Review: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin II,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jing Wu, Zhu Yawen and Jackson Yee in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea, China, Japan and the United States, in December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

Steven John Venn in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” should have the more accurate title of “The Battle at Lake Changjin: The Deleted Scenes.” That’s because this cash-grab war movie isn’t a true sequel but just a series of scenes that could’ve been in the first movie. And the first movie wasn’t even that great in the first place. And even though “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (which is nearly three hours long) and its sequel “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (which has a total running time of about two-and-half-hours) are both over-indulgent messes, just because “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” has a shorter time length doesn’t make it better than its predecessor. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” is worse.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” has a nearly identical storyline as its predecessor, because the movie has the same production team as 2021’s “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam directed both movies, while both screenplays were written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin. In both movies, the Chinese military group People’s Liberation Army fights against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle at the Chosin Reservoir.

The Army’s 7th Company is led by a courageous and respected commander Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing), who has a 19-year-old brother named Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) in the company. Wanli enlisted in the Army against Qianli’s wishes. Also returning from the original “Battle at Lake Changjin” movie are the 7th Company’s political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han). Because this is a war movie, not everyone makes it out alive.

And once again, the chief villains of the story are U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird). “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” adds some more American leaders who weren’t in the “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” U.S. president Harry Truman (played by Ben Z Orenstein) appears briefly in a few scenes. Truman, who is depicted as someone who tried to reign in MacArthur, utters this line in one of the scenes: “MacArthur needs to be reminded that no man is bigger than this war.” Lieutenant Colonial Wilber Colbert (played by Steven John Venn) is a stereotype of a ruthless American military leader who thinks Americans are better than anyone else.

This inferior sequel does a few things differently with the characters in the movie, compared to “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” A wounded 7th Company battalion commander named Yang Wenjang (played by Geng Le) gets a little bit of a backstory. Wenjang has a flashback to his life before he was in the war, when he’s seen with his girlfriend. But that barely counts as character development, which is mostly non-existent in this movie.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (also titled “Water Gate Bridge”) has even more over-the-top battle scenes than in “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Some of the Chinese soldiers almost seem to have superhuman powers, based on the way they can do eye-popping leaps and kicks in the air, where they look like action stuntmen, not realistic soldiers. And sometimes, they’re literally on fire doing it, as there’s more than one sequence where soldiers who are burning up in flames still get things done.

Even though “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (which were both filmed during the same time period) are among the most expensively produced movies in China’s history, many of the visual effects look cheap and tacky, and the stunts often look sloppy. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” is even more incoherent than its predecessor.

It isn’t until the last 15 minutes of this three-hour schlockfest that “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” tries to bring some grief-stricken humanity to the story, to show the realistic emotional traumas of war. But by then, it’s too little, too late. The last scene in the movie is overly sentimental and looks very forced, because the sappy tone is very off-balance from the rest of the callous violence film. This final scene looks like it belongs in a completely different movie but was dropped in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” as a manipulative attempt to get viewers to cry.

The directors of “The Battle at Lake Changjin” movies have said that it’s possible that a six-hour directors’ cut could be released. Two to three hours of watching one of these films is more than enough time wasted. If you just want to turn your brain off and watch shootouts and explosions with mindless dialogue and forgettable characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” movies are for you. If you care about watching more meaningful and authentic movies about real-life wars, your time is better spent on any number of higher-quality choices.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2022. The movie was released in China on February 1, 2022.

Review: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jackson Yee and Jing Wu in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea and briefly in China from June to December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

James Filbird in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a very bloated war movie filled with simplistic dialogue, poorly written characters and tedious fight scenes. This repetitive depiction of a crucial battle in the Korean War does not earn its nearly three-hour running time. The film portrays China’s military group the People’s Liberation Army fighting against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Because it’s a scripted movie with some fictional characters, don’t expect it to be entirely accurate to real history.

If you only want to see war movies that have a certain agenda and care more about expensive-looking battle scenes than crafting a well-made war story, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. If you prefer to watch a war movie that places more importance on showing repetitive explosions and violent deaths than placing importance on audiences getting to know the main characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. For everyone else, it’s a mind-numbing slog that just looks like a video game with a big movie budget.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” (directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam) is reportedly one of the most expensively made Chinese movies of all time, with a production budget of $200 million. Most of that money looks like it went into the bombastic battle scenes that pull out every visual-effects trick in the book to make the explosions, battlefield shootouts and killings look very over-the-top. Unfortunately, hardly any of the movie’s budget seems to have been invested in quality screenwriting or acting. The movie’s screenplay (written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin) is simply abysmal, while the acting is mediocre at best.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” attempts to have some meaningful family drama, by having the movie’s two central characters as brothers who often disagree with each other. Older brother Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing) is commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s 7th Company, where is considered a a respected war hero. However, Qianli bears the burden and guilt over the war death of his older brother Wu Baili, who was killed in combat.

Qianli’s 19-year-old brother Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) admires his older brother Qianli. However, the two brothers clash because Wanli wants to join the People’s Liberation Army, but Qianli doesn’t want that to happen, mainly out of fear that he doesn’t want to lose another family member in war combat. Wanli doesn’t see it that way, because he thinks that Qianli views him as inferior and not brave enough to fight in a war. Therefore, Wanli feels insulted.

Not surprisingly, Wanli ends up secretly joining the Army, much to Qianli’s disapproval. Qianli tells Wanli that he won’t get any special treatment, just because they are brothers. In fact, Qianli goes out of his way to not give Wanli any help or advice, even when other members of the Army bully and tease Wanli because they think Wanli will get nepotism perks. A lot of people in this army doubt that babyfaced Wanli has what it takes to be a tough soldier.

Wanli remains steadfast in his commitment to the Army. And slowsly but surely, he starts to gain respect from his Army peers and Wanli. These supporting characters in the 7th Company aren’t given enough depth in their personalities or development in their story arcs. They include political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han).

Wanli’s first friend in the 7th Company is a fellow teen soldier named Zhang Xiaoshan (played by Shi Pengyuan) young soldier of the 7th Company who befriends Wanli. There’s also a sublot about how one of the People’s Liberation Army also includes Mao Anying (played by Huang Xuan), the eldest son of then-Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (played by Tang Guoqiang), also known as Chairman Mao, who allowed Anying to join the war with some reluctance. People who know Chinese history already know what Anying’s fate was.

Military officials in this movie are depicted as broad caricatures with hollow personalities that just recite forgettable lines. One of these side characters is Peng Dehuai (played by Zhou Xiaobin), People’s Volunteer Army commander and People’s Revolutionary Military vice chairman. The movie gives the worst jingoistic dialogue to American military officials such as U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird), who’s depicted as a robotic warmonger, who’s often wearing sunglasses and chomping on a pipe.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” gives very amateurish re-enactments of what behind-the-scenes war strategies might have been. The filmmakers seem to think that throwing in a lot of explosions and gunfire, in addition to showing men constantly shouting at each other, are enough to make a compelling war movie. It’s not. “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is an onslaught of very staged and very loud scenes of destruction that turn into a mishmash of mayhem until its very predictable conclusion.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lang Changjin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Cloudy Mountain’ (2021), starring Yilong Zhu, Zhi-zhong Huang, Shu Chen and Junyan Jiao

November 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zhi-zhong Huang and Yilong Zhu in “Cloudy Mountain” (Photo by China Lion Distribution)

“Cloudy Mountain” (2021)

Directed by Li Jun

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China’s Yunjiang county of the Guizhou province, the action film “Cloudy Mountain” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An estranged father and son must find a way to work together to save a busload of people who are trapped in a cave after a mountain avalanche, earthquake and other catastrophes that happen in a short period of time.

Culture Audience: “Cloudy Mountain” will appeal primarily to people who are interested watching formulaic disaster movies that have a lot of unrealistic action sequences and corny dialogue.

Shu Chen (center) in “Cloudy Mountain” (Photo by China Lion Film Distribution)

“Cloudy Mountain” is a formulaic and forgettable disaster movie where some people get trapped in an avalanche. It’s an apt metaphor for how this action melodrama gets buried by an avalanche of hokey dialogue and cringeworthy clichés. There is absolutely nothing surprising about anything that happens in this movie. It’s bad enough that the movie’s suspense is very phony and forced. It’s even worse that “Cloudy Mountain” gets more and more ridiculous until the movie reaches its very predictable ending.

Directed by Li Jun (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Sha Song), “Cloudy Mountain” also presents many generic characters with little or no backstory or memorable personalities. All of the movie’s cast members give performances that are mediocre or substandard, while the visual effects in “Cloudy Mountain” are adequate. The movie’s story structure is very jumbled, possibly to confuse viewers into thinking that “plot holes” equal “intrigue and mystery.”

“Cloudy Mountain” also has an overload of too many disasters happening in a short period of time, with people being caught off guard. In real life (not in a badly made disaster movie), all of the geological shifts that are depicted would have been detected over time by scientists, not suddenly noticed on the day that the mountain collapses. But there would be no “Cloudy Mountain” movie if it were scientifically accurate.

The movie takes place in China’s southwest region—specifically, Yunjiang county of the Guizhou province. At Yudang Mountain (also known as Mount Yundang), the Yunjiang Tunnel Project has been under construction for 10 years and is about to be completed. Just like many of the mountains in this region, Mount Yundang was created from volcanic formations. And you know what that means for this type of movie.

At the center of the story are geo-engineer Hong Yizhou (played by Yilong Zhu) and his railway construction worker father Hong Yungbing (played by Zhi-zhong Huang), who have had a rocky relationship for quite some time. Yungbing (who is a widower) is part of the China Railway Construction team that has been building the Yunjiang Tunnel Project. Yizhou (who is a bachelor) thinks that this type of construction could disrupt the volatile structure of mountains and potentially be disastrous. Yizhou believes in modern technology that can forecast possible danger that comes when the mountain shifts, while Yungbing doesn’t believe in this technology.

Yizhou, who is in his 20s, has a co-worker named Lu Xiaojin (played by Junyan Jiao), who is around the same age. When an unmarried man and an unmarried woman work together this closely in a disaster movie, the film usually has a contrived plot where the man and the woman have heated disagreements, even though it’s obvious that they’re attracted to each other. As they go through the disaster together, they become closer and fall in love.

A contrived romance is the one cliché for a disaster movie that “Cloudy Mountain” didn’t use, because Lu Xiaojin and Hong Yizhou remain as platonic co-workers throughout the story. When Lu Xiaojin makes a mistake and miscalculates a forecast, she gets yelled at by a supervisor. Hong Yizhou comes to Lu Xiaojin’s defense by saying that the condition of the mountain is always changing.

Yizhou and Lu Xiaojin are not romantically involved with each other, but he does have a love interest. Yizhou has been dating a no-nonsense scientist supervisor named Ding Yajun (played by Shu Chen), who spends most of her screen time at Zi Yakou Command Center, looking tensely at giant video monitors or barking orders to people as the disasters start coming at a rapid pace. And yes, there’s more than one disaster in this atrociously over-the-top movie.

Earthquakes, flooding, mudslides, giant land fissures and landslides that turn into avalanches are just some of the catastrophes that come down hard on this region, which has a population of about 160,000 people. And it all happens in a 48-hour period. “Cloudy Mountain” is supposed to be based on real events, but the movie has so many far-fetched scenarios, it’s hard to believe it was based on any type of reality.

“Cloudy Mountain” is quite muddled in explaining what caused the disasters, but there’s mention of tectonic plates shifting in the Indian Ocean, combined with the work on Yunjiang Tunnel Project. Because in a movie this, even though the construction was going on for 10 years, everything comes crashing down with hardly any advance warning in a matter of hours. One minute people are going about their daily lives. The next minute, the ground cracks open with big holes that cause automobiles to crash, people to fall into crevices on the street, and buildings to topple.

The only indication that a disaster is coming is when Yizhou uses cable wire to climb the mountain, and his computer detection shows “unusual activity.” Apparently, Yizhou is the only person in China who spotted this problem in advance. Predictably, no one listens to him until it’s too late.

Yizhou goes through so many crazy scenarios in this movie that would leave a real person dead or permanently disabled, but he has a superhuman ability to overcome whatever happens. In one scene, his car flips over and crashes into the water. That leads to a flashback that shows how his mother died, which explains why Yizhou and his father don’t have a very good relationship. It should come as no surprise that Yizhou carries around a lot of guilt and shame about his mother’s death.

Meanwhile, his father Yungbing finds himself trapped in a cave with people who crashed in their bus. And lo and behold, somehow Yizhou got himself out of his drowning situation and now he’s in the cave too. It gets dark, and Yizhou tells Yungbing that it’s too dark and cold to try to find their way out of the cave at night. Yungbing vehemently disagrees. The expected father/son bickering ensues.

And did we mention that Ding Yajun and her team have decided the best way to stop a crumbling mountain is to blow part of it up? Does she know that the part of the mountain that will get blown up has a cave where her boyfriend Yizhou and his father Yungbing are trapped? Does anyone care? It’s hard to care about pile-ons of ludicrousness when how it’s all badly staged filler until the movie’s inevitable sappy conclusion.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Cloudy Mountain” in select U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 11, 2021.

Review: ‘My Country, My Parents,’ starring Wu Jing, Leo Wu, Zhang Ziyi, Yuan Jinhui, Xu Zheng, Han Haolin, Shen Teng and Hong Lie

November 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hong Lie and Shen Teng (center) in “My Country, My Parents” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“My Country, My Parents”

Directed by Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Xu Zheng and Shen Teng

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China in 1942 to 1945; 1969; 1978; and the 21st century, the dramatic four-part anthology film “My Country, My Parents” (also titled “My Country, My Family”) features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The movie tells four separate stories of struggles and conflicts over parental issues.

Culture Audience: “My Country, My Parents” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about Chinese culture and about universal issues over parents or guardians who try to do the best they can for their children.

Zhang Ziyi and Yuan Jinhui in “My Country, My Parents” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

The dramatic anthology film “My Country, My Parents” is an uneven but still-interesting film with enough entertaining and emotionally moving moments that outweigh the moments when the movie falters with dull predictability. It’s a movie that is told in four parts (or four short films strung together), each from a different director who stars in each of the four stories. The four stories are “Windriders,” “Poem,” “Ad Man” and “Go Youth.” “My Country, My Parents” (which is also titled “My Country, My Family”) is the follow-up to 2019’s seven-part anthology film “My People, My Country” and 2020’s five-part anthology film “My People, My Homeland.” All of these films were created to put an emphasis on Chinese patriotism through the lens of stories about humanity and personal relationships.

“Windriders” (directed by Wu Jing)

“Windriders” is the first story in “My Country, My Parents.” Taking place from 1942 to 1945, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, it’s exactly what you might expect from a war movie. Wu Jing stars as Ma Renxing, a widower and a commander of the Jizhong Cavalry Regiment. He often clashes with his impulsive and equally stubborn son Ma Chengfeng (played by Leo Wu), who argues with his father, especially about who will get to ride a stallion called Big Boss.

Battle scenes on horseback get a lot of screen time. Although this story throws in some tragedy and sentimentality, “Windriders” puts more priority on the war action. Most viewers won’t find much to emotionally connect with or relate to in this story, unless you’ve had the experience of going into war combat with a parent or child. The filmmaking for this story isn’t bad, but it’s ultimately forgettable.

“Poem” (directed by Zhang Ziyi)

“Poem” takes almost the opposite approach of “Windriders,” by pouring on so many emotions and so much angst, it almost becomes a mini-melodrama. Zhang Ziyi stars as Yu Kaiying, a gunpowder sculptor in 1969. She has gone through two major tragedies within a 10-year period: The biological father of her two children died while serving in the military. He passed away when the kids were too young to remember him. (Du Jiang plays the father in a flashback.) And now, the children’s stepfather Shi Ruhong (played by Huang Xuan), the only father the kids have ever known, has died, also while serving in the military.

In 1969, her two children are a son nicknamed Four Eyes (played by Yuan Jinhui), who is about 7 or 8 years old, and an unnamed daughter (played by Ren Sinuo), who’s about 4 or 5 years old. Yu Kaiying is so devastated by Shi Ruhong’s death that she doesn’t know how to tell her kids, And so, she lies to them by saying that Shi Ruhong is still away from home because of military duties.

However, Four Eyes knows something is wrong because several other children in the neighborhood have missing fathers who disappered during military duty and are presumed dead. He begins to suspect that the only father he’s ever known has met the same fate, and he starts to ask questions. This leads to Yu Kaiying reminiscing about her courtship with Shi Ruhong, who liked to write poems to her.

Everything in “Poem” is bathed in warm-tinted cinematography (in dark gold and tawny), as if to give the movie a romantic glow. However, there are some harsh realities in the story that might be hard for some people to watch. Yu Kaiying is far from being an ideal parent. One day, Four Eyes has a tantrum and yells at her that she’s not a real father because his father used to spank him. She loses her temper and starts spanking Four Eyes until he’s in a sobbing heap. His younger sister witnesses this abuse and starts crying too.

Yu Kaiying shows remorse to her children for losing control of her emotions in such a negative way. The kids forgive her, but some viewers might lose any sympathy for Yu Kaiying during this domestic violence scene. It’s a jarring contrast to all the lovey-dovey courtship scenes in “Poem.” The story concludes by showing Yu Kaiying’s children as adults and what they ended up doing with their lives.

“Ad Man” (directed by Xu Zheng)

“Ad Man,” which takes place in 1978, is a welcome relief from the death and destruction of the previous two stories. The movie is a lighthearted story starring Xu Zheng as Zhao Pingyang, a struggling entrepreneur who decides to film his first TV commercial for his business of selling medicinal wine. He has bought so much wine, that it’s cluttered up his modest home that he shares with his wife Han Jingya (played by Song Jia) and their son Zhao Xiaodong (played by Han Haolin), who’s about 10 or 11 years old.

Zhao Xiaodong is so embarrassed by his father that he lies about what his father does for a living. The movie opens with Zhao Xiaodong giving a presentation in front of other students in a classroom where they have to talk about their fathers’ jobs. Zhao Xiaodong says with false pride that his father has been an architect, furniture maker, and he became the top sales manager at a pharmaceutical company. He also brags that his father predicted that phones without cords would be invented.

In the middle of this presentation, a boy stands up in class and says that Zhao Xiaodong is lying about everything. The boy announces that Zhao Pingyang is really a financially broke “loser” who’s heavily in debt and who used to sell duck eggs in front of the school. Zhao Xiaodong is so angry by what this boy says that he throws a book at him and gets in trouble for it. However, it’s true that Zhao Pingyang has serious financial problems and that he used to sell duck eggs in front of the school.

Zhao Pingyang’s wife Han Jingya is so upset with him for putting the family in a financial mess that she’s on the verge of divorcing him. Zhao Xiaodong makes it clear to his father that he’s also ashamed of him. Partially out of desperation and partially out of inspiration, Zhao Pingyang decides the best way to jumpstart his failing business is to film a TV commercial, which was still rare for small businesses in China in 1978.

Because he’s new to TV advertising, many mistakes are made, resulting in some comedic scenes. Zhao Pingyang ends up hiring a film crew of eccentric people. And eventually, he decides to star in the commercial himself. Is the commercial a success? Does he eventually get the respect of his wife and son? This is a feel-good story, so you can predict the rest.

“Go Youth” (directed by Shen Teng)

The best story in the movie is saved for last. “Go Youth” is a dramedy set in 2020, when a talking male robot (played by Shen Teng) from outer space has been sent to Earth and crash-lands in a field. He gets dismembered in the fall, but he puts himself back together. The robot eventually finds its way to the home of a boy named Xiao Xiao (played by Hong Lie), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Xiao Xiao is the only child of his widow mother Ma Daiyu (played by Ma Li), who spends a lot of time away from home, presumably because she has to work.

Xiao Xiao finds that he can control the robot by telling it what to do. The robot is named Xing Yihao, and he tells Xiao Xiao that he’s from the year 2050. “I’m fresh from the production line,” the robot says to Xiao Xiao. “They brought me here.” (Who are “they”? That question is answered at the end of the film in a delightful plot twist.)

The robot couldn’t have come at a better time in Xiao Xiao’s life. Xiao Xiao is a lonely child who’s being bullied at school by other kids. He can’t really talk about it with his mother, whom Xiao Xiao describes as “a nag.” Because Xing Yihao looks and acts like a real human being, Xiao Xiao pretends that the robot is his new father.

Xiao Xiao’s deceased father was a scientist/researcher whose specialty was artificial intelligence. Xiao Xiao also has an interest in computer-based science, so he easily bonds with the robot. At first, he treats Xing Yihao like a toy, but then he grows fond of the robot and starts treating it like a father figure/friend. A poignant moment happens when Xiao Xiao teaches the robot how to smile.

Xiao Xiao’s mother Ma Daiyu seems to give Xiao Xiao a lot of freedom to do things without adult supervision. She’s not around to see a lot of the shenanigans that Xiao Xiao gets up to with his new companion. Xiao Xiao and Xing Yihao spend a lot of time outdoors, where Xiao Xiao teaches Xing Yihao some things about how to live on Earth.

The robot also happens to have superhuman strength, which comes in handy when Xiao Xiao wants to fend off the school bullies, or to make a big impression in an upcoming athletic competition where fathers and sons pair up in teams. It’s during this athletic competition where Xiao Xiao sees that he and Xing Yih o,make a great team. It gives Xiao Xiao a lot of self-confidence, as well as respect from many of his classmates.

Xiao Xiao gets so emotionally attached to the robot, there’s a cute scene where Xiao Xiao introduces Xing Yihao to his mother as a blind date for her when she’s startled to see the robot for the first time. Xing Yihao is dressed in a spacesuit outfit when Ma Daiyu first sees the robot, so she thinks he’s a man who’s into cosplaying. No romance happens between the mother and the robot, but Xiao Xiao attempting to get his mother to like the robot is a sign that he wants Xing Yihao in his life for the long haul.

However, things don’t go as smoothly as Xiao Xiao would like. The robot keeps talking about having to go back to its place of origin. This kind of talk makes Xiao Xiao sad and confused, so he tries to ignore this robot’s wish to go back to its original home. Eventually, this issue can no longer be ignored, but how everything is resolved is not what a lot of viewers might expect.

“Go Youth” is the best story in this anthology because of how it’s heartwarming without being overly sentimental. It has the right blend of drama and comedy. And most of all, the dynamics between Shen Teng and Hong Lie are very entertaining to watch. Hong Lie is by far the most talented child actor in this anthology. He’s believable in every single scene. And although Shen Teng plays a robot, he brings glimmers of human empathy in the robot to make it an engaging character.

If there’s any noticeable flaw in all of this movie’s anthology stories, it’s in the sexist way that children who are girls are sidelined and not given much to do or say. In every story of this anthology, a male child is the only or main focus of a parent’s attention. Considering that Chinese culture is very patriarchal, it’s not too much of a surprise that male children are given more importance than female children in these stories. However, it’s commendable that a female director got to tell her story in this anthology. It might be gender tokenism to have only one female director out of four directors, but being part of the storytelling is better than being completely excluded.

CMC Pictures released “My Country, My Parents” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Never Stop’ (2021), starring Zheng Kai, Li Yunrui, Cao Bingkun, Zhang Lanxin and Sandrine Pinna

November 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zheng Kai in “Never Stop” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Never Stop” (2021)

Directed by Bowen Han

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, from the late 2000s to 2019, the dramatic film “Never Stop” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A retired champion sprinter, who is going through personal struggles, is reluctant to return to the sport when his former protégé tries to coax him out of retirement to run in a high-profile race against him.

Culture Audience: “Never Stop” will appeal primarily to people who are interested “comeback” sports movies and don’t mind if the story leans heavily into schmaltzy clichés.

Li Yunrui in “Never Stop” (Photo courtesy of China Lion Film Distribution)

“Never Stop” is clearly intended to be an inspirational sports movie. It’s too bad that the way this story is told is bogged down in too many uninspired clichés. It’s yet another story about an athlete who has to overcome obstacles to achieve glory and possibly gain some self-respect along the way. It’s not a completely terrible film, but it drags with too much repetition, forgettable dialogue, mediocre acting and unimaginative action scenes.

Directed by Bowen Han and written by Jia Zifu and Li Bai, “Never Stop” (which takes place in China from the late 2000s to 2019) follows two sprinter athletes whose lives go in very different directions. The movie explores issues of athlete retirement, such as when to retire and what to do after retirement. In the movie, one athlete retires before his career goes downhill, but he finds life after retirement to be difficult. The other athlete, who is a former protégé of the retired champ, has also become famous and tries to convince his former mentor to come out of retirement to run against him in a high-profile race.

It’s a simple concept for a movie, but it’s not delivered in a clever or creative way. The movie’s scenes often stretch monotonously, and many of the issues in the story are handled in a very banal manner. The opening scene (which takes place on April 17, 2009) shows Hao Chaoyue (played by Zheng Kai, also known as Ryan Zheng), when he was 19, winning a gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championship in the city of Linghai. Because “Never Stop” establishes right from the start that Hao Chaoyue is a champion, there’s no suspense when the movie spends a lot of screen time showing him and his protégé Wu Tianyi (played by Li Yunrui) training and competing together.

Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi have known each other since they were in sprinters in high school. Some of their high school experiences are shown in the movie’s flashbacks, when Hao Chaoyue was 17 and Wu Tianyi was 16. Even in high school, Hao Chaoyue excelled over Wu Tianyi. Wu Tianyi considers it a life goal to win a 100-meter sprint race against Hao Chaoyue. It’s a friendly rivalry, for the most part. Wu Tianyi has immense admiration for Hao Chaoyue, who is a very driven, intense and competitive athlete.

Hao Chaoyue generously helps his friend in training, so that’s why they have a mentor/ protégé relationship. This guidance pays off for Wu Tiyanyi, who wins his first gold medal at the National Youth Track & Field Championships. Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi make a pact that they will go to the Olympics together.

In the movie, Wu Tianyi is depicted as being so awestruck by Hao Chaoyue, he would often follow Hao Chaoyue around like a puppy dog who’s eager to please. Wu Tianyi also seems to have a bit of a “man crush” on Hao Chaoyue, because some scenes look like Wu Tianyi might have amorous feelings for Hao Chaoyue. This “man crush” is obvious enough where their teammates tease Wu Tianyi about it and wonder out loud if Wu Tianyi might be gay. The movie leaves Wu Tianyi’s sexuality open to interpretation.

Wu Tianyi might or might not have a crush on Hao Chaoyue, but Hao Chaoyue does not have romantic feelings for Wu Tianyi. In fact, immediately after Hao Chaoyue wins the gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championship, he proposes marriage to a pretty TV reporter named Qi Yueyue (played by Sandrine Pinna), who is near the racetrack. The proposal is on live TV, she says yes, and everyone cheers for the newly engaged couple.

The movie never really shows Qi Yueyue and Hao Chaoyue’s courtship, so it’s a big question mark if this couple should be together in the first place. Audiences are not given a reason to root for this couple. It’s one of many missing pieces in the story of Hao Chaoyue. For example, his childhood history is not mentioned in the movie at all.

“Don’t Stop” tells the story in a non-chronological way. The flashbacks are sometimes abrupt and don’t flow very well with the story. But viewers see that in 2019, Hao Chaoyue is 29 and retired from professional sports. Hao Chaoyue is no longer in top athletic shape (he’s gained about 20 pounds), and he now owns an athletics retail store that’s struggling financially. Hao Chaoyue, who lost a lot of money from a bad investment in athletic shoes, is so broke that he has to borrow cash to keep his business afloat.

Hao Chaoyue and Qi Yueyue have a son named Hao Siqi (played by Zhang Bowen), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. However, the spouses are separated and are in the process of divorcing. Their condominium is almost sold. Hao Chaoyue doesn’t want the divorce or condo sale to happen. When Qi Yueyue stops by his place with a banker (played by Zhang Dianlun) and papers to sign for the condo sale, Hao Chaoyue angrily rips up the papers and yells, “No one is taking away my condo!”

What happened in the 10 year-period that caused Hao Chaoyue’s life to go on a downward spiral? The movie goes into some details, but they’re depicted in a very superficial way. Without giving away spoiler information, it’s enough to say that Hao Chaoyue had some extreme highs and lows. His topsy-turvy journey in professional sports also led him to training in the U.S. for a while.

Meanwhile, Wu Tianyi continued to be a professional sprinter after Hao Chaoyue retired. However, Wu Tianyi also has some personal issues: As a child, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These memories still haunt Wu Tianyi, and he’s plagued by insecurities about his past, including having a very domineering and controlling father (played by Zhu Huige).

As an adult, Wu Tianyi is also taking medication that could get him banned from sports, but his doctors have told him that if he doesn’t take the medication, it could be so detrimental to his health that he will be forced to retire early. The stress and pressure get to him, because Wu Tianyi has a temper-tantrum meltdown at a press conference.

Zhang Benchi (played by Cao Bingkun) is a trainer who has worked with Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi. He has seen the ebbs and flows of their friendship. Zhang Benchi continued to work with Wu Tianyi after Hao Chaoyue stopped working with Zhang Benchi.

Wu Tianyi still has a goal to one day win against Hao Chaoyue in a 100-meter sprint race. The two former friends lost contact with each other over the years. Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue will soon cross paths again, because you can’t have a “comeback” sports movie without a has-been in need of a comeback.

Hao Chaoyue, who is now down on his luck, is desperate to recapture some of his sports glory in order to get publicity for his struggling athletics store. An opportunity comes up with the opening ceremony of a sports facility in his hometown. The city’s mayor Jia (Guo Tiecheng) used to be a well-known sports trainer. Hao Chaoyue convinces Jia that he can get Wu Tianyi to attend the opening ceremony.

Hao Chaoyue even volunteers to pick Wu Tianyi up from the airport. When the two ex-friends see each other for the first time in years, Wu Tianyi is shocked to discover that Hao is no longer the confident and physically fit athlete that he once knew. It doesn’t take long for Wu Tianyi to also find out that Hao Chaoyue is having financial problems.

Hao Chaoyue puts pressure on a very reluctant Wu Tianyi to sign a celebrity endorsement contract for the athletic shoes that Hao Chaoyue was stuck with in the bad deal. Because Wu Tianyi still wants to achieve the goal of winning a 100-meter sprint race against Hao Chaoyue, it should come as no surprise that Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue end up in this race. Hao Chaoyue needs the money, and Wu Tianyi needs the good publicity (and ego boost), because his meltdown at the press conference has tarnished his reputation.

In the lead-up the race, the movie shows more flashbacks, as well as Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue dealing with their current personal problems. Hao Chaoyue is nervous about coming out of retirement, and while Wu Tianyi still has doubts that he can win over someone he considered to be unbeatable for so long.

Of course, the race is just a symbol for how they each man deals with life’s challenges. “Never Stop” isn’t preachy about it, but the movie delivers its message in such a treacly, soap opera style that any authenticity seems to get lost in the syrupy mush. The movie has real-life athletes (such soccer player Fan Zhiyi and gymnast Li Ning) in cameo roles, but these brief appearances don’t help bring any special authenticity to the movie.

Zheng Kai reportedly trained with real-life sprinter Su Bingtian for this role. And the actors perform their roles adequately. The problem is that, just like a relay race track, “Never Stop” goes around in circles, by repeating the same dull tropes that are in sports movies like this, with hardly new or interesting to add. The racing scenes bring energy to the movie but they’re filmed in an entirely routine and predictable way.

The movie’s supporting characters are mostly forgettable. Hao Chaoyue has two friends who do workouts with him—taekwondo enthusiast Xie Xiaofang (played by Zhang Lanxin) and weightlifter Niu Tiejun (played by Li Chen)—but they don’t add much to the overall story. The only meaninful scene with Hao Chaoyue and his friends is when Hao Chaoyue, Xie Xiaofang, Niu Tiejun and Zhang Benchi have dinner together and get candid about their hopes and fears about life and retirement from sports.

Unfortunately, the main characters of Hao Chaoyue and Wu Tianyi are presented in only two ways: by showing their accomplishments or by showing their problems. Viewers never really get to see what Hao Chaoyue is like as a father, because he’s more worried about his failing business and making some kind of sports comeback. There are too many unanswered questions about Wu Tianyi and Hao Chaoyue. And the end result is a movie where the protagonists have a lot of blank voids that are never filled.

China Lion Film Distribution released “Never Stop” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, and in China on June 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Chinese Doctors,’ starring Zhang Hanyu, Yuan Quan, Zhu Yawen, Jackson Yee, Li Chen, Ou Hao and Zhou Ye

August 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Chinese Doctors” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Chinese Doctors”

Directed by Andrew Lau

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Wuhan, China, from January to March 2020, the dramatic film “Chinese Doctors” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During the several weeks that Wuhan was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous doctors and patients at a local hospital fight the devastating effects of the pandemic, including sudden deaths, problems with patient overcrowding, a shortage of hospital workers, staffers who are overworked, and various disagreements related to health care and their personal lives. 

Culture Audience: “Chinese Doctors” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a very melodramatic and unrealistically trite version of the COVID-19 crisis in Wuhan.

A scene from “Chinese Doctors” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Chinese Doctors” horrifically exploits the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic by being an unrealistic soap opera about what happened in Wuhan, China, when the city was at the epicenter of the pandemic in the first three months of 2020. Most of the movie is set in an unnamed hospital that quickly becomes overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in the hospital. Instead of giving valuable and informative re-enactments of what really happened in a Wuhan hospital, “Chinese Doctors” (directed by Andrew Lau and written by Yonggan Yu) presents an accelerated version of a disaster movie, where deaths are just used as drive-by spectacles.

This movie has an abundance of ridiculous, eye-rolling scenes that undermine the seriousness of the subject matter. For example, in real life, numerous infected people showed up at hospitals but were turned away because there was no room. No one rioted over it.

However, in “Chinese Doctors,” this scenario is filmed like an angry mob scene where infected people stormed into the hospital. At one point, the mob becomes so hostile, that a doctor stands up on a table and uses a megaphone to shout: “Do you want to live?” And she makes a threat that if people don’t calm down, “I’ll get even with you!”

It’s a movie where people do perky group dances together in an overcrowded hospital while patients are dying around them. It’s a movie where a doctor yells jubilantly to COVID-19 patients, “We’ll get everyone cured as soon as possible!” (Never mind that while all of this is happening in early 2020, there is no cure for COVID-19 or even a vaccine.) And it’s a movie that seems to revel in its shameless, tacky exploitation.

Aside from the tawdry soap opera elements to the story, the movie’s gaudy cinematography and quick-cut editing are in very poor taste because they emulate music videos or commercials in what’s supposed to be a dramatic film about a deadly pandemic. The death scenes in “Chinese Doctors” are used only as backdrops to the bickering, emotional breakdowns and ego posturing of the doctors. And there are at least two instances where the audience is manipulated into thinking that someone has died in the hospital from COVID-19, but it’s a fake plot development because the person or persons end up surviving.

The movie features several doctors and patients, but only some of them get enough screen time so that viewers get to know their personalities. These characters are:

  • Zhang Jingyu (played by Zhang Hanyu), the hospital’s chief doctor, who is in his 50s and who has a compassionate but firm personality. His wife ends up becoming a COVID-19 patient.
  • Wen Ting (played by Yuan Quan), a no-nonsense taskmaster in her 40s and who is the highest-ranking female doctor on the hospital’s COVID-19 crisis team. She’s the doctor from the aformentioned scene where she shouted threats to a mob of people in the hospital who demanded service.
  • Tao Jun (played by Zhu Yawen), an arrogant doctor in his 30s who arrives from a prestigious hospital in Guangzhou and almost immediately clashes with Dr. Zhang.
  • Yang Xiaoyang (played by Jackson Yee), a nervous doctor in his 20s who is eager to impress his more experienced colleagues.
  • Wu Chenguang (played by Li Chen), an even-tempered doctor in his 40s who is a trusted colleague of Dr. Zhang.
  • Jin Zai (played by Ou Hao), a food delivery guy in his 20s who is certain he won’t get infected because he’s very careful about wearing as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as possible.
  • Xiao Wen (played by Zhou Ye), Jin Zai’s wife, who is in her 20s and is about nine months pregnant with their first child, whom they already know will be a daughter.

There are the predictable frantic scenes of doctors trying to keep up with the overflow of patients coming into the hospital and worrying about running out of PPE, medicine, supplies and other necessities. Dr. Zhang leads a task force to recruit volunteer medical workers from other hospitals. It’s how Dr. Tao ends up at Dr. Zhang’s hospital. These two “alpha males” argue with each other about how things are supposed to be done.

Meanwhile, there’s a scene of a female doctor having a tearful meltdown because she hasn’t been able to go home and hasn’t seen her family for days. She’s scolded by another doctor (played by Liang Dawei), who says that everyone is in the same situation. He’s later embarrassed when he finds out from another colleague that the crying doctor’s father recently tested positive for COVID-19. The movie makes a point of showing that the doctors and other hospital workers have worn masks for so long, the masks have left temporary scars on their faces.

The beginning of the movie makes it look like random people could just show up at the hospital, like they would at a shopping mall. But in reality, hospitals during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis were very strict from the beginning about who was let inside the already over-crowded hospitals during this crisis. We’ve all heard the horror stories about people who weren’t allowed to visit their loved ones who were COVID-19 patients dying in hospitals. It isn’t until later in the movie that these restrictions are depicted, such as when Dr. Zhang has to talk to his coronavirus-stricken wife through videoconferencing on her cell phone while she was confined to a hospital bed.

As for expectant parents Jin Zai and Xiao Wen, their story is the most manipulative one in the film. Jin Zai is very confident in thinking that he won’t get infected (he wears a mask and gloves while working), even though his job requires him to interact with strangers when Wuhan was on a quarantine lockdown. And when someone in a trashy COVID-19 melodrama is absolutely sure that they won’t get infected, you can easily predict what ends up happening to that person.

“Chinese Doctors” is cynically being marketed as a noble tribute to the doctors and all the other health care workers who made huge sacrifices to help patients during this crisis that turned into a pandemic. In reality, it’s a sloppily made, cash grab melodrama that uses COVID-19 as a gimmick. The real-life hospital workers, other caregivers and patients deserve a better movie. For an accurate look at a Wuhan hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, watch the noteworthy 2020 documentary “76 Days.”

CMC Pictures released “Chinese Doctors” in select U.S. cinemas on July 30, 2021. The movie was released in China on July 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Ascension’ (2021), a cinéma vérité documentary of the different layers of consumerism in China

June 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

A livestreamer for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

“Ascension” (2021)

Directed by Jessica Kingdon

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of China, the cinéma vérité-styled documentary film “Ascension” features an all-Asian group of people at work and at leisure in this examination of how capitalistic consumerism works in Communist China.

Culture Clash: In a culture where the government enforces Communism/socialism and consumers embrace capitalism, the Chinese Dream is presented as an aspirational lifestyle of attaining wealth through hard work, but the dream remains out of reach for most people and is accessible to a small, elite percentage of the population.

Culture Audience: “Ascension” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in minimalist, “slice of life” documentaries about contemporary China, with no interviews, narration and analysis.

A worker at a WM Doll factory in Zhongshan, China, in “Ascension” (Photo by Jessica Kingdon)

How does a system of capitalistic consumerism work in China, a country controlled by a Communist government? The cinéma vérité-styled “Ascension” shows different layers of this system and lets viewers make up their own minds about it. It’s a documentary that’s more than just a compilation of “slice of life” footage, because the movie is presented as a mosaic of a culture.

People in the movie are rarely identified by name and absolutely no one is interviewed for the film. Therefore, don’t expect any deep analysis or commentary about what’s in the movie. However, just like a mosaic, it’s up to viewers to look at all the different segments that are presented and see what the big picture is.

“Ascension” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It won the Tribeca Film Festival jury prizes for Best Documentary Feature, while “Ascension” director Jessica Kingdon received the festival’s 2021 Albert Maysles Award for Best New Documentary Director. It’s a documentary whose storytelling style is not going to be everyone’s liking, especially for people who prefer documentaries to tell as much as show. “Ascension” take a more subtle “show” approach and doesn’t try to make anyone a star of the movie with manipulative editing.

In order to fully appreciate “Ascension” (directed by Jessica Kingdon), it helps to have this synopsis from the movie’s production notes: “‘Ascension’ is an impressionistic portrait of China’s industrial supply chain that reveals the country’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. The documentary portrays capitalism in China across the levels of its operation, from the crudest mine to the most rarefied forms of leisure.

“Accordingly, the film is structured in three parts, ascending through the levels of the capitalist structure: workers running factory production, the middle class training for and selling to aspirational consumers, and the elites reveling in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary Chinese Dream remains an elusive fantasy for most.”

Once viewers know that “Ascension” has a specific structure, it gives a better context to watching the documentary. Otherwise, for people not really paying attention, the movie might just come across as a bunch of random footage of contemporary life in China. The movie filmed in 51 locations across China, according to the “Ascension” production notes.

Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell provided the movie’s often-stunning cinematography. (The visually majestic outdoor scenes are the documentary’s cinematography highlights.) And the music by Dan Deacon is very atmospheric—sometimes dreamlike, sometimes jarring, sometimes haunting.

“Ascension” begins with a prologue quote from a poem titled “Ascension,” written in 1912 by Kingdon’s great-grandfather Zheng Ze: “I ascend and look far into my heart, only to find everywhere already razed.” It’s perhaps the only clue in the movie about what Kingdon feels is being presented in this documentary’s view of contemporary China: The constant hope of the Chinese Dream (the aspiration to reach the heights of luxury through hard work) is often crushed under the weight of dead-end jobs.

The “factory worker” level of “Ascension” begins with a montage of company recruiters trying to entice people on commercial streets to work at low-paying factory jobs. They use microphones so that their voices can be heard above the noises of the crowds. The places looking for employees can be anything from well-known corporate companies to small businesses.

In this documentary, a phone manufacturing company and a pen factory were among those with recruiters on the streets. A big selling point used by many recruiters is telling potential employees that people can sit while doing the job, since many other blue-collar jobs involve standing for long hours. The salaries mentioned are, on average, 16 yuan (or about $2) per hour.

Also on these streets are large electronic signs with a variety of slogans that read, “Sense of Worth,” “Chinese Dream” and Work Hard. And All Wishes Come True.” But do these wishes really come true? It depends on what those wishes are and who has those wishes.

“Ascension” then gives viewers glimpse in to the types of factory jobs that are the backbone of China’s economy. It’s why so many people around the world have at least one item with the label “Made in China.” The factory locations filmed in this segment of the documentary include a garment factory in Shenzhen; WM Doll (a sex doll company) in Zhongshan; a factory that processes cooked chicken; and a factory that makes pill bottles.

At the WM Doll factory, two female workers focus on how to repair the shoulder of a mannequin. At the garment factory, workers make pants and go through a quality assessment process. Workers at another factory are seen having a cafeteria-styled lunch.

The “middle-class” level of the documentary is the one where people have the liveliest personalities. Rather than having jobs where they’re expected to be “worker bees” and “drones,” there’s a lot more emphasis on being successful entrepreneurs. It’s at this level that the Chinese Dream seems more attainable, and that optimistic hope is more evident in the workforce.

One of the more memorable highlights of this middle-class segment is footage from Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, a two-day workshop where the motto is “Monetize Your Personal Brand.” The female leader of the workshop is energetic and enthusiastic in her pep talks and advice on personal sales: “Buying is a choice, one we don’t have to make,” she says. “Why should people buy from you? Because you’re a brand.”

She further notes that people will buy from those whom they like and trust. “We’re in a fan economy era. If you have a large fan base, you have everything.” At the conclusion of Star Boss Entrepreneurial Camp, participants have a “graduation” ceremony, where they get framed completion certificates, go in front of the room, and say their company name and profit goals. The goals are predictably high, with people saying that they want to make millions within the next five years.

“Ascension” also shows how China is part of the boom of entrepreneurs who want to get rich through social media. Just as it is in Western countries, “influencer culture” is huge in China. A woman is shown livestreaming a product demonstration for Yiwu Siwen Shoe Company, so that she can sell athletic shoes. Another woman, who’s a beauty influencer, takes selfies and does a makeup tutorial.

At a flight attendant training program (where all of the participants are women, except for one man), the emphasis is on etiquette and physical attractiveness. Someone who’s not shown on camera says in a micophone to the class: “There’s a saying that every Chinese woman is a pretty Chinese business card. So every Chinese woman, let’s present the prettiest image of China!” When the class completes the training, the graduates pose for a group photo.

The documentary also shows training sessions for jobs that usually attract men. There’s footage of International Butler Academy in Chengdu, where potential butlers are shown how to do proper housekeeping duties, such as bedsheet preparation. Waiters are also shown training at Windows of the World, an upscale restaruant in Shenzhen.

At Genghis Security Academy in Bejing, training looks very similar to a police academy, since the trainees are armed with guns. In a military-styled line of standing trainees, one man makes a mistake, and the instructor shouts at him and kicks him. As further punishment, this trainee is ordered to do push-ups in front of the other trainees.

A documentary about consumerism wouldn’t be complete without footage of people spending money. “Ascension” includes scenes from New South China Mall in Dongguan and New Century Global Center in Chengdu. People are shown gathered at a water park in New Century Global Center. There’s also footage of a computer video game arcade, populated almost entirely by males in their teens and 20s.

The “elite” segment toward the end of the documentary is also the shortest segment. There’s footage of a dinner at Windows of the World, with three men and two women, who are in the late 20s or early 30s. They are all presumably wealthy. One of the women says, “I like the U.S. … because of the freedom.” One of the men says in response, “Personally speaking, I’m a patriot [of China] … China is a global player now.”

This confidence in China’s economy is also expressed at JALA’s annual conference in 2020. (JALA Group is a leading cosmetics enterprise in China.) “Ascension’s” footage of this conference includes a speaker who tells the large audience of hundreds who are gathered for the speech: “Chinese brands must win!”

As much as “Ascension” shows about the Chinese economy and workforce, the documentary can get viewers to think about what’s missing from the movie that would be in a documentary about the American economy and work force. An American documentary would have complaints of employee burnout or exploitation; the minimum wage as it relates to being a “living wage”; employee contracts; taxes and tarriffs; labor laws, etc. The point is that the American Dream and the Chinese Dream might have many things in common, but the freedom to speak out against flaws in the system is another story.

UPDATE: MTV Documentary Films will release “Ascension” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. Paramount+ begins streaming the movie on November 15, 2021.

Review: ‘My Love’ (2021), starring Greg Hsu and Zhang Ruonan

June 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Greg Hsu and Zhang Ruonan in “My Love” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“My Love” (2021)

Directed by Han Tian

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2006 to 2021, the comedy/drama film “My Love” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage boy in high school falls in love with a fellow student, and for the next 15 years he tries to have a romance with her.

Culture Audience: “My Love” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in romantic stories that are sweet, sometimes whimsical and very sentimental.

Zhang Ruonan and Greg Hsu in “My Love” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

The romantic comedy/drama “My Love” takes viewers on a 15-year saga of a young man pining for a young woman whom he thinks is the love of his life. It’s a series of ups and downs in a love story that sometimes pours on the schmaltz and cutesiness too much, but the ending leaves no doubt that “My Love” is not a completely stereotypical romantic movie. The performances by the lead actors are charming enough to sustain interest when parts of the movie get a little too repetitive.

Directed by Han Tian (who co-wrote the “My Love” screenplay with Zhang Ying Jiao Tingting), “My Love” is based on director Lee Seok-Geun’s 2018 South Korean film “On Your Wedding Day.” In “My Love,” socially awkward Zhou Xiaoqi (played by Greg Hsu) and coolly confident You Yongci (played by Zhang Ruonan) first meet in 2006, when they were both about 17 years old in high school. The movie takes place in unnamed cities in China, and was filmed in the cities of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Xiamen and Zhangzhou.

The story is told as a narrative flashback from Zhou Xiaoq’s perspective. It’s shown at the beginning of the film that as a man in his early 30s in the year 2021, he is now a swimming coach at a local high school. And the flashbacks begin in 2006 and are shown in increments by year.

It’s love at first sight for Zhou Xiaoqi the first time that he sees You Yongci at their high school. But the first time they make eye contact, it’s under humiliating circumstances for Zhou Xiaoqi: He’s getting beat up by some of the school bullies outside. Zhou Xiaoqi makes brief eye contact with You Yongci, and he’s instantly smitten. She barely seems to remember him when they talk for the first time.

You Yongci, who is an aspiring fashion designer, has recently transferred to the school and she’s able to make friends. Zhou Xiaoqi is somewhat of a nerd, but he does have something going for him which doesn’t make him a complete social outcast at school: He’s one of the better athletes on the school’s swimming team. And he hopes to impress You Yongci by winning swimming competitions.

Zhou Xiaoqi doesn’t get very far with You Yongci during the high school years of his courtship of her. He makes it clear from the beginning that he wants them to date each other, but she puts him in the “friend zone.” He respects those wishes but lets her know that he’s ready to romance her if she changes her mind.

Predictably, there are a few arrogant bullies on the school swim team who want to upstage and embarrass Zhou Xiaoqi. His biggest rival is a guy named Shark. And they think that You Yongci is out of Zhou Xiaoqi’s league.

There are some scenes of swim meets where You Yongci is there to cheer on Zhou Xiaoqi. At one of the swimming competitions, Zhou Xiaoqi is bullied and taunted again, but You Yongci races to his side wth a popsicle and briefly pretends that she’s his girlfriend to boost his confidence and to make his bullying teammates jealous.

As the two teens get to know each other better, Zhou Xiaoqi finds out that You Yongci has a shameful family secret: Her father physically and emotionally abuses her mother. And because of that, You Yongci and her mother constantly move to get away from You Yongci’s father. He usually finds them and the abuse starts again.

Zhou Xiaoqi offers to be there are a protective friend for You Yongci, but she refuses his help, mostly because she’s embarrassed about the domestic abuse in her family. And one day, Zhou Xiaoqi finds out that You Yongci has abruptly moved away with her mother again and hasn’t left a forwarding address. And none of the people at the school know where You Yongci went.

It’s now 2008, and Zhou Xiaoqi has been living an aimless life while still living home with his parents. He still thinks about You Yongci a lot. It’s implied that Zhou Xiaoqi doesn’t date very much or doesn’t date at all because he still thinks that You Yongci is “the one that got away.”

But one day, Zhou Xiaoqi is elated to find out, through a photo posted on social media, that You Yongci is enrolled at a university. Finding a purpose in life, Zhou Xiaoqi announces to his parents that he’s enrolling in the university. They’re thrilled that he seems to have found some goal in his life.

When he gets to the university, Zhou Xiaoqi comes across another obstacle in his attempt to court You Yongci. She has a boyfriend named Chen Chen (played by Guo Cheng), and he’s the star of the university’s soccer team. You Yongci is on the university cheerleading squad.

In order to be close to You Yongci, Zhou Xiaoq joins the cheerleading squad too. He’s the only man on the squad. And so, many of his male peers tease him about it. And it leads to more embarrassing situations where his masculinity is questioned.

Zhou Xiaoq’s actions seem stalker-ish, but he has such a harmless personality that viewers will probably be rooting for him, even though he puts himself in situations that make him look pathetic. You Yongci appreciates the attention that she gets from Zhou Xiaoq, but even she gets irritated occasionally with his lovesick behavior. And there’s tension and jealousy over You Yongci’s relationship with Chen Chen.

What will it take for You Yongci and Zhou Xiaoq to get together? And will it ever happen? And if it does, how long will it last? Those questions are answered in the movie. But it’s enough to say that the entire time that Zhou Xiaoq and You Yongci know each other, he’s constantly insecure that he isn’t good enough for her.

A lot of the antics that Zhou Xiaoq resorts to fall into slapstick comedy territory. Others are straight out of romantic drama stereotypes. Yes, there’s a frantic race to catch up to someone in the rain to tell that person something before it’s too late. Yes, there’s a medical crisis when Zhou Xiaoq gets a serious injury. And yes, there’s a big wedding in the movie. (None of this is spoiler information. It’s all in the movie’s trailer.)

These over-used tropes would be insufferable, but the last third of the film is really the best. And the wedding scene might not be what a lot of people think it will turn out to be. Even though the movie takes place over 15 years, there is barely any attempt to age the actors portraying Zhou Xiaoq and You Yongci. It’s a little bit of a distraction that the characters look the same at 17 as they do at age 32. But the gradual emotional maturity of the characters, not what they look like on the outside, is what counts the most in how these actors play their roles.

“My Love” is not the type of film that will be considered one of the greatest romantic movies of all time. But it’s exactly what it appears to be: an entertaining and mostly lightweight diversion. The movie’s greatest message is that it will make people think about how long it’s worth pursuing a dream and if that dream is really the best thing for the person who’s holding on to it.

CMC Pictures released “My Love” in select U.S. cinemas on May 7, 2021. The movie was released in China on April 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Cliff Walkers,’ starring Zhang Yi, Yu Hewei, Qin Hailu, Zhu Yawen, Liu Haocun, Ni Dahong

May 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zhang Yi in “Cliff Walkers” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Cliff Walkers”

Directed by Zhang Yimou 

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1930s China, the dramatic film “Cliff Walkers” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, wealthy and government spies.

Culture Clash: Four Communist spies, who are on a mission to rescue a former prisoner who witnessed war crimes by Japanese invaders, are betrayed by a traitor and try to stay alive during various deadly threats.

Culture Audience: “Cliff Walkers” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in riveting spy thrillers told from a historical Chinese perspective.

Liu Haocun in “Cliff Walkers” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“Cliff Walkers,” the first spy movie from celebrated Chinese director Zhang Yimou, tells a captivating and thrilling tale (inspired by real events) of four Communist spies in 1931 China. The spies face life-threatening obstacles not only from their own ranks but also from the Japanese who invaded China during this time period. Much more than the usual “cloak and dagger” story about spies, “Cliff Walkers” has plenty of emotional resonance by realistically showing the heart-wrenching toll on the family lives of spies when these espionage agents go into this line of work.

“Cliff Walkers” (formerly titled “Impasse”) is the first feature-film screenplay from Quan Yongxian. He was previously a writer for the 2021 Chinese drama TV series “Cliff,” which was about spy couple working in Harbin, China. “Cliff Walkers,” which also takes place primarily in Harbin, is an apt title for the movie, since the main characters are constantly on the precipice of danger.

The suspense in this thriller doesn’t let up and will also keep viewers on edge. And although there’s some raw violence in the movie, this isn’t an over-the-top “Mission: Impossible”-styled spy flick where the spies also happen to be stunt masters. These espionage agents have to use their wits more than physical tricks to help them get out of predicaments.

Taking place in 1931, “Cliff Walkers” has a brief written intro explaining the historical context of what is going on while the story is happening. Japan has invaded China, resulting in secret camps where Chinese people are tortured. The puppet state Manchuku in China was controlled by the Japanese during this time period.

In the midst of this political and human-rights turmoil, four Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spies have returned to Manchuku from the Soviet Union. These four espionage agents are doing a secret mission called Operation Utrennya. The operation’s purpose is to rescue a former prisoner named Wang Ziyang, who escaped from the Japanese-operated killing grounds Beiyinhe in China that was evenutally bombed by the Japanese. Because of what he experienced and witnessed, Wang Ziyang could expose war crimes (such as human experimentation) committed by the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731.

The four spies happen to be two couples: quick-thinking and empathetic leader Zhang Xianchen (played by Zhang Yi), a former journalist; Wang Yu (played by Qin Hailu), who is Zhang’s even-tempered wife; Chu Liang (played by Qin Hailu), who is younger and more impulsive than Zhang; and Xiao Lan (played by Liu Haocun), who is Chu’s chameleon-like girlfriend. In the beginning of the story, the four comrades have split into two groups, as decided by Zhang. Group 1 consists of Zhang and Lan. Group 2 consists of Yu and Liang.

During freezing snowy weather, their caper begins. And, of course, there are immediate problems. A betrayal within the CCP spy ranks leads to the deaths of certain people early on in the story. And this traitorous ambush sends Zhang and Lan on a frantic quest to Harbin, in order to warn Yu and Liang about the betrayal while also trying to stay alive. Meanwhile, a fellow CCP agent named Zhou Yi (played by Yu Hewei) has his loyalties tested, since he is embedded with the enemy.

It wouldn’t be a spy story without a chief villain. And in this story, the villain is Gao Bin (played by Ni Dahong), a sadistic enforcer of the Japanese invasion. He represents the type of citizen who will be a traitor if it means he will be in a position of power. The Chinese spies willing to fight for their country have poison pills (kept in a mtachbox) that play a signficant role in the story.

Adding to the drama, Zhang and Yu are separated from their two kids who have become wayward street urchins. Their daughter is 8 years old, while their son is about 5 or 6 years old. At one point in the movie, Zhang is told that the children were last scene begging near the Modern Hotel. It just so happens that the Modern Hotel is where Lan goes with soem trusted allies to hide out.

What makes “Cliff Walkers” different from many other spy movies is the heartbreaking storyline of two spy parents (Zhang and Yu) who have been separated from the children and are trying to reunite with them, while the parents also having to fulfill their government responsibilities in their line of work. If they abandon their jobs, they are at risk of being punished and perhaps permanently separated from ther children. It’s a stressful and life-threatening tightrope that’s pulled in man different directions throughout the story.

Zhang’s portrayal of the spy whos shares his name is one of courage and humanity. It’s not an overly flashy role, but there are action sequences where Zhang the spy shows impressive combat skills. Lan is the other character who has many physically challenging action scenes. Frequently, she is the only woman with any power in the room. And she uses that power wisely.

While making “Cliff Walkers,” director Zhang Yimou went for as much realism as possible. According to some production information from the movie’s U.S. publicist: “Historical locations in Harbin were 100% rebuilt just for the film, such as the city’s central street, Asia Cinema and Martyr Hotel which were completely recreated in 1930s style. Lead actor Zhang Yi grew up in Harbin and in fact lived on a street that was one of the rebuilt filming locations. During filming, he was able to find his parents’ old house there and video chatted them to show them how accurately recreated it was.” And the freezing, snowy weather wasn’t faked for the movie.

The accurate production design and the striking cinematopgraphy make “Cliff Walkers” an visually intriguing movie to watch. But the movie wouldn’t work as well, if not for the success it has at maintaining a tone of urgency and suspense, thanks to the absorbing screenplay and well-paced direction. “Cliff Walkers” is not a movie for people who are negatively triggered by scenes of violence and torture. But for people who can handle on-screen depictions of the realistic cruel inhumanity that’s inflicted during political oppression, then “Cliff Walkers” offers a compelling look that is filled with despair and hope, just like real life.

CMC Pictures released “Cliff Walkers” in select U.S. cinemas on April 30, 2021, the same day that the movie was released in China.

Review: ‘A Writer’s Odyssey,’ starring Lei Jiayin, Yang Mi and Dong Zijiang

February 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lei Jiayin in “A Writer’s Odyssey” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“A Writer’s Odyssey”

Directed by Lu Yang

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the fantasy/action film “A Writer’s Odyssey” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A desperate man, who’s been searching for his missing daughter for the past six years, gets caught up in a murder plot and an alternate world that are connected to what a young novelist is writing for his latest book.

Culture Audience: “A Writer’s Odyssey” will appeal primarily to people who like immersive, eye-catching action films that have twist-filled plot developments.

Yang Mi in “A Writer’s Odyssey” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

It’s not just the graphic violence that makes the fantasy/action film “A Writer’s Odyssey” geared to adults. At the core of a movie is a time-traveling mystery that is wrapped up and eventually unraveled in layers, making it a somewhat convoluted story that very young children will have a hard time understanding. But the movie is worth a watch for anyone who’s up for a story that examines issues of grief and revenge, while taking viewers on a frenetic ride in this otherworldly enigma.

To fully understand “A Writer’s Odyssey” (directed by Yang Lu), it helps to know in advance that the movie switches back and forth between two different worlds. In the “real world,” a disillusioned and bitter man named Guan Ning has been on an unrelenting quest to find his daughter Tangerine, who disappeared six years earlier when she was 6 years old. Meanwhile, a young author named Kongwen Lu (played by Dong Zijian) has been writing the latest book in his fantasy novel series, which follows a heroic teenager who is also named Kongwen.

Kongwen Lu’s writing come to life in the movie, and it’s all presented as an “alternate world,” where monsters exist, there are armies of robot-looking mutants, and humans look and act like warriors—or at least potential warriors. In this “alternate world,” whatever Kongwen Lu writes happens on screen. But there comes a point in the movie where what happens in the “alternate world” has an effect on people in the “real world” and vice versa.

“A Writer’s Odyssey” opens up with a thrilling action scene that introduces Guan Ning as the protagonist who finds himself unexpectedly caught between these two worlds. He’s lying in wait in a mountainous area and throws a rock at the windowshield of a freight truck driving below on a winding road. The rock breaks the window, which causes the truck to crash. There are two men sitting in the front of the truck, and they suffer minor injuries.

While the driver is briefly unconscious, Guan Ning shouts to the other man about his missing daughter Tangerine: “Six years ago in Liaoyuan, you kidnapped her. Where is she?” Guan Ning and the thug end up fighting. The driver then regains his consciousness and hits Guan Ning with a pipe.

Guan Ning runs to the back of the truck, opens the door, and sees several children locked in cages, but Tangerine is not one of them. The kids in the cages all look to be about 6 to 8 years old, while Tangerine would be about 12. And the next thing you know, police arrive, the two thugs run off, and Guan Ning is arrested for suspected kidnapping and child trafficking. He protests and says he’s an innocent father who’s looking for his daughter.

In another big fight scene, Guan Ning manages to escape from the back of the police squad car. He runs to the nearest car on the street. It’s a black car that has a mysterious woman dressed in black leather in the driver’s seat. Even though Guan Ning has never met her before, she knows who he is. Her name is Tu Ling (played by Yang Mi), and she tells Guan Ning: “You’re our valued business partner.”

Tu Ling also tells Guan Ning that she knows that his life revolves around finding his missing daughter. She comments that she also knows that he used to be a banker, but after Tangerine disappeared, he quit his job, sold his house, and divorced his wife. Guan Ning is suspicious of Tu Ling, who offers to hide Guan Ning from the police if he will do some favors for her.

Guan Ning is reluctant, but then Guan Ning says that she has information that could lead to him finding his daughter. And so, Guan Ning goes with Tu Ling, who takes him further down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies. It’s enough to say that whenever a mysterious stranger makes an offer that’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Tu Ling has a ruthless boss named Li Mu who has a murderous agenda that’s eventually revealed. Meanwhile, the alternate world created by Kongwen Lu begins to collide more with the real world until it becomes obvious that there’s a power struggle going on that involves the supernatural. Meanwhile, Guan Ning is forced to make a decision that could mean the difference between sparing someone’s life and Guan Ning getting killed, or killing someone else and saving his own life.

All of the actors do moderately good jobs in their performances, but Lei Jiayin has to show the widest range of emotions. There are some predictable flashback scenes of Guan Ningin in happier times with Tangerine, with these scenes blatantly tugging at viewers’ heartstrings. The mystery behind her disappearance isn’t handled in a completely predictable way, which makes “A Writer’s Odyssey” more than a typical fantasy/action flick.

“A Writer’s Odyssey” is based on Xuetao Shuang’s book “Assassinate a Novelist.” There are seven people credited with writing the movie’s screenplay: Xuetao Shuang, director Yang Lu, Shu Chen, Xiaocao Liu, Haiyan Qin, Lu Yang and Yang Yu. With all these screenwriters for the movie, the plot sometimes seems overstuffed with ideas and bloated by “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. And the total running time for the movie (130 minutes) is a little too long.

It’s obvious that a great deal of this movie’s budget was spent on visual effects, which are intricate and sometimes stunning but won’t be winning any awards. The violence is often bloody and cruel, while the choreography works very well in most of the action scenes. At times, “A Writer’s Odyssey” looks like a big-budget video game, but the movie has more humanity than a video game in handling the mystery at the center of the story. Underneath the brutal fight scenes and dazzling visual effects is a story of how a parent’s love for a child can lead someone to go to extreme and desperate actions.

CMC Pictures released “A Writer’s Odyssey” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021, the same day that it was also released in mainland China, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Singapore.

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