Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
This Lunar New Year season, traditionally the highest-grossing period of the Chinese cinema calendar, is lacking many of the big names of years past, especially as regards the films that saw release in the US. Where in recent years Stephen Chow, Soi Cheang, Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark and others have crafted massive box office hits both here and in China, this year Chow and Chan’s movies (New King of Comedy and The Knight of Shadows, respectively) didn’t get North American releases, while Ning Hao’s Crazy Alien had its scheduled run severely truncated if not outright cancelled. Gobbling up screens instead was The Wandering Earth, an epic sci-fi disaster film that has been smashing box office records left and right, cruising past $300 million in grosses as I write this with no end in sight. The only other New Year’s movies to be released here in North America were the cross-cultural kids movie Peppa Celebrates Chinese New Year, Han Han’s car racing comedy Pegasus, Alan Mak’s procedural thriller Integrity, and Pang Ho-chung’s urban comedy Missbehavior. In-between unusual (for us) snowstorms and school cancellations here in Tacoma, I managed to get to all five of the domestic Lunar New Year releases this year and while there isn’t a single great film (long the lines of The Mermaid) or even a very good one (like last year’s Monkey King 3 and Operation Red Sea) in the bunch, each does have something special to offer audiences adventurous enough to seek them out.
The Wandering Earth is to the Hollywood effects-driven disaster film what Farewell, My Concubine was to the Hollywood epic historical costume drama: a statement that Chinese cinema can be just as big and empty as the biggest movie machines in the world. Based on a novel by Liu Cixin, the most-celebrated contemporary Chinese science-fiction writer, it generally hews to his hard science approach, with a healthy sprinkling of family drama and PRC-friendly messages about unity and working together toward a common goal.
Set in sometime in the future, when the breakdown and subsequent expansion of the sun has wreaked devastation across the Earth, the whole planet unites in an effort to ship the whole world off to Alpha Centauri, a 2,500 year journey of which we will see but the barest sliver. After a brief prologue, we join the story 17 years into the trip, as Earth approaches Jupiter in an attempt to utilize its gravity to help propel the planet a bit faster (the only other power source being a set of 10,000 massive engines blasting across the globe). But an unexpected change in Jupiter’s gravity causes earthquakes which shut down the engines and send the Earth on a collision course with the gas giant.
Our heroes include Wu Jing, the single biggest star of this year’s New Year’s slate, as an astronaut on a space station leading the way and managing the Earth’s communications, and his family: father (Ng Man-tat, Stephen Chow’s frequent co-star, here playing a dramatic role), son (Qu Chuxiao) and daughter (Zhao Jinmai). The kids sneak onto the surface (most of the population lives underground now) and get mixed up in the various rescue efforts and schemes that form the mission-based plot, joining various valiant teams along the way. The family drama is perfunctory at best (the son is mad at Wu Jing because his mission has taken him away from home for the past 17 years), with none of the histrionics that marked similar Hollywood films in the 1990s (Armageddon, Volcano, and Independence Day in particular came to mind, but there are many others). When the film is focused on the adventure, the specific tasks the teams have to accomplish, it’s suspenseful and creative, with enough of a solid basis in science and decent enough special effects. There isn’t much more to it than a spectacular story of adventure and sacrifice, and director Frant Gwo doesn’t bring much more than a basic competence to the picture, but given how bad so many Chinese effects movies have been in recent years, that’s not nothing. It’s the least individual, least personal film of the New Year season, but it’s also the most accessible for North American audiences. It’s extremely easy to see why it’s such a big hit.
On the exact opposite end of the production scale comes Peppa Celebrates Chinese New Year, a very inexpensive but kind-hearted family film in which a couple of kids are taught about the various traditions surrounding the holiday while occasionally being told Peppa Pig stories, which play out on screen as episodes of the beloved (and I must say, hilarious) British children’s series. Most if not all of the animated Peppa Pig sequences are cribbed wholesale from the TV show, albeit dubbed into Mandarin. The live-action portions are given a little bit of drama (a rivalry between the two grandmothers) which isn’t all that compelling, and some musical numbers (a couple of which are pretty good). Peppa herself has unexpectedly become a kind of symbol of rebellion among Chinese youth. It’s not exactly clear why, but it’s a trend I can get behind, although this movie at least thoroughly ignores it, instead integrating the pig and her family and friends into the broader Chinese tradition. It’s a fine and totally harmless bit of fluff, and it was the first non-English language film my kids ever saw and they loved it, even though they aren’t old enough to read the subtitles.
Han Han’s Pegasus, his follow-up to his 2017 surprise hit Duckweed, seems to be a conventional sports movie, but it’s littered with small grace moments that make it one of the better movies about car racing ever made. Han himself was a rally racer (as well as a highly successful essayist, novelist and musician), and his love of the sport shines in every moment of Pegasus, especially its finely crafted and exciting race scenes. Shen Teng, star of hit comedies Goodbye Mr. Loser and Hello Mr. Billionaire (both directed by Yei Fan and Damo Peng), plays a washed up racer who has had his license suspended for the past five years (he was caught street racing Tokyo Drift-style in a parking garage). His suspension over, he tries to get the gang back together for a comeback at China’s most prestigious, and dangerous, rally race. The film has one basic joke structure: someone says something heartfelt and serious, usually a long monologue, only to have it undercut by a new shot or funny line of dialogue, only to have the heart reaffirmed despite the situational absurdity. The result gives the melodrama a patina of cool: the movie is serious but silly but no really serious. This is amiable enough as far as it goes, but the movie really comes alive with the race at the end. Han cuts quickly between cars and racers and on-lookers, deftly incorporating split screens and audio commentary (in both Chinese and English), approaching something like the verve of a live-action Speed Racer.
The end is something wholly unexpected and spectacularly moving, somewhere in-between All About Ah-long and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an effect only improved by the fact that the screen cuts to black, with several lines of text that whoever subtitled it for North American release didn’t bother to translate. Not knowing how to read Chinese, I have no idea how the movie actually ended, instead it sits in this magical indeterminate space, one more affecting than a more definite conclusion could ever provide. This is one of the special pleasures of watching these haphazardly released Chinese films: they haven’t been tailored in any way to a North American or art-house audience. As such, there are constantly jokes and references and homages that I completely miss. There are mysterious experiences here that no American film can be. I get a glimpse of another world, one I can’t possibly comprehend, and it is all the more beguiling for it.
Puzzling in a different way is Integrity, a Hong Kong police procedural from Alan Mak, the co-director of the Infernal Affairs (with Andrew Lau) and Overheard (with Felix Chong) series. Lau Ching-wan plays the overworked head of an ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) investigation of bribery and cigarette smuggling, with Nick Cheung as his star witness. Lau’s investigation takes an unexpected turn when Cheung gives him a USB stick full of evidence and then disappears to Australia. Granted a one week reprieve from the judge, Lau has a ticking clock in which to complete his investigation before the whole case falls apart. The conspiracy isn’t quite as complicated as it seems, and neither is Cheung that hard to find (Lau’s estranged wife, played by Karena Lam, tracks him down and works to persuade him to return). On the whole, it’s pretty standard conspiracy thriller stuff. Except every time you expect Mak to escalate to an action scene, the momentum just kind of dissipates. For example, a car chase is set up, with cop and bad guy in a parking garage, the origin of many a Hong Kong action sequence. But rather than spill out into the streets for some crazy spectacle, the chase stops before it ever leaves the garage.
In the film’s final third, things start to get really weird. The emphasis shifts from the crimes to the personalities and pasts of the main characters, drifting through one improbable flashback after another as the ostensible reason for the film, the procedure of prosecuting criminal activity, dissipates in a sea of unfulfilled dreams and obligations. It's a resolutely sad and broken-down film, filled with haunted men and women. Lau is exceptional, as he usually is, and Cheung is fascinating as the cypher at the center of a story about failure and emptiness.
Hong Kong’s other New Year entry is the only one to play here (at least at the theatre I went to) in Cantonese. It’s also the only true Lunar New Year film in the tradition of the all-star comedy fests that have come to define the New Year movie as a genre as opposed to simply a release date. Movies like Johnnie To’s The Eighth Happiness, Clifton Ko’s Alls Well, Ends Well (and its many sequels), or Tsui Hark’s The Chinese Feast are wacky comedies enlivened with a mix of slapstick and verbal comedy, ultimately feel-good films centered around themes of family and togetherness. Pang Ho-cheung’s Missbehavior is firmly in this tradition. Best known here for his 2008 romantic comedy Love in a Puff, and its sequels Love in the Buff and Love Off the Cuff, Pang began his career as a novelist (his Fulltime Killer was adapted by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai in 2001). His films are uniquely concerned with language, specifically the Cantonese slang of young urban professionals. From his earliest black comedies (You Shoot, I Shoot and AV) to his more recent rom-coms, and even in his more prestigious projects (the terrific Isabella from 2005 and the less good Exodus and Aberdeen) Pang has eschewed mainstream success on the Mainland in favor of exploring the idiosyncrasies of 21st century Hong Kong. In this respect his stands almost alone among his contemporaries.
Missbehavior follows a group of friends, formerly close, now somewhat estranged, as they unite to help out one of their own who is in trouble at work. Through a complicated series of missteps, she has misplaced the breast milk her boss had left in the break room fridge, and needs to replace it by the end of the day or be fired. The friends are neatly divided into warring pairs (two women with a man and suspicion of infidelity in common, two women who used to be in a band together but now have achieved different levels of success, a gay couple who are having trouble communicating), all of which have their issues resolved by the end of their silly adventure. The antics are fun, the language salty (Love in a Puff famously got a Category III rating, Hong Kong’s NC-17 equivalent, because of its extensive, creative, and thoroughly realistic use of profanity), the cast attractive and fun. The best moments come from Lam Suet as the world’s worst waiter, but there are fine performances as well from Gigi Leung in the lead role and cameos from familiar faces Miriam Yeung, Roy Szeto, Susan Shaw, and Isabella Leong.
The film’s most inspired image though is a repeated interstitial shot, an image of the Hong Kong cityscape, all chrome and glass towers, with various images of the cast on their quests projected upon them, literally imposing these characters and their mission upon the city itself. It’s an off-hand, effortless profundity, equating the city and its people. Maybe it’s just because I recently watched the MCU Doctor Strange adaptation, with its appallingly phony Hong Kong set that was assembled in England and looks like a 1930s American Chinatown, but I appreciate images caught on the fly of Hong Kong as it is. Pang works quickly (Missbehavior was reportedly put together in only two weeks), with real Hong Kong stars in real Hong Kong places speaking real Hong Kong language. It’s a tradition that, like the goofy and ridiculously fun and catchy song and music video that play over the films closing credits, is becoming increasingly rare in the flattened, transnational space of contemporary Chinese cinema.