Daughter, Warrior, Woman: The Evolution of Hua Mulan

In the first part of my Mulan article, I discussed what the Disney animation meant for the Chinese in China, as well as for global audiences; looked at the initial trailer of the new live action film and talked about what I hope to see in it. To understand Mulan’s significance as a cultural icon fully, we need to go to her origins and see how she evolved. I will focusing on two relatively recent film adaptations that have made the greatest impact around the world (China included), so we could see where Mulan is culturally, particularly in terms of her representation in cinema, just before a new major work comes out. 


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Disney’s Mulan: Past and Present

When Disney announced the live action Mulan film, there was huge excitement around the world for its release. However, the film has had its run of bad luck, first delayed due to controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in its casting decisions. Once that was rectified with a now stellar cast and an excellent lead that represents the story’s original culture, it became embroiled in political controversy and its highly anticipated release was then, cancelled as the pandemic broke out. On the 4th of September, the film will be finally released in cinemas in certain countries and on directly on Disney Plus in others. Despite the set backs and much dampened public energy around this film, I intend to give Mulan some major coverage. For she is an important cultural symbol not only in China but around the world, starting with some thoughts on the significance of the original animation and of this new live-action film to those in China.


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A Touch of Sin: Talk Taster

As China began exporting its movies in the 70s and 80s, a cult of fandom grew around the kungfu and action films. From “36 Chambers of Shaolin” to “City on fire”, these films made a deep impression on young American filmmakers-to-be, most obviously Quentin Taratino, who took heavy Inspiration from these films for “Reservoir Dogs” and “Kill Bill”. However, inspiration between vibrant creative cultures becomes a conversation, and those elements Tarantino borrowed, were absorbed by a new generation of filmmakers in China, including Jia Zhangke. Jia has had an interesting career. Starting off making mockumentary-style films about petty criminals and China’s disaffected youth, and now having reached such critical acclaim that he has over 100 international awards and nominations. His films still deal with how ordinary people’s lives were affected by China’s rapid social change, and “A Touch of Sin” brings many of his themes together, to tell stories about outcasts and misfits, in a manner more akin to traditional Chinese storytelling. (First delivered for the Spring Festival screening at Genesis, London, 2019).


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Introductory Talk to Big Fish & Begonia: A Taster

This screening is part of the April Anime season. Anime is faux-French term predominantly used to refer to Japanese animation. Chinese animation is called Dong Hua.

That animation you’ve just seen, “Where is Mama” is a product of the first golden age of Chinese animation. The director, Te Wei,broke a lot of the established rules of the time, and instead of just imitating western animators like Disney, he attempted to create a very eastern style. 


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The Farewell: A Review

When I saw the trailer for The Farewell, I knew it had the potential to be the film people were hoping Crazy Rich Asians would have been, and fill that cultural void that they were hoping it would fill. Having now watched it, I can confirm it has met my expectations.

Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is of the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American young woman who learns that her grandmother has lung cancer and only three months to live. Shocked that her immigrant parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) and extended family plan on keeping the news from the old lady, Billi flies to China despite their admonitions to join them and see her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). As cultural clashes intensify and family tensions rise, Billi struggles to keep up with the preparations and celebrations around her cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) fake wedding, the pretext the family have devised for the gathering.

In many ways, The Farewell has got the Culture so right, providing a window into the lives of an ordinary middle-class Chinese family of sea turtles, who live in an average city, in a typical apartment block, in a typical neighbourhood. All the major scenes and dramatic climaxes are aptly set during meal times. To the food-obsessed Chinese, eating together is an essential ritual that fulfills a whole range of social functions. Food also is a major way in which people show affection. Everyone who can, emigrates. The film cinches this irony of this Chinese phenomenon by demonstrating the inability of Billi and Hao Hao, who moved to different countries as young children, to communicate with each other.

From the semi-seedy hotels with its prying, nosy caretakers, the popular massage treatments with a dash of TCM, to Nai Nai’s string of live-in carers from the countryside; from the peculiar custom of pre-nuptial wedding photography, to the details of interior décor of the family home, such as the communist-era couples photo hanging on the wall of Nai Nai’s bedroom, the film is telling it as it is. My mother’s hometown is Changchun, which I have often visited, and seeing Hao Hao’s wedding was like seeing my own cousin’s nuptial festivities again on the big screen.

Although the modern China presented in the film feels very limited, its entire focus being based around a hospital, a couple of urban backstreets, and a soulless construction site, I do grant that the story is told mainly from Billi’s viewpoint. Not everyone in the country is just after making money, as the conversation during the family meal in the restaurant seems to suggest, and most old Chinese cities have an old town that’s steeped in history, existing alongside the highway jungle of concrete and glass, where life is slower, greener and more picturesque. I found the (Western) classical, modern classical soundtrack rather over-abundant and at times jarring against the East-meets-West themes explored in a Chinese environment, though again this can be attributed to the point of view.

Another quibble I have with the film is the apparent confusion between different locations within China. We see Billi arriving at Shanghai airport on the East coast, but the wedding takes place thousands of miles away in Changchun, capital of the country’s northeastern-most province. Although migration is a common phenomenon over there, an explanation would have been good as to how the family ended up in Shanghai. Regional culture is often diverse, especially in a vast and heterogeneous country like China, where you can feel very displacement by being in another province. Had the wedding taken place in the south, it would have had a very different feel.

In a point-of-view film that aims to show rather than narrate, the script becomes central. The script couldn’t have been easy for an American-Chinese author to write, being partially in English and Chinese, yet it has been localized well in both languages. The film shines with some very memorable dialogue tableaus throughout, such as Billi’s unexpected arrival at the family home, and old comrades and old flames reuniting at a grandchild’s wedding. My favourite scene is the picnic at the graveside of Billi’s late grandpa. Albeit a visit to the dead, it’s a time when the family seems most at ease, united and happiest in the entire film. The stylized cinematography is certainly an appeal of this film. Bustling contemporary Chinese streets, packed with hawkers, LEDs and multicolour store fronts, provide a gorgeous palette for the deep bokeh shots that frame the story’s more contemplative scenes. The long shot of solidarity at the end featuring the whole family standing together, looking somber in a harsh palette, speaks volumes within the context of the story.

Expectedly, The Farewell explores themes of generational and aspirational conflicts arising out of the East-West culture clash, which no doubt resonates with diaspora Chinese of different varieties around the world. Despite being a very Chinese film, The Farewell is highly relatable for everyone. As with big family gatherings anywhere, antagonisms tend to emerge and the past comes to the surface. We are also seeing three generations of strong women represented here, Lu Jian, Billi’s stern and stoic mother, Nai Nai, a hugely positive portrayal of the formidable Chinese granny who, despite being the invalid everyone is trying to support, holds the family together and proves a wise and caring intergenerational mentor; and of course Billi, the protagonist who is rather downtrodden at the beginning of the film but whom we see grow in understanding, strengthen and transform, while other characters start to unravel.

With a little more humour and irony, I think the Farewell could have been an even better film. However, I sense that it’s a highly personal experience for its creator and has successfully explored some difficult themes. The Farewell will become a classic of diaspora cinema, and in the years to come, it shall be one of the films I’ll recommend when people ask me what it means being Chinese is, or what Chinese families are like.


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My PRI on Mulan

Thanks to works such as Disney’s animation, Mulan has become a global icon of gender queerness, feminism & support for any groups in need of her spirit. I talk to PRI about how Disney’s upcoming live version feature based on Mulan seeks to be relevant to the culture of the her origin.


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Wandering Earth and China’s Sci-Fi Heritage

The Wandering Earth has been billed as a breakthrough for Chinese sci-fi. The film tells the story of our planet, doomed by the expanding Sun, being moved across space to a safer place. The Chinese heroes have to save the mission – and humanity – when Earth gets caught in Jupiter’s gravitational pull. Based on Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin’s short story of the same name, Wandering Earth has already grossed $600m (£464m) at the Chinese box office and was called China’s “giant leap into science fiction” by the Financial Times. It’s been bought by Netflix and will debut there on 30 April. But while this may be the first time many in the West have heard of “kehuan” – Chinese science fiction – Chinese cinema has a long sci-fi history, which has given support to scientific endeavour, offered escapism from harsh times and inspired generations of film-goers. So for Western audiences eager to plot the rise of the Chinese sci-fi movie, here are five films I think are worth renewed attention. Rest the rest on BBC Asia.


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Some Thoughts on The Wandering Earth

Hope you’ve all had a chance to watch The Wandering Earth by now. (If you haven’t, its on Netflix, and iQiyi). I’m ready to share my thoughts on it.

Did Wandering Earth live up to all the hype? I think it did! It was an excellent hard sci-fi movie. With very high production values, including the CG, a gripping but logically grounded plot line, which, whilst comparable to some of Hollywood’s disasterporn sci-fi, never loses its very Chinese heart.


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Forgotten Planets: Exploring China’s Long-Running Sci-Fi Film Tradition

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when exploration was a hobby of the British upper classes, you’d regularly hear about the discovery of Brand New Civilizations — as though indigenous people’s generational histories did not pop into existence until someone with a pith helmet and a camera stumbled into the clearing. I had my own “Dr. Livingstone Presuming” moment this week, when I began to read headlines in such stalwarts of the British press as the Financial Times (as well as digital newcomers like The Verge) stating that the just-released film adaptation of The Wandering Earthmarked China’s first tentative foray into sci-fi cinema, before scuttling back and forth between comparisons with contemporary American blockbusters and classic American sci-fi quicker than you can say “White Gaze Genesis.”


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Chinese New Year Commercials

In recent year, China has seen the commercialisation of Chinese New Year on a scale it has never seen before, not just within the country, but around the world. Every company splashes red and gold packaging onto its products, and creates a “Going Home for Spring Festival” advert.


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