it’s set in Australia, the bulk of the dialogue is in English which somehow never sounds convincing despite the quality performances on offer.

Dollar wants his freedom from his overbearing, failure of a father though freedom itself is also a burden. The son flails aimlessly while the literal motherland, Tao, is alone, abandoned and forgotten. There’s something quite heartbreaking in the way Jia sculpts his overarching story. We begin with so much hope as Tao and her friends dance enthusiastically to the rather ironic choice of Go West in 1999 as her life is just beginning. When she dances to it again, alone, with the snow falling all around her it’s as if she’s crawled inside a memory, reliving a happy day rather than exulting in the now.

Mountains May Depart is a rich and complex film that is heavy with symbolism and metaphor. Jia wants to ask us where we’re going, and where we’ve been – China’s modernisation has occurred at such a breakneck speed that it’s left an entire nation bewildered. Facing a choice between “going west” and “taking care” of Chinese values (Sally Yeh’s 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care forms the opposing musical motif of the film) many, like Tao, have found themselves choosing poorly and paying a heavy price. What’s in store? A lonely, but wealthy, future devoid of all human connection where “sons” forget their “mothers”? The title suggests old friends like mountains and rivers never part but once the erosion sets in mountains crumble and rivers run dry – you have to look around you and remember what it is that’s really worth living for.


This is getting a full UK release from New Wave Films in Spring 2016!

For the curious here is Sally Yeh’s (葉蒨文) 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care (珍重) which does its best to tug at the heartstrings throughout the later part of the film (and largely succeeds).

First published by UK Anime Network.