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)

This Is Not What I Expected (喜欢你, Derek Hui, 2017)

This is not what i expected poster 1The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, as they say, but the course of true love never did run smooth. The debut directorial feature from editor Derek Hui, This is not What I Expected (喜欢你, Xǐhuan Nǐ) is, to be frank exactly what you’d expect it to be but that only works in its favour. A classic tale of opposites attracting, This is Not What I Expected takes its cues from The Shop Around the Corner only this time it’s not pen pals and music boxes but big business and culinary communication.

Ditzy chef Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu) has been having an affair with her caddish boss whom she decides to teach a lesson by carving a rude message into the bonnet of his car. Only, in a motif which will be repeated, she got the wrong one and has actually left her mark on the car of uptight international hotel magnate Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Jin is after some new hotels to acquire so where should he fetch up at other than the one where Shengnan works? Jin hates pretty much everything about the second rate establishment including the food which is when Shengnan’s sleazy boss asks her to cook up something special to stop Jin from leaving. Cleverly analysing the leftovers from Jin’s rejected meals, she cooks him something to remember and succeeds in capturing his heart. Intrigued, Jin decides to stay on the condition that Shengnan cook all his meals from now on. However, Jin has no idea that Shengnan is the culinary mastermind he can’t stop thinking about and is increasingly irritated by all of their bizarre encounters.

Despite their superficial differences, Shengnan and Jin are perfectly in tune, their culinary messages perfectly understood by each on an elemental level. In real life, however, things are quite different. Jin, a ruthless if eccentric businessman with a mania for precision and a terror of anything remotely out of place, finds Shengan’s happy go lucky, disaster prone existence particularly difficult to understand. Hoping to escape her, he even gives Shengnan an electronic tag that will set off an alarm whenever she’s close by so the pair can avoid each other and the chaos that seems to happen when they meet.

Meanwhile, the conflicts continue to expand in the background. Shengnan doesn’t have much of an issue still being single past the socially acceptable age, but worries that she’s not getting anywhere in her career and will be stuck sous-cheffing forever despite her obvious talents while getting her heart broken by sleazy players like her odious, ambitious boss. Rosebud, the ironically named hotel, is hardly a top tier establishment and probably too much bother for Jin to consider taking on if weren’t for his strange fascination with the cook. His extended stay is beginning to raise eyebrows with his coldhearted father/boss while a mild conflict begins to flicker in his heart when he realises the business plan requires firing the entire kitchen staff and hiring a three star Michelin chef.

Hui does perhaps over egg the pudding in creating a “romantic” rival for Shengnan once she discovers that Jin also employs a (female) “private chef” whose return from vacation might explain why he abruptly stopped dropping by the hotel (and her apartment where he’d virtually moved himself in). The lines between desire and hunger remain increasingly blurred as the two women resentfully vie for the position of tastemaker, tussling over which of them understands Jin better and truly deserves to be the one providing him with sustenance. Yet as the personal chef finally comes to realise (a few steps ahead of Jin), what Jin’s hungry for is no longer just food, what he needs is something more organic than a contractual relationship.

Jin is, in a sense, an embodiment of heartless modern capitalism, raised to be “despised” in order to preserve “solitude” and a “clear mind”. Jin’s austere father is all about order and control, he doesn’t like the emotional because it’s irrational and unpredictable, but the straw that finally breaks Jin’s back is when he tells him that the food at the hotel can’t be “too good” because it would be “distracting” for the clients. For the first time, Jin begins to question his ideology and realises that perhaps it wasn’t so much that he enjoyed eating alone as that he convinced himself he did to avoid thinking about the fact that no one wanted to eat with him. An epiphany born of a strange blow fish fever dream shows him that life in Shengnan’s world, for all of its problematic chaos, could be charming not to say warm even in the rain. It’s not what he expected, but it’s good – like an expertly prepared meal, best to savour it while it lasts.


Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Animal World (动物世界, Han Yan, 2018)

Animal World Poster 1Greed is good. So Michael Douglas once told us many years ago and if Animal World (动物世界, Dòngwù Shìjiè) is anything to go by, the Gordon Gekkos of the world have not changed their tune. Inspired by Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s manga Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor, Han Yan’s anarchic gambling drama is the latest in a long line of films to ask serious questions about a perceived moral decline accompanying the rapid economic development of the Chinese state occurring largely during the lifetime of the pure hearted hero Zheng Kaisi (Li Yi Feng) who has been dealt a bum deal and is doing very little to resist it. Describing himself as “crazy” (not unfairly, as it turns out), Kaisi is perhaps the last good man but his resolve is severely tested when he finds himself trapped aboard the good ship Destiny and forced to bet his life on a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Kaisi was one of the smartest kids in town but his father’s early death when Kaisi was eight and his mother’s long term illness have left him all alone in the world. Defeated and without hope, Kaisi’s only job is playing a sad clown at a local arcade and, in a failing he continues to find humiliating, he has to rely on childhood friend and putative sweetheart Qin (Zhong Dongyu), who is also his mother’s nurse, for the money to pay the medical fees that keep his mum in an actual room and not out in the corridor with all the other paupers. Another childhood friend of Kaisi’s, Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), claims to be in a similarly sticky situation and offers Kaisi a sweet deal if only he’ll consent to mortgaging the family apartment. Reluctant but backed into a corner, Kaisi agrees only to realise that not for the first or last time Li Jun has thrown him under the bus and he’s now on the hock for all his friend’s debts which seem to belong to a shady underworld kingpin by the name of Anderson (Michael Douglas). Anderson offers him a way out – he can win it all back and more if he agrees to submit himself to a high stakes game of chance way out in international waters aboard a disused warship called “Destiny”.

Describing himself as “crazy”, Kaisi has a strange fascination with clowns which extends past his occupation and directly into his psyche. Imprinted with a violent kids’ cartoon in which a vigilante clown metes out justice with a smile during a traumatic childhood incident, Kaisi feels as if there is a clown trapped inside him which wants to come out at moments of intense emotionality. Floating away in flights of fancy, he reimagines his enemies as weird space creatures and sees himself cut them down with twin samurai swords in the cramped environment of an otherwise empty subway car. Reality and imagination become blurred as we watch Kaisi run through a scenario in his head only to cut back to the “real” world where he more often than not decides to let things go. Despite his internal crazy clown, Kaisi is a defeated and passive figure who has been drifting aimlessly without hope or purpose, too afraid even accept the affection of his childhood sweetheart Qin due to his internalised insecurity regarding his lack of financial stability.

Dealt a bum deal by life, Kaisi has been relegated to an oppressed underclass with little chance of escape. He is, however, honest and pure hearted unlike his dodgy real estate broker friend, Li Jun. “Destiny” becomes a microcosm for exploring the evils of capitalism as the players quickly realise that they are only involved in a sub game – while they risk their lives at the gaming tables, the fabulously wealthy are busy betting on them from behind two way mirrors. Shady impresario Anderson gives a rousing introduction to proceedings, but pointedly omits to add anything about cheating. Cheating is not just allowed, it is encouraged, to a point at least, and playing the angles strongly advised. Games of chance are never quite just that and Kaisi’s finely tuned mathematical brain finally gets an excuse to kick back into action after a long period of wilful indolence.

Repeatedly, Kaisi is told that “loyalty” means nothing in this “animal world” where the only thing that counts is “profit”. While he is good hearted and originally taken in by the schemes of others, he is not naive and is able to see the “animal world” for what it is even if he refuses to become a full part of it. Maintaining his faith in the power of friendship proves to be a mistake, but still Kaisi realises that he’d much rather be a “clown” ridiculed for his principles than a soulless mercenary who’d sell out a friend for money. His attitude perhaps stands in stark contrast to those around him who’ve each found themselves at the Destiny for different reasons, some more eager than others to give in to their desperation. A mild critique of the heartlessness of a fiercely competitive society and its inbuilt societal inequalities, Animal World is a beautifully designed, surreal and anarchic tribute to fighting the good fight even if everyone else thinks you’re a “crazy clown”.


Animal World is released in UK cinemas from 29th June courtesy of Cine Asia. Check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you including screenings across Europe and the rest of the world!

Original trailer (Mandarin, no subtitles)

City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Da Peng, 2017)

201708162324218235They built this city on rock and roll! Right in the middle of Ji’An, there’s a giant statue of an electric guitar with a plaque underneath it reading “The Heart of Rock” that was erected in memory of a legendary concert given by a super famous band, Broken Guitar, who happen to hail from the region. This being a particularly musical town, Broken Guitar continues to inspire young and old alike to pursue their musical dreams, but there is trouble on the horizon. Shady mobbed up developers want to tear down the Great Guitar and put flats there instead, which is not very rock and roll when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, shady musical agent Chen Gong (Da Peng), who was actually the agent for Broken Guitar at the time they broke up, is working on his latest venture – trying to turn three middle-aged, pudgy rockers into a Chinese K-pop act. Needless to say it’s not going well and Gong is perpetually cash strapped. When he receives an unsolicited call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a Ji’An resident who wants him to help promote a local concert as a kind of benefit to help save the Great Guitar, Gong isn’t interested and quotes him a ridiculous sum of money only to see it instantly pop-up in his account. Jumping straight on a train, Gong is met at the station by a rapturous welcome parade which includes a marching band and kids throwing garlands but quickly figures out that Hu Liang is every bit as much of a schemer as he is. Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band and needs Gong to help him find one.

Once again, the conflict is between cynicism and artistic integrity as a group of misfits comes together to help stop a monument to true rock being torn down by soulless suits. Gong, as we later find out, had musical dreams himself but, after having gone against his father’s wishes to pursue a musical career, was forced out of the conservatoire after an accident robbed him of the feeling in two of his fingers and he became too depressed to sing. Having lost his faith in music, Gong has sold out and become a cynical money man, cutting deals anywhere and everywhere he can. Rather than work on the “unique” sound of the guys he was mentoring, he’s obsessed with the idea of sending them to Korea to get plastic surgery, and turning them into some kind of K-pop inspired Chinese song and dance group.

Hu Liang, meanwhile, is just as much of a con man but his heart is in a better place. Only two people show up for his auditions to join the band – jaded alcoholic with a broken leg, Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), and a drummer from Taiwan who calls himself “Explosive” (Li Hongqi) and sits with his back to the audience. The other bandmates include a former member of Broken Guitar now a gynaecologist (Han Tongsheng) whose daughter has forbidden him from playing rock and roll, and a little girl (Qu Junxi) who’s a whizz on the keyboards despite the disapproval of her Taekwondo loving mother who thinks things like music are a frivolous waste of time. Together they face various obstacles in their quest to save the great guitar and the spirit of rock and roll itself but finally discover that the true spirit of rock lies in getting the band back together for one last hurrah and channeling all into music.

Gong, tempted by the shady developer, is reminded that money can save lives but dreams cannot. Faced with a dilemma, Gong falls back into cynicism and rejects the new sense of fun and togetherness he’d found as a peripheral member of the band. Yet reuniting with his hopeless wannabes and easing back into his soulless Beijing life, he begins to realise what he’s been missing and rediscovers the the true nature of rock and roll which isn’t trapped inside a giant concrete guitar but inside the hearts of musicians who need their instruments to help bring it out. Dreams, it seems, save lives after all. An often hilarious, sometimes silly comedy, City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Féngrènjī Yduìis as full of heart as it encourages its protagonists to be, arguing for the importance of the right to express oneself in a society which often actively suppresses it.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Soul Mate (七月与安生, Derek Tsang, 2016)

soulmateLike the rest of the world, China, or a given generation at least, may be finding itself at something of a crossroads. The past few years have seen a flurry of coming of age dramas in which the melancholy and middle-aged revisit lost love from their youth but Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate (七月与安生, Qīyuè yǔ Anshēng) seems to be speaking to an older kind of melodrama in its examination of passionate friendship pulled apart by time, tragedy, and unspoken emotion. The story is an old one, but Tsang tells it well as its twin heroines maintain their intense, elemental connection even whilst cruelly separated.

Qiyue (Sandra Ma Sichun) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) met at 13 years old and quickly became inseparable. Ansheng, a free-spirited and energetic young girl, came to the aid of the shy and bookish Qiyue but was herself in need a kind of rescue thanks her unusual family circumstances. The child of a busy single mother, Ansheng was often left to fend for herself but Qiyue’s parents are goodhearted people and keen to take on the additional responsibility of caring for their daughter’s only friend. However, the usual cause of tension arrives when 18-year-old Qiyue falls for the handsome Jiaming (Toby Lee). Ansheng, feeling a little jealous and left out, has complicated feelings towards her friend’s boyfriend who seems to be attracted to her further complicating the already intense relationship between the three. Not wanting to break her friend’s heart, Ansheng decides it’s time for her to embrace her free-spirited nature and hit the road even if it takes her away from the most important person in her life.

Years later, Ansheng is a respectable office worker. Jiaming, now a city boy himself, is stunned to spot her on a train even if his attempts to thrust a business card into her hand are met with less than enthusiastic reception. No longer in touch with Qiyue, Jiaming like much of the country has been fascinated by an ongoing web novel, Qiyue and Ansheng, which Qiyue has apparently been writing and is hoping Ansheng knows how to get in touch with her. Sadly, she does not. The three friends appear scattered but how could such intense relationships have ended so abruptly and finally?

Necessarily close in their youth, the two girls are a classic case of opposites attracting as the quiet and thoughtful Qiyue idolises her impulsive, extroverted friend. Their initial separation comes at cost as it pushes each into their opposing sides – Qiyue pursuing her education whilst planning an early marriage, and Ansheng living life on the road hooking up with shady guys and cadging meals by out drinking louts. A disastrous trip brings the differences home as the shared awkwardness regarding their relationships with Jiaming frustrates their essential intimacy and threatens to throw up an unscalable wall between the two women.

Jiaming does his best to get in the way, vacillating between the two girls and ultimately making what is probably the best decision but in the most cowardly and selfish of ways. The two eventually find themselves out of sync, just as Ansheng is thinking of settling down, Qiyue finds the strength to spread her wings but somehow or other they are perpetually kept apart. The film goes to great lengths to emphasise the platonic nature of the two women’s relationship despite the obvious tension between them but it’s difficult not to read Ansheng’s ongoing struggles as a tragic case of a woman in love with her oblivious best friend. Later on the film presents the interesting idea of a nontraditional family in the two women raising a child which is almost their own thanks to the extremely tight triangular relationship of their teenage years, yet it quickly undercuts it with a perfectly executed dramatic twist.

Drawing beautifully nuanced performances from his lead actresses, Tsang crafts an affecting tale of the power of female friendship which transcends all obstacles in its essential unbreakable quality which brings both joy and pain to each of the women even in their inevitable separation. Drawing inspiration from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai who is also thanked in the end credits, Tsang moves beyond Hana and Alice for a deeper kind of sadness found in a shot echoing Iwai’s thematically similar Love Letter suggesting the essential melancholy of an enduring yet severed connection.


Soul Mate was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)