Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
2018 has been a remarkably strong year for Chinese language cinema, in terms of films on the international festival and arthouse circuit, retrospectives across the United States, and commercial films exhibited at multiplexes in a handful of North American cities. New movies from Jia Zhangke (Ash Is Purest White, my favorite film of 2018, Chinese or otherwise), Bi Gan (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Wang Bing (Dead Souls), Hu Bo (An Elephant Sitting Still), Jiang Wen (Hidden Man) and Zhang Yimou (Shadow) electrified festival audiences around the globe, though none have as yet seen commercial release in North America (and at least a couple likely never will, though Dead Souls began its limited run with showings in New York just this week).
Rather than focus on these kinds of films, all of which have been covered elsewhere on the Notebook over the course of the year, this column has primarily been devoted to following those Chinese-language films that see small multiplex releases, as part of an on-going program primarily targeting the Chinese diaspora on the part of AMC and Regal Cinemas, by distributors like China Lion Films, Well Go USA and Cheng Cheng Films. Over the course of this year that has meant columns on Ding Sheng’s A Better Tomorrow 2018, Lunar Year films Operation Red Sea, Monster Hunt 2, Monkey King 3 and Detective Chinatown 2, Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, and Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter. Along the way I’ve mixed in coverage of contemporary festival films in Seattle and at the New York Asian Film Festival, revivals of classics like King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain and Jackie Chan’s Police Story, and retrospectives on the work of Sylvia Chang, Chang Cheh, and Lau Kar-leung, and Shaw Brothers horror films.
With this last column of 2018 (unless by some miracle we get to see Yuen Woo-ping’s Master Z: Ip Man Legacy concurrent with its Chinese release in a couple of weeks), I want to fill-in some of the gaps in the movie year, taking a look at some of the other notable films I wasn’t able to cover during their initial release for one reason or another: Han Yan’s Animal World, René Liu’s Us and Them, Herman Yau’s The Leakers, Bao Beier’s Fat Buddies and Rao Xiaozhi’s A Cool Fish. In this overview I’m not including anything that didn’t receive a multiplex release here in North America (for example Dying to Survive, the unexpected monster hit of the year on the Mainland), or films I covered at my own website (the time-travel rom-com How Long Will I Love U, Huang Bo’s The Island, John Woo’s Manhunt, Chin Ka-lok’s Golden Job, and Donnie Yen’s Big Brother).
Animal World is Han Yan’s follow-up to the 2015 hit Go Away, Mr. Tumor, a whimsical romantic comedy about a woman dying of cancer that was China’s submission to the Oscars that year (it didn’t get nominated, surprisingly enough). A sneakily good film, enlivened by some creative special effects, solid leading man work from Daniel Wu and a brightly charming lead performance by Bai Baihe, Mr. Tumor deserved more respect that its cutesy title inspired. Like that film, the hero of Animal World is prone to vibrant hallucinations, his imagination fancifully coming to life on screen in moments of emotional intensity. In Mr. Tumor, this largely meant expressions of love, heartbreak and despair, while in Animal World it takes the form of extremely violent, yet cartoonish fantasies, inspired by a TV cartoon the film's hero watched in childhood.
Li Yifeng plays Kaisi, a young man who, beset by debts (his mother has been in a coma for some years and the medical expenses are piling up) agrees to use his apartment as collateral for a friend’s get-rich quick scheme. When the friend absconds with the money, Kaisi becomes responsible for the debt, which he must pay back by partaking in some kind of monstrous game on a massive boat run by none other than Michael Douglas. After an initial half-hour dominated by Kaisi’s fantasies (in which he plays a kind of samurai clown fighting grotesque CGI aliens on a runaway subway train, and then in a spectacular car chase) and his mundane reality, we learn what the film is really about: math. As Douglas explains to Kaisi and the several dozen other debtors, they are to play a rock-paper-scissors game, the rules of which are vitally important to the movie but too complicated to be explained here. The next hour of the film follows Kaisi reasoning his way through the competition, helped by graphical embellishments that make his calculations relatively easy to follow. How much fun it is I suspect depends on your tolerance for complex psychological and mathematical problems, but the audacity of building up what promises to be a super-violent action movie only to loudly announce “it’s time for some game theory” should be enough to earn Han Yan everyone’s attention.
Playing a decidedly minor role as Kaisi’s afterthought of a girlfriend is Zhou Dongyu, who since her breakthrough performance in Derek Tsang’s 2016 film Soulmate has alternated between shining in leading roles (as in last year’s This is Not What I Expected) and being wasted in under-written supporting work (as in The Thousand Faces of Dunjia). She plays the lead in Us and Them, the directorial debut of Taiwanese singer and actress René Liu, a frequent star of Sylvia Chang movies (Siao Yu, Tonight Nobody Goes Home, 20 30 40). Zhou and Jing Boran (star of the Monster Hunt films) play a couple who run into each other on the trip home to Beijing for the New Year’s holiday in 2017. They flashback to ten years earlier, when they initially met on the train from Beijing to their hometown for New Year’s 2007. The bulk of the film follows the arc of their romance in the earlier time-frame, with intermittent leaps to the present to see where the characters are now in their separate lives. It’s an old fashioned romantic melodrama, where being young and poor but in love is preferable to a middle-aged life of material comfort and contentment. Antecedents range from Hollywood classics to Chinese films like Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story or Mabel Cheung’s An Autumn’s Tale, and Liu imbues the film with a musical kind of grace, complete with concert footage of her singing over the end credits that underscores the movie’s pop ballad emotionality.
Old-fashioned also describes Herman Yau’s thriller The Leakers, a conspiratorial procedural set amidst the medical/pharmaceutical industry that has been ripe terrain of late for aged Hong Kong auteurs (see also John Woo’s Manhunt, Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire, and Johnnie To’s Three). Given Yau’s political outspokenness, it’s no surprise that his film is the most explicitly anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist of the bunch, tracing the corrupt ties between a major drug maker and the governments with whom they operate. In this case, the company unleashes a variation it has created of the Zika virus, and then sells the cure to desperate sick people at enormous profit. Attempting to uncover the conspiracy are a mysterious group of whistle-blowers (the Leakers) and a pair of cops, one a strait-laced type from Malaysia (Julian Chung), the other a slob from Hong Kong (Francis Ng). While the odd couple pairing is cliché, Ng underplays it compared to, say Corey Yuen in Yes, Madam or Anthony Wong in Beast Cops, somewhat surprising given that Ng is one of Hong Kong’s most reliably weird actors. Instead, most of the arguments between Ng and Chung are over food, namely Ng’s constant consumption of it and Chung’s refusal to even try any of it. Those little character beats and a handful of solid suspense sequences and car chases are enough to make for a solid thriller, though The Leakers pales in comparison to the three films Yau made in 2017: the romance 77 Heartbreaks, the horror film The Sleep Curse and the similarly old school thriller Shock Wave.
A different kind of thriller is Bao Baier’s directorial debut Fat Buddies, a spy comedy that with a little more ingenuity and a lot more sincerity might have been something like a Farrelly Brothers movie, but instead is mostly a cheap and occasionally funny farce about guys in fat suits acting like action stars. Bao has one joke he repeatedly returns to, that of a large man getting himself stuck in a small space: a window, a car, an air duct, et cetera, and it’s never funny even once. The man is a down-on-his-luck secret agent (Zhang Wen, star of Stephen Chow’s Journey to to the West) who reluctantly enlists the help of a similarly overweight security guard (Bao Baier) in an attempt to foil a gang of drug dealers in Japan. Goofy slapstick ensues, some of which is lightly charming, most of which is not. But it does feature a song that rhymes “Japanglish” with “body language” and a supporting performance from the suddenly ubiquitous Yasuaki Kurata (eight credits in just the last two years, including Manhunt, The Empty Hands, Golden Job and The Brink) so it’s not a complete waste of time.
A much more interesting pair of bumbling protagonists can be found in A Cool Fish, the surprise hit of the fall in China, where it’s now grossed over $100 million (for comparison, Us and Them grossed over $200 million, Dying to Survive $450 million and Operation Red Sea $575 million). A small-scale network thriller set in a single neighborhood in a nondescript Chinese city (Qiaocheng, a district in the city of Bozhou, I believe). As the film opens, two men in motorcycle helmets rob a phone store at gunpoint. On the run from the cops, they hole up in the apartment of a paralyzed woman. Pugnaciously cursing them out at every opportunity, she eventually tries to convince them to kill her as an assisted suicide. At the same time, a shambolic security guard for a high-rise construction project tries to track down a shotgun he had dug up but which was stolen from his truck. His search leads him to a local massage parlor/brothel, where the girlfriend of one of the robbers works. Also at the same time, the owner of the project is on the run from his investors, one of whom is a gang leader who is threatening to kill him, while his son, who is dating the security guard’s daughter, is thinking about fighting back against the gang. It all makes sense in the moment, as director Rao Xiaozhi moves from thread to thread with an admirable coherence, though some of the stories are much more compelling than others (the quadriplegic story ventures into the treacly at times). It all comes together neatly when the various plots converge for a brawl, a police action, and a fireworks display, though the PRC mandated rule that criminals not get away with their crimes eliminates some of the potential tension.
Like 2016’s Chongqing Hot Pot or Xin Yikun’s Coffin in the Mountain and Wrath of Silence, A Cool Fish shows that there is plenty of room in mainstream Chinese cinema for quirky, location-specific stories, that not everything has to be an effects-driven monstrosity. With its success this year, alongside other human-scale works like Dying to Survive and Us and Them, The Island and How Long Will I Love U, all of which are among the year’s top 20 highest-grossing films, perhaps China is finding a way out of the blockbusteritis that has been afflicting it in recent years, and from which Hollywood has yet to recover. It’s something to look forward to in 2019.