Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, Geng Jun, 2021)

An adulterous bulldozer operator in north east China finds himself in conflict with a failed construction magnate when his wife insists he find a new home for their Alsatian before their baby arrives in Geng Jun’s dark comedy Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, dōngběihǔ). A Manchurian tiger does indeed appear at certain points of the film, a child at the zoo asking their grandfather why the rather morose beast does not roar only to receive the explanation that the tiger is all alone with no one to talk to. The child sadly reflects that it’s like the tiger is in prison, but the grandfather corrects them that it’s in there for its own good so that it can be protected, loved, and admired, but its plight still calls out to an emotionally wounded poet (Xu Gang) who is also no longer young and feels isolated and constrained by the world around him. 

As for bulldozer operator Xu (Zhang Yu) who it seems may once have been a teacher, his problems seem to lie more in the inability to reconcile his conflicting emotions towards his family. His wife Meiling (Ma Li) tells him to get rid of the dog because it’ll be too much for them when the new baby arrives and he complies but is also sickened when he’s met with only prices by the pound on trying to find it a new home. He unwisely decides to leave the dog with a local businessman, Ma (Zhang Zhiyong), but Ma slaughters it to curry favour with a pair of “collection agents” he hires to help him get back money he invested into a construction project that’s clearly gone south and in truth sounds like it may have been a scam to begin with. When the heartbroken Xu discovers the truth he vows revenge only for a strange sort of solidarity to arise between them in shared victimhood both bested by the problems of the modern society in the formerly industrial north east. 

Ma could try to make the case that he’s a victim too and he is in a sense but he’s also a conman as Xu later brands him. Even so he does seem to feel some remorse if not for eating Xu’s dog then at least for plunging his friends and family into financial ruin after they sunk their lifesavings into his project because they believed in him. As he puts it they all, he included, fell for the fantasy of the modern China believing they could all get rich quick only to be undercut by the ironic flip side when cost cutting and subpar materials prevent the apartment block from being finished leaving Ma high and dry unable to recoup his costs until the apartments can be sold. The debt collection agents he unwisely hires are just thuggish loansharks who then ask him for a hefty deposit, smashing up his car to make a point when he tries to use it as collateral. 

In essence it seems as if all Xu wants is to Ma to apologise to the spirit of his dog but Ma apparently values his pride above money and complains the price is too high while Xu resents the attempt to place a monetary value on his friend or imply that perhaps his own flesh also has a price. He’s clearly in a space of mental despair, reminding his mistress that like the tiger he’s no longer young and has exhausted all other opportunities to improve his life so the only thing he has left is his marriage. As his wife Meiling starts starts visiting several women around the local area after noticing the scent of perfume along with stray hairs on Xu’s clothes, it becomes clear he has had several affairs already and is seemingly being punished for his sexual transgressions which are perhaps an attempt to escape his own sense of imprisonment, as caged as the tiger by his familial responsibilities and humiliated by the inability to meet them.

Yet none of these men, not Xu, nor Ma, nor the dejected poet are going to roar because they’ve long since accepted their captivity and believe themselves already too old to risk escape. A fight eventually breaks out among Ma’s creditors when one suggests that the money should first be given to the young because they will spend it, keeping the money moving through an uncertain economy, while the old will save having learned to be cautious amid the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly changing society. Darkly comic and tinged with the fatalism of Sino-noir along with its jazzy score, Manchurian Tiger seems to suggest that the cage is infinite and the only escape lies in accepting its myriad disappointments. 


Manchurian Tiger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Blackfin Production

Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Xing Jian, 2019)

Winter After Winter posterEven in the midst of war, life goes on. How to ensure it keeps doing so becomes a major preoccupation for one peasant farmer, confused as to how he’s supposed to fulfil his obligation to his ancestors if the Japanese insist on taking his sons. Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter (冬去冬又来, Dōng Qù Dōng Yòu Lái) takes a more stoical view of life under the occupation than you’d usually find in Mainland wartime drama, but then its themes are perhaps a little grander as it adopts the perspective of its most oppressed protagonist – the silent Kun (Yan Bingyan) whose bodily destiny is dictated by the men around her while her mild resistance is offered only through small acts of humanistic kindness.

Set in 1944 in the puppet state of Manchuria, Winter After Winter situates itself largely within a single farmhouse where ageing peasant Lao Si (Gao Qiang) is trying to fob off the local Japanese commander (Hibino Akira) who has come for his three sons. Though Lao Si of course does not want his children to go, his concern is more that his oldest son (Dong Lianhai) is impotent and has been unable to impregnate his daughter-in-law Kun so if all the boys are taken now the family line will die. To stop this happening, he tries to force his other two sons to have sex with Kun while he keeps Nakamura busy in the kitchen. His middle son (Yuan Liguo) flees in disgust, running off to join the guerrillas fighting the Japanese while the youngest, shy and inarticulate, tries his best but doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to be doing and is eventually dragged away mid-act, bound for a Japanese forced labour camp.

In some ways, the atmosphere in Lao Si’s village is not as oppressive as one might expect. Now the men have gone, the other villagers are largely left alone with a minimal military presence in the town while they each figure out schemes for keeping the Japanese at bay. The main problem is that once winter sets in there is very little food and the Japanese are intent on keeping most of it for themselves while using their magnanimity as a bargaining chip. Regular searches are made of homes suspected of hoarding rice, while the residents are made to vomit to prove they’ve eaten nothing they weren’t supposed to. Nevertheless, the Japanese commander Nakamura is otherwise shown to be a fair and compassionate man if only largely when dealing with his countrymen – doting over his bedridden wife and little daughter, or making sure to ask a female assistant if she’s warm enough when they sit down to watch a film. Dealing with the Chinese, however, he remains rigid and unforgiving if not actually cruel or abusive. He presses Lao Si for the service owed to him by his absent sons, only reluctantly relenting when told that Kun is unable to work because she has become pregnant but expecting Lao Si to come up with a solution on his own.

Kun’s eventual pregnancy is a problem in itself. Unbeknownst to anyone, the youngest brother manages to escape and begins hiding in the family’s cellar where Kun finds him, keeping the secret and supplying him with food. The pair eventually bond and comfort each other through sex during which Kun conceives a child, but as no one can know of his return, Lao Si arranges to have her marry the “idiot” son (Young Fan) of the local teacher who he assumes is an innocent and will not bother his daughter-in-law with unwanted sexual contact (something that didn’t really bother him when he was keeping it all in the family).

Throughout it all Kun remains stoically silent, never complaining or resisting but simply existing as the right to decide is taken from her by the feckless menfolk who swap and share her with nary a word of kindness. Apparently “adopted” by Lao Si and brought up as a daughter until force married to the oldest son, Kun is made to feel beholden to her father-in-law who behaves as if she owes him her life. Lao Si, meanwhile, blames her for his misfortune – for not being attractive enough to enflame the desire of his oldest son and for sending the middle one running, denying him the heir he so longs for to fulfil his filial duties.

All Kun can do to resist is to rebel against the austerity of her surroundings with kindness. She fulfils her daughterly duties to Lao Si without complaint, tenderly looks after the boys, and finally even offers her own precious food to a Japanese soldier on the run only to pay dearly for it when he brutally betrays her. In the end, all Lao Si’s scheming comes to nothing, defeated by time and circumstance, but it’s Kun who finally makes a positive decision for the future as she perhaps finds him an “heir” even if not the kind he wanted in extending a hand to a crying child signalling an end to conflict and the advent of compassion in the willingness to move forward together without blame or rancour.


Winter After Winter screens on 5th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Clip (English / simplified Chinese subtitles)