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.

NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)

Like any town with more than a handful of cinemas (though barely more than a handful), there are a range of smaller film festivals being organised to show films that otherwise wouldn’t make it to a big screen, and such is the way in Wellington, where recently there was a French Film Festival. It showed a handful of classics (like Breathless) but most of the programme was dedicated to recent films, and I saw a few so that’s what I’ll be focusing on this week. I’ll start with the latest film de Anne Fontaine, the Luxembourger who’s not my favourite filmmaker but who does solid work.


This film is called Police in the original, but the title is shown reflected from right to left, and that very much cues you up to what to expect: it’s about the police, sure, but… are they the good guys? The title is a bold move, though, given there’s a Pialat film of the same name, and, look, I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing that Anne Fontaine directorial credit and being a bit dismissive, but I’ve never really hated any of her films I’ve seen (even Adore aka Perfect Mothers), and I appreciate her spin on fairly well-worn tropes, even if ultimately it all ends up feeling just a little… off somehow. Still, she’s assembled a fine cast of big names. Efira! Sy! Another couple of guys, who feel pretty honest to their characters, and she’s telling a story of morality intersecting with one’s work. It goes where it goes, and it doesn’t explain everything for the viewer; certain outcomes are hinted at, but there’s no expectation of change and I’m not sure Fontaine is even trying to redeem these guys, just give some perspective. I’m not suddenly, as a result, going to start loving cops as film subjects, but this feels like solid character work.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Claire Barré and Fontaine (based on the novel by Hugo Boris); Cinematographer Yves Angelo; Starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Gregory Gadebois; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 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.

Criterion Sunday 299: 春婦伝 Shunpuden (Story of a Prostitute, 1965)

Suzuki has a masterful sense of constructing an image, which you might expect given his intensive record of filmmaking throughout the 60s resulting in some of the most eye-catching set design and at times dabbling in pop art iconography. This one sticks to black-and-white for its World War II-period story about a young woman who is pressed into ‘service’ on the frontlines in China, where she falls for the eager young Private Mikami (Tamio Kawachi) who serves under a rather more brutal superior officer (Isao Tamagawa). Along with her story (and the actor Yumiko Nogawa is excellent, really tearing into the material with gusto), the film also takes aim at Japanese military policy and the dehumanising nature of warfare, as the private finds himself on trial for being captured by the enemy (despite being unconscious at the time). It’s a fascinating film and one made with Suzuki’s usual flair.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writer Hajime Takaiwa 高岩肇 (based on the novel by Tajiro Tamura 田村泰次郎); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Yumiko Nogawa 野川由美子, Tamio Kawachi 川地民夫, Isao Tamagawa 玉川伊佐男; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 March 2020.