3/5. A confident return to the world of Chinese cinema for Bai Ling.
Following the death of an artist in suspicious circumstances, police soon find themselves a suspect: a woman that posed for a painting of his, Bai Wei (Bai Ling 白靈). Having fallen for a local artist turned barkeeper, Tu La (Zhaoyan Guozhang 趙燕國彰), she enters into an agreement with a wealthy art collector Lu Li (Tao Hong 陶紅). Lu will help her escape; in return, she will help Lu secure the painting she wants Tu to paint for her. However, they are both unaware of Lu’s unusual taste in art…
It is hard to believe that we are approaching 40 years since Bai Ling made her debut in China in 1984. For the last 20 of those, she has been largely absent, having fallen out with the authorities in China in the 1990s following her appearance in Red Corner, which was critical of human rights abuses in China (and also sucks, unfortunately). Since then, she has made a career in Hollywood, be that on film or on TMZ. The Fatal Contract sees her first return to a mainland Chinese production since then, although she has been involved in Hong Kong cinema since the mid-2000s.
The Fatal Contract is an assured return, with director Tan Bing keeping the story moving at pace. The setting is a generic wintery North China, but it’s perfect for this kind of noire-inspired crime drama, as seen in the fantastic Black Coal, Thin Ice. It’s a style which I feel Chinese film makers are becomingly increasingly confident in, and whilst The Fatal Contract is not the best example I’ve seen, it is eminently watchable, especially towards the end as the various plot strands start to come together.
The opening 20 minutes can be disorientating, as events are not linear. However, almost every scene contributes towards the well-executed finale, which is a sign of intelligent writing.Unfortunately, none of the characters are anything deeper than an idea: Bai Ling is a standard mysterious-but-damaged beautiful woman; Tu La is a tortured artist with a tragic past; and Lu Li is a wealthy-and-devious divorcee.
Thankfully these shortcomings are forgivable because the actors work well within the confines of their roles. Although you may not bring yourself to really believe in any of the characters, you’ll still find yourself engaged in their world.
I am not one to normally comment on actor’s looks beyond its cinematic worth, but I feel compelled to do so briefly today. How Bai Ling looks as good as she does at the age of 51 is really quite something. I defy anyone to guess anywhere close to her age from her appearance in The Fatal Contract. It would be nice if she could share her secrets with the rest of us. Failing that, I hope that this proves to be the beginning of more roles in Chinese productions in the next few years.
Overall, The Fatal Contract gets enough things right to be worthy of a recommend. At 90 minutes, proceedings never drag out, and the story has enough twists and revelations that even the best detectives won’t have everything sussed until late on.
Note: I am currently unsure of the Chinese name of this film because the distributor has not provided it to me. I will update after receiving confirmation.
4/5. A raw, direct shot at the state of modern Hong Kong.
Five short stories examine how Hong Kong might look in the year 2025.
Extras 浮瓜—Two low-level gangsters are hired to carry out an assassination by shadowy officials intent on providing a pretext for passing Hong Kong’s National Security Law.
Season of the End 冬蟬—As the city around them is torn down, one man and one woman set about the task of painstaking preservation. Collecting samples of all things organic, the man decides that he must be preserved as well. Thus, they begin the slow process of preparing his body for taxidermy.
Dialect 方言—A taxi driver struggles to adapt as Hong Kong moves to a Mandarin-based society. Having failed a Mandarin proficiency exam, he is forced to drive with a sign in his taxi highlighting his inability to speak putonghua. Meanwhile, he finds himself struggling to communicate with his own son.
Self-Immolator 自焚者—Outside the British Consulate-General, a protester burns. Hong Kong society reels from the first arrest for sedition under the National Security Law, a young activist named Au-yeung Kin-fun (Ng Siu Hun 吳肇軒). Au-yeung dies from hunger strike, having pleaded ardently for the British Government to intervene at the UN to reclassify Hong Kong as a colonial territory with a right to self-determination. As more people take to the streets, the SAR government requests for help from the People’s Liberation Army.
Local Egg 本地蛋—A shop keeper discovers he will no longer be able to buy eggs from his local chicken farm, which is being forced to close as the farming industry moves entirely to the mainland. Back at his shop, he’s confronted by a group of “Youth Guards”, resembling the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. They tell him they’ll have to make a report because his “local” eggs are against regulations; the word “local” has been banned.
Manythousands of words have been written about Ten Years. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the definitive Hong Kong production of the last half decade, with its five shorts focused on life in 2025 Hong Kong (2015 + 10, for those struggling). Ten Years was watched by millions in Hong Kong, but never received a release in mainland China. For those yet to see it, that may serve as a hint for the kind of film Ten Years is.
Although Ten Years is not a feature length movie, the atmosphere throughout is one of consistent unease. As with many things in Hong Kong today, that unease often stems from politics. Indeed, with the notable exception of the arthouse dystopia of Season of the End, every film is explicitly political. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the climate in Hong Kong and specifically the feelings among the younger generation these five directors belong to.
The explicitly political nature of the collection is undoubtedly why it has drawn so much attention, but it is also a stick which has been used to beat it by Beijing and pro-establishment forces. Accusations of sensationalism and scaremongering were quick to emerge, and the film was pulled from its theatrical run in Hong Kong while still playing to packed audiences. In fairness, it is not impossible to understand this perspective. Anyone who has been to Hong Kong would say that use of the word “local” is not banned, taxi drivers still do not have good Mandarin, and the PLA has not been on the streets suppressing riots. Moreover, public discontent has been limited since the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
However, the failure to achieve concessions in 2014 does not mean the emotions that took so many to the streets that day have disappeared. Instead, Ten Years reveals the deep-seated concern that remains among millions of Hong Kongers.
Yes, Self-Immolator is so direct in its criticism of Hong Kong’s situation that it is almost an advocacy film for Hong Kong independence. But I would argue its biggest mistake is simply trying to do too much in its 25 minutes: flipping from documentary to voice over to flashback; it struggles to remain focused. That said, many will find it the most gripping of the five presentations precisely because of its clear and unambiguous message.
In general though, Ten Years is wonderfully curated, with each film pacing itself just right for the total run time and hitting the right emotional notes to follow on from its predecessor. Often, the most mundane moments are when Ten Years truly hits its mark. The taxi driver who struggles to learn new names for roads he knows like the back of his hand; the farmer forced to move to make a living.
The quality of Ten Years is all the more remarkable given its shoestring budget (HK$6 million) and the relative inexperience of those involved (although there are numerous exceptions, watch out for long-time Jia Zhangke collaborator and Chinese independent film legend Wang Hongwei 王宏偉). Ultimately, this proves little impediment to the quality of cinema, and Ten Years deservedly walked away with the title of Best Film at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Awards (although others were less happy with the decision).
In addition to its success on screen, the impact of Ten Years must be considered in context. Whilst films like Ten Years will continue to be restricted in mainland China for the considerable future, it sets a model for the form local cinema in Hong Kong is likely to take. Of course, Hong Kong’s movie industry is still dominated by big budget co-productions with mainland studios. There is certainly a place for these films and many of Hong Kong’s best filmmakers work within this system. But truly localised tales such as those in Ten Years have shown that there is money to be made in telling stories the big studios won’t touch. Moreover, moviegoers are willing to forgo a big budget blockbuster for a film that tells their own story.
The question is, will anyone be willing to take that risk? Money does talk, yet the money available in Hong Kong is nothing compared to mainland China; many of the directors who worked on Ten Years have struggled to find work since its release. Instead, Ten Years has expanded out. There are currently versions using the same premise in production in Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand. The Taiwan version is of particular interest given the many cultural links and shared fears between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Of course, time will tell if the dystopian future in Ten Years ever comes to pass. Hong Kong is far from becoming a basket case, and still enjoys many freedoms that are (literally) the envy of mainland Chinese. Still, three years nearer to 2025, it seems likely that at least one thing will be true by next year. The national security law has once again been discussed following the 19th National Congress. A lot can change in 10 years.
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.
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.
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 blockbusters, Detective 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.
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.
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.
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
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…
Lao Yang riding the streets.
Looking over failed chances.
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.
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…
Daylight fireworks, the Chinese name of the film and a nightclub central to the story.
A great shot displaying the Noir aesthetic used throughout.
Zhang and Wu
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.
Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語, Cantonese 粵語, Japanese 日語
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?
Marco and Pianpian dance as Tang Zhen looks on.
World’s apart – The Tang family.
Mrs Tang with the legislator’s wife and Mrs Lin
The Tang 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.
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.