How the Rich Ate South Korea: how the chaebol have dominated South Korean politics and economy since 1945

“How the Rich Ate South Korea” (Asianometry, March 2022)

One paradox regarding South Korea’s economic success over the past 60 years is that (as this mini-documentary observes) one factor in that success is turning out to be a major curse. Moreover that factor may well become a cause of the country’s downfall as an economic power. South Korea’s economy is dominated by a group of large corporate conglomerates known collectively as the chaebol. These conglomerates are familiar to Westerners with names like Hyundai and Samsung, and (in earlier years) LG and Daewoo. These companies had their origins in the 1940s – 1950s, when South Korea’s first president Rhee Syngman began privatising state enterprises and enterprises seized from Japanese owners in order to raise money to fight the Korean War. The prices that buyers paid for these enterprises were determined through private negotiation. After 1961, when Park Chunghee seized the presidency, he enlisted the help of the chaebol in his goal to emulate Japanese economic success: the companies supported his import substitution policies and his ambitions to develop export industries, and the South Korean government gave loans to the chaebol at below-market rates. Over the next couple of decades, the South Korean government favoured the chaebol with economic “reforms” that also had the effect of suppressing the country’s medium and small business sectors. By the 1980s the wealth inequalities that had appeared between the families that owned the chaebol and the rest of the South Korean public – who also wanted better environmental regulations and working conditions, and a better quality of life – were becoming a major political issue.

After Park Chunghee’s assassination in 1979, South Korea was taken over by a military government and the chaebol supported the presidencies of Chun Doohwan and Roh Taewoo by throwing money at them. In 1987, the country became a democracy but rules for political campaigning and their funding were either weak or non-existent, and the chaebol took advantage of this situation to penetrate democratic politics and buy parties and politicians by financing their election war chests. The chaebol were rewarded by the politicians they bought via “reforms” such as regulations that favour them, protections from foreign competition and legislation that allow them to access foreign capital financing. Other “reforms” affected the chaebol’s organisation structures that allowed members of the families that owned the chaebol to own shares in many subsidiary companies and thus exercise more control over more companies. Cross-ownership (in which companies hold shares in one another) was allowed. Many of these so-called “reforms” were to lead to economic meltdown in 1997 as a result of the companies’ over-exposure to debt.

Although reformist Presidents like Kim Daejung and Roh Moohyun tried to curb chaebol abuses by limiting debt capacity and cross-shareholder structures, these changes did have the unintended effect of concentrating ownership in a number of industries to the extent that some industries became monopolies. In 1997, there were five independent Korean auto-makers; after that year, there was just one: Hyundai. In the early 2000s, the chaebol took advantage of a neoliberal global economic environment to expand their markets and huge profits began rolling in. After 1997, an agreement between the Korean government and the chaebol allowed the chaebol to start laying off people in droves with the result that hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs and poverty, especially among older people, escalated rapidly.

Although the Korean voting public has tried to bring to power politicians who can solve the country’s economic problems and reduce poverty and wealth inequalities, leaders like Lee Myungbak and Park Geunhye have failed to curb the excesses and greed of the chaebol. At the same time, the national government has failed to enforce laws and regulations that the public has long demanded be strengthened and which the chaebol resist. At the time this mini-documentary was made, chaebol power over South Korean politics and the resulting consequences and tragedies (such as the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry, killing 304 passengers including 250 high school students, in April 2014) continue to be the prime issue in South Korean society.

South Korea’s economic success story mirrors that of Japan during the late 19th / early 20th centuries and one can argue that South Korea is now in a position similar to Japan’s in the late 1940s: Japan solved its crisis by breaking up the zaibatsu (admittedly because the US post-war administration insisted on this) and replacing the institutions and networks associated with the zaibatsu with looser arrangements. It is obvious that the chaebol also need to be broken up but in the current global economic context, in which neoliberal economics favouring centralisation of power in larger institutions dominated by small yet powerful elites prevail, what should replace the chaebol is the major problem: South Koreans need to ensure that whatever organisations or arrangements replace the chaebol do not themselves turn into a new generation of chaebol in everything but name.

The mini-documentary is well made with good, often quite lavish visual material made up of photographs, archived film and aerial scenes of metropolitan Seoul. It serves as a useful introduction into the history of South Korea and its economic development. Where the video could be improved is in noting that despite the rampant corruption in politics and economy, the country still prospered and this is due to the hard work and sacrifices made by the Korean people themselves as factory workers, medium and small business owners and employees, public servants, employees in logistics companies, and in other occupations supporting these workers.

What Eating the Rich did for Japan: a useful introduction to Japan’s modern economic history

“What Eating the Rich did for Japan” (Asianometry, October 2021)

In this mini-documentary on the Asianometry Youtube channel, the history of the zaibatsu – the huge industrial conglomerates owned by a small number of family clans in Japan from the late 19th century well into the mid-20th century – and their growth, leading to their eventual demise and break-up, is examined. The origins of the zaibatsu lie in the Meiji Restoration, when Japan abolished the Shogunate in 1867 and began to Westernise its politics, economy and society to avoid Western colonisation. Initially economic reforms and the building of infrastructure were bankrolled by the government but when these proved to be hugely expensive and bankruptcy threatened, the government privatised many of its more lucrative enterprises including the Miike Coal Mine. These were bought up by merchant families, some of which were descended from samurai, and the profits earned from their acquisitions enabled the families to accumulate fortunes that allowed them to buy more assets. The zaibatsu developed through vertical integration in the industries in which they had bought their original assets: for example, owning a coal mine might lead to owning the industries that depended on coal for fuel; or owning a factory making steel might lead to owning the minerals and other raw materials – and the mines from which these were obtained – needed for manufacturing steel. Manufacturing steel led the zaibatsu to make products that used iron and steel as their major materials: ships, trains, railway lines, motor vehicles, various household goods such as whitegoods. All these activities required financing so the zaibatsu also established banks and insurance companies to cover their costs and the risks involved in their financing.

As they grew, the zaibatsu took on government contracts to produce needed manufactures, especially for Japan’s armed forces. Through the early 20th century, the zaibatsu came to dominate Japan’s economy and supported the Japanese government’s imperialist drives in eastern Asia and beyond in the 1930s and 1940s. After the Second World War, the zaibatsu were broken up and dissolved, and the zaibatsu families’ wealth was reduced through various reforms such as reforms in the financial sector that limited the families’ ability to own controlling shares in public companies, land reforms and nationalisation of particular industries.

The documentary is lavishly illustrated with colourful photographs, film stills and archival visual materials, all presided over by a voice-over narration that details the rise and fall of Japan’s zaibatsu and the families that owned and controlled these conglomerates. The narration is rather fast and viewers might need to re-watch the documentary to catch some details.

The major problem with this documentary is that it more or less ignores the wider political context in which the zaibatsu grew: there is little mention of Japan’s decision to pursue imperialist adventures in northeast Asia and in the rest of China and in Southeast Asia, and how the zaibatsu eagerly responded to the demands of imperialism and then of war. The documentary also does not say that after the Second World War, much of the impetus to break up the zaibatsu and distribute their wealth more fairly among the Japanese people came from the occupying US administration. Additionally there is not much information given as to how much the Japanese people really benefited from the limited break-up of the zaibatsu.

The Korean War and the ensuing Cold War put a stop to total dissolution of the zaibatsu, and new forms of corporate growth such as manufacturing for export and informal links forming between companies (usually by buying shares in one another) leading to their becoming incorporated into a bigger corporation, though in a much looser way, enabled some old zaibatsu corporations like Mitsui and Mitsubishi to recover their fortunes. Yet there is little mention of how a revival of the zaibatsu corporations’ fortunes depended a great deal on Japan’s new role in the Cold War as an economic bulwark against Communism in the Soviet Union and China.

At the very least the documentary serves as a useful introduction into the modern history of Japan since the late 1800s when the country switched abruptly from pursuing a policy of almost total isolation from the rest of the world, to following a policy that in the space of less than 80 years would take Japan from an economic backwater to a power that could defeat the British empire.

Can the Chinese Communist Party Rule for Another 100 Years? – political scientist thinks it can

“Can the Chinese Communist Party Rule for Another 100 Years?” (Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong, 29 June 2021)

On the eve of the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, the Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong (FCC HK), hosted a conversation and discussion with political scientist / venture capitalist Eric Xun Li. FCC President Keith Richburg was moderator in this discussion. Much of this discussion was a Q&A session between Richburg and Li.

For the first several minutes Li provided a fascinating history of the CPC’s development since 1949, with the Party’s reinvention, responsiveness and changing its policy platforms, even its objectives and goals, with the aim of improving the lives of Chinese citizens, being constant themes of his talk. For a number of decades the CPC’s focus on economic development and economic gains for Chinese citizenry, often at breakneck speed, was almost all-consuming but it also led to social and economic inequalities and serious environmental consequences. People of Li’s generation looked outwards and admired Western economic and social achievements, often to the extent that people wished and even advocated for political change to a Western-style liberal democratic system with privatisation of state corporations and greater economic efficiencies.

In recent years, especially since 2001, people in China have come to see how dysfunctional and illiberal, socially, politically and economically, the West has become today, and this has led to revulsion among the Chinese people, especially among the young people, towards the West and its ideologies. Respect and support for socialism and for the CPC have risen amongst the young as a result. The result is that patriotism among Chinese youth is high, respect for President Xi Jinping is also high, and Li’s view is that the CPC’s future is bright for a considerable length of time.

Unfortunately the bulk of the discussion consisted of FCC HK Chairman and moderator Keith Richburg continuously baiting Li on various aspects of the organisation and leadership of the CPC. The tone of Richburg’s questioning and the directions in which it drifts betray Richburg’s ignorance about Chinese politics, his lazy reliance on assumptions and stereotypes about the CPC and the Chinese leadership, and his beliefs that Western and in particular US political structures, procedures and ideologies represent the ideal model towards which all other nations should progress. Of course in this paradigm, Chinese politics will always be found wanting. Li cleverly responds to the deliberate misinformation and baiting by pointing out that the CPC has always engaged in self-criticism and currently is moving towards a more centralised form of leadership and decision-making in order to tackle the major problems of corruption among public servants, poverty mitigation and environmental degradation and social inequalities created by past economic development policies. In particular, Li points out that Chinese political organisation and structures emphasise performance and outcomes in contrast to Western political organisation, structures and institutions which are overly legalistic and which emphasise procedure and ideology over actual performance, allowing incompetent or even corrupt politicians to rise to positions where the decisions and policies they make can have profound influence on economies, cultures and societies.

One audience question Li had to answer also betrays an assumption that China does not adhere by rules and by implication is not an efficiently run society. Li points out that many thousands of corrupt officials are at present in jail. He also answers a question about Xi Jinping’s continuing stay as President of the People’s Republic of China by stating that the Chinese public approves of his extended tenure, which is supported by the achievements made during his Presidency, and that this extension was approved based on the situation facing China at the time: the issues of widespread corruption, economic restructuring, tackling environmental problems and uplifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty to a modestly prosperous standard of living; and China’s external relations with nations often hostile to it due in large part to China’s successful record in improving its people’s standard of living. 

The discussion would have been much shorter and less excruciating (for me as a viewer and listener) if Richburg and others questioning Li had taken the time before the discussion to learn something about how the CPC is structured, how it makes decisions, how it responds to individual needs and criticisms, and what the party has done to reform its organisation, rid its structures of corruption and become transparent and open about its policies and programs. How the Party recruits new members and trains them, weeds out people with self-serving agendas and promotes only those members with intelligence, ability and leadership qualities would also have benefited the conversation. With some background knowledge, Richburg could have asked more informed questions of Li and Li would not have been defensive in parts of the discussion. Much time was also wasted arguing over China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020 and how prompt (or not) it was in comparison to the West’s shambolic responses in the early days of the pandemic.

At least Li did well to stand up to the baited and often hostile questioning and the assumptions behind them by being knowledgeable not just about China’s politics but also about the failures of the West in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of US and other Western governments. 


The Chinese Automaker Changing the Market in Africa: auto factory and harbour construction in the spotlight

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 4: Moving Africa)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

Fourth instalment in a series of documentaries investigating examples of Chinese industrial investment in Africa, this episode follows workers and managers in an automobile plant operated by Beijing Automotive Works Co. Ltd (BAW) in South Africa, and the construction of necessary harbour and port infrastructure in Lobito, Angola, by the China Harbour Engineering Company Group (CHEC), with an emphasis on how Chinese and African interactions benefit and enrich both parties and local African communities.

In the South African part of the episode, South African and Chinese workers and managers talk about their experiences of working with one another, learning Chinese work values and culture, and adapting to local South African product and service needs and expectations. The camera follows these individuals around the factory floor and the episode features close-up camera work of people checking finished parts, tightening screws on components and consulting with one another on various projects. In the Angolan part of the episode, we see not only people and heavy machines at work building the port and storage facilities but also CHEC’s involvement in an environmental conservation project, in training and educating workers in civil engineering, and in sponsoring an orphanage.

As always in this series, the pace is easy-going for a general audience to follow and pick up information. Camera work is consistent as well and features often quite beautiful panoramas of town and city life though sometimes the poverty shown can be stark and confronting for Western viewers. Again, the music and ambient background soundtrack can be intrusive and the voice-over narration has to fight for dominance.

The examples of Chinese investment offered in this episode seem unusual: was there no other place in Africa where Chinese auto companies are also operating, even if in South Africa also? The section on CHEC’s investment in Lobito’s harbour and port infrastructure could have been expanded into an episode in its own right.

I’ve probably seen enough of Lobito in this series that I perhaps should consider putting the town on my bucket list of places to visit before I die, to see how CHEC’s construction work and the work of other Chinese companies covered in the series are progressing.

Chinese Doctors Changing Africa’s Healthcare: the challenges of working in impoverished and alien environments

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 4: Doctors for Africa)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

A very good episode in the “China / Africa Big Business” series from the South African company Sabido Productions, this looks at two teams of doctors working in Zanzibar and a city in Angola. The first and third parts of the documentary follow the team working in a hospital in Stone Town on Zanzibar Island, how they deal with the challenges of working in impoverished conditions, communicating with patients and student doctors who speak a different language from theirs, and coping with homesickness, isolation and being separated from their families. The middle part of the documentary follows the team in Angola: there, the doctors also have to confront the reality of working in a country devastated by decades of civil war, chaos and destroyed infrastructures, as well as communicating with and helping patients and local staff in the hospital they have been assigned to. These doctors also have to adjust quickly to the difficult local conditions in which they have to work.

Interviews with individual Chinese doctors and specialists help viewers understand and appreciate the trials of being a doctor working in a busy and often overcrowded and under-resourced hospital in a poor country. Voice-over narration fills in the context behind the challenges the Chinese doctors have to face. At the same time, the interviewees emphasise what motivates them to keep going under difficult conditions: in particular, they talk about how the patients are grateful for their help. African interviewees stress the professionalism of the doctors they consult.

As with previous episodes of this series I have seen, the cinematography (which often emphasises close-ups of faces and picturesque scenes, and tracks the doctors going about their tasks) is excellent. The only technical problem with this episode is that often the narration is forced to compete with ambient background noises for listeners’ attention, and parts of the documentary have to be replayed to pick up information that is missed as a result. Apart from this issue, I’d recommend this episode to viewers interested in learning how China uses its recently acquired wealth and technical expertise to assist other nations, especially poor nations, in improving people’s lives.

The Chinese Companies Behind Water Supply in Africa: how Chinese companies transform lives and communities in Angola and Zanzibar

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 6: Precious Water)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

This South African documentary follows two Chinese corporations on opposite sides of southern Africa in their efforts to supply impoverished rural and urban communities with running water. The first half of the documentary features China Railway Jianchang Engineering Limited (GRJE) building water pipelines and water and sanitation infrastructures to bring running water to communities on Zanzibar Island in Tanzania. The second half of the documentary focuses on the work of Guangxi Hydroelectric Commission Bureau (GHCB) and in particular the work of one of the company’s managers in bringing water infrastructure and a power station to Luanda and Lobito respectively, two major cities in Angola. (Luanda is also the capital of Angola.) In both halves of the documentary, the Chinese companies not only work on constructing pipelines to bring water into communities and take stormwater and sewage out, and provide work and training for local people, but also become involved in social projects the communities need. The GHCB manager interviewed in the documentary has also invested time, money and effort in establishing a farm to provide food and work for people in the Lobito area. GRJE is also helping to build a hotel on Zanzibar and its engineers have consciously incorporated traditional Zanzibari designs and craftwork in the hotel’s construction.

Interviews with Chinese managers and local people in Zanzibar, Luanda and Lobito focus not only on the transformative effect the water infrastructure projects are having on the lives of the people but also on the respect the Chinese and their African partners have for each other. The Chinese respect the hard work and diligence of the African people and the Africans find the Chinese to be reliable and helpful in going beyond the original aims and scope of the water supply and sanitation projects. Voice-over narration provides historical and economic context for the projects; in particular, viewers are made aware of the destructive effects of the civil war that lasted over 25 years in Angola on people’s lives and the conditions they live in. Unfortunately the voice-over narration has to fight the music soundtrack to be heard clearly.

The cinematography is very good with many, sometimes confronting close-ups and panoramic, even postcard-picture views of Zanzibar, Luanda and Lobito. African children figure very prominently in the film, giving it a bright and even sometimes bubbly and optimistic feel.

How Chinese Money is Changing Housing in Africa: a survey of how Chinese companies are transforming African people’s lives and societies through housing projects

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 2: Building Homes)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

Part of a South African-made series of six episodes on Chinese business investment in Africa, this very interesting and visually appealing documentary looks at how two major Chinese construction companies have gone about building major housing projects in Angola and Tanzania, and furthermore how these two companies have become further involved in improving the lives of the people who have moved into the houses and of the workers employed in building the houses. The documentary uses both voice-over narration and interviews with managers and employees of the construction companies, and the people living in the housing projects to illustrate what the construction companies have done for them and the transformations that have followed.

The documentary is split into three parts for easy viewing. The first part follows the Shanghai Construction Group (SCG) in its construction of mass housing across eight provinces of Tanzania for the Tanzanian Peoples’ Defence Force. A military veteran and his family are given a new house and they marvel at the amenities and the space that they did not have in their previous shabby dwelling. The second part of the documentary surveys a new satellite city, Kilamba City, built on the outskirts of Luanda, the capital of Angola, built by CITIC according to Chinese construction codes and standards. Streets follow north-south and east-west orientations, and buildings are oriented in ways so that harsh sun can be minimised where possible and good ventilation is maximised. CITIC provides an additional service – an after-sale service if you like – in repairing utilities in individual dwellings even where the fault may have been the residents’ fault.

The third part of the documentary covers CITIC’s involvement in helping to improve agriculture, in particular food production and agricultural research, in Angola. This part of the documentary also follows CITIC’s construction of a vocational school to train young people in civil construction, mechanics and electrical work. The episode concludes with CITIC’s sponsoring of a table tennis club for children which extends to bringing out coaches from China to teach the children how to play.

Unfortunately the background music is very loud and drowns out parts of the commentary so much information can be lost and viewers need to repeat the documentary a few times to catch interesting snippets. Apart from this technical fault, filming is very well done and includes panoramic shots of the housing projects and Kilamba City itself to illustrate the huge scale of this particular project and the urban landscaping that accompanies it. A brief bit of historical context is included: after independence in 1975, Angola experienced a long period of civil war and foreign interference which ended in 2002. Much reconstruction needs to be done, employment must be found for people, services need to be provided and it seems that Chinese firms such as SCG and CITIC are not only filling the gaps of assisting in reconstruction, building new infrastructure and providing jobs and vocational training for people, but also addressing people’s needs for schools and providing children with recreation and sport, thus also extending their help and influence into local cultures. Emphasis is on how China and African nations have supported one another in the past and how the Chinese remember and honour the support African peoples have given them – by providing practical help.

The documentary portrays a very positive picture of how Chinese companies are helping Africans lift themselves out of poverty by giving them work and training as well as the housing and amenities they desperately need. Western nations and companies would do well to observe what the Chinese are doing and emulate the best aspects of the Chinese example. Of course one notes that the documentary says very little about what SCG and CITIC might or might not be doing that could be negative, and which the Angolans and Tanzanians could be critical of – for one thing, we do not know who is financing the housing projects or how they or any loans taken out on them will have to be paid for – and one could argue that the film fails to look at the long-term issues likely to arise from the mass housing projects. By focusing on the present, the film could be attacked as pro-Chinese propaganda. One can argue though that private Western developers would not do any better – and would do far worse – in failing to consider even short-term consequences of any construction projects they might undertake in impoverished nations: one only has to see what such companies do in their own nations, and the problems relating to urban design and infrastructures, and failure to connect with local communities that private housing projects often engender.

Combating terrorist infiltration and brainwashig in “The War in the Shadows: Challenges of Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang”

“The War in the Shadows: Challenges of Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang” (China Global Television Network, 2021)

Part of a series of documentaries produced by China Global Television Network on the history and nature of terrorism in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in western China, this exposé examines the ways in which people, usually children, teenagers and young adults, are exposed to and radicalised by extremist religious networks linked to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) / Islamic Party of Turkistan which preaches a fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology and urges young people to wage “jihad” against Xinjiang authorities with the aim of overthrowing the government in that region and establishing an independent East Turkistan based on a strict interpretation of Shari’a law. The documentary is structured in four parts: the first part “The Networks” outlines how various terrorist incidents that have occurred in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, over several years are linked as they have been carried out by people adhering to the same ideology and who are part of the same underground networks; the second part “Enemies Within” looks at how individuals affiliated with the ETIM infiltrated Xinjiang’s police and security forces; the third part “The Textbooks” examines how the ETIM infiltrated school textbook publishing in both the Uygur and Mandarin languages; and the fourth part “The Black Hands” details how the ETIM attracts young people’s attention through social media and websites.

Based on interviews with senior police, education officials and former jihadist fighters (some of whom have come to regret their radicalisation and involvement with terrorist groups), the documentary provides much detail into the sophisticated methods used by the ETIM and affiliated groups to manipulate youngsters’ thinking and lure them into their ranks to carry out bomb attacks or to travel overseas to train and fight as jihadis with ISIS, with the aim of returning to Xinjiang and fighting the authorities there. At times the documentary goes very deep into particular business and other schemes cooked up by individuals seeking power or influence over others and which initially appear not to have much relation to the overall themes and messages of how the authorities found and eliminated, or are still eliminating, separatist jihadi infiltration and influence.

Astute viewers cannot fail to notice that the people fighting ETIM infiltration and influence themselves are Uygurs loyal to Beijing, and that they believe very strongly in using reconciliation and trust to reconnect lost young souls with society through psychological counselling and other methods in a prison setting. One may presume that prisons are also providing young people with education and work skills. By emphasising what the authorities are doing to combat religious extremism, separatism and the brainwashing of young people, and how they are bringing former jihadis back into society, the documentary ends with a positive (if a bit sappy) outlook.

The documentary says very little about ETIM itself, how large the organisation may be and where and how it formed. Viewers wanting to know the history of the organisation, how global it may be and where it gets its funding and other resources, are directed to read F William Engdahl’s article “The Truth behind China’s ‘Uyghur Problem'” at this link, and this report posted online by The Grayzone Project exposing the ETIM’s links to Al Qaeda and the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC, no less.

The Fisherman: character study of outsider-turned-superhero in alien invasion short

Alejandro Suarez Lozano, “The Fisherman” (2015)

A cleverly made and succinct little SF horror film set in Hong Kong, “The Fisherman” combines a character study that might have been inspired by the Ernest Hemingway classic “The Old Man and the Sea” with a theme about how people become marginalised and impoverished by changes in society and technology that leave them, their work and skills behind. Fisherman Wong (Andrew Ng) who specialises in fishing for squid is down on his luck and in danger of losing his fishing boat (where he also lives), being three months behind on his rent, because overcrowding in the harbour and the proliferation of tourist boats and dance party cruises have scared away the marine life. Wong promises his irate landlord that he’ll make a big catch on his next trip that will pay off what he owes. During the evening he sails his vessel far out of the harbour and witnesses an odd electrical storm that sends a lightning bolt into the sea and spawns an odd underwater being. The bell on his line tinkles and the fisherman draws up an odd-looking mewling squid. He puts it into a holding basket but it escapes and all his dreams of instant wealth vanish. Despondent, Wong almost considers suicide until the bell rings again, more insistently this time, and Wong goes out to draw up what turns out to be the catch of his life …

For most of its running time the film builds up in a leisurely way that fills viewers in on Wong’s taciturn nature, his determination and greed, and this concentration on Wong’s character helps add to the suspense that gradually escalates during the fishing trip. His is not a complicated character, being motivated by what he can get in the next catch and how he can spend the money. Unfortunately with living expenses being high in Hong Kong – many working-class people of Wong’s generation having to live in virtual rabbit-hutch conditions in crowded shared accommodation – Wong probably can only hope that he’ll be able to spend the rest of his days living on his old rented fishing vessel. It’s in the last few minutes that the plot twists come that test Wong’s toughness, resilience and ability to come back from the dead. The film turns into instant horror flick as Wong fights for his life, and then into an alien invasion movie as he returns into the harbour and sees his home city on fire from an invasion of monsters high in the sky. Somehow the thought that he might be the only survivor and that he no longer need pay any outstanding debts on his boat and equipment briefly flashes through his mind. A new career as bounty alien hunter beckons him as the bell on his line starts ringing again …

Ng does well as the hardened fisherman who has seen all and experienced all, and who now has more than a few tall tales to tell tourists. Wong doesn’t say a lot in the film but film close-ups of his face and eyes, even in the dark, show his fear and wariness despite his bravado.

Hardly a moment goes to waste in this film; every scene, every bit of dialogue helps to build up Wong’s character and the world he lives in (and which later turns upside down). Wong starts out as a poor fisherman left behind by greedy materialist capitalist society and technology but at the film’s end he becomes potentially indispensable to a society barely surviving under alien onslaught. Who would have thought that the hordes led by cephalopod capo di capi Cthulhu would turn out to be the saviours of humanity by attacking the citadels of global financial capitalism?

A bombastic tale of quest, physical and spiritual, in “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification”

Teng Cheng, Li Wei, “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification” (2020)

Inspired by the 16th-century Chinese novel by Xu Zhonglin, “The Investiture of the Gods”, itself based on Chinese mythology and legends, this epic animated blockbuster is a sequel to the 2019 release “Ne Zha”, taking place in the same universe of gods, demons and humans co-existing and interfering in one another’s affairs as that film. The original Jiang Ziya was an actual historical figure who helped to overthrow King Zhou, the last of the Shang Dynasty rulers some 3,000 years ago, in this film Jiang Ziya is a lesser immortal gifted with supernatural abilities and magic who comes to the material plane during the wars between the corrupt Shang rulers and a new dynasty to defeat and capture the evil fox demon Nine Tail. Charged with executing Nine Tail, Jiang discovers that she has bound a young girl Jiu to her with an ankle bracelet. To kill Nine Tail would mean also killing Jiu and so Jiang refuses to carry out the order of the gods of Heaven. The gods punish Jiang by exiling him to Earth. A faithful retainer, Shen, follows Jiang into exile.

From there the film follows Jiang as he unexpectedly comes upon Jiu, who has become separated from the fox demon, in a bar in his place of exile. Jiu is on a quest to find her father and needs to travel to Mount Youdu. Jiang recognises that Jiu is possessed by the fox demon and with his companion Four Alike follows Jiu on her journey into the realm of Beihai. The pace is slow and even so at least the film allows for the beautiful animated scenery and backgrounds to shine even when the characters are no more than stereotypes. On reaching Beihai after a hair-raising encounter with the souls of soldiers who died in the wars between the gods and humans on the one hand and the fox demons on the other, Jiang discovers some uncomfortable truths about the gods he had originally been chosen to join and about why the fox demons fought on the side of the unpopular and corrupt Shang dynasty.

While the computer-generated animation is visually gorgeous and colourful and the action is stunning in scale and creativity, after too many showy scenes the film becomes rather bland. The journey to Beihai gives little time for Jiang and Jiu to develop a strong friendship and Four Alike goes along for the ride just to add some cuteness. In its final third, the plot becomes somewhat convoluted for Western audiences not familiar with notions of reincarnation as Jiang tries desperately to save Jiu from a second incarnation bound to Nine Tail. Messages about how heroes create their own destinies and become heroic through their own sacrifices and defying fate, even the will of Heaven; valuing all life for its own sake (the film can be seen as an extension of the classic Trolley dilemma); the possibility that even the gods themselves are not infallible; finding one’s place in the social order; and restoring and putting right past wrongs – even resolving the damage done to the restless souls of dead people – are important but they can be lost as the plot quickly becomes complicated in the film’s last half-hour (in comparison to its straightforward trajectory earlier) and the action literally vaults from the realm of the dead to the highest heavens with all the breathtaking bombast the animation can muster.

The characters are not well developed and hew to stereotypes that may be current in much Chinese fantasy animated films: the serious hero with compassion and the Keanu Reeves looks, the young girl or boy who’s a bit sassy and streetwise, the lovable animal companion, the stalwart and slightly dim-witted warrior companion. This film is obviously targeting a generation of young Chinese viewers familiar with cinematic and videogame product from Japan and elsewhere and who expect to see certain cinematic and game conventions. While it means well and aims to instill some age-old lessons about inner personal integrity and correcting past wrongs, the film does fall flat through trying to compete with superficial Western blockbuster superhero flicks.

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