Soul Mate 七月與安生 (2016)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Derek Tsang 曾國祥

Language: Mandarin

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 110 minutes

3/5.  A poorly conceived ending cannot ruin the heart of this tale of love and friendship.


Ever since they met at school, Li Ansheng 李安生 (Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨) and Lin Qiyue 林七月 (Ma Sichun 馬思純) have been best friends. Despite going to different high schools and having very different family lives, nothing has been able to break their bond. Then Qiyue tells Ansheng about the boy she likes, the handsome lacrosse captain Su Jiaming 蘇家明 (Li Chengbin 李程彬). Although Qiyue gets her man, both Ansheng and Jiaming seem drawn together. After almost sharing a kiss after a day out, Ansheng realises that it’s time for her and Qiyue to part. As she travels with her rock-star boyfriend, she continues to exchange letters with Qiyue. At the end of each she writes “Give my regards to Jiaming”…


Soul Mate is one of the latest in a growing number of films worldwide adapted from so-called web fiction (often called “internet literature” in the Chinese context), which includes among its number Fifty Shades of Grey.

Such literature is increasingly influential and widely read. This is particularly true in China, where the stigma attached to the genre is less pronounced than in many Western countries, and reading from a smartphone is commonplace. Soul Mate is adapted from the short story “Qiyue and Ansheng 七月與安生” (also the Chinese name of the movie) written by Annie Baby 安妮寶貝 (this is, unsurprisingly, a pen name!).

As with many examples of web fiction, “Qiyue and Ansheng” is available for free online, which of course is one of the reasons for its popularity.

For this who would like to read it, it’s available here. It is relatively easy reading for non-native speakers such as myself and certainly worth the read.

Director Derek Tsang does a fair job of translating the source material to the big screen. However, unlike a standard book-to-screen adaptation, in which the inevitable question is what to leave out, the writers of Soul Mate have had to work to fill in the gaps of its source material.  This brings its own challenges. Much of the strength of a short story lies in its focused nature; enough to evoke a feeling, a memory, but without the need to construct a world and all of its consistencies. Moreover, stand-alone short stories tend to rely heavily on a reader’s own imagination and interpretation, an element which is inevitably stripped away on film.

Soul Mate succeeds in the most critical elements of translating from page to screen—its atmosphere and emotion—but falls down with some of the bolder changes. Specifically, the entire ending is radically changed in a manner which  changes the perspective of the characters. Ansheng and Qiyue have their fates essentially reversed, but as their characters otherwise develop in line with the original story, the intention of the author seems to have been hastily discarded. Worse still, the closing half hour is a mess. This includes a particularly poor twist consisting of a false flashback in which Qiyue abandons her child to walk around the world “living free”. Whilst the idea that she wanted to live “free” like Ansheng was clear, the actual execution was so ridiculous given her character that it was no surprise when it was revealed as a lie.

Thankfully for viewers, the first three-quarters of Soul Mate are much more effective than its last. The love triangle is thoroughly convincing  in its understated, mostly unseen nature. But Soul Mate is truly driven by the performances of its two leading ladies, who achieved the unheard of feat of jointly winning Best Actress at the 2016 Golden Horse Awards. Such is fitting for a story that is ultimately about two friends Qiyue and Ansheng.

It is unfortunate that Soul Mate cannot maintain its momentum throughout, but as a whole it is still well worth the time spent.

Summer Palace 頤和園 (2006)

Mainland

Director: Lou Ye 婁燁

Language: Mandarin, German, Korean

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 140 minutes

4/5. Youth, sex, love and loss for the students of 1989.


Yu Hong 餘紅 (Hao Lei 郝蕾) departs the small northeastern city of Tumen to go to university in Beijing. The year is 1987 and Beijing is enjoying the fruits of China’s reform and opening. For its students, life progresses much as in campuses around the world; dormitories, classes, dances and sex. Introduced to Zhou Wei 周偉 (Guo Xiaodong 郭曉東) by her friend Li Ti 李緹 (Hu Ling 胡伶), the two quickly begin a passionate affair. The pair struggle with love and jealously, while around them the students of Beijing begin to gather in Tiananmen Square. Then everything changes. The date is June 4th, 1989.


I have returned to Summer Palace numerous times since I became interested in Chinese cinema. It has two primary attractions to Western audiences: it is “banned in China” and it is set during the democracy movement in 1989, most famous of course for the June 4th crackdown in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That lends Summer Palace a certain exoticism, and that was certainly the case for me as a teenager. However, director Lou Ye has no interest in pandering to what an average Western audience would want from such a film. That leads many viewers to find Summer Palace unsatisfactory, as if it is avoiding the point of the story.

I felt the same ten years ago. Tiananmen as an event takes up less than 15 minutes. There is no direct footage of violence or even discussion. It is all implied, and afterwards there is over an hour of film remaining. So, a wasted opportunity?

Over the years, I have come to love it. Its star, Hao Lei, is one of my favourite actresses—for a quick glimpse, you can watch the wonderful short by Jia Zhangke 賈樟柯 called Cry Me A River 河上的愛情. Her performance as Yu Hong is exceptional.

But the true beauty of Summer Palace lies in that hour after the events in Tiananmen. This is not a story to directly address what happened that day. For a mainland Chinese director to do that would be extremely difficult and the film would never receive a domestic release.

Instead, Summer Palace operates more like the scar films of the 1980s which addressed the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Although those films were able to directly depict events, they did not focus on large-scale narratives, instead focusing on individual stories and situations. At its heart,  Summer Palace is a story about a few people and their attempts to carry on after 1989. Their stories are not just influenced by the events of that year, but throughout it’s clear that something has left them forever after Tiananmen. It’s just no one, not even Lou really knows what that thing is.

Lou himself was studying in Beijing at the time of the democracy protests. Chinese of that generation have had to come to terms with the reality of what they face; Tiananmen as we know it never happened in China. Some students who took part in the protests left China, but the vast majority stayed and had to make a life for themselves. In the almost 30 years since, China has changed beyond recognition in many areas, and many will have seen their lives improve. One constant, however, remains the Communist Party. The official narrative of Tiananmen as a few counter revolutionaries has not changed, and any discussion of the subject is taboo.

Lou has given a fascinating interview describing his motivations when making Summer Palace. Specifically, he felt that Tiananmen had been like a kind of love affair, with many highs and lows and passion on both sides. This may be a surprise to those unfamiliar with events, but the protests took place over a number of months with moments where it seemed there would be a different ending before the ultimately tragic result. This feeling is reflected in Summer Palace by the prevalence of brief but passionate romantic encounters.

However, another conclusion Lou reaches gave me pause for thought. He states that ultimately, he believes the end result of Tiananmen has been positive. That both sides learnt from one another and that had helped them both despite the initial tragedy. When Summer Palace was first screened, in 2006, China was—to quote Kaiser Kuo (tongue firmly in cheek) in a recent podcast—in the ‘golden age of Chinese liberalism’. Joking aside, the early 2000s were certainly a time of increased personal freedom for many Chinese. But over the past five years, that space for civil society that began to emerge after Tiananmen appears to have faded. I wonder if Lou would still feel both sides learnt from one another.

Summer Palace never did get released in China. In fact, it has been erased from Douban (China’s IMDB) entirely. It may be a long time before it returns.

 

note—The name Summer Palace is from the imperial gardens in Beijing, which remain a popular tourist attraction, rather than the destroyed Old Summer Palace.

Detective Chinatown 2 唐人街探案2 (2018)

Mainland

Director: Chen Sicheng 陳思誠

Language: Mandarin 普通話, English

Genre: Comedy/Mystery

Running Time: 120 minutes

3/5. A fun but confused sequel compared with 2015’s original entry, nonetheless sure to entertain plenty of people over the Chinese New Year holiday.


Qin Feng (Liu Haoran 劉昊然) once again finds himself caught up in a mystery with his over-the-top distant relative and sometime detective Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang 王寶強). This time they’re in New York, following a cash prize incentive to locate the missing grandson of the godfather of Chinatown.

However, they have competition from the world’s best private detectives and  they are being overseen by one of NYPD’s finest: Officer Chen (Natasha Liu Bordizzo 劉承羽).

And when the missing persons case turns into a murder, the mystery starts to deepen…


One of the traditional Chinese New Year slate of blockbustersDetective Chinatown 2 is a sequel to the terrifically entertaining original. The odd couple of Qin Feng and Tang Ren worked perfectly in the 2015 movie, operating in the classic mode of the buddy duo — one quiet and earnest, and the other a buffoon.

So it’s no surprise that they have been reunited again for another round. The original ended with a teaser for a story set in New York, which is where Detective Chinatown 2 picks up.

If you have not seen the original, it’s likely that the opening moments will leave you in a daze, as the setup is rushed through at an incredible pace. There is a new gimmick in the form of a detective ranking called ‘crimaster’, which sees the pair in competition with other detectives to catch a murderer.

Like its predecessor, Detective Chinatown 2 is full of fun action scenes — a chase scene through the streets of New York in a horse drawn cart is hilarious — and the relationship between the Qin and Tang is once again on point. For much of the film they are also joined by another returning character Song Yi (Xiao Yang 肖央), and the trio’s chemistry is the glue that holds the film together. Whilst Wang’s portrayal of Tang Ren is sometimes abrasive to the point of irritation (which appears to have sadly become the kind of role he’s best known for), there’s rarely an overdose of any one character.

Newcomer to the series is Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who gives a confident performance as Officer Chen. With her mixed heritage and perfect Mandarin, she is likely to have a very successful career as the worlds of Chinese cinema and Hollywood merge ever closer.

Unfortunately, Detective Chinatown 2 doesn’t quite match the heights of its predecessor. Whereas the original maintained a strong cast around the central characters, the sequel is a bit of a mess. There are a huge array of supporting characters that range between very good (Kiko, played by Shang Yuxian 尚語賢) and awful (Dr. Springfield, played by Michael Pitt). Likewise a few too many jokes fall flat this time around.

Some Western audiences may struggle to adjust to the liberal abuse of American stereotypes; however, such stereotyping of foreign cultures is prevalent throughout Western comedies of the same type. It’s the nature of the genre for good or ill, but viewers should certainly be prepared going in.

Luckily, Detective Chinatown 2 still delivers on action and has plenty of laughs to make up for its missteps. The central mystery is clever, and when the film focuses on this and the central characters it remains great fun that is sure to bring in crowds looking to celebrate the Year of the Dog.

UK readers can catch Detective Chinatown 2 in select cinemas this Friday in a synchronised global release.

Angels Wear White 嘉年華 (2017)

Mainland

Director: Vivian Qu 文晏

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 107 minutes

Recommended


Mi works at a small coastal hotel. She does everything she’s told; as an illegal resident (a 黑戶, someone without a household registration), she has little choice but to do as her boss says. One evening, a man arrives with two young girls and they check into two rooms. Mi watches the doors to their rooms, waiting. Eventually, the man knocks on the girl’s door, and forces his way inside. Mi records the events on her phone.

Xiao Wen and Xinxin go to school the next day. They’re late, and feeling sick, but say nothing of the night before to their teacher. It’s only when they get home that Xinxin reveals what happened to her mother. The man was her godfather and one of her father’s superiors.

However, the evidence is their word against his. The police search the hotel, but the room has been cleaned and the CCTV recorded over. Now only Mi can prove what happened, but without a legal identity she dare not speak out. And evidence alone may not be enough…


Cinema has the ability to leave us feeling the full range of emotions. Art is so powerful precisely because of its ability to so aptly reflect the human spirit. It is still rare, however, to feel truly uncomfortable in a theatre.

Yet child abuse remains one of the few subjects that is sure to leave any viewer feeling deeply uneasy, which is no surprise given the unambiguous violation of innocence which it entails.

Angels Wear White plays on that imagery throughout. The two young girls, Xiao Wen (Zhou Meijun 周美君) and Xinxin (Zhang Xinyue 張欣悅), do typical things that girls entering adolescence do, they excitedly dress up, play with their phones, and drink (one) beer; however, director Vivian Qu makes sure to remind us of just how young they truly are. In one memorable scene, the two girls wonder down a giant tube in a fairground and slide around. Against the giant backdrop they are tiny; toddlers playing in a park.

Qu won Best Director at the 2017 Golden Horse Awards for Angels Wear White, a justified reward for one of China’s best up-and-coming filmmakers (she also worked on Black Coal, Thin Ice).  Having a female director does not guarantee a nuanced understanding of such subjects, but there are moments that seem to speak straight to the female experience.

At one point as Xiao Wen and Xinxin are examined by doctors to determine whether sexual assault has taken place, we see a procession of doctors come and examine their privates. That moment, as these young girls are made to lie in a strange room, utterly vulnerable, as strangers judge whether they have or have not been raped, truly underlines the absurdity of how crimes such as sexual assault are often judged. To girls so young, the experience seems almost akin to a second assault.

Sexual crimes are, of course, sadly prevalent worldwide. But it is interesting that last year produced two films focusing on the rape of young girls in China, both from female directors (the other being The Foolish Bird). Following a number of high profile cases, the subject is certainly on the agenda in China. Although it would be wrong to draw conclusions on its prevalence from a few films, it seems that there at least artists and others now willing to speak out.

As Angels Wear White shows, however, speaking out and finding justice are far from the same. The girls’ rapist is a man in a position of power who ultimately never faces trial. His ability to operate above the law stands in stark contrast to the situation faced by Mi (Wen Qi 文淇), who operates below the law. With no legal identity, she earns 600RMB (USD90) per month.

At first, Mi is difficult to like, as she obstructs the police and withholds evidence. However, slowly it’s revealed how she fears being found out and longs for an identity of her own. Wen Qi gives a fantastic performance that reaffirms her status as the best young actress in Chinese-language cinema at the moment.

This is modern Chinese cinema at its most impactful and relevant.

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.

The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful 血觀音 (2017)

Taiwan

Director: Gilles Yang 楊雅喆

Studio: CMC 中環,  Atom 原子, Kaohsiung People* 高雄人, CS Productions 喆雪

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語, Cantonese 粵語, Japanese 日語

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 112 minutes

Recommended.


The Tang family appear to be  a perfect trio. Mrs Tang 棠夫人, Tang Ning 棠寧 and Tang Zhen 棠真 attend parties in faultless matching outfits and mingle with high society.

The three of them seemingly work as a team to advance the family interests: Mrs Tang, the matriarch; Tang Ning, the seductress; and Tang Zhen, the innocent angel.

Together they have positioned the family amongst legislators and bank managers, at the very top of Taiwanese society.

But, in private, the family is breaking apart.

Tang Ning cannot sleep at night. Drugs, men, alcohol — nothing seems to satiate her.

Tang Zhen is an obedient and filial daughter — and yet she spies on her best friend and sister, and sings to herself about her loneliness.

And Mrs Tang has her own plans.

One day, Tang Zhen’s best friend Lin Pianpian 林翩翩 is almost killed when the rest of her family are brutally massacred.

The police suspect Pianpian’s boyfriend, stable boy Marco 王金山, who was seen running away from the house that evening.

But why is Tang Zhen harbouring him? And what kind of dealings did the Tang’s have with the Lin family?


The undeniable success story of this year’s Golden Horse Awards, The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful is a film that thrills on many levels.  Writing the plot summary was a challenge, because we did not want to give away any of the multiple twists.

Although less overtly based on Taiwan’s history than director Gilles Yang’s last film, 2012’s GF*BF 女朋友。男朋友, it nonetheless maintains that film’s social commentary and world building through its references to real events.

Where GF*BF is very much a film about the end of martial law and democratisation, The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful is about what came next in the 1990s. Much of the drama revolves around the illegal sale of land, a topic that was (and occasionally remains) extremely controversial. The story of a whole family being murdered by an aboriginal (like Marco) who had their ID card taken away is famous in Taiwan. Then there’s the political corruption (another 1990s topic) and gangsters.

It might sound surprising that all of this can fit into a film without being obtrusive.

That it does is a testament to the filmmakers, and actors. We will start with the actors, specifically the 3 leads: Kara Wai 惠英紅 as Mrs Tang, Vicky Chen 文淇 as Tang Zhen and Wu Kexi 吳可熙 as Tang Ning. The former two won the Best Actress prizes at the Golden Horse Festival, but in our eyes all three put forth absolutely wonderful performances. If nothing else, we would recommend The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful on the basis of their performances alone.

However, there is plenty else to admire. The atmosphere that Yang creates is aided by some excellent set and costume design. When attempting to evoke a certain time and place, small details such as these are crucial. The manner in which the narrative unfolds is also incredibly clever. This is a film that rewards careful viewers, and although it more than holds up under a single viewing, it is a film that we found even better the second time around.

The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful rounds out what has been a very strong year for Taiwanese movies. It is this reviewer’s film of the year, and with only a few weeks left of 2017, is likely to stay that way.

If you get the chance to see it, take it.

*we were unable to find an official English name for 高雄人. If the company has an official name, please let us know and we will use it.

The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (2017)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  劉偉強

Studio: China Film Group 中國電影集團, Bona Film Group 保利博納, August First 八一 et al.

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: War/History

Running Time: 133 minutes

Not Recommended.


Shanghai, 1926. The First United Front between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) comes to a crushing end. With the aid of Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 orders many of the leaders of the CPC to be killed or arrested, solidifying his position as China’s most powerful leader, and weakening rival factions within the KMT.

However, Chiang’s purge did not include all of the CPC’s leaders, and has angered many within his own party.

Inspired by the words of a little known representative from Hunan, Mao Zedong 毛澤東, several recent KMT defectors and CPC veterans unite under the charismatic leadership of Shanghai survivor Zhou Enlai 周恩來 and veteran Zhu De 朱德 to stage an uprising in Nanchang.

But the the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek are not going to let them go without a fight….


We were not eager to watch The Founding of an Army. The couple of friends who had watched it in Chinese cinemas had given less than stellar reviews; something that is backed up by critic reviews you will find online. And, they were right. This is a bad movie. However, it does make for an interesting discussion piece on Chinese cinema, and particularly state-led projects.

The third and final part of the trilogy of The Founding of films (alongside 2009’s The Founding of a Republic and 2011’s The Founding of a Party), this year’s effort brings a conclusion to this cinematic celebration of the foundations of modern China: the state, the party and, finally, the army.

This reviewer was living in China for the release of the first instalment, and can recall it creating a fair amount of buzz (and not just in government-led media). It had an all-star cast, a literal who’s who of Chinese cinema, even if stars such as Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi only had the briefest of cameos. The film itself was forgettable and unsurprisingly hardly an accurate retelling of events; however, it spoke to the wealth of talent available when the best from throughout the Chinese-speaking world came together.

Fast forward two instalments and it’s fair to say the hype has died down. The Founding of an Army is bereft of the star power the first two instalments had, instead mixing a few old faces with a number of up-and-coming idols.  While I can understand the logic behind such a decision, trying to lure in the younger crowd who make up the majority of cinema goers, it’s fair to say it did not have the desired effect.

Audience reaction to the film was so bad, that comments on China’s main film website (think IMDB), Douban, were shut down. That’s for those who actually went to see the film, which, despite only competing with other domestic films performed abysmally at the box office, losing out to the patriotic action of Wolf Warrior 2. It even had official complaints made against it by relatives of the revolutionary heroes it aims to depict, who took umbrage at the use of pretty boy idols and total disregard of facts.

To be fair to The Founding of an Army, it’s hardly unusual for cinema to do away with facts in the name of a good story. Unfortunately it never really seems to find one.

We here at The Chinese Cinema Blog obviously have a great interest in China’s history, it’s politics etc. But even for us, the whirlwind of characters that are introduced is disorientating. From Zhou Enlai, to Mao, to Chiang, to He Long, back to Zhou, to Zhu De, this film jumps around constantly and without mercy, but in doing so it takes many compelling stories and makes each one utterly limp. This leaves little room for actors or director to work with, resulting in cut and paste stereotypes of everyone involved. Even the action scenes, presumably the strength of a war film, suffer from a lack of focus.

As such, we cannot recommend this film to anyone who wants to be entertained, or to watch a good piece of cinema.

All is not lost, however. If you are interested in how the CPC wants to project its own history, and in turn, China’s history, The Founding of an Army is an interesting study. The events upon which it is based were mostly a series of ever worsening defeats for the party’s fledgling armed forces, but watching this film gives you an idea of how such events have been transformed into a victory in the national narrative. So, despite its seeming lack of cinematic value, there still might be something to learn amongst the wreckage.

The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯 (2017)

Taiwan

Director: Huang Hsin-yao 黃信堯

Studio: Mandarin Vision 華文,Cream Production 甜蜜生活

Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語

Genre: Dark Comedy

Running Time: 104 minutes

Recommended.


Kevin 黃啟文 is an artist. His work has made him a local celebrity. He spends his time with politicians, police chiefs…and beautiful women. When he’s not working on his latest commission, a giant (headless) statue of Buddha for an important festival, he’s driving the streets in his Mercedes Benz — usually with a beautiful younger woman.

Kevin’s gateman is Pickle 菜埔, a quiet man who lives where he works, and looks after his ailing mother. He and his friend Belly Button 肚財, a quiet man who collects rubbish to sell for recycling, often sit, eat, and drink tea whilst Kevin is out.

One day, when Belly Button comes round, he finds that Pickle’s TV set doesn’t work. Bored, he suggests looking at the dash-cam footage from Kevin’s Mercedes. They soon discover a window into Kevin’s private world, of young women and secret rendezvous.

The next morning, everyone arrives to see Kevin has worked through the night to affix the Buddha’s giant head. And the ornament on his Mercedes has been knocked out of place…


The Great Buddha+ is a film that we have been waiting to see ever since it swept the awards at this years Taipei Film Festival. From various articles about the film, we knew that it was a distinctly Taiwanese film; and, we can now confirm that is absolutely the case.

Overflowing with cultural references which will make the film much more fulfilling for those who are familiar with life on the island, especially its more rural, southern areas. Factional local politics (replete with dirty dealings), the lives of Taiwan’s numerous recyling collectors, and powerful religious organisations are all on display. In a particularly amusing scene, Belly and Pickle are taken by a friend to visit a temple to cleanse their souls of evil spirits. The god of this temple? Chiang Kai-shek (not someone that most Taiwanese would consider as the ideal man for the job, though there genuinely are a few such temples). Then there’s the device upon which the film builds its narrative, the dash-cam cameras.

Dash cams are not something that we would frequently see before moving to Asia. Something that was perhaps reserved for people with lots of money. However, in many Asian countries, they are an essential part of driving culture. This review is not the place to get into the intricacies of why that is, but suffice to say that it is completely unremarkable for someone to have a dash cam in Taiwan.

What the dash cam allows is for director Huang to use one of the most interesting narrative structures from a movie this year, and one that also plays a role in the films fairly unique aesthetic.

Via the dash-cam footage, we are intermittently brought into a world of full colour in Kevin’s car. Though often devoid of visible characters, we hear (and occasionally see) many of the plots most important developments through this window.

The Great Buddha+ is director Huang’s first full-length narrative feature (he previously made a short film, Buddha 大佛, from which this film was developed), but he has a rich background in documentary film making. This has transferred to his narrative films, in two ways. Firstly, in his choice to focus on many of the forgotten people that one can find in Taiwan. Belly Button represents the ubiquitous recycling collectors, who can be found in every neighbourhood collecting various items to sell on to recycling firms for small change. As he travels, he encounters many who society seems to have forgotten, including Pickle, who has for years lived in the same leaky hut where he works. Secondly, Huang chooses to place himself in the role of narrator for the story. A bold move in your first feature film, but because of Huang’s experience, he is very comfortable in the role.  It could easily be a disaster when seeking to maintain audience engagement, but Huang always manages to keep you engaged with his narrative style.

Anchored by solid performances around the board, and a story which will genuinely make you laugh, and cry, The Great Buddha+ is absolutely the must-see Taiwanese film of 2017.