I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Zhang Yibai, 2016)

A collection of lovelorn souls meditate on love and loneliness in Zhang Yibai’s adaptation of a series of popular short stories by internet author Zhang Jiajia. Perhaps misleadingly titled, I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Cóng nǐ de Quánshìjiè Lùguò) is less tearjerking melodrama than humorous exploration of romantic disaffection in the modern society in which even love itself has perhaps become both duplicitous cliché and an unattainable dream. For smug DJ Chen Mo (Deng Chao), being in love means staying together forever, but for his co-host/longterm girlfriend Xiaorong (Du Juan) adolescent love has already run its course. Thoroughly fed up with his empty, somewhat cheesy words of advice to lovelorn callers, she abruptly breaks up with him live on air. 

Two years later Chen Mo hosts the show alone amid declining ratings, listeners now fed up with with his total capitulation to depressed cynicism and advertisers getting ready to pull the plug. Xiaorong has joined station management but seemingly has little desire to save the show, later entering into an unwise bet that should Mo be able to climb to the number one spot, she’ll marry him but if he fails he must parade through the town with a sign reading “I’m an idiot” which, as we later discover, is a callback to their uni days when they were young and in love. Mo laments that the only couple still together from way back when is his best friend Chubby (Yue Yunpeng), who currently lives with him, and the beautiful Yanzi (Liu Yan) whose heart he won being the only person willing to defend her when she was accused of thievery. Pure-hearted, Chubby does every job going, even allowing people to punch him for monetary compensation, so he can send the money to Yanzi who is currently abroad travelling the world. Mo seems fairly unconvinced by the arrangement, but also regards Chubby as his “anchor”, that as long as Chubby loves Yanzi, they are all still young and love is real.  

His other roommate, meanwhile, his cousin Shiba (Yang Yang) is being semi-stalked by the local police woman whose constant flirting he doesn’t seem to have picked up on. As we later discover, Officer Lychee (Bai Baihe) has also been disappointed in love, previously jilted at the altar by a foreign boyfriend who apparently did a disappearing act, but has apparently maintained her faith eventually entering to a wholesome relationship with the eccentric young man who spends all his time inventing new gadgets. Despite the evidence, however, Mo remains cynical and hung up on Xiaorong who seems to have defied the narrative destiny of their uni love story. Describing him as immature, she feels as if something changed with Mo during the radio show, that somewhere along the way he lost his sense of warmth. “It’s only when we are filled with love that our show passes on love. When we feel lonely we can’t warm anybody up” she tearfully explains taking over the broadcast, adding that Chen Mo might be the loneliest of all in his false bravado and prickly tendency to make off-colour jokes as a childish defence mechanism. 

Ironically, however, the ratings start to pick up thanks to mild-mannered intern Birdie’s (Zhang Tianai) unexpected outburst at a disgruntled caller who took Mo to task for his terrible, unsympathetic advice for his romantic problem. Silently in love with Chen Mo after his certain presence on the radio saved her from loneliness, Birdie does her best to “save” him, even later giving up her dream of romance to try and help him win back Xiaorong only for him to get the message too late, realising that Xiaorong has outgrown him and they’re on different paths while maybe what he needed was a spiky little bird to peck him out of his shell. 

Chen Mo called his show “Passing Through Your World” as if in acknowledgement that some people are supposed to brush past each other meeting only for a moment, but naively hoping to encounter someone that would make the world brighter just by being in it. Shooting with a whimsical arthouse lens, Zhang opens in a rainy Chongqing as if reflecting the loneliness and despair which plague each of his protagonists who each in one way or another find solace in the presence of Chen Mo through his radio show acting as a beacon for lonely souls everywhere, before ending in bright sunshine and golden fields leaving the neon-tinted city behind for a dream of a more innocent love. Nevertheless, not everyone gets their happy ending, and there’s something in the film’s most romantic gesture being the drawing of an umbrella on cutesy mural to help a lost little girl weather the storm. A breezy stroll through urban malaise and millennial love, I Belonged to You ultimately sheds its cynicism for a pure hearted faith in romantic destiny but does so with a healthy dose of maturity in acknowledging that the path of true love never did run smooth.


I Belonged to You streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original 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)

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