Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Hello! It’s been a while since I posted a non-Criterion review on this site, so let’s jump back in. Cinemas may now be (more) open in certain parts of the world, but home streaming is still A Thing, and probably… always will be? Well, time will tell, but here’s another week of “random stuff I’ve watched on Netflix” because it’s still the most popular option.


I’d watched the first two instalments (several years ago) and honestly couldn’t remember much of the plot. I wrote little capsule reviews at the time, but they’re not much longer than a sentence and barely convey any information beyond “it was quite fun”. Then again, it’s been a day or two and I don’t remember much of the plot of this one either now, so I don’t think that’s really the key to the trilogy and won’t affect your enjoyment. Basically, it’s about our rotund hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) ‘finding himself’ and discovering his powers and his empathy as part of a quest to defeat a legendary big bad guy, Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has just managed to return to the mortal realm. Po has his buddies and he has his antagonists, and I’m not sure the plot itself is particularly deep but it’s also fairly blandly positive so I can’t really fault it for that, but it’s a good excuse to get together some cute characters and show off the fine animation skills of the DreamWorks artists. I do raise my eyebrows somewhat at the writing team for this China-set film, along with getting notably non-Asian actors to voice some of these characters (Dustin Hoffman as an elderly sage called “Master Shifu”??), especially when they are called on to do an accent — but Jack Black at least isn’t doing that and isn’t really intended to be anyone but himself, and he and the filmmakers make it a likeable enough ride and an excellent conclusion to the trilogy.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)CREDITS
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson 여인영 and Alessandro Carloni; Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; Starring Jack Black, J.K. Simmons, Bryan Cranston, James Hong 吳漢章, Dustin Hoffman; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 3 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 422: The Last Emperor (1987)

It’s odd now to think of that era (which I suppose has never really ended, though I hope is a little more circumspect these days) when a grand multinational epic of another country could be mounted by a largely Western creative team, in English, and win all the awards. It’s certainly very strange to me watching again now, though I can’t deny the artistry that director Bernardo Bertolucci and director of photography Vittorio Storaro manage to bring together to tell the story of Puyi, the titular character.

Puyi was deposed (or forced to abdicate, somewhat in his absence, and seemingly unknown to him) in 1912, the last of the Qing dynasty, but whose story hardly ends there and Bertolucci does honour the sweep of it, cutting between scenes in 1950 China, when Puyi is being held in an internment camp after an abortive attempt to start a new empire in Manchuria, with his childhood ascending to the throne and then the strange events that followed. We see much of it from his eyes, so the real power in the court is only passingly glimpsed (we barely see his mother, or his father, the rest of his family fade into the background, and the most prominent character seems to be his English tutor, played by Peter O’Toole). This also means that key historical events in Chinese 20th century history have to be relayed by people telling him what’s going on, or helpfully rehearsing the events for the benefit of the viewer, because the little Chinese we hear (and see) isn’t translated on-screen. It would also be impossible to capture the intricacies of this period (or indeed extended Chinese history) so it necessarily takes a fairly clipped view of events, but it does give at least some time to the more contested ones, the events that one imagines various regimes would wish to forget.

Ultimately, however, if this film is about the last emperor, it also feels like the last vestige of an older style of film, sumptuous and grand but rather exoticised, an exemplar of a taste that’s been largely superseded. For all its evident weaknesses or rather old-fashioned ways, there’s still something grand that comes through clearly in the imagery and the staging, a lost art perhaps, a vanishing history like the one being depicted.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Mark Peploe and Bertolucci (based on the autobiography 我的前半生 From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi 溥儀); Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Starring John Lone 尊龙, Joan Chen 陳沖, Peter O’Toole; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 1 May 2021 (and several decades before on VHS at home, Wellington, probably).

怪物先生 Guai Wu Xian Sheng (Monster Run, 2020)

Another thing that’s useful about Netflix is it’s where a lot of the films that don’t get big releases in English-speaking countries can find their audience. Whether it’s Bollywood, Nollywood, or East Asian popular cinema, like this Chinese film (or maybe Hong Kong film: certainly here it was only on Netflix in Cantonese, but it looked like a dub). I’m not even sure it got much of a release in its home country, which makes sense given the events of 2020, but it’s on Netflix and if you like this kind of CGI-heavy fantasy adventure, then worth checking out.


A rather jolly monster-based romp, which I wouldn’t characterise as a kids’ movie (it has some fairly nightmare-inducing stuff at times) but has the sort of polished sheen of one. I’m not sure if the monsters are supposed to represent anything in particular for our protagonist (Jessie Li), but she doesn’t seem to show much spark in this film, perhaps because her character is supposed to be a little ground-down by life. Still, Mrs Lotus (Kara Hui) makes for a good villain and the monster CGI and fight scenes are quite fun, even if the latter takes up a lot of the last part of the film (at the expense of the monsters, who sort of disappear for a bit). I certainly liked it, even if I lost the plot a bit at times.

Monster Run film posterCREDITS
Director Henri Wong 黄智亨; Writers Fan Wenwen 范文文, Wong, Wang Yahe 王亚鹤, Alex Zhang 张卓鹏 and Disha Zhang 章笛沙; Cinematographers Po Wing Ho [Baorong He] 何宝荣 and Charlie Lam 林志坚; Starring Shawn Yue 余文樂, Jessie Li 李俊杰, Kara Hui 惠英紅; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 19 February 2021.

流浪地球 Liulang Diqiu (The Wandering Earth, 2019)

A recent release (to cinemas! I wonder what those are like) has been the French science-fiction film Proxima from the director of Maryland. I’m very intrigued by it, even as I’m rather less comfortable with returning to a cinema, but this week I’m doing a science-fiction themed week. I’ll try to keep them all in a foreign language if I can, but I’ll start with Chinese blockbuster epic The Wandering Earth, which is on Netflix.


Recently my friends and I have taken to watching a silly, distracting film every Thursday; the week before we watched the baffling, bonkers and honestly quite bad Geostorm, which naturally led onto this week’s choice. It’s a Chinese action sci-fi film that mines, if you will, some of the same rich seam of nonsense, even if it’s all wrapped up in fairly believable scientific hokum about environmental catastrophe (albeit here it imagines that human civilisation actually manages to survive long enough for the Sun to die, which is the real stretch).

I’m not sure what’s specifically Chinese about it, given how earnestly (and successfully, in my opinion) it attempts to ape the form; perhaps it’s the rather dark and morbid cutaways that occur every so often, or the brazen willingness to sacrifice huge chunks of the world’s population in order to achieve the larger goal of survival. Like many a film before it (Armageddon comes to mind, if I’m recalling it correctly, though honestly it doesn’t exactly linger in the memory), it deals with a wearied yet rebellious dad (Wu Jing) who bucks the system (and MOSS, the HAL-like computer system) to sacrifice himself so that his estranged son (Qu Chuxiao) and billions of others may live. There’s also a quasi-Blade Runner aesthetic, the underground caverns recall Total Recall, and there’s a Starship Troopers vibe to the classroom scenes.

I guess I just don’t mind any of this frantic cribbing so much here (unlike in Geostorm), perhaps because it’s in Chinese (I’m a sucker for subtitles), but perhaps because everything is just pushed to ridiculous extremes. Like many, my highlight was the machine gunner who turns his bullets on distant Jupiter when it looks as if all is doomed. In other nice touches, the voice of international politics is French, and the voice of the evil computer MOSS is English. This film is genuinely utter nonsense, but I found myself increasingly drawn into it, even if there were still plenty of times I turned to group chat to ask yet again, “what the hell is going on now?”

The Wandering Earth film posterCREDITS
Director Frant Gwo 郭帆; Writers Gong Ge’er 龚格尔, Yan Dongwu 严东旭, Gwo, Ye Junce 叶俊策, Yang Zhixue 杨治学, Wu Yi 吴荑 and Ye Ruchang 叶濡畅 (based on the novella by Liu Cixin 刘慈欣); Cinematographer Michael Liu 邁克爾·柳; Starring Qu Chuxiao 屈楚萧, Li Guangjie 李光洁, Ng Man-tat 吳孟達, Zhao Jinmai 赵今麦, Wu Jing 吴京; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 7 May 2020.

再见南屏晚钟 Zaijian nan ping wan zhong (A Dog Barking at the Moon, 2019)

For my final film of the BFI Player week, I’m focusing on this one which was initially due to be presented at the BFI Flare Film Festival. Because that fell through, a limited number of the films were able to screened online and this is one of those (it expires on 5 April, along with a handful of other titles). I signed up for a two-week free trial in order to see it, which I can certainly recommend. I might even continue paying after this trial period, but let’s see how things go; I’m already signed up to a few other services.


I can see from what’s written online that there are people who weren’t thrilled by this film, but it’s a gorgeous debut, which channels the feeling of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film — long shot long takes dealing with the dynamics within a family — with its own little surreal touches, such as car trips filmed on a soundstage. It’s about a woman whose husband is revealed to be having a gay affair, and who has another relation (a cousin I think) who is herself hiding being lesbian, but (perhaps understandably, given Chinese filming restrictions) these storylines are pushed to the side, in favour of focusing on the relationship between the mother (Naren Hua) and her oldest daughter (Nan Ji), whose transgression was marrying an American. I didn’t notice until I researched the film that the two lead roles are played by actors of Mongolian ethnicity, but I can’t imagine a Chinese viewer would miss that, and perhaps in that sense it should ultimately be seen as a film about being an outsider — in whatever way that might manifest. It all unfolds at a deliberate pace, beautifully filmed by a Spanish cinematographer (it’s a Chinese-Spanish co-production, it seems), and I look forward to further films from this debut director.

A Dog Barking at the Moon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Xiang Zi [aka Lisa Zi Xiang] 相梓; Cinematographer Jose Val Bal; Starring Naren Hua 娜仁花, Nan Ji [aka Siqin Gaowa] 斯琴高娃·南吉; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 30 March 2020.

江湖儿女 Jianghu Emu (Ash Is Purest White, 2018)

So Long, My Son, a new Chinese epic drama by director Wang Xiaoshuai, opens in UK cinemas today — a film I saw at this year’s London Film Festival. At last year’s LFF I saw another Chinese film, which opened in UK cinemas earlier this year, the latest by Jia Zhangke. I did a big post of four of Jia’s films yesterday, but his A Touch of Sin is up there amongst my favourite of the decade, even if his previous film Mountains May Depart didn’t thrill me quite so much. Still, he has plenty to say about modern Chinese society, and continues to work closely with actor Zhao Tao.


Jia Zhangke has always been making films that concern themselves with the enormous shifting forces in society, economic change and capitalist exploitation tied into enormous infrastructural projects of change and development of particularly our urban landscapes. It just feels like more and more he’s tying them to individual stories that don’t always feel like they have the expansiveness to sustain this kind of thematic weight (though his films remain epic in length and sweep at least).

This story is about a woman (played as ever by Jia’s long-time collaborator Zhao Tao) in love with a small-time local gangster (Liao Fan). She goes to jail for five years for pulling a gun on some thugs who are trying to beat him up, but he doesn’t stick around for her. It’s a film that stretches over about 17 years of time (from 2001 to the present), marking its passage of time not by title cards but by small changes like the use of mobile phone technology (or by large ones, like the sudden presence of huge modern development projects in the heart of a northern city like Datong), and, surprisingly to me, has quite a few laughs in it too.

If I’m not always convinced that the running time and tripartite structure is exactly earned by these characters’ lives, there’s still plenty of detail in its depictions of the changing Chinese landscape and economy to reward a viewing, and the performances are excellent as ever with Jia’s films.

Ash Is Purest White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Zhao Tao 赵涛, Liao Fan 廖凡; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 13 October 2018.

Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)

One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.

Continue reading “Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)”

嘉年华 Jia Nian Hua (Angels Wear White, 2017)

Following my review of Dead Pigs earlier today, another recent Chinese film to make waves, and not just because it was the only film directed by a woman in competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2017, is this one, Angels Wear White. In it second-time director Vivian Qu challenges sexually predatory men within Chinese society, part of what is implied to be wider corruption at the heart of the society, and a welcome challenge no doubt.


There’s a lot of discussion these days (and rightly so) about the destructive effect of sexual violence within patriarchal and authoritarian power structures can have on young women, and this film is a fine example of a situation in which institutional deficiences fail the people society is supposed to protect. It sets up a scenario involving a number of characters, each of which has their reasons for overlooking or excusing a horrific crime (the rape, not seen on camera, of two young girls by a corrupt police official). In many ways this is the same setup as another film I saw in the London Film Festival the same year (Beauty and the Dogs) but it’s done far more sensitively to my mind. The girls’ point of view is necessarily laconic, but we see their parents find reasons not to press charges, preferring to think about payouts and education in an area deprived of resources for this, while another strand follows a witness to the crime: a slightly older girl who has similarly been mistreated, having run away at a young age and is now living without the necessary government ID required to receive any support, doing menial cash jobs for little reward. In many ways she represents the younger girl a few years later, having toughened up and run away to a bigger city, but still prey to predatory men hanging around, offering the basic necessities of life in exchange for money or favours. It’s a corrupt society, no mistake, only exacerbated by the literally enormous metaphor of female sexuality on high heels that stands overlooking the seaside resort where it’s set.

Angels Wear White film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Vivian Qu 文晏; Cinematographer Benoît Dervaux; Starring Vicky Chen [or Wen Qi] 陳文淇, Zhou Meijun 周美君; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.