29+1 (2017)

Hong Kong

Director: Kearen Pang 彭秀慧

Studio: China 3D Digital Entertainment 中國3D 數碼娛樂

Language: Cantonese 粵語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 111 minutes

Recommended.


Thirty is a milestone the world over, but in the hyper-competitive world of Hong Kong it carries added pressure. To have a career; to have a relationship; to get married. But Christy has everything on track. She’s got a job as an assistant for a famous fashion designer. She’s got a long-term relationship. And she’s even got an apartment she likes, minus a little mould here and there. But things that take years to build can fall apart in moments.

First, her landlord tells her he’s selling her apartment, and she has less than 2 weeks to move out. Second, her relationship begins to fall apart. Third, her dementia-suffering father falls critically ill.

Faced with these crises, Christy moves into an apartment to home sit whilst the owner is away. Among the owners many Polaroid photos and her pet turtles, Christy finds the owner’s diary. It turns out she, like Christy, is soon to turn 30. But their lives seem to be very far apart.

Wong Tin-Lok does not have Christy’s high-flying career; she works in a small record shop. She’s not fashionable, and she doesn’t have a long-term boyfriend.

What she does have is joy, and a love for life. So when Christy discovers the reason she’s not there, it makes her reconsider everything in her own life…


There’s a very famous saying in Chinese: 三十而立 (a man should stand on his own feet at 30). Like many famous Chinese sayings, it originates from Confucius. It’s a sentiment which many could relate to, but for anyone who has ever lived in a society with Confucian roots, it holds particular weight.

In Confucius’ time, women’s role in society was certainly different to today. Yet, for women across East Asia, to not be married by 30 is still often considered highly undesirable. Consequently, turning 30 can be especially stressful.

Director Kearen Pang’s 29+1 is a warm and genuine insight into the emotions that many women feel as they approach their third decade. Although 29+1 is Pang’s first movie, she is a veteran of Hong Kong’s theatre scene; in fact, 29+1 is an adaptation of Pang’s own one-woman show. As such, it’s clearly subject matter that she has had ample time to reflect upon and consider for adaptation.

And it’s a largely successful adaptation.

The story quickly evolves beyond the seemingly formulaic ‘career woman in the city’, and there is a mystery to the gradual revelations in Wong’s diary that keeps the pace moving along through the middle of the film.

The casting is excellent, no doubt because Pang had such a concrete image of who these characters are, having played them herself for many years. Chrissy Chau 周秀娜 as Christy and Joyce Cheng 鄭欣宜 as Wong Tin-Lok come from very different backgrounds. Chau rose to fame as a model, whereas Cheng has famously battled with her weight throughout her career. In 29+1, their characters are equally different different in appearance and initial impression, but through Wong’s diary slowly grow to know one another.

Where Pang’s direction and 29+1 occasionally stumble is when the adaptation tries to be too theatrical. We have not seen the stage show, but there are clips from the stage show in the credits which show numerous scenes from the film were direct translations. One of the most notable of these is where the ‘set’ opens up to reveal Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Although 29+1 has numerous surrealist elements, this transition feels jarring, occurring as it does near the film’s conclusion.

Nonetheless, 29+1 is a refreshing and understated addition to last year’s releases in a world where Hong Kong cinema is dominated by blockbuster co-productions and established megastars.

Old Beast 老獸 (2017)

Mainland

Director: Zhou Ziyang 周子陽

Studio: Dongchun 北京東春, Beijing Daqiao 北京大橋, Fangjin 方金, Having Me 有我, Beijing Huiren 北京惠人

Language: Mandarin 普通話, Mongolian 內蒙古方言

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 112 minutes

Recommended.


Lao Yang spends his days gambling, fooling around with his mistress, and, occasionally, looking after his paralysed wife. Having lost all his wealth investing in Inner Mongolia’s property boom, he now spends his days wondering the streets of Ordos.

Along with an old friend he goes for a night drinking and then to a massage parlour, ignoring his wife’s phone calls. The next day, he agrees to look after his friends camel for a few days — before selling it for some cash and a bag of meat.

While he’s away, the rest of his family struggle to get together 30,000 RMB to pay for surgery for his wife, who is desperately ill haven fallen whilst Lao Yang was out.

Eventually, they get the money together, and Lao Yang makes his way to the hospital after spending the day with his mistress. To the rest of the family’s horror, the surgery money disappears from the hospital room; Lao Yang has taken it to buy a cow to repay his friend for selling the camel.

Furious the family decide that they cannot stand Lao Yang’s behaviour any longer and band together to force him to sign a contract. But Lao Yang is not willing to admit any fault, and the family’s already strained ties are about to be broken…


It’s always a pleasure to be able to review new talent, and this was a real treat. Produced by Sixth Generation luminary Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帥, there is plenty in here which recalls the style of filmmakers such as Wang, but newcomer Zhou Ziyang does puts his own mark on this film.

The first thing to say about Old Beast is its choice of location. Ordos in Inner Mongolia is known outside of China mostly for being the site of a notorious “ghost city”, and the failed property market is occasionally referenced as the cause of Lao Yang’s poverty. Empty skyscrapers make occasional backdrops; they are dark, imposing outlines against the flatness of the Mongolian landscape.

Zhou mostly sticks to the stark realism of most of his contemporaries, but, like Jia Zhangke before, occasionally throws in surreal moments. A bird trapped in a wall; a strange skittering ghostly figure; an emaciated horse. All serve to tell a small part of Lao Yang’s character, the old beast himself.

From the synopsis, I’m sure readers think he is a despicable character. And, in many ways, he is. He is flawed and seemingly selfish to the very core. When he refuses to negotiate with his son and son-in-law, condemning them to six months in prison, it comes as no surprise.

Yet throughout, there are moments that we as an audience can see why he is as he is. All his wealth taken by lies. A wife who cannot move. He sells his friend’s camel after promising to look after it … but only to buy him a cow which he can use to make a living. He steals his wife’s surgery money to buy his friend the cow … but his friend had lent him the money for his son’s bride price. He turns up unannounced at his daughter’s asking for money … but the money is for his wife’s surgery.

None of the above is an excuse for the action Lao Yang takes, and yet all of them help us to understand why he did it. That’s the wonder of the character that Zhou has constructed.

No good character can exist without a good actor to bring them to life. In Old Beast, Tu Men 涂們 gives a performance which truly portrays the pride and inability to express emotions that is inherent in men everywhere, but especially of a certain generation. In China, this is often compounded by concepts of filial piety, in which the older male generations must be completely respected but also completely in control. What happens when their pride and respect is taken away is at the heart of Old Beast.

Black Coal, Thin Ice 白日焰火 (2014)

Mainland

Director: Diao Yinan 刁亦男

Studio: Omnijoy 幸福藍海

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Crime / Thriller

Running Time: 106 minutes

Recommended.


In China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, the discovery of dismembered body parts in many local coal mines has police baffled. Detectives Zhang and Wang discover the remains are of a man named Liang  and deliver the unfortunate news to the dead man’s widow (surnamed Wu). In the course of investigating the case, Zhang is shot; unable to solve the case, injured, and his wife having left him, Zhang slides into a deep depression and leaves the police force.

Ten years later, Zhang has become an alcoholic, fixated on prior events. One day he runs into his old partner Wang and finds that there have been more murders that follow the same pattern as before; chopped up and discarded in coal. What’s more, the victims were killed with a pair of ice skates and dated the previous victim’s widow, Wu.

Obsessed with finding answers, Zhang begins following Wu, and in turn Wang begins following them. That is until one night, where Wang himself is slain by a man wielding skates…


Cold. If there’s one word that will stick with you after watching Black Coal, Thin Ice, it’s cold.  This is a film which can make you feel the desolateness of winter no matter how warm an environment you are in. Aside from the opening fifteen minutes outlining the background to the story, director Diao Yinan plunges the viewers into an icy, harsh environment. Characters slide, skate, and trudge through the harsh winter of China’s Heilongjiang province, surrounded by overcast skies and shadows cast by the swampy light of a street lamp or the fluorescence of neon signs. The audience are forcibly pulled into the depression which Zhang feels by Diao’s brief flirtation with the summer months at the start of the film and the reality of the winter that follows.

It’s atmosphere, more than anything else, which defines Diao’s film. The story certainly has intrigue, but it’s also somewhat abstract. Despite three viewings, we still had some points that were only fully understood upon reading others critiques. Although this will certainly please people who like to pick apart a film, for those who like to watch and then move on it’s likely to baffle as much as anything.

This is compounded by uneven performances from the two leads. While Liao Fan 廖凡 gives a fantastic performance as Zhang, Gwei Lun-mei 桂綸鎂 is dissapointing as Wu. It’s far to say she is not given much dialogue to work with, but in (justifiably) choosing to build mystery around the character, she strays too far into blank-faced nothingness which removes the emotional weight as her story develops.

But, really, it all comes back to the atmosphere. As many critics have said about Black Coal, Thin Ice, it is truly a neo-noir film.  The aesthetic, mystery, and abstract notions of good and evil are as perfect a representation of the genre as you’re likely to find in modern cinema.

If you like cinema that builds a perfect atmosphere through the visual medium, Black Coal, Thin Ice does not disappoint. Beyond that, it’s a less consistent, but still eminently watchable thriller.