Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, Xue Xiaolu, 2021)

Another in the recent line of “Main Melody” features celebrating ordinary heroism during the extraordinary period of the pandemic, Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, chuānguò hándōng yōngbào nǐ) is dedicated to the volunteers who risked their own safety to support frontline workers in the early days of the Wuhan lockdown. Though sometimes bittersweet, the film is noticeably lighter in tone and somewhat rosy in comparison to other similarly themed dramas such as Ode to the Spring but it is in its own way prepared to concede that the initial response was not handled perfectly and that fear, chaos and panic were the defining features of New Year 2020 even if it does so to throw the heroism of those who stepped up to help in stark relief. 

Like other pandemic films, Embrace Again is comprised of a series of interlocking stories connected by the volunteer effort helmed by A-Yong (Huang Bo) who has something of a hero complex and is caught in a mini war with his feisty wife who is quite understandably upset with him seeing as he’s left her all alone with their son during these difficult times while he runs around helping other people having decided to stay elsewhere so as not to expose them to further risk of disease. As he ferries people around, it becomes clear that there were not so many people like him in the beginning with most preferring to keep to themselves out of fear leaving the medical staff who were risking their own lives to protect those suffering from the virus with nowhere to turn for support.

A-Yong’s heroism is contrasted with the indifference of wealthy businessman Li (Gao Yalin) who rudely tells him where to go when A-Yong rings up trying to organise food donations for hospitals. Li is at odds with his wife (Xu Fan) whose successful tourist business has been all but destroyed by the virus, unable to understand her decision to keep her staff on payroll with full salaries and resentful of her insistence on calling in a longstanding loan from an old friend of his. Yet like so many his attitude is gradually changed by witnessing responses to the pandemic, allowing him to regain his social conscience becoming a volunteer himself and agreeing to donate a significant proportion of his stock to frontline workers while rediscovering his love for his wife who started her own business not for the money but for her dignity after being called a “stupid housewife” by their daughter now soon to be a mother herself and trapped overseas in New Zealand by the lockdown. 

Nicknamed Brother Wu (Jia Ling) because of her forthright character and robust frame, a female delivery driver associate of A-yong’s experiences something similar as she firstly befriends a cheerful young nurse, Xiaoxiao (Zhou Dongyu), working at the hospital and engages in a tentative romance with a sensitive divorcee, Mr. Ye (Zhu Yilong), she picks up prescriptions for. In a pleasantly progressive plot strand, Wu is forever telling people she’s trying to lose weight but both Xiaoxiao and Mr. Ye make a point of telling her that she’s fine as she is and has no need to. When Xiaoxiao gifts her lipstick, it’s not a suggestion that she is unfeminine but the reverse allowing her a means to reclaim her femininity for herself and believe that she is both beautiful and desirable exactly as she is. 

Similarly, an elderly woman (Wu Yanshu) living with her widowed son-in-law and grandson is given permission to begin moving on with her life when when she’s called out of retirement to return to the hospital as a midwife. While telling her son-in-law that he shouldn’t feel guilty about seeking new happiness, she too finds love with a Cantonese chef (Hui Shiu-hung) who ends up becoming a volunteer solely so he can deliver her lovingly prepared meals direct to the hospital. Each of these tales are essentially about people finding love in unexpected places while rediscovering their ties to the community, setting greed and self-interest to one side as they risk their own safety to preserve that of others. Wuhan is cut off from the rest of the world, but receives support in the form of external supplies celebrated by A-Yong and the small core of volunteers pitching in to keep the city running. Ending on a bittersweet note acknowledging a sense of loss but also that of a new beginning, the film closes with touching scenes of community in action before giving way to the now familiar stock footage of the real volunteers celebrating Wuhan’s reopening with a sense of joy and relief that might in retrospect seem premature but is also a perfect encapsulation of the view from April 2020.


Embrace Again screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Li Jun, 2021)

In recent years, Chinese big budget disaster extravaganzas have dedicated themselves to celebrating the selfless heroism of the undersung branches of the emergency services, firemen for example in Tony Chan’s The Bravest or the coast guard in Dante Lam’s The Rescue. Li Jun’s Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Fēng Bào) features its fair share of fearless rescue teams, but is nevertheless dedicated to the rather unlikely source of pride, the Rail Soldiers whose lives, at least according to the closing credits, were sacrificed in large numbers to complete the infrastructure necessary for the expansion of the Chinese state yet in 1984 they were renamed “China Railway Construction Corporation” a development the film at least seems to regard with a surprising degree of ambivalence. 

This becomes most obvious in the conflict between the two heroes, an estranged father and son burdened by personal trauma, one a former Rail Soldier and the other a high tech engineer working for a commercial enterprise on the building of a high speed railway network through terrain known to be geologically volatile. Grandpa Hong (Huang Zhizhong) is set to visit his son Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) for New Year, though he doesn’t really want to see him knowing that his father will only criticise his work on the tunnel leading to another intergenerational argument. Meanwhile, Yizhou also finds himself unpopular at work for requesting additional safety checks many seem to regard as a pointless waste of time, and oddly they might have a point seeing as Yizhou’s monitoring fails to detect a shift in the rock formation which causes water to flood the almost complete tunnel during routine blasting. 

The fact is Hong was a Rail Soldier and is also one of those old men who think they know best about everything. He kicks off at a bored young lady at service station because she doesn’t want to accept payment in cash and has no change to offer confused as to why Hong can’t just pay with Alipay or WeChat like everyone else. Despite his years of hands-on experience, he no longer understands the modern high tech engineering industry and thinks his son is somehow unmanly with his scientific data and use of drones, believing that if you want to solve a problem you just get in there and do it. This causes a minor problem when a manmade earthquake strikes just after his arrival as he pushes rescue crews out of the way to set about rescuing everyone trapped underground on his own only to end up trapped himself. 

The film is almost on his side, definitely ambivalent about the state of modern Chinese infrastructure. Mrs. Ding (Chen Shu), the female manager of the tunnel project, is initially positioned as a villain, insisting that the tunnel must be completed on schedule and they can’t be wasting money on things like safety checks, hinting at the nation’s notoriously lax approach to public safety and widespread corruption in the construction industry. One might even ask if it was a good idea to build this tunnel at all given the geological volatility of the local area, yet Mrs. Ding later becomes something of a hero in finally agreeing to sacrifice 10 years of her own work when it becomes clear a nearby town cannot be evacuated before disaster strikes. Stepping into propaganda mode she advances that while Westerners may pin their hopes on Noah’s Ark, Chinese men move mountains convincing the workmen to blow up the tunnel they’ve been spent the last decade working on by reminding them that they can simply build it again. 

Meanwhile, Yizhou and Hong begin to sort out their father/son problems underground most of which go back to the death of Yizhou’s mother for which he blames himself but also his father for failing to return home when his wife was ill because he had important nation building work to do. This minor barb might hint at a conflict between selfless dedication to the State and familial responsibility, which would seem to run against the secondary message that unchecked capitalism is doing the same thing while also endangering public safety. One reason the crews didn’t want to fall behind through “needless” safety checks was because they’d already agreed to sacrifice New Year with their families to get the tunnel done on time. Nevertheless the only way to save both the tunnel and the town depends on father and son working together, a mix of Yizhou’s high tech data analysis and Hong’s hands-on experience as they perilously climb up the slide of a sheer rock face in torrential rain to blow up an entirely different mountain to create a protective shield. 

The major villain, if there is one, is personal greed born of irresponsible capitalism, and its only cure is, paradoxically, a recommittal to the State as Mrs Ding offers inspirational messages about the legacy of the Rail Soldiers while self-sacrifice for the public good is held up as the only moral responsibility. In any case, Li piles on the tension with a series of possible negative outcomes from the tunnel disaster not only swamping the town and killing off the local population but also endangering an adjacent chemical plant, never quite making the case for why the tunnel is so necessary in the first place even as it swaps its literality for the metaphorical in allowing the reconnection of father and son overcoming a generational divide to find an ambivalent accommodation with the demands of the modern China. 


Cloudy Mountain screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-in Chicago on Nov. 13 courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

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)