Shadow (影, Zhang Yimou, 2018)

Shadow poster 1Zhang Yimou waxes Shakespearean in a tale of palace intrigue and a world out of balance in his latest return to the age of wuxia, Shadow (影, Yǐng). Drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings, Zhang’s monochromatic world has a chilling beauty even in its intense layers of oppression which make prisoners of king and subjects alike. Like the yin yang diagram on which the climatic battle takes place, Shadow is a tale of dualities and oppositions as its hollowed out hero begins to wonder who exactly he might be without the mirror.

Long ago in feudal China, the Kingdom of Pei has been living in peace thanks to an “alliance” with the Yang who are technically occupying the former Pei city of Jing. Many in the Kingdom of Pei are unhappy with this arrangement, regarding the loss of Jing as a humiliation and the king’s refusal to retake it more cowardice than pragmatism. Despite the king’s instruction that the truce must be maintained and war avoided at all costs, his trusted commander has undertaken a secret meeting with Yang in which he has agreed to a personal duel for the honour of Pei. The king is very unhappy. A lesser man might have lost his head, but the king needs his commander. What he doesn’t know, however, is that the commander is not all he seems. Nobleman Yu (Deng Chao) was badly injured during a previous fight with Yang and has retreated to the catacombs while his double, Jing (also Deng Chao), has been playing his part in court.

Jing, “saved” from poverty as a young child brought to the palace as a double for Yu, is grateful and loyal. He respects his masters and has trained hard to learn the skills needed to pass as a nobleman and more particularly as Yu. As such he has no “identity”. Even his name was given to him by his master and is simply that of the town where he was found which happens to be the disputed city itself. Jing does everything right – his instincts are good, he is clever and quick-witted with a talent for intrigue, all of which makes him both a danger and a shield for Yu. Yu, meanwhile, trapped in the same underground cell which used to house Jing, has become warped and embittered. Nursing a mortal wound, he plots and schemes against the king, scuttling goblin-like as he rails against his fate.

Yu promises Jing a release from his mental imprisonment if he agrees to take part in the duel with Yang. Jing knows that Yu’s promise is hollow and that he is not intended to survive, but submits himself to his fate anyway. He does this, partly, in hope but also because of his longstanding but unspeakable love for Madam (Sun Li) – Yu’s wife, who is one of the few people ever to express pity for his miserable circumstances. As the film opens, Madam and the king’s sister are reading proverbs together including one which insists that men are meant to rule. The king, however, is weak – he is effete and prefers the art of the brush to that of the sword, while his sister is “wild” – a bold and impetuous young woman seemingly more suited to the throne than her foppish brother.

As if to complete the theme, it’s Madam who eventually reveals the technique to beat Yang to her increasingly crazed husband. In order to defeat his hyper masculine enemy who fights with a giant sabre, Yu resolves to fight like a girl armed with one of Pei’s iconic parasols reconfigured in sharpened iron. Only by creating balance can they hope to win, meeting the weight of Yang’s blunt force with a lightness of touch and feminine elegance. 

The world of Shadow is one defined by its dualities – male/female, lowborn and high, betrayal and loyalty, arrogance and supplication. Jing’s existence is defined by that of the “true” commander – a shadow cannot exist without a form to cast it, or so it had always been thought. Offered the possibility of escape, Jing’s original identity begins to resurface. Yet his victory over his “other self” is also a defeat which infects him with the dubious moralities of the court, allowing him to become more than himself alone and leaving the world once again dangerously unbalanced. As the opening narration told us, however, it is not Jing, or Yu, or the king who hold the fate of Pei in their hands but Madam whose final decision will dictate the course of history. Set in a world of oppressive greys broken only by the driving rain and shocking redness of blood, Shadow may not return Zhang to the balletic heights of the poetic Hero, but does its best to add Shakespearean grandeur to its tragic tale of fractured identities and conflicting desires.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Road Home (我的父亲母亲, Zhang Yimou, 1999)

The Road Home PosterChinese cinema, it could be said, has been looking for the road home for quite some time. Not only is the past a relatively safe arena for present allegory, but even among the previously hard edged fifth generation directors, there’s long been a tendency to wonder if things weren’t better long ago in the village. Zhang Yimou certainly seems to think they might have been, at least in the beautifully melancholic The Road Home (我的父亲母亲, Wǒde Fùqin Mǔqin) in which a son returns home after many years away and reflects on the deeply felt and quietly passionate love story that defined the life of his parents.

In the late ‘90s, a successful businessman, Luo Yusheng (Sun Honglei), drives back to his rural mountain village on hearing of the sudden death of his father, Changyu (Zheng Hao ) – a school teacher. The village’s mayor explains to him that for some years his father had been desperate to improve the local school and, despite his advanced age, had been travelling village to village raising money until he was caught in a snow storm and taken to hospital where they discovered he had heart trouble. The mayor wanted to pay for a car to fetch Changyu, but Yusheng’s mother Zhao Di (Zhang Ziyi) wants him to be carried back along the road to the village in keeping with the ancient tradition so he won’t forget his way home.

The problem, as the mayor points out, is that like Yusheng, most of the other youngsters have left the village and there just aren’t enough able-bodied people available to make Zhao Di’s request a realistic prospect. Zhang’s film is not just a warm hearted love story, but a lament for a lost way of life and a part of China which is rapidly disappearing.

This fact is poignantly brought home by Yusheng’s realisation that his parents’ love, set against one kind of political turbulence, was a kind of revolution in itself. In the Chinese countryside of the 1950s, marriages happened through arrangements made by (generally male) family members, no-one fell in love and then decided to spend their lives together. Yet Zhao Di, a dreamy village girl whose own mother was so heartbroken by the death of her husband that she was blinded by the strength of her tears, dared to believe a in romantic destiny and then refused to accept that it could not be.

Zhang begins the tale in a washed out black and white narrated by the melancholy voice over of the bereaved Yusheng whose first visit home in what seems likes years is tinged with guilt and regret. His father wanted him to be a teacher in a village school, but Yusheng left the village and like most of his generation took advantage of changing times to embark on a life of wealth and status in the city. As remembered by their son, the love story of Zhang Di and Luo Changyu is one of vivid colour from the freshness of the early spring to the icy snows of winter.

An innocent love, the courtship is one of sweet looks and snatched conversations. Zhao Di, captivated by the new arrival, listens secretly outside the school and waits for Changyu on the “road home” as he escorts the children back to the village. Yet these are turbulent times and even such idyllic villages as this are not safe from political strife. The burgeoning romance between a lonely village girl and earnest young boy from the city is almost destroyed when he is ordered back “to answer some questions” for reasons which are never explained but perhaps not hard to guess. Zhao Di chases him, the totality of her defeat crushing in its sense of finality but again she refuses to give up and remains steadfast, waiting for her love to reappear along the road home.

Though “the road home” carries its own sense of poignancy, the Chinese title which means something as ordinary as “my mother and father” emphasises the universality of Yusheng’s tale. This is the story of his parents, a story of true and enduring love, but it could be the story of anybody’s parents in a small rural village in difficult 1950s China. The world, Zhang seems to say, has moved on and consigned true love to an age of myth and legend while the young, like Yusheng, waste their lives in misery in the economic powerhouses of the city never knowing such poetical purity. China has been away too long and lost its way, but there will always be a road home for those with a mind to find it.


International trailer (English voiceover)

Not One Less (一个都不能少, Zhang Yimou, 1999)

not one less posterIt’s tough being a kid in rural China. Childhood is perhaps the rarest of commodities, all too often cut short by the concerns of the adult world, but then again sometimes childish innocence can bring forth the real change in which grownups have long stopped believing. Zhang Yimou is no stranger to the struggles of life in China’s remote villages, but in Not One Less (一个都不能少, Yīgè Dōu Bùnéng Shǎo) he crouches a little closer to the ground as one tenacious little girl finds herself thrust into an unexpected position of authority and then cast away on an odyssey to rescue a lost sheep.

The girl, 13-year old Wei Minzhi has been brought over from an adjacent village to substitute for the local teacher whose mother is ill, meaning he needs to take a month off to go back to his own remote village and look after her. The problem is that no-one would agree to spend a month teaching little kids in a rural backwater for almost no money. Wei Minzhi graduated primary school which makes her one of the most educated people around and at least means that she’s a little way ahead of some of the other kids and, to be fair, teaching methods here generally end at copying the lessons from the master book up onto the blackboard so the kids can copy them down and study in their own time. Given the relative poverty of the village, children often drop out of school altogether because their parents need them at home. Teacher Gao has promised Wei 10 extra yuan if the same number of kids are still coming to school when he comes back as there were when he left.

Documenting daily life in the village, the early part of the film strikes a warm and comedic tone to undercut the hardship the villagers face. The Mayor, apparently a slightly dishonest but well meaning sort, is doing his best but the village is so poor that the children turn desks into beds and huddle together to sleep in the school. Chalk is strictly rationed and resources are scarce. Wei takes to her new found authority with schoolmarmish tenacity but struggles to exert her authority over her charges, and especially over one cheeky little boy, Zhang Huike.

When Zhang Huike disappears one day and Wei finds out he’s been sent to the city, she becomes fixated on the idea of going after him to drag him back and make sure she gets her 10 yuan bonus. The quest is a fallacious one – it will coast Wei far more than the 10 yuan bonus to get to the city and back so it’s hardly cost effective, but Wei is a literal sort and doesn’t tend to think things through. Nevertheless, the need to figure out how to get Zhang back does finally get her teaching as she gets the kids to help her do the calculations of how much money she’s going to need and to figure out how to get it.

If life in the village was tough, the city is tougher. When Wei arrives and tries to find Zhang, she winds up at the dorm of a construction site which is peopled exclusively by children who are (presumably) all working here to help their families out of poverty. Zhang, however, got lost on the way to his new job and is currently wandering the city alone, staring enviously at meat buns until someone takes pity on him and hands him one. Luckily he later meets a kind restaurant owner who takes him in off the street and gives him food in return for dishwashing. Wei, meanwhile, is completely at a loss as to how to look for Zhang. She hits on the idea of fliers but doesn’t think to leave contact details beyond the name of her school – after all, everyone in the village knows where the school is so why wouldn’t they in the city. Later someone recommends she try TV only for her to become semi-exploited for a human interest story on rural education in which the rabbit-in-the-headlights Wei can do little more than burst into tears and plead for Zhang’s return.

Wei’s single-mindedness may eventually reap rewards, but it’s impossible to escape the fact that it was motivated out of pure self interest. She wanted her 10 yuan bonus, and she never stopped to think about anyone’s else situation so long as she got it. Thus when scouts arrive from a nearby sports school with an amazing opportunity for one of her pupils, she tries to mess it up just so she’ll get the money. Similarly she’s determined to bring Zhang back even after visiting his home and meeting his bedridden mother who explains the family situation that necessitates sending her 11-year-old son away to work on a construction site. Despite having been warned about the chalk shortage, she allows half of it to get ground into the floor because she’s too busy trying to assert her authority to realise the (accidentally) destructive effects of her own actions. Nevertheless, her bullheadedness does eventually pay off. Asked about his experiences in the city, Zhang Huike remarks that the city is “beautiful and prosperous” before looking sad and admitting that he’ll never forget that he had to beg for food. Cities, it seems, are teeming hubs of wealth and success but they’re also cold, lonely, and so anonymous that small boys like Zhang get lost amid the hustle and bustle of the individualist life.


International trailer (English voice over)

Happy Times (幸福时光, Zhang Yimou, 2000)

Happy TimesPossibly the most successful of China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers, Zhang Yimou is not particularly known for his sense of humour though Happy Times (幸福时光, Xìngfú Shíguāng) is nothing is not drenched in irony. Less directly aimed at social criticism, Happy Times takes a sideswipe at modern culture with its increasing consumerism, lack of empathy, and relentless progress yet it also finds good hearted people coming together to help each other through even if they do it in slightly less than ideal ways.

An older man in his 50s, Zhao is a bachelor afraid that life has already passed him by. Desperate to get married for reasons of companionship, he’s settled on the idea of finding himself a larger lady who, he assumes, will be filled with warmth (both literally and figuratively), have a lovely flat he can move into and will also be able to delight him with delicious food. Not much to ask for really, is it? Unfortunately, he ends up with a woman nicknamed “Chunky Mama” who is pretty much devoid of all of these qualities beyond the physical. She has an overweight son whom she spoils ridiculously and a blind stepdaughter she treats with cruelty and disdain.

Zhao is eager to please his new lady love and has told her a mini fib about being a hotel manager. He and his friend Li had been planning to open a “love hut” in an abandoned trailer in the forest but this plan doesn’t quite work out so when Chunky Mama asks him to give the blind girl, Little Wu, a job in the hotel Zhao is in a fix. Together with some of his friends, he hatches a plan to create a fake massage room in an abandoned warehouse where they can take turns getting massages from the girl in the hope that she really believes she’s working and making money for herself. However, though Little Wu comes to truly love her mini band of would be saviours she also has a yearning to find her long absent father who has promised to get her treatment to restore her sight, as well as a growing sense of guilt as she feels she’s becoming a burden to them.

Zhao decided to name his “love hut” the Happy Times Hotel – to him there’s really no difference between a “hut” and a “hotel”. In some ways he’s quite correct but the expectation differential isn’t something that would really occur to him, straightforward fantasist as he is. In fact, Zhao is a master of the half-truth, constantly in a state of mild self delusion and self directed PR spin as he tries to win himself the brand new life he dreams of through sheer power of imagination. His friends seem to know this about him and find it quite an amusing, endearing quality rather than a serious personality flaw.

Unfortunately this same directness sometimes prevents him from noticing he’s also being played in return. The ghastly stepmother Chunky Mama is in many ways a clear symbol of everything that’s wrong with modern society – brash, forceful, and materially obsessed. For unclear reasons, she’s hung on to Little Wu after the breakdown of the marriage to her father but keeps her in a backroom and forces her do chores while her own son lounges about playing video games and eating ice-cream. Ice-cream itself becomes a symbol of the simple luxuries that are out of reach for people like Little Wu and Zhao but quickly gulped down by Chunky Mama’s son with an unpleasant degree of thoughtless entitlement. The son is a complete incarnation of the Little Emperor syndrome that has accompanied the One Child Policy as his mother indulges his every whim, teaching him to be just as selfish and materially obsessed as she is.

For much of its running time, Happy Times is a fairly typical low comedy with a slightly surreal set up filled with simple but good natured people rallying round to try and help each other through a series of awkward situations but begins to change tone markedly when reaching its final stretch. Zhao and Little Wu begin to develop a paternal relationship particularly as it becomes clear that the father she longs for has abandoned her and will probably never return but circumstances move them away from a happy ending and into an uncertain future. The film ends on a bittersweet note that is both melancholy but also uplifting as both characters send undeliverable messages to each other which are intended to spur them on with hope for the future. “Happy Times Hotel” then takes on its most ironic meaning as happiness becomes a temporary destination proceeded by a long and arduous journey which must then be abandoned as the traveller returns to the road.


Retitled “Happy Times Hotel” for the UK home video release.

US release trailer (complete with dreadful voice over and comic sans):

Coming Home (UK Anime Network Review)

coming-home-film-decembre-2014-sortieZhang Yimou’s latest reviewed at UK Anime Network


Dealing with the recent past in mainstream Chinese film can be a difficult business. While you may be able to get away with making a comment on the present through looking at the pre-communist past, raising the spectres of some of the darker episodes in the post Mao Zedong China is, at best, taboo. That Zhang Yimou, more recently moving into the mainstream as one of China’s most bankable directors both abroad and domestically, has been able to make a film about the suffering endured by countless citizens during The Cultural Revolution is therefore a little surprising. However, Coming Home is far from an examination of the period’s horrors but rather a metaphor for modern China reframed as a melodrama of deep love and marital happiness frustrated by historical circumstance.

Based on The Criminal Lu Yanshi a book by Yan Geling, the central story focuses on the trio of Lu – a professor sent for “re-education” at the beginning of The Cultural Revolution, his wife Feng and their daughter Dandan. The first part of the film sees Dandan attending a ballet school and hoping to gain the lead in the upcoming propaganda ballet Red Detachment of Women. However, despite being the most talented dancer she learns she will not be chosen for a leading role because of her father’s disgrace – a situation further complicated because it transpires her father has escaped from the camp and may be trying to return home. Despite the warnings and the obvious danger, Feng is desperate to see her husband again though Dandan, who was just an infant when her father was taken away, is angry and resentful. Lu’s attempt to return ends in recapture and it’s not until the end of The Cultural Revoltion years later that he’s finally able to come home. However, Feng now suffers from mild dementia and refuses to recognise this much older version of the man she’s been waiting for all this time. Every fifth day of the month she goes to the station to wait for her husband completely unaware that he has already returned.

It’s the second half of the story that occupies the bulk of the running time as Lu’s original escape attempt becomes more or less a prologue to the main story. Having returned home, Lu tries to reawaken his wife’s dormant memories by reminding her of their shared past. Feng can take care of herself day to day though she forgets things and muddles up timescales, but is unable to acknowledge Lu as her husband. Along with the remorseful Dandan who only now understands exactly what her parents have been through, he tries to remind her of happier times by reading her letters or playing the piano as he used to do. In someways the political circumstances take a back seat here as Feng’s dementia could easily be solely of natural causes (though the film strongly suggests a blow to the head during Lu’s escape attempt and subsequent traumas maybe a partial cause of her memory loss) and Lu the loving husband trying to keep their past alive. However, the situation is further complicated as the couple have now been separated for over twenty years with no contact at all. There was immense suffering on both sides with Lu desperate to see his wife and daughter again but never knowing if he would, and his wife making great sacrifices to try and protect him in the hope that he would survive and one day return home.

The film never really goes into what Lu did, other than his having been a professor which might have been enough on its own, or probe into very much detail about his life being re-educated. Bar a final reveal and a general feeling of melancholy, it doesn’t much delve into Feng’s life other than her devotion in waiting for Lu. In fact, it sort of leaves The Cultural Revolution to one side as much as it can. However, its ambiguity is almost an analogy for the way modern China wishes to think about its past – both remembering and not at the same time. Lu endures all, suffers all only to return to a world where he doesn’t quite exist. Patiently, he tries to undo this painful knot of memory that has paralysed his wife’s brain so that he might regain something of what he’s lost but the more he tries to show her the less she seems to see. She can only recognise him as the man he is now, a kindly neighbour, and not as the man that was taken from her all those years ago and for whom she still waits. There are those like Lu who are desperately trying to reconcile the past with the present so they can move forward but there are also those like Feng who are unable to come to terms with everything they’ve suffered and accept the now for what is. The result being a kind of numb limbo which leaves everybody waiting at the station for a train which will never arrive.

Coming Home probably goes as far it’s allowed to go, but that still isn’t terribly far. As a film about China’s turbulent recent history, it’s a start but doesn’t begin to approach some of those darker themes with any kind of depth. That said, it’s really much more of an old fashioned melodrama about a faithful husband who comes home to his devoted wife after many years of enforced separation only to find that, far from having “forgotten” him, she can’t forget the him that was taken away long enough to recognise that he’s come home. Fans of romantic drama will find a lot more to like than those hoping for a hard hitting examination of horrors The Cultural Revolution but Coming Home does do what it promises in a typically polished style. A little bit stuffy and noticeably restrained, Coming Home is not exactly a late career masterpiece from the director of Raise the Red Lantern, but it does at least open a few doors.