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.