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.

A Gong (Grandpa): a journey of grief, accepting death and finding hope

Ellis Ka-yin Chan, Tena van der Galovic, Zozo Jhen, Yen-chen Liu, Marine Varguy, “A Gong (Grandpa)” (2018)

A tale of a small Taiwanese boy attending his grandfather’s funeral with his parents, performing little rituals he has no clue about, becomes a journey exploring intense grief, the closeness of ties between two generations, reincarnation and the hope it encompasses, and the continuity of life. The animation may look cartoony (it was hand-drawn with oil pastels) and a bit two-dimensional but this is to emphasise the film’s focus on the child and his point of view. Dialogue is pared back almost to the point where the film could be considered a silent film.

The film cleverly portrays the boy’s growing confusion and concern over the death of his grandfather and the strange rituals the adults follow (and urge him to follow as well) during the funeral to see off the old fellow, clad in his motorcycle outfit in the open coffin. The child’s unease reaches breakdown point when at night he hears the distant roar of a motorcycle and he races outside the house in pitch darkness to chase a dim red light. When the light disappears and the child comes to a fork in the road, he is in complete despair at having lost his grandfather forever. At this point, something unexpected happens: a puppy with a very familiar shape and expression on its face appears.

Taiwanese funeral customs and the spectacle they involve – not to mention their overwhelming nature to small children who may be perturbed by emotional adults, the solemn chanting of Buddhist monks, the burning smell of incense, and more besides – are showcased to good effect here. Viewers may be more impressed though with the boy’s grief and gradual acceptance of his poppy’s death, and the old man’s final gift to the child to offer him hope and comfort.

The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Ne Zha: noisy overblown blockbuster film with a message about changing one’s destiny

Jiaozi, “Ne Zha” (2019)

A loud, noisy and overblown blockbuster animation fantasy made to please most people, this film is loosely based on a legend about the birth of a divine hero in Chinese folk religion. Essentially the film portrays the origin story of Ne Zha, the son of Li Jing, a military commander in charge of a fortress at Chentang Pass, and Lady Yin. Before his birth, Ne Zha was supposed to receive the essence of the Spirit Pearl, created as one half of a Heavenly Pearl given by the Lord of Heaven; the other half, known as the Demon Pearl, would be used to create elsewhere a demon whose life-span will be only three years, during which period the demon brings havoc and destruction to humanity, and after which the evil being is destroyed by lightning. (Talk about having your life already mapped out for you before you’re born!) Evil forces however conspire to dupe the Taoist immortal Taiyi Zhenren, portrayed in the film as a drunken fatso with little self-control, in order to steal the Spirit Pearl from him and infuse the Demon Pearl into Lady Yin’s unborn child. The result is that Ne Zha is born with the spirit and hot-headed temperament of a demon and ends up being hated and persecuted by the village folk living around the fortress. Li Jing, Lady Yin and Taiyi Zhenren, grieving that the boy will only live three years, resolve to train him so that he may be able to control his demonic nature and powers (which keep the village’s construction and waste recycling industries extremely busy) and perhaps use them for good.

In the meantime, the Spirit Pearl is used by Taiyi Zhenren’s rival Shen Gongbao to infuse its essence into the son of the Dragon King, imprisoned along with his fellow dragons deep in the ocean and yearning to escape and reimpose their rule on Earth. The son, Ao Bing, later meets Ne Zha during a tussle with a sea demon who nearly kills Ao Bing. Ne Zha saves Ao Bing’s life and the two boys, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, become friends.

The film plays very hard and fast with the characters and plot of the original legend, setting the cast and the story in a template of goodies-versus-baddies and the story itself being fairly simple and easy to follow so it has to be padded out with a nearly endless series of fights involving as many explosions, impossible feats of magic that break the laws of physics, and martial arts derring-do, all performed at insane ear-shattering levels of noise. The characters look as if they’re straight out of a Disney or Pixar film and are for the most part very one-dimensional. There is little to indicate that both Ne Zha and Ao Bing experience much inner conflict wrestling with their essential natures and vowing to overcome or change what Fate decreed for them. Li Jing and Lady Yin are little more than father and mother stereotypes and Taiyi Zhenren plays his buffoon role for cheap laughs.

The film’s message that one does not need to accept one’s destiny and nature as given and can change for the better is strong throughout the film. There are also other messages about how discrimination and prejudice can persuade victims to be resentful and vengeful, and how simple acts of kindness can help people change for the better. Above all, viewers not familiar with traditional Chinese culture can see an emphasis on balance and harmony: the water nature of Ao Bing (dragons being essentially water creatures in Chinese mythology) balances the fiery nature of Ne Zha in their encounters; and this emphasis is also at the heart of Ne Zha’s training to be a well-rounded human, Ne Zha having to learn to balance his demon nature with self-control, awareness of his powers, and using knowledge and thinking to deploy his powers to protect, defend and save others less powerful than he.

The best part of the film is its backgrounds and special effects. What a pity though that the cast of characters, the story-line and the pyrotechnics fail to do the technical design justice.

Forward, Comrades! – an animated short on the downfall of the Soviet Union

Wang Liyin, “Forward, Comrades!” (2013)

This animated Chinese short, made by a student at the Beijing Film Academy, focuses on the twilight days of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a young girl. She lives with her parents in a shabby wooden bungalow and spends her days playing with toy construction bricks and talking to her pets while her schoolteacher mother is at work. The pets are a cat called Comrade Vladimir (as in Vladimir Lenin), a chicken called Comrade Felix (as in Felix Dzerzhinsky) and a duck called Comrade Beriya (as in Lavrenty Beria). The animals aren’t always well behaved: one day Comrade Beriya is naughty and the unnamed girl punishes him for “crimes” against socialism, while giving the instructions for a final knock-out blow against capitalist enemies to Comrade Felix.

One day a Russian-language TV broadcast informs viewers of a coup carried out by reactionary forces against the Soviet Union and from then on, things change dramatically for the girl and her pets. Comrades Vladimir and Felix die, Comrade Beriya is despatched by the girl’s mother to a restaurant, and the toy construction bricks and other belongings of the girl are also sold off. The family moves into an apartment block in a grey city, and the girl is given new American toys – various dolls and Disney character soft toys – to play with. On overhearing her mother discussing fashions and cosmetics with other adults, the child decides to run away back to her old home. At that very moment, there is a nuclear explosion in the sky and the girl is transported back to a world where her pets are very much alive and have formed a tank regiment.

The animation is quite crude and the story is very selective in its history. An entire episode of Soviet history, in which the Soviet Union transforms itself into an industrial power twice over (in the 1930s and then after the Second World War) under Joseph Stalin, followed by a long period of stagnation and corrupt rule under a series of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-allied politicians from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, is skipped over in the cartoon’s portrayal of the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. The girl’s decision to break away from her parents represents China’s decision to strike out on its own socialist path – though in reality, this involved zigzagging through the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and later leader Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of economic flexibility combining elements of capitalism and socialism, to the current situation in which China is now wealthy enough to bring economic development to its more impoverished regions and to Third World countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

There are some interesting ideas about how capitalism can influence people to conform to labels and categories. On the whole though, the film shows a very sketchy and poor understanding of Soviet and Chinese history. It’s mainly of interest to people curious about the current state of Chinese animated film.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

The World: a slow and meandering narrative reveals a rich world of hope, pain and tragedy behind superficial capitalist glamour

Jia Zhangke, “The World” (2004)

In future years, this film, long and meandering though it is, may well be regarded as an early masterpiece in Jia Zhangke’s corpus of work. Set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a theme park which gives visitors a taste of the world’s most famous monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in miniature without ever having to leave Beijing, the film focuses on the lives of various fictional employees at the Park, most of whom have come from poor rural parts of China or elsewhere, and reveals them to be bleak and alienated, not only from the, uh, world outside the park but from one another as well. Superficially presenting as a snapshot documentary of the employees’ daily lives as they entertain visitors in dance shows or guide them around the park, the film comes to question the impact of capitalist ideology (with its emphasis on consumption of material items and experiences) and what that brings – the increase in wealth that enables people to travel overseas and have new experiences not possible in China, in turn enticing others to dream about travel and escape – and how new global economic, political and technological connections have paradoxically led to disconnection and alienation among young people in contemporary Chinese society.

The film appears to have no plot or at least nothing that resembles a conventional movie plot: it starts off with its heroine Tao (Zhao Tao), a talented dancer, charging through backstage rooms where fellow cast members are getting dressed or undressed or putting on or taking off make-up, and calling loudly for a band-aid. She never gets one and in this scene alone, one senses the film’s themes already falling into place: people apparently communicating over one another’s heads but the message never reaching anyone in particular and failing to be heard, much less responded to and acted upon; a continual search for connection that ends in failure; the frustration and anger that always seem to be simmering below the surface. The film follows Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard at the Park, and their tempestuous relationship. Tao is visited by an ex-boyfriend on his way to Mongolia and Taisheng seems rather jealous; from this moment on, the relationship increasingly frays, particularly after a friend of his asks him to drive a young woman called Qun to Taiyuan so she can deal with a brother with a gambling problem Taisheng becomes infatuated with Qun and after bringing her back to Beijing, starts paying her regular visits even though she tells him she has a husband in Paris and is trying to obtain a visa to visit the spouse.

There are various small sub-plots in the film, the most significant of which involve Tao striking up a friendship with a Russian woman Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) who works at the Park, though neither can speak the other’s language; and Taisheng’s childhood friend nicknamed Little Sister, who comes to Beijing looking for work and who is directed by Taisheng to a construction site. Anna eventually leaves the Park and takes up hostessing (and prostitution) to raise the money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, leaving Tao in tears; and Little Sister dies in a work accident that devastates Taisheng. Not long afterwards, Tao discovers Taisheng’s affair with Qun and she flees the Park to go house-sitting for two fellow employees who have recently married.

Through the various soap-opera dramas, we come to see how trapped Tao and Taisheng are in their low-paid and uninspiring jobs in which pretence is paramount, with no hope of escape to see and experience the places whose monuments are miniaturised into kitsch packages for tourists. The film’s title comes to be seen as ironic: “The World” holds out a promise of endless possibilities and opportunities but the main characters and their fellow travellers find themselves constrained by their work, the expectations put upon them by others, the obligations they carry, their inability or unwillingness to communicate how and what they really feel directly to one another (instead communicating via mobile phones) and ultimately by the passage of time. Hope dies away and there is only the endless repetition of work and fakeness. How Tao and Taisheng deal with the loss of hope and the death of their dreams and their relationship turns out to be shocking if not totally unexpected.

Small animated interludes stress the lack of direct connections characters have with one another and with their physical environment. Travel and the restlessness implied are a constant motif in the film: minor characters are always on their way to another place, another job or another goal while major characters are stuck in ruts partly of their own making. Buildings and other structures where the film plays out always look incomplete or makeshift, or their inner frameworks are on display. We see less of the glitzy Beijing and more of its industrial, polluted environment where people live out their lives either hoping for something better or lacking in hope.

Slow though it is, the pace has a purpose: viewers become fully immersed in the lives of Tao, Taisheng and their friends, colleagues and relatives, and so the pain and sorrows these people experience become all the more raw. The no-plot plot has its purpose as well: it demonstrates how hollow real life has become, even when dedicated to creating and maintaining a simulacrum of an idealised and superficial dream. The meandering narrative unexpectedly and ironically reveals a real and actually rich world behind a fake World.

The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.