Neo Horizon Strand: Odyssey Chinese Cinema Film Festival

Neo Horizon Strand: Odyssey Chinese Cinema Film Festival

Sarira 舍利

Director: Mingyang Li – 28 minutes

When an excavator attempts to destroy a temple, a monk’s ancient faith is finally confronted by modern society: it is from then that he must begin his interrogation of the world.

Sarira is the type of drama that takes you by surprise thanks to its engaging story, coupled with long poignant shots with unexpected situational humour. Mingyang Li has given us an excellent and thoughtful short film.

Mingyang explores the theme of the loss of the importance of religious buildings in lieu of an ever modernising world. Interestingly with Sarira, it is the type of film that could be placed anywhere in the world nowadays, and it would be relatable. Once sacred places are now being taken over for capitalist gains, and we never consider the effect that it will have on those who reside there. The monks are being left with nowhere to turn. They are still needed to help others, but their solitary life feels all the more isolated in a digital age than ever before.

So, they are left to accept this life given like the older monk has seemingly done or to try and be proactive like YiDao. Watching YiDao’s fruitless attempts to fix the monument that the exaction crew has recklessly destroyed is utterly painful watch. It now appears just to be a piece of stone to those men. But to him, it is so much more; add to this the fantastic payoff that it results in, and Sarira becomes something more than just a discussion on the current state of religion. It also becomes a film about personal identity and their search to discover their place in this modern environment.

The use of long takes in Sarira gives us as natural a feel as possible to the story. The camera continually stays in one place, allowing us to see enough, but not always, everything that we want to see. An example of this is the moment when YiDao tries to remove his abscessed tooth with the temple bell. We see the set-up but only hear what the agonising aftereffects were of his attempt.

This technique allows for both moments of drama and humour to excel. For example, as our monk tries to recite the prayer to the excavation worker sitting in his digger, you see how much he wants to help his fellow man but cannot due to the pain he is feeling in his mouth. Under normal circumstances, this would be a strong moment. But the humour filters through when you remember that the worker is talking to YiDao through a microphone in the dead of night.

Sarira packs in a lot of careful thoughts within its 28-minute runtime, resulting in a fantastic looking film that has a lot more to say than you would expect.      

Herstory 褶皱

Director Yui Zhang – 21 minutes

Fireworks are strictly prohibited in this society, and males are routinely castrated. The protagonist has experienced all kinds of hardships that women in this world have endured: parting, childbirth, deprivation of social rights, grief, and death. The only way to express resistance to this prejudiced and disciplined society is through a desolate kind of struggle.

Yui Zhang throws a surrealist approach to the idea of what would happen if men were placed with the burdens usually laden upon women. Unfortunately, once the film kicks in, we are rarely given a chance to remove ourselves from the film. Continually confronted with one new scenario after another that (for the male audience at least) we are too quick to brush aside. In Herstory, we are only given a moment at a time to contemplate what that would mean for us if it was us and how these situations, although abstracted from our reality, actually happen daily to women.

It could easily be a difficult watch, but Zhang is able to keep us with some clever moments. We are given some striking imagery, be it the office or what should be a hospital to register a child. We are also given some brutally honest moments throughout, with one being how harsh employers are to women who have just given birth. Our protagonist is clearly not at the speed of the rest of the staff and, without hesitation, is thrown out of work. To hit the nail on it even further, Zhang makes sure not to have him change at all, so his blood-soaked rags drip on the floor, symbolising how some staff are seen as merely little cogs in the machine, easily replaced and improved upon until they are just left to wallow in the junk of life.

Herstory, without a doubt, strikes hard, and it would be fair to say you will either love it or hate what is presented. No matter what, you have to give it to Yui Zhang for at least taking us there and showing us what some may not want to accept as the truth.

Then She Went On Stage 罗南的演讲

Director: Yuzhuo Wang – 17 minutes

Every day after school, Luo Nan, a junior in class 3, goes to the grocery store to pick up a newspaper with a blue sticky note. As her mother’s life enters a countdown, Luo Nan can no longer turn a blind eye to her parents’ marriage rift.

Young actress Xinyi Shan excels in Yuzhuo Wang’s drama Then She Went On Stage, giving us a performance of someone years older. Utilising her physical acting skills to convey the smallest of emotions with ever saying a word. She already has the ability to pull the audience into her world, in this instance her pain and the conflict she has within herself. From beginning to end, she is tremendous.

Then She Went On Stage is such a delicate short film that it is perfect at this 17-minute iteration, yet, due to the talent presented on screen and behind the camera, you could easily be as happy seeing this story played out at feature length. Yuzhuo Wang very wisely never overdoes the drama in her film, instead of letting the audience work out everything for themselves. We are given enough clues to see the dynamic that everyone has, and with such a smart protagonist in Luo Nan, we are happy to follow her along in this journey. Themes of domestic abuse and the yearning for love outside of marriage are prevalent here, just as much as the abuse of a domestic situation within the school system.

It would be easy to go on and on about how terrific Then She Went On Stage is, but it is honestly better if you just watch it. This is such a confident and striking film that you can only hope to see more of this filmmaker and her young lead in the future, as there is simply too much talent on show here to be ignored.

Summer Swing 夏日舞会

Director: Kun’ao Yan – 21 minutes

It’s the 1980s; teenager Xiaojun encounters a group of gangsters that will change his life. A youthful adventure through an iconic decade, Summer Swing is a profound reflection on the spirit of human freedom.

Another film that you would love to see more of due to the fascinating world that has been created within. In fact, you are almost disappointed by Summer Swing running as short as it does due to how engaged you are with it. We want to see more of Xiaojun’s exploration of this world instead of the film rushing from one moment to the next.

Of course, this can only be seen as a positive due to the work carried out by Kun’ao Yan. There is a feature-length film in here, and with the ending we have, goodness, it would be a cracker story to see on screen. However, the 21 minutes that we do get are still great and allow us to fall into this world with ease.

Summer Swing is drenched in a colour palette that purposely wears you down. Like our lead Xiaojun, this environment seems to be weary and desperate for something to spark it to life. But, for him, it is the right and the wrong crowd. He wants to stop worrying about money issues that his father dogs him about and stop worrying about the school’s director threatening his job. Instead, he wants to live how other people his age does.

Yet, sadly for him, the price of dancing and having fun and simply having the freedom to be yourself could be quite costly. Even when he reaches the dance after that first awkward encounter, he is still too repressed to be who he wants until he is given enough encouragement to do so. His fear comes full circle at the end of the film with an emotionally charged moment. Leaving us with a film and cast and crew that we want more from.

Mr Zhao’s Second-hand Bookstore 赵老板的二手书店

Director: Ming Zhao – 8 minutes

Made up of shantytowns and brick houses in the Yangpu District, Shanghai, the area of Dinghai Bridge hosts a busy community of workers and immigrants. Ming Zhao is one of the outsiders who chose to run a second-hand bookstore to make a living. Hence, he is affectionately known as ‘Mr. Zhao.’ However, with the decline of traditional bookstores, the disappearance of flea market culture, and the future demolition project of Dinghai Bridge, what will happen to Mr Zhao’s journey?

The lovely Mr Zhao’s Second-hand Bookstore is a lovely change of pace, a short documentary that feels akin to the wonderful documentary The Last Video Store. A love letter to those who run second-hand bookstores and keep their love of books alive for all of those around. Bookstores, never mind second-hand ones are always in that difficult position. They are a tradition in cities and in areas, yet those who run the cities care not for them. They are more interested in seeing what profit they can make from the land than worrying about those who currently live there. They want to continue their modernisation of the city, and sadly people like Mr Zhao are merely seen as collateral in that change.

Ming Zhao smartly decides not only to focus on the business and the situation it is positioned in but on the man himself. With an emotional moment midway through where he shows us his home, and we see how he is, in fact, lonely and needs the bookstore as much as the world needs it. He is able to learn and discuss every topic under the sun with passers-by and customers, thanks to his store. However, with the impending demolition of the area, his anxiety about what it means for him strikes home even harder than before.

There is great importance to people like Mr Zhao. Although at times documented in a bittersweet fashion, we can only hope that those like him throughout the world can survive and keep giving their community, towns and cities that added sparkle and joy.

Mother Tongue 母语

Director: Eris Qian – 10 minutes

Growing up in the United States, Lisa Lin is a second-generation Chinese American who does not speak Chinese. Only after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and after eventually forgetting English, did Lisa realise that she had never tried to understand her mother’s world. 

Eris Qian hits an issue that will connect with millions of people in the world who are second-generation children of immigrants; how do you handle not being from the culture your family were raised in? As second and third generation people move away from the cultures of their parents or grandparents and even, like in Lisa’s case, stop learning the language of their culture, they begin to question what their own culture actually is.

There is also devastating powerlessness in seeing your parent fade away from a disease, yet for them to not only forget who you are but not be able to communicate with them is heartbreaking, truly heartbreaking. Amplifying this is Qian’s choice of having her camera become an intimate character in the film. Almost as if we are another character, witnessing all of this pain.

Mother Tongue also has us not have any subtitles at specific times throughout the film, so when Lisa’s mother talks in Mandarin to her, we are in the same boat as Lisa, stuck wanting to help but not able to do so. Even to the point of frustration with nurses who do speak the language. These gut punches are non-stop, with small moments coming up throughout the rest of the film that is another prang as Lisa begins to find her way back to her culture and, in reality, to her mother, the subtitles return. Such a simple technique that does so much to enhance the film. We should feel lost in those earlier moments so that we relate more to Lisa, for when we get to that final scene, we can finally relax.

Eris Qian tackles a lot in such a short period of time, acceptance and love of your culture and heritage. This is a story that feels deeply personal and, as such, ends up being perfectly executed. Jenny Lin is wonderful as the struggling Lisa; you feel everything that she does. It is a beautiful performance in a beautiful film.

To view all this strand go to, they are all fantastic films and should not be missed.

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