Category: Chinese Cinema

Love After Love (Di yi lu xiang, China 2020)

Love After Love was screened at Venice in 2020 where its director Ann Hui was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Two of her earlier films were also screened at previous Venice festivals, including A Simple Life (Hong Kong 2011), one of her most celebrated titles. Unfortunately Love After Love has not fared so well with critics. But it is a beautifully-made film and as a sumptuous romance melodrama is expected to eventually find its audience in East Asian territories. It was released in China in October 2021 and became available on MUBI in the UK a month or so ago. The key to the film is arguably that it is an adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang. Ann Hui directed two earlier Chang adaptations, Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997). Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was a major Chinese literary figure who lived in the US from 1956. Her complicated personal history involved marriage to a collaborator with the Japanese in Shanghai under occupation that later affected her reputation in the People’s Republic. It thrived, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps the best known Chang adaptation in the West is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-Hong Kong-China, 2007) set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation.

Weilong (Ma Sichun) making her way to her aunt’s grand mansion at the beginning of the film

Ann Hui was born in Manchuria in 1947 and moved to Hong Kong as a child. She has made a number of films that reference aspects of Chinese history and her own personal story including The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Golden Era (2014). The Golden Era is a biopic of another major Chinese literary figure, Xaio Hong. Love After Love is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ which was first serialised in a Shanghai magazine in 1943 and made Chang’s name as a writer in the city. The story is influenced by Chang’s own biography and presents us with Ge Weilong, a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Weilong (Ma Sichun) came to Hong Kong with her parents a year or two earlier when the Japanese threat of invasion of Shanghai became apparent. But when her parents decide to return to Shanghai, Weilong decides to to try to finish her education in Hong Kong and asks her aunt, Madame Liang (Yu Feihong) if she can stay with her. Her father’s sister ‘married’ an older wealthy man and when he died she inherited the house and a rich life-style. To maintain this she lures other wealthy men to her house, attracting them with the pretty young girls who act as her maids. Weilong risks being seduced by her aunt’s wealth and relaxed life-style in the louche world of high society Hong Kong in the years leading up to Occupation by Japan at the end of 1941.

The two maids who effectively run the house (under Madame Liang’s instructions) are at first suspicious of the new arrival

We are in the territory of a Chinese melodrama presented with costumes by Emi Wada (who worked on Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985) on her last film and detailed interiors presented in compositions by Christopher Doyle reminding us of his earlier work with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among others. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is restrained for a melodrama but becomes more prominent in sections and is appropriate, I think, for the romance depicted. I note that that all the principal creatives are industry veterans and their work is a joy to behold.

Weilong and George (Nicky Peng) on the day of the garden party

Why then does the film get the thumbs down from so many critics? ‘Empty’ is a common summation. I don’t think the length helps at 142 minutes with some critics feeling that the narrative drags. I found it engaging throughout but it was only really when I watched it a second time that I began to fully appreciate its qualities. This is a complex narrative using several narrative devices in subtle ways. Several critics, especially in the West, tend to compare this film to similar Hollywood films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The similarities are there but the cultural context is different. This film refers to a particular society at a particular time – a colonial Chinese society at a specific moment. Weilong finds herself both constrained by her own traditional background and unsure how to respond to her aunt’s world – “The British Way” in Hong Kong as her aunt puts it. I was also conscious of the class differences. The young girls brought to the house, almost as concubines, are at the lowest level and Weilong finds herself in the middle – between the girls and her aunt’s friends and acquaintances. The romance in the film involves Weilong with a mixed-race young man, the son of a wealthy Chinese man who married a European woman. It occurs to me that the Chinese view of ‘Eurasians’ is slightly different to that of the Indian view of Anglo-Indians in the same period. In Chang’s story, the wealth of Chiao’s family means the son George can’t be marginalised but there is still a stigma attached to his identity and his general behaviour contributes to this. George is played by the Taiwanese-Canadian Nick Peng, now a major star in Chinese cinema. George’s sister Kitty is played by Isabella Leung, originally from Macau.

‘Sir Cheng’ Chiao between his daughter Kitty and Madame Liang

Mr Situ who Madame Liang persuades to act as Weilong’s teacher in the social mores of Hong Kong’s ‘British Way’

I think I need to explore my partial understanding of the status of wealthy Chinese in the British Empire in the 1930s. Britain had exploited China in the 19th century and this continued through what was the unique arrangement in the global city of Shanghai for all Western powers. But the UK had also developed the colony of Hong Kong after taking the island from China during the Opium Wars of 1841 and 1860, finally acquiring the New Territories on mainland China on a 99-year lease in 1899. Hong Kong maintained strong links with Shanghai and also with Singapore and parts of Malaya. Crucial to the economic development of these colonial possessions were two groups of Chinese, the poorer migrants who could provide cheap labour and the wealthier merchants and trading families. Hong Kong and Singapore and to a lesser extent George Town in Penang developed as entrepôts –transhipment ports which facilitated British Imperial trade across South-East and East Asia. The wealthy Chinese families retained and grew their wealth, developing a distinctive culture and status under colonial rule. This is apparent in the opening scenes of Love After Love when Weilong first arrives at her aunt’s magnificent house and gardens. In the evening the maids are first outside lighting the lamps on the drive. This could almost be a scene from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China-Hong Kong 1991) which is set in the home of a Chinese war lord in the 1920s. Later in the evening, after the mahjong, the dancing begins and British officers are among the guests. Earlier Weilong is quizzed by Mir Situ as to whether she can play the piano and play tennis – she nervously replies that she has learned both a little in school. As she sits upstairs in her room listening to the music from the dancing below she might be a young girl in a British country house drama. I don’t think similar scenes took place under the Raj in the same way in India. As if to emphasise this, ‘Sir Cheng’ the head of the Chiao household has an Indian chauffeur. At a later garden party when Madame Liang invites the choir which Weilong has joined, there are Indians and ‘foreign nuns’ in attendance.

Lo Sui-Lun, the young man who wants to study medicine and who is attractive to both Weilong and Mme Liang

I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative. The story events are generally familiar, as are the characters. There have been some complaints that Ma Sichun is not strong enough in the central role of Weilong. I don’t agree. It is a difficult role in that she has to grow from shy schoolgirl into someone who can move through the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong. She is us as she tries to negotiate the pitfalls and grow and learn in her social role. She is also the young woman being offered a ‘sentimental education’. It is true, however, that the real star of the show is Faye Yu (Yu Feihong) who plays Madame Liang with great relish. I do wonder what Eileen Chang wanted to say in her story and why Ann Hui chose to adapt it. The adaptation is by Wang Anyi, a distinguished writer and academic from Shanghai and seen as a successor to Eileen Chang. She also wrote the original story for Chen Kaige’s 1996 period film Temptress Moon. So, with three distinguished women involved in creating the characters, Love After Love can be seen as a female-centred melodrama with characters located in specific socio-economic strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. Each is trying to find some form of fulfilment in her life but is constrained by the social situation. Weilong is the naïf, Ni’er is the country girl and the most constrained in her role as maid. Kitty is in one sense the most privileged but, like her brother, has to contend with her Eurasian identity: she is also the character who seems under-explored in the script. At the centre is Mme Liang whose position depends on her own wits and talent for social intercourse. Is she the feminist hero of the narrative?

Aunt and niece. Everything revolves around Mme Liang

I should mention three other aspects of the narrative. At various points Weilong offers a spoken commentary. At the beginning this is in the form of a reading of the letter she sends to her aunt asking to stay with her. At crucial points we are offered flashbacks to Mme Liang’s early life. These involve traditional rituals/ceremonies that are difficult for non-Chinese audiences to interpret perhaps. This is also true of the use of the wall of photographs in the Chiao household and the subsequent presentation of formal photo opportunities of tableaux of the family. Finally, as part of Weilong’s ‘education’, she has moments where she, in a sense, sees a ghost. This isn’t a straight realist melodrama or a conventional romance, though it has several conventional elements. Surprisingly perhaps, the narrative does not contain any further references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai or Hong Kong after the opening statement. This seems to make the whole narrative a kind of fantasy.

To repeat, this is a very beautiful film. It must look (and sound) fabulous on the big screen, where it should be seen. The costumes are similarly fabulous. Ann Hui is a great filmmaker, under-appreciated in the West.

(In this review I present the names as they appear in the subtitles on MUBI. The romanisation arguably suits the period and the Hong Kong colonial setting?)

Flowers of Taipei: New Taiwanese Cinema (Taiwan 2014)

The directors associated with Taiwan New Cinema in the 1980s. (from left) Wu Nian-Chen, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Chen Guo-Fu and Chang Hung-Chih

Taiwan New Cinema (sometimes abbreviated to TNC) is arguably one of the most rarefied of film movements, especially if you are in the UK where some of the important films have been very hard to see until quite recently. But although in strict terms represented by only a small group of films made between 1982 and 1986, the filmmakers concerned have since had a seemingly disproportionate influence on other filmmakers, especially elsewhere in East Asia. I’m not going to explain the whole background here. It is already very well-presented on the ‘Cinema of the World website‘.

I’m trying to remember when I first became aware of Taiwan New Cinema. Possibly it was an early screening of an Edward Yang film at the NFT in London but it may have been a brief season of films shown on Channel 4 in the UK when the channel was still cutting edge in terms of global cinema. I remember two Hou Hsiao-hsien films, A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and City of Sadness (1989). They may have been introduced by Tony Rayns, one of the few British experts on East Asian cinema at that time – certainly he fronted some of the Fifth Generation Chinese films on C4. Rayns does figure as one of the film personnel interviewed in this documentary film, Flowers of Taipei directed by Chinlin Hsieh and currently streaming on MUBI.

A still from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind (1986)

The film generally follows the familiar documentary conventions of a ‘talking heads plus film clips’ structure, but quite a few of the ‘witness statements’ are shot in interesting locations around the world. We meet filmmakers of all kinds as well as critics, programmers and festival organisers and some other non-film artists. Some speak directly to camera and others within short sequences in which they are ‘observed’ in conversations about TNC films. The film opens with an evocative montage of archive footage and a presentation by Lin Hwai-Min, founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taipei explaining the historical background. This then leads to a railway journey taking us through Thailand and a statement by the auteur director Apichatpong Weerasethakul explaining how he first saw Taiwanese films as a student in Chicago and how the films, especially those by Hou Hsiao-hsien, resonated with memories of his own youth and how he was encouraged to return to Thailand to make films.

Olivier Assayas and the film critic Jean-Michel Frodon discuss the TNC films in Paris

Chinlin Hsieh is herself now based in Paris and that provides the next stop where we meet Pierre Rissient (consultant to Cannes Film Festival), the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and others who are critics or festival organisers talking about what appealed to them about the emergence of TNC. We then meet Tony Rayns in Rotterdam, another important global film festival city, followed by a discussion in a pavement café in Buenos Aries involving the Argentinian filmmaker Martin Rejtman. He makes an interesting point in suggesting that because he was too young to have experienced the French New Wave in the 1960s, TNC was the ‘new wave’ for his generation. The interviews that come next in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China feature a galaxy of directors such as Kore-eda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien himself plus the actor Tadanobu Asano and many others. You can see a full list on the ‘Cinema of the World’ website referenced above.

Among all the interviews/conversations Hsieh includes clips from various films by the TNC directors, including several made since the 1980s. As the interviewees suggest, these films were often beautifully composed and they do convey something of the youthful vitality of the filmmakers in the 1980s and a real ‘feel’ for the country. But they also add to the mystery of the film for anyone who is coming to a screening without having seen many or indeed any of the films before.I recognised clips from two Hou Hsiao-hsien films, Millennium Mambo from 2001 and Café Lumière (2003) which is set mainly in Tokyo – Tadanobu Asano discusses his role in that film while sitting in the real bookshop where his character worked. There are also striking images from Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers (1986) and clips from many other films, some of which are clearly signalled in the text. But the question does remain as to exactly what Chinlin Hsieh hopes to achieve with her film.

Kore-eda Hirokazu talks about TNC in the hotel (ryokan) used by Ozu and his writing partner Noda Kogo working on the script for Tokyo Story

I think that if you know some of the historical background and you have seen at least two or three of the films (preferably including something from the 1980s) you will have a good time and find the film useful and informative, especially in terms of the influences that TNC has had on other filmmakers in East Asia. I learned many things from the documentary and it helped to explain the links between some filmmakers. I hadn’t known or perhaps hadn’t thought about Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family links to Taiwan for instance and I was prompted to think more about the ‘modernity’ of TNC compared to the Fifth Generation films in the PRC. Both sets of films emerged in the early 1980s and both ‘arrived’, at least in the UK, around roughly the same time. Why then did the Fifth Generation films ‘take off’ and the TNC films struggle for distribution? Partly, I think it is to do with the general profile of the two countries. In the 1980s I think I was much more supportive of the PRC and dismissive of Taiwan. Since then I’ve changed my mind. To some extent, I’ve gradually reversed that view and the development of TNC and the ‘democratisation’ of Taiwan has been an important part of my shift.

As a film in its own right Flowers of Taipei is definitely worth watching. It has a great deal to offer but please try to read up on the background and try to see some of the TNC films. The only sad aspect of the film, watching it in 2022, is that there are relatively few women featured as filmmakers in a documentary made by a woman.

Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018)

Crazy Rich Asians was broadcast on BBC1 late night before Christmas. I think it would have been interesting for it to be on Christmas Day. I missed the film in UK cinemas by accident so I welcomed the chance to watch a release that performed well at the UK box office. What I saw was an accomplished romantic comedy set amongst the super-rich Chinese community of Singapore and Malaysia (many of the locations that purport to be in Singapore are actually in Malaysia). The film is conventional in terms of Hollywood genre titles but also has elements of ‘local’ culture that could help it to appeal to both the Chinese-American and the broader Chinese diasporic audience. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Kevin Kwan, a Singapore-born American author. Having said that, I can see that the film could be seen as offensive to some audiences – especially the other ‘Asians’ who are not rich and not Chinese. Box Office Mojo figures suggest that the film’s main audience was in North America (whereas most Hollywood films now sell the majority of their tickets in the ‘international’ marketplace). It appears to have had only a restricted release in China but has performed well in Australia, the UK and Indonesia as the biggest markets outside North America.

It’s possible to outline the plot without spoiling the story. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a young woman in New York, is invited to a wedding in Singapore at which her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Goldingwill be best man for his old schoolfriend. Rachel is unaware that her boyfriend is heir to a massive fortune with interests across South East Asia. She also doesn’t realise that the news of her relationship with Nick is already spreading through social media networks and causing some concern in Nick’s family in Singapore. Rachel is an Economics professor and a single parent child from a relatively poor background. Fortunately she has Peik Lin (Awkwafina), a college friend now based in Singapore, to act as support so she will not be completely defenceless when she meets Nick’s formidable mother and grandma as well as his wealthy friends.

Meeting your prospective mother-in-law for the first time is always stressful, especially when she is as talented and formidable as Eleanour Young (Michelle Yeoh, left)

The ingredients of the romcom are laid out before us with the added element of the difference in ‘family values’ between the Singapore-Chinese and the ‘Chinese-American’ families. The film’s casting is interesting in that three of the principals are played by actors educated in the UK, two of whom have British nationality. In a sense this adds some authenticity to the casting while at the same time creating links between British colonial backgrounds and traditional Chinese families as opposed to the ‘freedom/modernity’ tag associated with the Chinese-American characters. This is most evident in the confrontations between Nick’s mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, and Rachel. Michelle Yeoh was born in Ipoh in Malaysia and developed her career as an action star in Hong Kong cinema after training in the UK, initially as a ballet dancer. She has been arguably the most versatile and successful global star of the Chinese diaspora with major roles in Hollywood films as well as ‘international’ productions. Nick’s older sister Astrid is played by Gemma Chan. The rising British-Chinese star was born in the UK to parents who had both lived in Hong Kong before settling in the UK. Henry Golding as Nick is perhaps the most controversial casting – and, I understand, it was actually a late decision. Golding has a British father but he was born in Sarawak and though he was educated in the UK, he returned to Malaysia when he was 21 and began his career in Kuala Lumpur. The issue for some audiences appears to be his Malay heritage (actually the indigenous people of Borneo) and that he is not Chinese. This in turn refers to one of the criticisms of the film overall which is that the focus on the super-rich Chinese in Singapore means the exclusion of the other two main communities in Singapore, the Malay and the Indian.

The magnificent Michelle Yeoh plays mahjong with Rachel. Who will win the game?

Singapore is an interesting setting for this film for several reasons. It is now one of the wealthiest countries in the world having developed its full potential as an entrepôt – a trading and distribution centre – and then diversifying to cover finance, oil refining and electronics as important industrial sectors. It also has a history of ‘strong’ government that has attempted to mould a disciplined and meritocratic society. This has produced high standards of education but also great economic wealth disparity. Two other distinctive features of Singapore are the division between the roughly 60% ‘resident’ population and the remainder of ‘guest workers’. But against this, Singapore is a country that recognises its different communities by making its four main languages equally important in public services. I can’t think of anywhere else where the public transit system routinely presents information in four languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Crazy Rich Asians is an ‘entertainment’ and the film doesn’t have to explore all the social issues that run through the lives of ordinary Singapore families. On the other hand, a romcom that is built around social class differences and national ideologies about family values does need to be a little careful, I think.

Rachel in the car with Peik Lin on the way to the Young mansion with the Indian security guards

The film’s aim is clearly to emphasise glamour and to this end the different locations used range from the tourist region of Langkawi, the island group in North-West Malaysia, through Penang and Kuala Lumpur to Singapore itself. This is of course a traditional Hollywood ploy. When big budget romcoms are made in the UK, they focus on the tourist parts of London and then other hotspts such as the Lake District, Scottish highlands, Bath, Oxford/Cambridge etc. The same is true of major Bollywood productions that set their narratives in London and attractive tourist centres. The Bollywood connection is in fact something I would like to follow up. This Asian American romcom is similar in several ways to those films which explore the Indian diasporas and the clashes over changing family values. I was reminded of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (UK-US-India 2004) and Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (India-US-UK 2001) as films by diasporic directors plus countless mainstream Hindi films. But I wonder if any of these Indian narratives stumbled like Crazy Rich Asians in representing other cultures? I’m referring here to the scene in which Rachel and Peik Lin travel to the Young mansion for the first time (Rachel is not staying with Nick). They find the massive house and extensive gardens in the middle of a wooded area along a private road which the satnav is unaware of (the house is actually in North Malaysia). It’s dark and at the gates of the mansion they are met by two Indian security officers. Awkwafina’s reaction (IMDb suggests that she improvised much of her dialogue) is to freak out at the sight of a dark-skinned man, even to the extent of raising her hands and saying “we come in peace”. She also makes a reference to the area as ‘jungle’. The guards themselves say nothing though their body language is a little strange. I’m not sure if they are meant to be Sikhs (Sikhs have traditionally been over-represented in the Indian armed forces) but they are turnbanned, bearded, dressed in a military type uniform and carrying what look like ancient .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, just as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure film.

Astrid (Gemma Chen) with her husband Michael (Pierre Png)

The film does attempt to represent Singapore culture via a sequence set in a food court with different types of street food and at one point Rachel plays mahjong on a street that looked familiar to me in terms of architecture but then I realised the scene was shot in Penang, Malaysia. In a sense none of this ‘inauthenticity’ matters but I find it irritating mainly because the narrative could have been ‘smaller’ and more realist. I realise that that is not the point of romcoms and so I accept the film for what it is and reserve my disappointment. I thought all the principals were very good in their roles and particularly Constance Wu as Rachel who puts across her character as an intelligent and attractive young woman without being over-glamourised – and she can stand up to Michelle Yeoh in full spate of motherly control. Accents in the film are important and I noted that the Japanese-born Sonoya Mizuno has an impeccable British accent, as did some of the Singaporean actors. The Brits are the bad guys again in a Hollywood film but Nick and Rachel make a winning pair and I had a tear in my eye at the end of the film. I must also give a shout out to Gemma Chan and the sub-plot that she leads which illustrates the different kinds of problems the Young family wealth creates for Nick’s sister.

I understand that perhaps not all of the original novel was used in the film so there may be more to come. The film made a heap of money and that might trigger further films. Crazy Rich Asians is on iPlayer for a further 10 days. It’s a fun picture to brighten up a January day.

Ramen Shop (Singapore-Japan-France 2018)

Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.

Masato (right) working in his family shop with his father in the centre and his uncle on the left of the image

Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.

Masato and Miki enjoying views of Singapore when he first arrives

When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.

Father as a young man with Lian Mei

The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.

Masato with Uncle Wee, taking notes about preparing pork rib soup

Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.

A Witness Out of the Blue (Fan zui xian chang, Hong Kong 2019)

Hong Kong cinema has not been very visible for me during lockdown so I was delighted to discover ‘Focus Hong Kong’ – part of the Chinese Visual Festival in the UK offering five features with some extras and a series of short films at the bargain price of £8.99 or £2.99 for a single feature. The festival started last night and films are available to stream until 15th February.

Wong (Louis Koo) and Joy (Jessica Hester Hsuan)

I started with this title which promised genre pleasures in the form of an absurdist crime fiction film, a mash-up of gangster film, police investigation, melodrama and romance all laced with violence and humour. My immediate point of reference seemed to be Johnnie To, the legendary director of crime films with a twist, something prompted by the presence of Louis Koo as one of the two leads, Sean Wong, a cool and ruthless gang leader. He’s up against Louis Cheung as ‘Larry Lam’, a police detective down on his luck. The film begins with the introduction of these two central characters. Wong is fleeing from a killing where the only witness appears to be a parrot and Lam is trying to avoid a loan shark from whom he has borrowed money to set up a cat sanctuary. But just in case this might suggest a whimsical tale, writer director Fung Chi-Keung soon flashes back to a jewellery robbery in which, because of police informants, the cops arrive en masse and the robbery turns violent as Wong and his gang escape with the loot. The murder suggests that the loot has gone missing and Wong is looking for it.

Lam (Louis Cheung) and his detective partner Charmaine (Cherry Ngan)

The police investigation is led by hard-faced Inspector Yip and Lam is joined by Charmaine a young female officer who we learn only joined the force because she was inspired by Lam’s bravery on a case a few years ago. Wong has gone into hiding and become the tenant of a landlady named Joy whose other guests are a trio of elderly folk. Lam decides that the parrot knows who the killer is, but it seems to discount Wong. It’s a clever script which I don’t intend to spoil any further. I’ll only point out that with crooks, loot, crime victims, police and informers – and a brief appearance of ‘internal affairs’ – there is every possibility of double-crossing and misrecognitions.

Inspector Yip (Philip Keung) and Lam

The parrot doesn’t appear that often but its role is important. In the Q&A the director explains that he was inspired by his own experience of living with a parrot when he was a schoolboy and the parrot inadvertently (or not!) got him into trouble. The cats don’t contribute anything that I remember and that’s a shame. Overall, however, the excitement of the shootouts and the humour of the situations work very well. There is a hint of romance and some beautiful aerial shots of the city (it’s a Scope picture). I thought the characters were well drawn within the confines of the genre and the performances were all good. If you are a Louis Koo fan you’ll certainly enjoy his performance. I’m not sure it adds up to anything more than a genre exercise but I found it very enjoyable and just the thing for a lockdown pick-me-up. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Fung Chi-Keung.

LFF 2020 #7: Striding into the Wind (Ye Ma Fen Zong, China 2020)

Tong (left) and Kun messin’ about – as they do for most of the film

This is a difficult film to categorise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that the film has attracted some very positive reviews but also some dismissals. It’s a film which requires a viewer to have some idea about the context of filmmaking in China over the last twenty or thirty years. Writer-director Wei Shejun saw his début short film selected for Cannes competition in 2018, winning a ‘Special Distinction’ Award and both that film and this his début feature have featured at festivals around the world. Striding into the Wind is inspired by his own experiences as a film student. He has also clearly learned how to use festival interviews. A Variety interview and his LFF interview see him name-checking various influences and at one point arguing that currently China has no ‘global directors’. He knows how to play the game and there are sections in this film that demonstrates he can make interesting cinema as well. What it all adds up to is something that needs working through.

At the start of the film I thought that I was in for a ‘slacker comedy’ which isn’t really my kind of thing. Zhou Kun with a kind of mullet-cum-ponytail is a student at a film school repeating a year, which means he has plenty of time to spare to help his classmate Tong Shao-jie learn how to become an audio technician. Kun has a job as sound man on a student (or alumni?) film and Tong tags along trying to learn. Kun has enough industry knowledge to be able to correct his tutor who doesn’t seem to have worked since he left the Film Academy. The digs about the Fifth Generation directors being out of touch now and the Sixth Generation making the same kinds of films all the time (comments by Wei in the Q&A) are seemingly drawn from the director’s own experience in film school. Kun and Tong go on to try to develop various other scams to make money and as well as the possible Hollywood genre connections, I thought that at this point that I might have seen similar films from the new Indian Independent Cinema or perhaps from South Korea. After a while though, the buddy movie at the centre of the narrative begins to be displaced by a genuine romance with the appearance of A Zhi as Kun’s girlfriend. She is much more sussed than the two students and is making money as a model/cheerleader/’eye candy’ for promotional events. It’s a waste of her degree in Chinese Literature but she has a plan. She also seems to have a genuine personality and possibly to care for Kun – but will he have the sense to see this? To be fair to Kun, Zhi is prepared to conform and he isn’t. I have to agree with the BFI interviewer (whose name I didn’t catch, there were access problems in trying to view the Q&A a second time) when she suggested that A Zhi (Zheng Yin Chen) has a real presence which makes the romance narrative possible. But will Kun have the nouse to make it work?

The two young men and one woman trio and one or two other elements in the plot made me think of the early Jia Zhangke film Unknown Pleasures (2002). Jia is, I would argue, the leading Chinese auteur in the global art film market. His wasn’t a name that Wei Shejun checked (Hou Hsiao-hsien was mentioned twice). The Jia references increased for me in the closing section of Striding Into the Wind when Kun and Tong Shao-jie travel to Inner Mongolia to complete the shoot of the film they have been working on since the director wants some ‘authentic ‘ atmosphere for his film. This means a shift to the road movie and a series of reflections on the romance of the region (the wind in the grass, the horses etc.) and also the artificiality of ‘tourist’ versions of Mongolian culture. This trip is tied in to Kun’s relationship with the venerable Jeep Cherokee that he buys cheap at the beginning of the film. Kun has always dreamed about visiting Inner Mongolia so the car is central to how he will understand (or not) his own fantasies and sort out what he wants to do with his life.

China has grown so fast as an economy in the last twenty years and it has been difficult for societal changes to keep pace. It’s hardly surprising that young men born in the late 1990s have issues if they try to do anything else other than knuckle down and conform. Kun has problems with his mother a teacher, his father a police officer and A Zhi’s dad, an accountant as well as his tutor. Tong Shao-jie seems almost completely detached from family in the performance by Tong Lin Kai who was discovered as a non-professional by the director and certainly has a presence in the film. I’d like to show this film in tandem with a film like Beijing Bicycle (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, China-Taiwan-France 2001) which less than twenty years ago shows a similar trio of young(er) people in Beijing trying to cope with a very different city.

Striding Into the Wind is a hybrid comedy/romance/road trip with an element of family melodrama. The narrative is probably too loose and could be tightened, but the players are engaging and there does seem to be a kind of commentary both on contemporary China and on filmmaking. I look forward to seeing what Wei Shejun does next. The film is produced by the Chinese internet giant Alibaba and is showing in North America on festival screens. Unfortunately the promotion doesn’t seem to be using many images or videos so apologies for the lack of illustrative material here.