Trashy popcorn fodder, The Meg sees things go badly wrong for a group of marine scientists exploring deep into the Marianas Trench. With their submarine stuck on the ocean floor, its disgraced former Naval Captain and down-at-heel Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham – Spy, Transporter) who’s called in to help. But in saving the sub, things get a little more complicated when the seafloor ecosystem is disturbed, allowing a believed-extinct Carcharodon Megalodon, the largest marine predator known to have existed, to rise from the deep.
Derivative, bland and templated, directed by Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, While You Were Sleeping), there’s little soul to the narrative as Taylor puts his bad boy reputation behind him to win over the fearless Suyin (Bingbing Li – Resident Evil: Retribution, Snowflower and the Secret Fan), daughter of the head scientist, and save the innocent swimmers of Hainan.
Shot predominantly at night time or within the confines of a claustrophobic school environment, the Oscar-nominated Better Days provides a visceral insight into global issues affecting modern urban China.
Coping with the intense pressures of the forthcoming gaokao school exams is one thing but for Chen Nian (an extraordinarily nuanced Dongyu Zhou – Soulmate, Us and Them), bullying is a far more immediate threat. With an absent mother selling contraband cosmetics on the black market, Chen Nian is the perfect target for the wealthy and spoiled Wei Lai (Ye Zhou – 1921, Railway Heroes) and her cronies. With a schoolfriend having already committed suicide, fate throws Chen Nin to making a pact with the shady small-time criminal Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee – The Battle of Lake Chanjin, Forward Forever).
In the pressure-cooker atmopshere of the Chinese education system, Better Days, directed by Derek Tsang (Soulmate, Lacuna) and adapted from the YA novel by Jiu Yuexi, is a gripping melodrama with an unexpected intensity in its exploration of its themes.
A huge box office success in China due to the casting of pop star Jackson Yee, Better Days became, in 2021, only the third Hong Kong film in history to achieve an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.
Recently widowed, Deng (Zhong Lü – Snow Flower & the Secret Fan, Empire of Silver) finds it increasingly difficult to stay out of the lives of her two adult sons. But, as she starts to receive mysterious, anonymous phone calls, so the foundations of her life are threatened as past decisions made during the Cultural Revolution decades earlier come to the fore.
Weaving the diversity of experience of the older Chinese generation through a superb, nuanced Zhong Lü, director Wang Xiaoshuai (So Long My Son, Beijing Bicycle) looks to complex moral and ethical consequences of the past. Deng chose to forget – but not everyone can.
As with Xiaoshuai Wang’s other films, Red Amnesia is a slow unfold, an intimate observational reveal of uncertainty. From the everyday moments in contemporary China to remote industrial cities of the past, a lingering precision creates elements of threat and mystery.
A social realist slice of everyday life, director Li Dongmei, in her feature film debut, revisits the memories of 1990s childhood days in a mountainous rural Chinese village.
It’s long, it’s slow, it’s fragmentary. Lingering shots of children walking steep footpaths on the way to school; a funeral cortege; family meals with no words spoken. Mama can be challenging viewing – the director is in no hurry to move the narrative forward with her limited dialogue. But it’s an immersive experience that settles into the rhythm of rural life. 12-year-old Xiaoxian, over a seven day period, reflects on the simplicity of a hard life where births, deaths and illness are the norm.
Evocative, at 134 minutes Mama is a little too indulgent, the meditative pace can, as one critic succinctly stated, see Dongmei in this memory exercise of reconstruction…forget the viewers.
A dark comic tale with strong social undertones, writer/director Cathy Yen’s debut preludes her messy, anarchic but vibrant Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. And that American superhero blockbuster provides an insight as to what to expect in her Shanghai-set oddity.
Five seemingly separate characters cross paths as thousands of pigs are found floating in the Huangpu River, heading towards the fast modernising Shanghai. Struggling pig farmer Wang (Haoyu Yang) already owns thousands to loan sharks- the loss of his pigs the latest disaster. The sensitive waiter Wang Zhen (Mason Lee – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Hangover Pt II) has a thing about spolied rich girl Xia Xia (Meng Li – A Touch of Sin, Hidden Man). Meanwhile Candy (Vivian Wu – The Last Emperor, Pillow Book) is fighting off developers looking to demolish the family home.
Links are revealed in a narrative of modernisation and class. But, in spite of a wonderfully gritty yet OTT performance by the beauty salon-owning Vivian Wu, Dead Pigs is a social satire full of oddballs but with a few too many off-focus moments.
Long and gently paced, the Berlinale prize-winning feature from Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle, Chongqing Blues) is an end-of-twentieth century, sweeping yet intimate family drama with China’s one-child policy providing the historical backdrop.
Tragedy strikes married couple Jingchun Wang (Jing cha ri ji, Shadow) and Mei Yong (Qing chun pei, The Assassin). In their grief at the loss of a 10 year-old son, the couple move from place to place, unable to establish roots. Over the years, they lose contact with friends in the factory complex they once worked and lived. But one day, Xi Qi (Fu cheng mi shi, The Calming) visits, having tracked them down. She is part of the shared experience of the past. The couple know they must revisit and confront that past – even if only temporarily.
A sensitive epic told with a fractured time narrative as past and present merge, unfolding and revealing, So Long My Son is a beautifully tempered, heartrending story quietly told. Performances are sublimely understated as the society in which the characters live undergoes immense change over the 30 year timespan.
A commentator on contemporary Chinese society, auteur Zhangke Jia (Ash is Purest White, Mountains May Depart) tells four separate narratives across four separate provinces: the common theme that of seemingly random acts of violence.
A miner protesting corruption in his local village (Wu Jiang – Dragon, Father & Hero): the assault of a sauna receptionist (Chinese superstar, Tao Zhao – Ash is Purest White, Mountains May Depart) are the strongest of the four tales. But throughout, Zhangke Jia emphasises the ever-widening disparity between rich and poor.
A Touch of Sin is a fascinating insight into modern China away from the media politics of Beijing. It’s robust with more than a passing reference to Tarantino, but there’s also more than a hint of pathos with a society steeped in tradition struggling with rapid industrialisation.
In spite of a powerful central female protagonist in Tao Zhao (Mountains May Depart, Shun Li and the Poet), director Zhangke Jia (Pickpocket, Mountains May Depart) and his latest film is a fascinating but odd misfire.
A woman used: Tao Zhao spends time in prison for her man, small-time gang leader, Fan Liao (Black Coal Thin Ice, The Master). Only there’s no sign of him on her release. She sets out to to find him.
A romantic tragedy, Ash Is Purest White is a mix of gritty social realism (when it is at its best) and surreal strangeness (mass shadow dancing in the town square to Village People’s YMCA). Zhangke Jia explores how everyday people were affected by major political and cultural changes in China 20 years ago at the the turn of the century in his films – and Ash Is Purest White continues that exploration.
Screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival