Detective Chinatown 2 唐人街探案2 (2018)


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)


Director: Vivian Qu 文晏

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 107 minutes


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


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)


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


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)


Director: Diao Yinan 刁亦男

Studio: Omnijoy 幸福藍海

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Crime / Thriller

Running Time: 106 minutes


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)


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


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’s still might be something to learn amongst the wreckage.

The Great Buddha+ 大佛普拉斯 (2017)


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


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.

Turn Around 老師,你會不會回來?(2017)


Director: Chen Dapu  陳大璞

Studio: Fengshang International 風尚國際

Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語

Genre: True Story

Running Time: 108 minutes


In Taiwan’s rural Nantou County, a trainee teacher, Wang Zhengzhong 王政忠, is placed at a remote school for evaluation. Despite being a Nantou native, Wang nonetheless finds the poor facilities and unruly students difficult to deal with. Unable to secure a transfer elsewhere, Wang tries many different teaching methods in order to improve his teacher evaluation, including forming a Chinese orchestra. Gradually, he wins over his students, but also draws the ire of his colleague, Xiao Lun 小倫, who chides him for having selfish motives.

Time passes, and Wang leaves the school to undergo compulsory military service on the island of Kinmen. On September 21st, 1999, a devastating earthquake strikes Nantou County, claiming thousands of lives and leaving many more homeless. Wang is released from his service in order to check on his family, but also takes the opportunity to visit his old workplace. What he finds are chaotic ruins. The town and school completely destroyed, students and teachers living in makeshift camps — some gone forever.

Among these ruins, a student tearfully asks Wang, “Teacher, will you come back?”

Faced with the desperate faces of those around him, Wang determines that he must stay and help. But, amongst the rubble and broken families, can he do anything to rebuild what was lost?

Based on the book of the same title Turn Around is a film that knows what it’s trying to be. It would have been easy for the film to drift into trying to be a disaster film, rather than focusing on the relationship between Wang and his students. A massive earthquake such as that show in the film can tempt to show hundreds of buildings collapsing and lengthy rescue efforts, but instead director Chen chooses to keep such scenes short (although perhaps due to budgetary constraints). This gives the audience more time to appreciate the nuances of the teacher-student relationship; something that naturally builds up over a long period of time.

It’s this which helps carry the film for someone, such as myself, who did not live through the experience of the 921 earthquake, and who also did not go through the Taiwanese school system — two factors that will certainly help the film to connect with domestic audiences.

The two leads, Jay Shih 是元介 as Wang and Hsia Yu-chiao 夏于喬 as Xiao Lun, give steady performances, but its the array of characters that make up the students which keep the film entertaining with their fun-albeit-typical school antics.

The tragic aftermath of the earthquake strikes the correct tone, never overplaying its hand but remaining moving enough to bring tears to our eyes on more than one occasion.

Although it’s hard to think of any one thing that Turn Around does spectacularly well, it’s equally a film that does the things it needs to do at a good level. For those who grew up in Taiwan during the time, it’s probably going to be a better experience. But, its story of rebuilding from tragedy and the way a teacher can lift their pupils beyond what they thought possible, are global.

Pigeon Tango 盜命師 (2017)


Director: Li Qiyuan 李啟源

Studio: Chi & Company

Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語

Genre: Thriller

Running Time: 107 minutes

Recommended. Good performances and interesting characters are always a solid combination.

In Southern Taiwan, Barbie 金芭比 eeks out an existence pole dancing on Taiwan’s infamous electric flower cars. Her abusive, drunkard boyfriend races pigeons, until one day his prize pigeon Tango goes missing. Enraged that he’ll be unable to pay his debts, he dies in a fatal car accident while Barbie is working.

At the scene of the crash, Barbie is approached by a mysterious man, who offers to buy her deceased boyfriend’s organs. Faced with being hounded by the loan sharks her boyfriend borrowed from, she reluctantly agrees. This is how she meets the quiet Malacca, who performs the operation.

Elsewhere, local gang leader Ronin  肉仁 hopes for a kidney donor for his ailing sister. But her blood type is rare, and the only match found — an autistic girl in his church — is not a relative and so cannot undergo a live transplant according to Taiwanese law.

Then he’s approached by veteran detective Yang Kaiming 陽開明, who has been searching for Malacca for many years. He has a plan to catch him, but who are they willing to sacrifice to get what they want?

We have to admit, when we saw the poster we weren’t optimistic about this film. We had in mind some low-budget horror tropes, but Pigeon Tango does a very good job of confounding those expectations. Indeed, despite the ominous look of the poster, the gore shown in the trailer below is the sum total in the film. The organ selling is but one part of the story, and arguably not even the main one. Thus we have a film who’s Chinese title 盜命師, Life Robber, is far removed from its English title Pigeon Tango, which refers very literally to the pigeon Barbie inherits from her deceased boyfriend.

Using animals as plot devices and metaphors is not unfamiliar territory for director Li, whose previous film, 2011’s Blowfish 河豚, used the titular fish in much the same way. In this case, Barbie’s pigeon is the link between her and Ronin, who happens to run the local pigeon racing club. We thought it worked well enough as a thread to link their stories together. One scene — where Malacca ends up feeding the boyfriend’s ashen remains to the pigeon by mistake — drew plenty of laughter, and was a very good example of the way the director used comedy sparingly to break up the long segments of tension building. It’s likely Li had a deeper meaning behind his decision to use pigeons in this film, but we’re not entirely clear what that might have been.

Despite the pigeon being effective in tying Barbie and Ronin’s stories together, overall the film still suffers from a narrative that is a little too large for its run time. There are a lot of interesting stories presented to us: Barbie, Ronin, Malacca, Detective Yang and Miu 貓丫are all characters that we were interested to know more about. Unfortunately, we are mostly just left guessing at details and motivations. At one point near the end, a rather large explanatory monologue is given by Yang, presumably as the director felt that the story was not clear enough. Whilst we had guessed at most of what was revealed from previous scenes, the fact it was needed at all is not a positive.

With that said, to craft a film with many interesting characters is something to be respected, even if they ultimately fall short of what they could be. This is aided by universally strong performances from the cast, with special mention to Hsiang Hsi 喜翔 as Ronin and Annie Chen 陳庭妮 as Barbie.

This is Li’s best work to date, and another good film to add to what is a growing list of quality releases coming from Taiwan in 2017.